BY Art Thiel 07:14PM 02/02/2011

Face time, not Facebook, is Sark’s answer

Recruiting in the social media generation requires new effort to get around unreliable information

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has a plan to deal with dubious information sometimes prevalent in social media / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest)

Knowing that the washout rate for the average big-time college football recruiting class is about 50 percent over five seasons of eligibility, it is always remarkable to observe the hubbub this time of year around an event whose outcome is as reliable as a coin flip.

As if recruiting wasn’t random enough already, along comes technology that can pass on disinformation as easily as the truth.

“It complicates things, no doubt about it,” Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said Wednesday. “For me, I still try to keep it verbal with recruits.”

Sarkisian welcomed to Washington on football letter-of-intent day 23 players that observers who fancy themselves knowledgeable on the subject say are part of a top-25 class nationally, whatever that means.

Besides an affinity to be a Husky, they share in common a place in the social-media generation.

The option to communicate instantly, anonymously and randomly via Twitter and Facebook has changed at least part of the recruiting game. Not only can rival schools and their fans put out information designed to influence a kid toward or away from a program, the player and his cohort also have the option to lie about his intentions to stir up a market for his services.

Sarkisian and his coaches, as with all recruiters, now have to spend hours filtering the white noise of social media to find out if one of their verbal commits has a wandering eye, or if another school’s verbal commit suddenly likes purple, or if the story is true about a pregnant girlfriend, a DUI or a food fight in the high school cafeteria that resulted in a charge of felony assault with a Twinkie.

“Facebook and Twitter are ways for kids to express themselves one way or another, but you never know if it’s a real message, or something they’re just putting out there,” Sarkisian said. “Our coaches have done a nice job evolving to keep up. Verbal communication is the key. You have to take everything with a grain of salt until you hear it from them directly.

“It’s a lot tougher to say things you don’t mean than just to type it.”

Rather than emoticons, Sarkisian has to rely on the real tell-tales of expressions and eye contact.

When the tables are turned, when falsehoods are spread about Washington’s plans for a player – say, a defensive lineman reads that he’s going to be put on offense – Sarkisian and his assistants try to arrange for face time with the kid who is used to communicating with texts, tweets and Facebook posts.

“I’ll have to say, ‘That’s not true. That’s not in our thought process,’” he said. “We can never know who’s writing this stuff. Could be a student here, a fan from somewhere else, a high school coach.

“There’s still something about a personal conversation.”

Another change, less recent but equally widespread, is the influence of websites devoted primarily, if not exclusively, to recruiting. They often are unofficial arms of the programs they report on, passing information between coaches and recruits that get around NCAA regulations designed to limit official contacts with players.

There’s nothing to be done about the services by the NCAA or the players except to try to educate the recruit about who might be calling him at midnight.

“I think it can be challenging for kids, especially early on in the process,” Sarkisian said. “We try to be very clear with them who is what and what they represent.

“Ultimately there’s a lot of opinions on blogs, and kids read them. I try to get the player back to what our opinion is of him. Whether it’s the same, similar or different to what others are typing is really irrelevant. We say to him, ‘Here’s what we foresee you doing.’”

Regarding the influence of social media, Sarkisian and his staff are no more or less advantaged than any other staff, although as a relatively youthful group they probably are more hip to sending YouTube videos to get a recruit laughing.

Sakisian has other uncontrollable disadvantages to worry about, such as parity in the game that has allowed, in the time of the Huskies’ decline, for Oregon to rise to the BCS title game and for Boise State to emerge as a national powerhouse.

The 85-scholarship limit in place for more than 15 years has served to distribute talent far more broadly than in the days when Alabama’s Bear Bryant would stockpile premium players just so Auburn wouldn’t get them. Parity is so pervasive that all a school needs is one serious probation, and the loss of scholarships sends them over the cliff.

“What has come out of (parity) is that guys are making the NFL who had a chance to showcase themselves (as a starter) when they may have been a backup at a Pac-10 school,” he said. “It’s a tribute to Boise State and TCU to find those players.”

When the industry lifeblood is a renewal system no more reliable than playing black or red at the roulette table, margins are smaller than 140 characters.


  • Lucky Infidel

    “It’s a lot tougher to say things you don’t mean than just to type it.”

    That is why, at the age of forty-four, I have become a disciple of Facebook and the like. Just kidding. Kind of.

    And, as you alluded to, I was thinking this morning about what a commentary it is on many things the spectacle that signing-day has become, or the day in which high-school kids decide what city the dorm is that they are going to live in next year. College sports plays a very outsized role in many people’s lives who either never went to the college-at-issue or have LONG departed their college days–at least physically. And this is coming from someone who was a proud Tyee around the glorious Neuheisel years. And I am serious, there were some glorious years there, notwithstanding the overhype over winning the now fabled “Northwest Championship.” So I guess when they are winning I am kind of lame as well.
    Anyway, I digress, as usual. We will see how this class turns out. Now on to the NFL draft. And that I really am into. Really. And I am certain SportsPressNorthwest is going to hire someone solely to cover the draft, right? Just have some of those angel investors dig down a little deeper. Get Gas to come up with something. I know he is a HUGE fan of the draft.

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  • Alan Smythe

    And this is why we like Art Thiel. He can be reasoned, thoughtful when he isn’t roasting someone on a spit. Comparing this piece with SEC drivel and fawning is very refreshing.

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  • Jeff in Baton Rouge

    Alan SEC drivel? really? I’m a long time Husky fan like 40 years but living down here now trust me you have no idea the difference in the fervor for football there is from here in SEC country to the liberal anti sports meca pac ten cities like Seattle and gulp Berkeley. 200,000 tailgaters for SEC games while pac ten schools struggle to fill 30 40k stadiums!