Coaches getting social

Coaches getting social

CHAMPAIGN — Tim Beckman pulls the cellphone from its charger.

He does what has become so common to many individuals these days and uses his right thumb to swipe at the bottom of his iPhone.

This movement unlocks the screen, which has sat idle for more than 20 minutes.

For the Illinois football coach and his staff, cellphones, tablets, laptops and yes, those antiquated desktop computers, are standard tools of the trade.

On a daily basis. On an hourly basis. And on a minute-to-minute, second-to-second basis.

Two words that weren’t in anyone’s vocabulary a decade ago are the rage these days. From teenagers to college students to adults old and young, Twitter and Facebook are two forms of social media that have swept this country.

Even when it comes to college football recruiting.

“I am on Twitter all day,” Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said. “It makes  you attached to your phone. It really does.”

He doesn’t laugh after this statement. Doesn’t sigh. Doesn’t curse. Just drops it in like a part of an everyday conversation. Which it is.

More than 1 billion people (that’s one of every seven people on Earth) are Facebook users, which was created in 2004. Twitter has more than 200 million active users for a website that didn’t start until 2006.  

This includes a growing number of college football coaches. Beckman and all nine of his assistants have Twitter accounts. And Facebook pages.

“Our staff does quite a bit of social media,” the 48-year-old Beckman said. “The things that we say or are messaging recruits is not read by anyone other than us. The players know that they’re getting it from you on a firsthand account.”

Big deal. Beckman has a Twitter. So does everyone else, you might think. Well, in the Big Ten, Beckman is only one of five coaches who have an account. Urban Meyer doesn’t. Kirk Ferentz doesn’t. Same for Bill O’Brien. All 14 coaches in the SEC do. Ditto for the 14 coaches in the ACC.

It’s a trend that has caught on rapidly. Especially with recruiting.

“I’ll send out one or two tweets a day, but then it’s a good mix of recruiting stuff and real-world stuff,” Golesh said. “I don’t know if I wasn’t coaching football if I would use Twitter, but it’s an unbelievable way to get information.”

Coaches can’t directly respond to a recruit’s tweet. Or post on Facebook walls.

“Generally, any of their communications with prospects needs to be done directly with the prospects so the public can’t see it,” said Ryan Squire, Illinois’ associate athletic director for compliance. “With Twitter, a direct message is permissible while a regular reply where all followers could see isn’t.”

The rise of using Twitter and Facebook is an area Squire and his staff have to keep an eye on more than they did even a year or two ago. The days of worrying just about phone calls and text messages has progressed to the point of worrying about a tweet or Facebook post from a coach or athlete.

“We have a whole other area we have to monitor now,” Squire said. “If the coaches are active on Twitter, they have to make sure they’re not putting certain information out there. We can’t publicize if a potential recruit is visiting campus or what recruit the coaches might be going to be see. Coaches can say they’re going to Chicago, but they can’t tweet that so and so verbally committed. It’s all the same rules that would apply to the public comments that apply to their public tweets.”

Coaches send recruits direct messages on Twitter or Facebook, which is different than posting on a player’s wall on Facebook or responding via someone’s timeline on Twitter.

Corey Lewis didn’t have to worry about those two forms of communication during his recruitment. The Class of 2008 offensive tackle who is now a sixth-year senior at Illinois said his main form of recruiting communication came via phone calls, text messages and visits. Mainly with Illinois, which jumped in on his recruitment later in the process, it came in the form of visits from former coach Ron Zook and members of his staff.

“It was more crunch time when they were talking to me, and Zook sold me on his vision,” Lewis said. “Now you see where coaches friend their recruits on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. It’s a lot different, but a lot of the world these days is based on social media.”

Just ask George Anasis. The director of football game analysis for Illinois has added more to his job title than just video work.

Beckman composes all the tweets that go out on his account. Anasis complements most of the tweets with either a video or graphic. The 31-year-old native of Dublin, Ohio, who was a classmate with Golesh at Dublin Scioto High School, also helps some of the coaches who might not have the most firm grasp of technology with their social media skills.

“George Anasis does a phenomenal job with all the Twitter stuff we’re doing now,” Beckman said. “He really takes it as if it’s his coaching job. He’s a great head coach of social media.”

Anasis, who receives help from assistant football video director Josh Pohl and 10-12 students during the season, said the messages Beckman, Golesh or other members of the coaching staff send out are worthwhile. But sprucing it up a bit and making it appealing to recruits is what he’s tasked with.

“We’ve done studies on this, and what we’ve found from a social media standpoint is people like the visual,” Anasis said. “It’s one thing to have the message, but to be able to provide a picture with that message or a video with that message drives in that point more clearly. I’ve taken the initiative to help out Coach and the staff with their social media just because we recognize the significance of it from a recruiting standpoint and being able to make our program more accessible to the entire fan base.”

Splicing video of games and practices and making sure that material is readily accessible to Illinois coaches and players is still Anasis’ main responsibility. The social media part is rapidly becoming just as important.

“Some of our other coaches understand the merit of it, but because it’s such a new phenomenon, it’s just a matter of getting them up to speed,” Anasis said. “I know all of them use Facebook. With social media, there’s never a time you can’t produce something, especially if you start comparing yourself to schools that are involved with social media. In a way, it makes you feel like you have to compete to keep up with them and make sure you continue to provide that service.”

Sitting at the desk in the studio Illinois uses at the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building to film its coaches shows, Frank Lenti Jr. is in his element.

Discussing video editing. Game-day productions. His football career at Illinois.

The outgoing 28-year-old and former holder for Illinois who lettered from 2005 to ’07 is now another behind-the-scenes person integral to the recruiting efforts, working with the Illini Productions staff.

“Watching NFL Films growing up, I liked all that,” Lenti said. “What the Sabol family started was pretty incredible. They gave you a whole new view of football.”

The Lenti family has as well since Frank Lenti Sr. is the legendary head coach at Chicago Mount Carmel, where he has won 10 state titles in a 29-year career.

Lenti works with Anasis in coordinating video efforts that could highlight the Illinois program via Facebook or Twitter.

“How George and I work together is if I have a video they want to use, I give it to them or if they need footage, they’ll come over here and roll on it or get a dub,” Lenti said. “That stuff benefits everybody. You’re selling the program and selling Illinois to the kids.”

Lenti remembers a different recruiting pitch when he was playing football at Chicago Mount Carmel. He’s the first to admit big-time schools weren’t filling up his mailbox, but Illinois and Western Michigan were the programs most interested in him a decade ago. At that time, Facebook nor Twitter even existed, items the 2003 high school graduate didn’t have to worry about.

“The recruiting sites were just starting when I was coming out of high school,” Lenti said. “It’s easier to track where a kid’s at now. If they go on a visit, they’re tweeting about it right away. My recruitment was all done with handwritten letters and phone calls.”

When recruits come on Illinois’ campus for an official visit or a junior day event, chances are they’ll see some of Lenti’s work. He won a Mid-America Emmy for his work in creating five web episodes about the 2011 Camp Rantoul. Recruits are likely to see eight to 10 videos on their visit, ranging from positional highlights, freshmen who contributed in their first season and what the football weightroom is like.

Instead of just hearing second-hand information about what Camp Rantoul is like, though, recruits can see for themselves with the work Lenti did.

Signing Day is another opportunity for Lenti and the production staff to zero in on recruiting. Every recruit who signs will have his own highlight tape available on the Illinois website that fans can view.

“That’s it’s own animal. It’s a holiday for some and nightmare for others,” Lenti said with a laugh of the annual early February event. “Those videos, it’s fun for the kids to have. Obviously, you do them for the fans so they can get a look at the kid who just signed with the University of Illinois, but for those kids, it’s such a day for them.”

Lenti remembers when Facebook first popped on to the Illinois campus. He never envisioned the effect it could have not only with college football recruiting but everyday life.

“Facebook, Twitter and social media definitely has its place,” Lenti said. “Every time we put a video up, it gets tweeted. Having an official Facebook page so you can get pictures from the game or (another event), that’s something that comes with negative, too, because people can say whatever they want. You make a comment (on Facebook), your name is right next to it. You’re accountable for what you say.”

Beckman said he and his staff still mail out handwritten letters to recruits.

Whether a recruit ever opens said letter, however, is another matter. With the ability of recruits to instantly respond with a Facebook message or a direct message from Twitter, coaches have a better indication if the message was received or ignored.

“We try in the letters to show their faces on billboards or what’s new and what’s eye-catching,” Beckman said. “With the new scoreboard going on, you know the first thing that’s going to be up there is a picture of the top players in the state of Illinois and their picture is going to be on that. You’re going to be writing, ‘This is where your face needs to be.’ ”

Coaches from across the country may have written a note similar to that to Class of 2013 signee Dillan Cazley. Doesn’t mean the first Illinois verbal commit Beckman and his staff landed necessarily read it.

“You would go home and sometimes you’d have 35 letters waiting for you to open,” Cazley said. “It was a lot to handle, and sometimes it was more than that. Honestly, I didn’t open a lot of my letters. They just sat in a box. If I have a son one day, I’ll give him my letters to open up.”

Cazley said he was surprised how fast social media has caught on with recruiting.

“At one point, some coaches did it,” he said. “Now it seems that every coach is doing it. When coaches realized that’s another way to get players, they instantly jumped on.”

Most recruits make their Twitter and Facebook profiles public. While this can allow coaches to keep tabs on recruits, it also opens up the possibility of tweets or Facebook posts getting scrutinized.

“People are always watching you,” Cazley said. “The last thing I want to do is tweet something that I’m mad about. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. You may have deleted it, but somebody’s probably already seen it. The slightest thing may not mean anything to you, but Twitter doesn’t have any emotions.”

Trying to find Aaron Bailey on Facebook or Twitter is impossible.

That’s because the Bolingbrook quarterback and signature recruit with Beckman’s Class of 2013 doesn’t have either.

“Honestly, I just don’t see any point in having it,” Bailey said. “All I do is text or call someone or send an email. That’s the reason I don’t have it. Some girls at school always ask why I don’t have one. I feel that it has helped me by not having it to just keep it more simple in my life.”

Illinois director of player personnel Marcus Berry said it’s a fine line coaches have to work with when it comes to using social media with players these days. If you send them too many messages, the recruit sees it as an annoyance. Not enough, and the recruit might start to question how interested that school is in his talents.

“The biggest thing with recruiting any kid is you’ve got to find out how to recruit that kid,” Berry said. “Some kids love it. They’re divas. They want all the attention. Some kids don’t care for it. They could talk to you once a week and be fine. Some kids you have to talk to them every day and hit them on Facebook every day or send them mail every day or they don’t feel like you really want them.”

Cazley and Lewis said they chuckle sometimes at the tweets or Facebook posts their coaches might send. Having middle-aged men trying to capture terminology normally associated with teenagers or using various hashtags makes for a good laugh occasionally.

But possibly missing out on a recruit by not using these methods isn’t a laughing matter.

“It’s very informative that we’re able to tell our fans straight from the coach about what’s going on, and you ought to stay in touch with these young men as much as you can, or these future Illini as we call them,” Beckman said. “It takes a little time, but I enjoy tweeting.”

Following the leaders

Top 10 football coaches on Twitter (based on number of followers as of Saturday afternoon)

Coach    School    Twitter handle    Tweets    Followers
Les Miles    LSU    @LSUCoachMiles    657    107,850
Best Tweet: “The half time show....Wow ... Very athletic !!!”
— on Beyonce’s performance at Super Bowl XLVII

Brian Kelly    Notre Dame    @CoachBrianKelly    714    91,711
Best Tweet: “One of my favorite days of the year @The_Masters Sunday.”
— before Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera duked it out this year at Augusta

Butch Jones    Tennessee    @UTCoachJones    4,136    76,701
Best Tweet: “Just heard from a NFL Scout: There is only 3 conferences that matter, The AFC, The NFC and The SEC! #It’sAllHere”
— New Volunteers coach can say that now that he’s gone from Cincinnati

Mark Richt    Georgia    @MarkRicht    293    66,110
Best Tweet: “On a personal note... Check out His new cd is available. I’m not sure if you need the hash tag or not. Still learning”
— Bulldogs coach touts own son’s music career while admitting he’s still a Twitter novice on Feb. 25

Bret Bielema    Arkansas    @BretBielema    974    59,541
Best Tweet: “Am I the only guy that had to go to two Walmart stores tonight after 9 PM to complete my wives shopping list? #WPS #happywifehappylife”
— New Razborbacks head man keeps it lighthearted at times with this May 1 message

Steve Sarkisian    Washington    @CoachSark    2,126    46,870
Best Tweet: “Dawgs in the house, Dawgs in the house, WOOF!!!!!”
— Huskies coach recapped National Signing Day on Feb. 6 with this popular refrain on his page

Hugh Freeze    Mississippi    @CoachHughFreeze    4,480    45,795
Best Tweet: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of robots. Albert Einstein #loveothers”
— He likes his inspirational quotes, like this one from May 14    

Dan Mullen    Mississippi St.    @CoachDanMullen    1,352    45,131
Best Tweet: “S/O to Check them out!”
— Mullen gave a plug to website on April 27 because ... wait for it ... it was his birthday

Mark Stoops    Kentucky    @UKCoachStoops    286    44,612
Best Tweet: “Congrats to Orb trained by Lexington grad Shug McGaughey!! What a roll Joel Rosario is on!!!”
— New Wildcats coach has fan base pumped. Good way to keep them happy with tweet May 4 about Kentucky Derby winner

Bo Pelini    Nebraska    @BoPelini    94    44,514
Best Tweet: “Going on a run...Honk if you see me”
— An oldie, but a goodie, intense coach sent this out May 19, 2009, shortly after he started his account