Virtual recruiting strategies could stay after pandemic ends

·3 min read

Recruiting restrictions brought about by the pandemic forced coaching staffs to find new ways to make their pitches to top high school seniors.

Some of the ideas worked well enough to perhaps become permanent fixtures.

With students unable to make official visits during a prolonged recruiting dead period, schools brought the campus to them through virtual tours. And these visits were quite a bit more in-depth than quick looks at facilities or conversations with coaches.

''I think using virtual Zoom, whatever you want to call it, to do home visits is something that was very beneficial to myself and the assistant coaches in terms of developing relationships with the families,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday after finalizing the nation's top-ranked recruiting class. ''We also included the families in virtual practice. We included them in virtual medical meetings, virtual strength and conditioning, academics, academic appointments.''

The coaches and prospects eventually grew more familiar with the technology so that all the online communication became less awkward.

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck told the story of how the mother of tight end prospect Jameson Geers felt comfortable enough to turn a virtual campus tour into something quite different.

''She took the phone and said, `You know what. I'm tired of your tours. You're going on a tour of our house. We're getting a home visit,''' Fleck recalled. ''We did a whole tour of her house, went into every single room, behind every door. We saw everything on every wall.''

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said that ''in some strange way, I feel like I know these prospects better than a normal year'' because the staff had so much time to focus on recruiting when it couldn't hold spring practice or have other team-related activities.

That left more time to speak to recruits, even if it wasn't in person.

Many coaches believe the virtual visits and Zoom sessions ought to continue even when the recruiting restrictions have been lifted. New Texas coach and former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian noted the virtual visits offer an economic benefit.

For example, under ordinary circumstances, each recruit has the opportunity to make an expense-paid official visit to as many as five schools but also can take an unlimited amount of unofficial visits. The catch is that the recruits and their families must pay their own way on those unofficial visits.

''It costs money to go see schools,'' Sarkisian said. ''Yes, kids get by with official visits and they try to take advantage of them. But a lot of what happens nowadays, too, is kids are taking unofficial visits, trying to drive or fly to schools, not burn that official visit. What this virtual world of recruiting has done for us, it put us in a space to maybe save a little money for the recruits, maybe clean up the recruiting game a little bit, some of the question marks of how some of how kids are getting to these campuses.''

The current recruiting dead period runs through April 15, though it could be extended once again. Whenever it period ends, coaching staffs finally will have a chance to conduct live evaluations of recruits and speak with prospects in person.

But that doesn't necessarily mean those virtual visits and Zoom sessions will go away. Coaches would love to use those tools to supplement all the usual recruiting methods they employed before the pandemic.

''Nothing's better than being in person, but we adapted and did what we had to do the best we could do it, and I think a lot of people did a really good of that,'' Saban said. ''Now, do we implement some of these things in the future? Absolutely. Does that mean they should replace personal relationships? I don't think so.''

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AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell, Tom Canavan, Eric Olson, Jim Vertuno and John Zenor contributed to this report.

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