College athletic recruiting has entered a new era. Coaches spent the past few weeks working to engage recruits while not having face-to-face contact because of the COVID-19 restrictions.
The Ottawa University coaches turned to technology to deliver their messages.
“That has been a huge shift in our recruiting philosophy,” Braves football coach Kent Kessinger said. “We have spent a lot of time either text messaging or sending things through Twitter or Instagram.”
Ottawa men’s basketball coach Aaron Siebenthall said switching gears during recruiting season has been a mindset change.
“From a recruiting standpoint, this is really tough,” he said. “Every college in the country is in the same boat. We are all fighting the same fight right now as far as our campuses being closed and not having on-campus visits.”
A big selling point in the past has been the on-campus visits where recruits experience college life firsthand, the coaches said.
“The difficult part is seeing how they are engaged,” Kessinger said. “Recruiting is a very relationship-building type of experience. When you are not sitting across from them, you are not seeing them face-to-face, you don’t always have that connection or engagement you would like to see.”
Siebenthall said the Ottawa campus with its historic buildings and beautiful landscaping mixed with new facilities sells itself.
“What really sold our school more than anything is having kids on our campus and seeing what the facilities are like, what the atmosphere is like, meet our guys and play with our guys,” Siebenthall said. “That is how we have always done our recruiting. Not being able to do that is really tough.”
The coaches turned to social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, along with Zoom and Skype, to stay connected to their recruits.
“What we have done is take on the social media role and try to get a lot of information to recruits,” Siebenthall said. “We have a dedicated web page so we can send our recruits information on one link. It has everything they could want: a letter from me, a virtual tour of campus, interactive map of campus, admission materials, our ’One Shining Moment’ highlight film, a PowerPoint I go through when recruits come on campus, a ton of information about our program and our guys. It has links to various pages: university web page, athletics web page, NAIA web page, and a link for recruits to apply to our school.”
Kessinger said coaches have used social media for the past few years to communicate and connect with the younger generation.
“It really hits home (now),” he said. “We have developed some virtual tours. We are expanding that to hit more of the athletic programs too. If they are interested in football, they can check out our locker room, training facilities, practice facilities, game field, etc. We are trying to use FaceTime, Skype and Zoom as a means to get a face-to-face (meeting).”
Those meetings are similar to when the recruit visits the campus and they sit and talk in his office, Kessinger said.
“We are doing it from the comfort of our own homes,” he said. “We talk about what their goals are, scholarships, the university and where they fit.”
Siebenthall had a couple of Zoom meetings with recruits and parents.
“One was a question and answer session,” he said. “The other one, I tried to go over the PowerPoint, but we had technical difficulties there.”
Siebenthall said this method of recruiting has expanded the pool of student-athletes.
“We are reaching kids from all over the country, which is different than we have done it,” Siebenthall said. “It is hard to recruit off of highlight tapes and seeing resumes. We are doing a wider net, but it is a little scarier in trying to pick the right guys. We have such a good thing going right now, we want to protect the culture and bring in the right players.”
Filling out rosters
The spring is usually a slower recruiting time for football coaches.
“We started recruiting during the season, bringing kids for game days,” Kessinger said. “Most of our on the road (work) was done in January. We spent a good part of December, January and February getting kids in on weekends for visits.”
The OU football team has nearly 40 signees at the moment and is looking to round out the recruiting class with at least 10-15 more, but that number could be increased because of unknown circumstances, the coach said.
“This year with COVID-19, we have to account for some real big drastic changes in families’ incomes,” Kessinger said. “They might be in and everything looks OK now, but it depends on how long people are out of jobs and how the economy goes. You have to account for more fallout than you would normally have. That (number) could be adjusted depending how our students are faring with the new totally online classes. Some will flourish and some will not.”
Basketball coaches were getting started on ramping up their recruiting efforts when the COVID-19 situation hit. Siebenthall said they had a good list of recruits before the restrictions came.
“We had identified our top recruits earlier,” he said. “We had a big visit day in the fall before our season started. We have had quite a bit of recruits on campus (during the season) that were able to come to Wilson Field House and experience that atmosphere. We have some good local kids we are talking to. Some of those guys have been to multiple games, so they know who we are.”
The Braves basketball team lost six seniors from the record-setting team that won a conference title and an NAIA national tourney game. Siebenthall expects decisions from recruits will come later than in most years.
“We will have to work a little harder and longer in the summer to get this all figured out,” he said. “With corona stuff going on, it throws a bit of uncertainty in everybody’s mind. That is what we are fighting right now.”
Kessinger’s job is maintaining relationships with current players, committed players and possible incoming recruits.
“It is a continual evaluation,” Kessinger said. “They evaluate us as much as we evaluate them. We have to keep them engaged.”
Siebenthall said it is important for recruits to look carefully at their options.
“No matter what, you have to find a place you believe in the academics so you can develop a career,” he said. “That is the No. 1 thing. Second is do you like the coaches and players because you are going to spend a lot of time together.”
He warned recruits should not draw out the process too long.
“If you have an offer, feel confident and good about the school, it is time to say yes,” he said. “They are going to have to take a leap of faith similar to how we are doing with them.”