On Recruiting: What is a school like ECU to do to differentiate itself?

A ranting opinion piece that may exhaust some of you…

I recently had an email discussion with a good Pirate out of the D.C./MD area about recruiting – the good and the bad – for the Pirates and it really sparked some thought. Specifically, the question pondered: “What does a school like ours need to do to attract top talent?

ecu cluster f

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Lost in a sea of rich programs: Take a look at what the Pirates must contend with for players…daunting.

ECU is not in a great position from the jump to do well in recruiting top talent. Think about it. We are a non-BCS program geographically pinned to the coast by a virtual cluster-f*** of BCS programs. We have a shoestring recruiting budget relative to the competition around us. We have a school system owned and operated by UNC boosters, and our brand is not well known beyond our region. What to do?

To date, our program has done – in my opinion – a pretty damn good job in the face of this situation. Going back through all the notable coaches…Stas, Dye, Emory, Lewis, Logan, and Holtz, they all reasoned – fairly – that they needed to become the choice of eastern NC players with a smattering of Tidewater and coastal South Carolina players and a contingent from talent-rich Florida each year. That approach will always have to be part of the mix for us because we need to keep the fanbase growing and if you sign a local kid, his family and friends will follow each weekend at the Fick. But, how successful can we be with this model? Our state – as it is – loses its top talent every year to out of state big box schools with UNC then cleaning up the leftovers. We have to survive on “finding the diamonds in the rough…” the Justin Hardy’s of the world. But that doesn’t allow for sustained success and certainly won’t yield elite level football…so what do we need to do?

Stop reading if you think I have some answer for it. I don’t. But, I do think at a strategic level, we need to be different…we need to think out of the box….we need to scrutinize every dollar spent on recruiting and on the program brand in light of maximum punch for the buck. The players you sign are the lifeblood of the program…end of story. Everything else is secondary. Before I get to the big picture stuff, I have a few thoughts on a couple of in the weeds items, starting with this whole recruiting-turned-media-commodity thing.

Sure, I love heading over to HTC and Pirate Illustrated to see what we have in the pipeline and to hear how our class is shaping up. I want to know early and often…nature of being a fan. And, I don’t think you will find bigger ECU advocates then the Stephen and Mark who have busted their butts, endured criticisms, and risked their own financial futures to make those sites fly and push back against the powerbrokers as the buy more and more influence via their recruiting sites. I wish them big success. But on a broader level, I do not for the life of me know why anyone within our program would want anyone knowing anything about who we are recruiting. Definitely wouldn’t as an alumni that is well connected or a coach or administrator volunteer jack to these sites…wouldn’t do it. Recruiting news now passes as for entertainment…stuff to argue over at the office cooler and on messageboards…yet another dimension to the bravado of college sports. I get that. We all ride the information superspeedway and being even second to know…sucks. Want it all now. But if we were savvy, we would keep a tight lid on it and shock the hell out of the football world each year as we draw in the top off the grid players.

I can’t say for sure that coaches, administrators or well-connected alums are leaking out our target lists, but I can say, to put together a substantive list like the ones that the sites have, takes a lot, a lot of work hours unless you have a short cut. You would have to call every local paper in the entire region to get that information. Plus, I have seen so many tweets coming from Coach Ruff and Coach Riley in the tweetmosphere to certainly point a heads up recruit-nick to where we are looking and to me, I just wouldn’t go there considering the uphill climb it is. Again, it seems to me that schools like ECU should do their level best to make absolutely NOTHING available to these recruiting sites (let them find it themselves). It serves no value to our program and only hurts us. If you are BCS program, then I get it…the fanfare and hoopla only feeds the engine. They can spend enormous amounts of money wooing these kids and their fanbase will give even more money for the fun of bragging about top recruiting rankings. And, if you are going to leak something, leak disinformation…like that we are close to flippin’ UNC’s top recruit…even though we aren’t even talking to him.

However, IMO, we end up being the recruiting vetters for other programs. Why advertise. Sometimes we even serve as the early offer that makes that hidden jewel known to the very teams who can swoop in and lure the verbal away. Yes, verbals become known via local news, but we freakin’ mass advertise it…let it lie…like broccoli.  Obvioulsy, other programs know that we cannot canvas America for players so we concentrate heavily in our region (Southeaster VA, eastern NC, and coastal SC, and northern GA). So, if you are Tennessee, Virginia Tech, UNC, NC State, SC, Ga Tech, Clemson…you keep an eye on the guys we are recruiting because you will KNOW that we did a deep analysis on the kids and then come cherry pick. Kanler Coker is a perfect example. The kid was off the grid basically when LR/RM found him. Everyone knows our program KNOWS QBs…knows how to assess them. Fedora needed a QB, had endless resources to recruit, but chose to look at what ole ECU was doing, saw the press and hoopla we were giving Coker, made a phone call, told him that he could never play for a NC at ECU and flooded him with gratis and VOILA! A quick sign that cost UNC NOTHING in effort. I definitely fall into the camp that it should be best served cold. Let the big names figure out our players when they are already in the line-up, producing for us.

As much as I love recruiting information, I really do believe that if I were Ruff, the only people who would know who we were on would be the kids we were recruiting themselves. Would I share with a recruit maybe others we are recruiting…probably. I would leave it to local news reporters to do their jobs to find out who their local heroes are talking with. Unfortunately, it seems our insiders are all too willing to leak out who we are targeting to rivals and 247 and  the like and then those guys run with it. Could be wrong though.

Anyway, I digress.

Back to the strategic level…a school like ours, IMO, must think out of the box when it comes to recruiting. We need to be unconventional in our thinking…get inside the kids heads…spend our money there, trying to understand how to market the athletic program to the way these kids think. We need to brand our program in a way that makes us cool…different…the place to go. Boise was fashioned on multiple levels…yes, there was the scheduling, the locking down (partly luck) of a stud coach, etc., but there was more. How in the hell do you get kids to go to effin’ Idaho for college? Now, truth be told, they have probably CHEATED big time while off the radar (who is going to go looking at Boise), but let’s say they were legit…I would want to know HOW in the world they made Boise, Idaho, a cool place for football players to go?? Blue Turf? The let’s put in purple turf…why the hell not? Let’s go with one of those non-tradition, freakin cool logos and with gear that kids would envy? Let’s put out press that is more than press releases, targeting talent rich areas…nay saturate the areas with our brand. Remember…get the players, all the program success will follow. Have PC fund raisers that are oriented to the aging team…3-on-3 hoops tourneys, Laser Tag events, concerts, all put on by ECU. Put on a combine that shows off ECU…bring back the Buccaneer Babes…just a few ideas. On the recruiting trail, we need to be more strategic…recruit a class in the truest sense…instead of just say, Lucas Thompson…who showed interest, why not group together sets of top recruits with the story…hey you four 5-star DBs…you can come to ECU and start as a unit and become the greatest secondary in the country? Spend the money to go places we traditionally don’t go and then come behind it with a marketing saturation to go after “Students” from that area too. Enlist your former players – many of whom are now producing top-flight prodigy…enlist them to remain STARS in the ECU community….treat them like P-Diddy, now that their NFL star has moved into history. If I were recruiting, I would be wearing out that Dwayne Harris cribs video, finishing it with a surprise call from the NFL impact player of the year himself. John Elway used be one Stanford’s best recruiters…showing up to recruit visit weekends and sitting down in the stadium with the kids…try to say no to that. It is not enough to get them to be involved, but we have to be creative in how we stage their involvement. If today’s 18 year old doesn’t quite know who Robert Jones or Jeff Blake is, we need to media hype them in a way that connects to the kids…then have them say “hello.”

Not saying we should do this, but I remember when Oregon boosters paid $250,000 to put a 10-story mural of QB Joey Harrington on a building in NYC across from MSG to hype him (and the program) to the Heisman committee and the world? They took a lot of criticism for that, particularly from the same ESPN that now hangs on every demand the Ducks throw their way. Oregon was not yet the prime destination for top talent then. Out of the box, that was. Controversial yes, but one argue that the quarter mill ended up being a good investment in development of the Oregon aura and swagger.

One thing Boise State does that is interesting is that they regularly scour Texas and California for players…they invest a lot of money and time in those big geographies. We face a huge recruiting dilemma. On the one hand, we are cash-strapped relatively so we cannot really canvas the country AND we are seen as a regional school so we need to bring in local players (to sell tix and to drive interest); but on the other hand, we also are situated in an area saturated with Division 1 football teams. We have to contend – as I said earlier – with UNC, NC State, Wake, Duke, SC, Clemson, Tenn, WVa, Virginia Tech, UVA and now add to that group, deep-pocketed Charlotte and ODU for players. Man that is 12 Division I schools in close proximity, 10 of which have exponentially more cash to recruit with, higher profile brands, and direct access to the NC game.

OUT OF THE BOX…we must be different in terms of recruiting and marketing to young kids.  Another approach is that we need to look what we can bring to bear from the academic side. Hey, maybe we should look into ECU starting a satellite prep school…college preparation for kids in the region whose grades are lacking or need better achievement scores. This way we could help our local population by keeping the kids home while they prep – and of course, the school would have football and basketball – as they get their academics in line and maybe even take a few college courses to get started. Then, they just move to ECU when they qualify.That way, a Dontrill Hyman type wouldn’t be talking to LSU and would more likely have 4 to play 4 when he arrived. Just a thought.

Man…I could go on.

Short of cheating – which I neither advocate or expect we could ever pull off (that one is only reserved for the UNC ilk) – we have to be creative…we have to look for synergies within our community and academic offerings to turn into recruiting lures. For example, we have a communications school right? We should be telling recruits that if they are not the next Chris Johnson, then they could be the next ESPN star. We have a drama department right? Draw on those skills to make recruit visits almost movie like (I know, sounds crazy), when they enter the stadium. Don’t play the loud speaker, give them a show with real live people. Hell, we could maybe even enlist a few budding actors/actresses to be Ruff’s posse…making our HC out to be a celebrity himself so when he rolls into town, it is always with big fan fare.

We need not only to make a positive impression on the prep coaches, but treat them especially right (though I know the NC prep coaches love this staff) but go over the top to the extent possible. Every once in a while you gotta sign the star’s best friend and teammate to get the star…hey, it happens.

We also should take a long, hard look at ODU, Charlotte, MTSU, FAI, FAU and schools like that…scour their verbals list like schools do to us and see if we can swoop in and take the kid they did all the research on. Turnabout if fair play, no?

Look, it all sounds cool on paper, but at the end of the day, it is for our marketing and athletics department to turn the trick…but that said, I believe efforts should zero in on understanding the psyche of the 18 year old star athlete, and cater to it – within legal reason. Get enough of them, you win a lot of football games and 50,000 fans becomes 75,000 and Big East becomes SEC.

I am probably out of my head…off the reservation…lost on a straight path…but something has to differentiate us beyond being a family-like school (which I also love). And, to do what I am suggesting takes a whole lot more than saying. But I also know we have the people at ECU who can get it done…they have that much talent.

Would love to hear your thoughts, friends.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “On Recruiting: What is a school like ECU to do to differentiate itself?

  1. Mike

    Total agreement on the ECU focused recruiting websites making it easier for those in the same business. Haven’t glanced at either of those sites in years largely for the reasons you put forward.
    Now that I think about – I didn’t know there were two of them.
    I do like broccoli though!!

  2. Blackbeard's Ghost

    Interesting ideas RC and I really hadn’t thought of the quiet approach to recruiting. The example of Coker does add a great perspective of truth. Maybe we should dial it down a bit and leave some recruit surprises for the Pirate masses to wow over. But you have to admit, and I am a bit partial of course to HTC, it really does get the Pirate faithful into a frothing frenzy when recruiting names get thrown around. Sort of like throwing bloody red meat into a shark tank kind of thing.
    But seriously you have opened up a new channel in my way of thinking about how to go about revealing our true targets. The Philosophy of let’s not show our poker hand to everybody might pay off higher dividends in the long run.
    Great food for thought RC and thanks.

    • Hi BBG…as you know for sure…I am a big friend to HTC…I love the site and truthfully, have great admiration for Stephen – the man had a vision, is a go-getter, and has the instincts of a true investigative reporter with a business sense.

      Another truth is, the reality isn’t going to change in the fanbase…and HTC and PirateIllustrated serve a big purpose…they draw a line in the sand AGAINST those machines in the SEC and the Scoundrels in the ACC. Better to have a safe port of call than nowhere to port when the seas are rough no matter how used to the high swells the Pirates are.

      I just feel that we face a limited opportunity and should play every card with a straight face on every deal.

      Thanks for being open-minded on this topic as I know that it might be met with some angst from a large group of Pirates I consider friends and family.

      BTW…I love recruiting info as much as the next guy. And I seek it out as well!!

      Cheers!

  3. Chris

    Great piece RC.. My only comments are #1, if the kid is being chased by anyone other than ECU, how do you keep that quiet? and #2, isn’t there some recruiting benefit for recruits to see that ECU is in the running to sign these more coveted recruits. If they never see ECU as a player, it may make it more difficult for them to select ECU over any school that gets that extra exposure…

    Just a thought…

    Chris

    • Hi Chris…good points there and I believe there may be benefits there. My comeback on those points would be: #1: The school can’t keep a lid on it, just don’t fuel it…make the sites do the hard work, make them find who you are recruiting rather than hand it to them; and #2 While there is benefit – no doubt for recruits to know who you are recruiting (the big fish) – the coaches can somewhat do this already as long as they are truthful and not specific. But they can say, hey No. 10 safety in America, when you come to ECU, you will be lining up with the #2 safety in the country and will likely be AAs by your junior year under Coach Smith…keep the teasers internal.

      Plus, so many of the “offers” listed on these sites are only confirmed by the athletes themselves and are so bogus (like the Notre Dame recruit who said he visited even though ND said he was never there). Further, the national networks consistently down rate the lesser brand schools and pump up the bigger brand schools to give the market (payers) what they want. It is a business first and objective reporting source distant second…way distant.

      All that said, Chris, you last statement is indeed thinking the right way…how do these kids think? We need to always ask this question IMO.

      As always…look forward to your inputs Chris keep them coming!

      Go Pirates, Go!

  4. Patch the Pirate

    I think that there is some give and take to HTC and Pirate Illustrated. Those sites actually do give us some exposure and it keeps fans engaged (which is important). The kids know about those sites. If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t look big time. But on the flip side, I agree it gives other schools the ability to leverage our staffs hard work aka Coker. I hope the insiders feed enough info to give us exposure and keep fans engaged, but hide the diamonds in the “Ruff”.

    I liked some of your ideas to differentiate us. I also give ECU some credit for placing billboards strategically to give us some marketing hype. There is a billboard around 440 in Raleigh pumping us to the Big East. We should do that in all our recruiting areas. Not sure if we have the budget. But hey, at least Ruff is scouring the country on a private jet!

    At the end of the day, I think the most powerful thing is success on the field and coaching continuity. We have a decent foundation of coaches who want to be here. If we can be successful under this staff, it could pay dividends for us in the future.

    • Great post PtP…

      I see your point on the balance needed with pay sites. Particularly the point about fan engagement.

      I certainly hope Coach Ruff can find success here because he certainly wants to be here.

      Thanks for dropping a note.

      Go Pirates!

  5. Mike in Durham

    Ruff & Co. in the past have been close to vest with new recruit info, giving out next to nothing they’ve asked recruits to not announce their verbals to ECU, to stay quiet, this has worked some, but other schools chase these “uncommitted” kids & some change their mind after being chased by rats, CHeats, Urban Liars, Wolves, Blew Hats, etc. Other kids tend to announce early to ECU, get rated down for doing so & they are still hit on the same prey, they stay committed to ECU because they’ve been sold on ECU. But almost all these kids are into Twitter (& followers), want more followers & fans from many schools to tweet their name (show me some ‘love’). It’s crazy but that’s their world.

    Our Pirate Club leaders (stuck in 1970s stagflation/deflation/inflated head syndrome) & Athletic Dept needs to have promo videos of players in the pros, past & present, names & numbers displayed throughout the stadium & in Ward. These kids want the chance at fame and if they don’t see fame displayed here for past stars…shame on us. Your ideas on marketing are excellent ones.

    As far at pay sites, Stephen does a great job & all both sites can do is ask that private info stay private & members should respect that. We ECU fans need to stop feeding our own self perpetuated myth that we can only get NC (&OOS) kids that have grade issues…this is false & hurts our image. We need to sell these kids on more than ‘the Party’ because we are more than that & most real Pirate recruits want to see much more than that.

    Coaches need to sell them on the ECU family: our fans, past & current players, alumni, our atmosphere & history. That coaches love to be at ECU because it’s more than a job, it’s a way of life, that they’ll take care of them here and prepare them for life. If they have interest in Art, Music, Drama, Medicine, Sports medicine, PT, Communications, Honors College, etc , ECU offers them all that to choose from & the adoration of 50,000 fans every home Saturday…memories & adoration from the only NC football first school that will stay with them for their lifetime. That true Pirates can only be found in one single place in D1 football in the USA, at ECU in Greenville, NC — that this is a special place, is unlike Duke, UNCHeat, State or SEC because of Pirate tradition. They need to hear the folklore of Jeff Blake, Robert Jones, Terry Long, David Garrard, CJ, 1991 team…they need past players to reach out to them with that phone call or sales call that tells them “I can get to the NFL at ECU”, “ECU is big time too”, anything that makes them seriously consider ECU. These kids need to decide between riding the pine at LSU with 45 other 4star recruits for 3 years, or making a bold statement to their family, school & other recruits & making a legendary name for themselves while hitting the field early at ECU & rebuilding a proud, winning program.

    • Wow…

      Thank you Mike. That is a must read for all Pirate fans IMO.

      I have long been in the camp on the outward recognition of past players an could not agree more that something should be done.

      Thanks for sharing…this is the passion that should come through to every recruit tha gets within sniffing distance of ECU.

      Cheers!

  6. ToTheHilt

    RC, enjoy your postings as always. I agree with you in that our location in NC with four BCS-level teams is a real problem and I commend you for trying to think up ways to differentiate ECU. Some of those ideas may prove useful, but in my mind, the biggest thing we have going for us right now is this notion of a “family atmosphere” within the football program. Reading comments from the recruits and the assistant coaches, you repeatedly hear them mention how they felt the “family atmosphere.” That is something I think that is somewhat unique to Coach Ruff and his coaching style. That feeling is going to appeal to some young men, and may not appeal to others. We are still (hopefully) in the early years of Coach Ruff’s tenure at ECU, and I believe as he and his staff continue to establish relationships with the high school coaches, that family atmosphere will continue to develop and become a powerful attraction to the recruits and their parents/families.
    In regards to your thinking about keeping the identity of our recruits more hidden from public view, I think that ship has largely sailed away and I say that primarily because of technology. With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, any time a kid takes a visit or gets offered a scholarship – that information is going to be out in public view. Recruiting sites will pick that up and publicize it on their boards. Personally, I don’t think it is possible to put that genie back in the bottle. You may be correct that UNC didn’t pick up on the Coker kid until after he committed to us, but since Fedorar came from So Miss, he certainly may have already been aware of him and even recruiting him before he left there to go to UNC.

    Lastly – in regards to putting down a purple artificial turf field in Dowdy-Ficklin – let’s just don’t go there. Keep up all your great work!

    • Hey TTH…thanks for dropping in with a great comment.

      I had to take about 10 minutes to stop laughing after reading the purple turf comment…

      I think you are right on point that the family notion is a big deal for us and Ruff only intensifies that aspect of why ECU is a great place for an athlete looking not only at the pros but also life beyond football. This appeals to many kids and particularly their parent(s). My point was for our staff to go beyond that point and really analyze today’s kids and parents who in many cases are not much different then they are. Someone commented earlier about parents wanting to know if ECU was a NIKE school. These things – as nebulous as they are – seem to really matter to kids. But, I agree…we should stop short of purple turf!

      On the recruiting sites, I totally yield on the point that the genie is out of the bottle. I just hope that our insiders and coaches are not promoting our verbals but rather, downplaying as much as possible. If a writer asks for a commitment list or target list, I would hope that Ruff & co. says, “hey, buddy, we don’t kiss and tell around here, check back on NSD and we’ll talk all day.” Let the recruitnics go out and pour over twitter, facebook, local papers, etc., to find out real data. The more true reporting is needed, the better the information will be anyway. Further, I am not sold that some of these sites are not breaking the law when the reporters are alums who donate money to the school but also are calling and talking to unsigned prep athletes. Seems to be illegal to me (not that NCAA actually does anything about it). I digress.

      I know that the information is being pulled together based on truths, half-truths, and rumors, but we see how that already impacts programs like ours who stand to lose the most when a diamond in the ruff is made public and then written about again and again.

      But I concede, there is little more the coaches can do then to say nothing and hope that others near the program do not – in an effort to break news – leak out targets who are leaning our way.

      Any way…love to hear your comments, so keep em coming.

      Cheers.

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