Sept. 23, 2016
By John Heisler
The evolution of the football recruiting process at the University of Notre Dame arguably began in the spring of 1976 when Irish offensive line coach Brian Boulac became the first staff member to earn the title of recruiting coordinator.
The new designation didn’t come with a pay raise--and it didn’t come with a staff of assistants or any additional administrative help. It simply was an acknowledgement that Boulac was doing as much or more than any of the Notre Dame coaches to coordinate the process.
A decade later new Irish head coach Lou Holtz added a wrinkle when he hired Vinny Cerrato as his recruiting coordinator. In a nod to the importance of recruiting, Holtz essentially gave up an on-field assistant coach so Cerrato could be on the road recruiting on a full-time basis. Cerrato helped with the Irish kicking game when he was in town, but he mostly spent his time recruiting.
Then, in 2003, Jimmy Gonzales joined Tyrone Willingham’s staff as director of player development. Gonzales became the first administrator hired to devote all his time to recruiting, with current Irish director of player personnel Dave Peloquin assisting him as an intern.
Yet all that pales in comparison to the organization that current Irish recruiting coordinator Mike Elston now supervises—and it speaks to the importance of recruiting as the lifeblood of any major-college football program.
“The first thing I did was to sit down with (head coach) Brian Kelly to make sure I absolutely understood what his vision was, what he was looking for and what his expectations were,” says Elston. “From there the most important thing was putting people in place--putting a staff together that had the skill set to execute his vision.
“What we’ve come up with is an all-star staff of people who are exceptional at what they do. It’s all very focused in these different areas. Now that it’s defined for them--what their specialty is and what they can sink their teeth into--then they can really run with it.”
While Elston coordinates the entire effort in addition to coaching Irish linebackers (Elston inherited the recruiting piece after former running back coach Tony Alford left the Notre Dame staff after the 2014 season), he has help:
--Peloquin, director of player personnel (and a former Notre Dame football head student manager), coordinates structuring of the 85-man roster, management of scholarships and the administrative end of the evaluation process.
--Aaryn Kearney, director of recruiting, organizes details of the recruiting office and process--from mailings to prospect visits to student workers.
--Jasmine Johnson, assistant director of recruiting, manages specifics of on-campus recruiting visits and events.
--Grant Apgar, graphic design intern, creates the graphic pieces utilized in various football communications, much of it social media.
--Laura Thomas, social media intern, handles all content for the official Notre Dame football Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media accounts.
“The first thing we did was identify what everyone’s role was and what the expectation was for that role,” says Elston. “And then we gave them the resources and tools to execute that role. Clearly defining all that, to me, has made the biggest difference.
“For example, Dave Peloquin has been here forever, done so many things and worn so many hats. Now he’s director of player personnel and he’s focused clearly on that role—the evaluation part of making sure the coaches have what they need, making sure the right players across the country are being identified and evaluated so we are on top of them much sooner than we have been in the past.
“Then there’s the recruiting piece, and that’s where Aaryn and Jaz and our social media campaigns and graphic designs come in. So those people all work nicely together in the acquiring the talent phase.
“I feel like we currently have all the pieces in place to be very successful, to compete against the very best out there in the recruiting aspect. I’m excited to see the growth of that.”
Among the coaches, they evaluate between 1,500 and 2,000 prospective student-athletes each year. They whittle those numbers down to a mailing list of 850. They play host to 500 prospects (and often their families) making unofficial visits to campus all year long. Scholarship offers ultimately are extended to about 150 players. The coaches organize 40 to 45 official visits and sign somewhere between 20 and 25 individuals per season on the first Wednesday in February.
As Elston explains it, the Irish recruiting process emphasizes five area or “facets”: “f” is for facilities, “a” for apparel, “c” for coaching, “e” for exposure/excellence, “t” for tradition and “s” for scholastics. Those are the five areas where there are specific and detailed Notre Dame stories to be told by Elston and his staff.
The big-picture process involves the evaluation and acquisition phases—both driven by the coaches and supported by the recruiting office—followed by the transition phase once prospective Irish student-athletes have committed and then signed letters of intent.
The Irish recruit all over the country in some form or another, so they begin by dividing the map geographically into recruiting areas for each individual coach.
Within his areas, each coach is assigned to identify “recruit-able” prospects based on evaluations in these areas:
--Athletics (based on film, practice, workouts, camps)
--Academics (based on motivation, transcripts, tests, faculty recommendations)
--Character (Are they a fit for Notre Dame? Are they conscientious and teachable?)
--Medical (based on injuries, surgeries, other medical history)
--Work ethic and drive (Do they love football?)
The evaluation flow begins with the area coach and then moves to the position coach, the offensive or defensive coordinator and then to the head coach. The process is tracked through a piece of internal software called Recruiting Radar.
If all the boxes are checked correctly, that often equates to a scholarship offer.
Elston, Kelly and the Irish staff are convinced that there’s nothing more important than finding a way for a prospective student-athlete and his family to make a campus visit.
“Recruiting is all about relationships and position coaches play a huge role in this phase, but nothing beats an in-person, face-to-face visit with a prospect and his family. We feel very strongly that the football program and the University on a combined basis make a very compelling case,” says Elston.
Since many prospective roster additions come from nowhere near South Bend and may not be able to return to campus regularly, a 75-week mail campaign becomes critical. These mailings include everything from material on the history of the University, who to follow as far as Notre Dame social media, profiles of assistant coaches, Kelly’s pillars and philosophy, bowl game history, All-America and Academic All-American history, Heisman Trophy success—and everything else that might help educate a prospect.
Whether it’s with mailing pieces or social media graphic images, Apgar plays an especially critical role. His mission is to create state-of-the-art, cutting edge graphic treatments highlighting anything and everything about Notre Dame and Irish football. He often can borrow the editorial content from other sources—so his job is to make it jump off a page or screen.
One page he created showcases the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, with a close-up of linebacker Nyles Morgan surrounded by copy and images of the Gug.
Another exhibits the exclusive Under Armour gear worn by Irish players on Pro Day 2016.
Another features a close-up shot of Kelly with a listing of the NFL first-round draft picks who have played for him at Notre Dame.
Yet another is based on a world map that shows where various Irish players took part in summer of 2016 study-abroad opportunities (Japan, Jerusalem, Greece, Brazil and London).
One details the financial value of a scholarship. Another, designed as a draft preview for 2016, listed the number of overall NFL draft picks from Notre Dame (486) and the number of first-round picks (63) along with a shot of former Irish first-round pick Michael Floyd standing with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as they held up a Cardinals’ #1 jersey. All that came under the headline (in all capital letters) “WHO’S NEXT?”
Elston notes that the Irish coaches don’t take for granted that every prospect shares what he learns about Notre Dame with his parents. So, while the recruiting office coordinates a mailing and social media schedule for prospects, it utilizes a somewhat similar plan using e-mail and Facebook to communicate with parents and guardians.
An introductory parent e-mail from Elston included an attached graphic titled, “Notre Dame by the Numbers.”
“I can remember when I was recruiting coordinator at Cincinnati with Coach Kelly,” recalls Elston. “I remember coming off the practice field, we were walking down the hallway, and he says, ‘Hey, Mike, what about this Twitter stuff? Should I have a Twitter account?’ That was our last year at Cincinnati.
“Now he’s got 250,000 Twitter followers at Notre Dame. He’s what we consider a brand account, along with our Notre Dame football brand account. People can learn a lot about him in the touch of a button. Young kids are following him, parents are following him--so it’s a great way for us and for him to show his personality, his accomplishments.
“Flip over to the Notre Dame football account and we can do the same thing there. It’s a great way to be very visual to the young people who are on Twitter, not to mention Instagram and Snapchat and all the great things that come with social media.”
And yet the hard-copy mailings, e-mails and social media items are only the beginning. Add in individualized information (as needed), handwritten notes, text messages from coaches, strategic phone calls as well as Notre Dame’s well-publicized “Pot of Gold” package that has included different highlight items each year. The 2017 edition included packs of 50 personalized trading cards.
Any campus visit begins with a PowerPoint presentation designed to forcefully display the distinctions of Notre Dame in the areas of academics (a 92 percent NCAA Graduation Success Rate statistic in football), exposure (details of the NBC television contract and future Irish schedules), apparel (Under Armour contract), campus life (residence halls and on-campus amenities) and spirituality.
For example, key to the academic piece is a graphic that compares overall football GSR numbers (along with those for African-American players) for both Notre Dame and other major Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Elston and his staff make sure prospects and their families know all about Notre Dame in terms of development in the classroom (95 percent graduation rate over the last 10 years), success on the field (Notre Dame is #1 in terms of all-time winning percentage) and individual development (492 NFL draft selections rank second all-time).
A key communications element for 2016 is Notre Dame’s unique partnership with Bleacher Report. Multiple Bleacher Report staffers are embedded with the Irish football squad, providing short-form video and other material via social media throughout the season. That project follows the 2015 season in which Showtime produced a weekly half-hour show providing inside looks at the Irish program.
When prospects make unofficial visits, Notre Dame coaches attempt to paint with a broad brush—not knowing for sure what will hit home. So they provide as much of the campus experience as possible—including an academic overview, a meeting with a professor, a campus/facility tour, showing of a highlight video, meetings with Kelly and his staff, attendance at another Notre Dame sporting event and/or practice and access to a player panel.
Official visits, especially for uncommitted prospects, are tailored much more to specific interests—including one-on-one meetings with position coaches, more in-depth facility and campus tours, a meeting with vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick, a chance to meet wives and families of coaches, behind-the-scenes experiences, photo shoots with Irish athletic apparel, major specific academic meetings, one-on-one meetings with admissions, exposure to specialized strength and nutrition plans--then finishing with a meeting with Kelly.
Even after prospects sign their letters of intent in February, there is a specific communication plan in place until the players arrive on campus in June for summer school.
And the Irish recruiting administrative staff did a deep dive into social media, creating a detailed plan covering messaging, timing and audiences so content could be presented uniquely across the various platforms.
While prospects may react more favorably to live tweeting from events, game day shots on Instagram and behind-the-scenes footage on Snapchat, parents may be offered longer videos and links to more in-depth print content and photo galleries via Twitter and e-mail.
Technology plays a major role in the process:
--Recruiting Radar serves as a database for information on prospects’ high school details and contacts, personal information, social media specifics and transcripts—and it enables coaches to track other staff members’ evaluations and correspondence via mail and e-mail.
--JumpForward keeps track of compliance information, including monitoring of phone calls, all visits by prospects and complimentary ticket allotments.
--TeamWork serves as an interdepartmental project manager, permitting easy access to details of graphic design and other creative planning.
--Slack provides an inter-office creative cloud.
As much as anything, Elston has come to appreciate which buttons to push at Notre Dame when it comes to the recruiting process.
“We are a little different, and we don’t apologize for that. Coach Kelly has stood by that from day one. It has taken us a couple of years to figure out how to best handle those differences in the recruiting process--what we need to be looking for and not looking for. I think we’ve hit our stride now. I think this young class that we have in now is an exceptional class of young players who are very talented, very driven in terms of football, very academically driven--and I think we will reap the rewards from them as we go through the development process with them.
“The main thing is we recruit nationally, but we don’t recruit everybody—I think that’s a great way to look at it. Not every great football player is going to be a fit here. We are going to ask more questions here to determine whether the fit is right. That means we need to be very detailed in the evaluation process.
“How driven is he to be a great student and a great football player? If the challenges on our campus make this different than most places in the country, we take a lot of pride in what that means. But not everybody wants that challenge, not everybody is ready for that. We need to find the guys that have the athletic ability to compete against the schedule we’re going to play and also have that want and desire to compete in the classroom.”
Elston readily acknowledges some of the advantages that exist in South Bend:
“Recruiting on a national scale is helped by NBC doing all our home games, by playing on national television every week no matter where we play. I got off the plane from Austin, and I had four or five DMs (direct messages) from kids in Texas and California and Hawaii who had watched us play. The social media piece helps that.”
Elston also believes strongly that all the recruiting bells and whistles don’t necessarily trump those personal relationships:
“All the things that may get lost in the social media part of it are that it all comes back to relationships. It’s building relationships with a young man and his family--making it an educational relationship where I can teach him and coach him about our University and about our football program.
“If all of us can combine to do a better job of that than at other places, then we stand a great chance of getting him to come to Notre Dame. It may not be because I can DM him more than any other coach or because he’s following more of our social media accounts than other schools.
“If our relationships are strong, that’s going to pull more weight than a fancy graphic that I might send him on Twitter.”
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has followed the Notre Dame sports scene since he joined the Irish athletics communications staff in 1978.