By Josh Davis, Graduate Assistant, American Football Coaches Association (AFCA)
Today more than ever before, recruiting top-level athletes can mean the difference between winning and losing in the college game. Though recruiters’ job titles can range widely, each of these individuals owns the same job description: They must creatively sell the idea of playing football at their respective institutions to high-profile athletes and their families.
It’s critical for football coaches to understand what makes a successful player personnel director if they are going to hire one who makes an impact.
Coaches looking for recruiters must find people who can stay organized, communicate clearly, lead others, connect with a variety of individuals, and a whole lot more. Beyond the day-to-day activities, the right recruiter must also love working with student-athletes.
Creating Order In Chaos
People who are successful in the role of recruiter possess certain characteristics, and those characteristics center around organizational and communication skills.
“Being organized is a very important characteristic to have,” says Michael George, director of player personnel at Texas State University. “There are a lot of items thrown at you in this position, and you have to make sure you keep all of your ducks in a row because the job itself is an ever-changing environment.”
On top of organization, directors of player personnel must be disciplined and detail-oriented. Whether that involves writing notes to leave for yourself, keeping a highly detailed calendar, or even developing a digital database of all activities that need to be completed, directors of player personnel must attack situations as they arise.
Prioritization is key. Ranking tasks in terms of importance not only keeps recruiters on task, but translates to the coaching staff’s willingness to be confident in a recruiter’s overall abilities.
“Being organized is by far the most important characteristic to have in this position,” says Mark Pantoni, director of player personnel at Ohio State University. “In order to achieve this, you have to be relentless in staying on top of things, managing your time well, and evolving with the times.”
Matt Dudek, director of on-campus recruiting and player personnel at the University of Arizona, says it’s common for recruiters to be actively recruiting student-athletes non-stop throughout the year. At any given time, the total number of recruits Dudek personally evaluates ranges from 200 to 300 student-athletes. If he includes all student-athletes across the entire football program, that number can be somewhere in the thousands.
Dudek and others say their recruit database is extremely valuable when keeping track of the mountains of information their programs receive on a day-to-day basis. Many of these are paid recruiting database services, such as JumpForward and Recruiting Radar. This is software that is maintained and updated every day by player personnel or other members of the recruiting staff.
Connection Through Interaction
It should come as no surprise that communication skills are critical to a recruiter’s success, but what may not be so obvious is the fact that recruiters must be able to communicate with everyone.
Recruits can come from various backgrounds, so it is important for recruiters to possess an ability to relate to anyone.
Effective communication skills are needed with subordinates, coaching staffs, parents and other outside resources. Great communication builds relationships and develops comfort and trust.
“You want to make sure you have the ability and desire to really want to get to know others – get inside their lives – to get a better understanding of the type of people they are,” says Dave Roberson, director of player personnel at Arkansas State University.
Not only does this help in the recruiting process itself, but it also allows recruiters to identify who they can talk to, in what way and how individuals may respond.
“The biggest thing in improving communication skills is the ability to listen twice,” says Aaron Knotts, director of player personnel at the University of Washington. “You have two ears and one mouth; use them that way. Do your best to really listen to what people are saying.
Non-verbal communication is just as important as verbal communication.
“You have to know who your audience is, and have the ability to adapt to what their interests are. There needs to be a level of balance that allows you to be hip and knowledgeable of pop culture when talking to a recruit, and then be able to flip that switch and have an adult conversation when speaking to their parents.”
Leadership Is Key, Patience Is Virtuous
When searching for the right recruiters, leadership abilities can set one candidate apart from another. Thad Turnipseed, Director of recruiting and external affairs at Clemson University, says becoming a servant leader – or “Kingdom Buster” – helps Clemson on the recruiting trail.
“When it comes to working with others, you never want to build kingdoms,” he says. “In other words, you do not want to establish a department in which there is one specific person who clearly has more power than those underneath him. You have to make sure that everyone is empowered.”
Leading groups of people in this way makes them feel important, and that defines what it means to be a servant leader. Though this aspect is commonly agreed upon, there were still a number of traits that differed from one person to the next.
Arkansas State’s Roberson says he consistently nurtures his ability to stay patient. Prior to his current role, Roberson had spent a number of years on the sidelines as a football coach; it wasn’t until his transition to director of player personnel that he had to improve on his level of patience.
“You have to be patient with the overall recruiting process,” says Roberson. “Coming from the position of a coach, I was used to having things done for me right then and there. Now that I am in the position I am in, it has been a learning experience having to deal with housing, catering and academics when they operate on their own schedule. It gives me a better understanding of how to deal with stuff on a daily basis.”
We All Come From Somewhere
While many current recruiters began their lives on the sidelines, the fact is that recruiters come from all walks of life.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, Arizona’s Dudek began his postgraduate career with an opportunity to work for a Fortune 500 company at a starting salary that was hard to beat. It was during this time that he realized his particular industry – cranes, no less – was not meant for him. Shortly after leaving that job, he reached out to former Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt and landed a non-paid position as a video assistant for the football program while he worked toward his master’s degree.
Dudek continued with the football program, rising through the player personnel ranks. After leaving Pitt, and a short stop at Rutgers, Dudek is now responsible for all day-to-day recruiting functions at the University of Arizona.
Liberty University director of player personnel Kettie Fickter had aspirations of becoming the next Erin Andrews, a former broadcaster for ESPN. She studied sport management and quickly obtained a position working with an ABC affiliate in Virginia while still enrolled at Liberty.
Her story is similar to Dudek’s. She decided she didn’t want to pursue the journalism career path, and was fortunate enough to land a position as assistant director of player personnel at Liberty after stops at Wake Forest and LSU working in event management.
When the opportunity came about, Liberty head football coach Turner Gill approached her with the chance to take on the director of player personnel responsibilities. Today, she is responsible for all of the day-to-day functions that go into the recruiting process at Liberty University.
Successfully Recruiting Student-Athletes
While it’s important for coaches to understand what characteristics make a great recruiter, it’s also important for coaches to know how recruiters can successfully perform their duties.
A number of primary factors influence student-athletes’ decisions to sign with a university, including proximity to home, required academic standards, playing time and facilities, to name a few. Successful recruiters have a knack for identifying what interests student-athletes, their parents, and even members of a player’s circle of friends and influencers.
“Playing time, facilities, uniforms, those are all enticing, but I really believe that the coaches who build the strongest and most personal relationships with prospects and their families will ultimately get the signature,” says Michael Giglio, director of player personnel at the University of Texas. “It’s human nature to want to surround yourself with people you feel comfortable with and trust.”
Talking about your institution’s commitment to academics can be critical to the process, as well.
“The recruits we seem to resonate with are focused on their long-term goals and future careers,” says Sean Magee, director of player personnel for Navy. “These are kids who are looking to align their desire to play football with their academic visions.”
Chance Trickett, former director of recruiting at Louisiana Tech University, says recruits can get themselves into trouble if they don’t pay attention to relationships.
“Some kids look at schools for all of the wrong reasons,” says Trickett. “They should be looking at the coaches – head, position, and even strength coaches – in order to determine what these individuals can offer them as they progress in their career on and off the field.”
Show, Don’t Tell
With constant changes in NCAA rules and regulations from year to year, it is fairly typical for directors of player down new avenues for interaction.
Sometimes, they are rewarded for these efforts. Other times, they must backtrack and work around rules that limit interaction.
No one can deny the growing popularity of social media and the impact it has on student-athletes in every facet of their lives. But recruiters need to look beyond social media to cement an impression in a student-athlete’s mind.
Wes Turner, director of player personnel at the University of Southern Mississippi, says the increasing popularity of customized graphics turns recruits’ heads and good player personnel departments act on this avenue for interaction.
“Keeping up with customized graphics and edits is extremely important,” says Turner. “Everyone in the country is constantly trying to improve on this aspect in order to separate themselves from other universities.”
These customized graphics can be used by coaches and recruiters as a personalized tool to showcase their overall interest in a student-athlete. Plus, they can help prospective student-athletes envision themselves playing at that particular university. Graphics have been used in a variety of ways, and continue to evolve as more and more recruiting departments expand their creative capabilities.
“Graphics and videos are definitely a growing trend,” says Ethan Johnson, director of player personnel at East Carolina University. “Kids are receiving customized puzzles. They receive pieces of it in the mail over a period of time, life-sized posters, mailings with their face edited onto magazine covers, and kids are even making video commitment montages.”
At the same time, University of Wisconsin director of recruiting Andrew Marlatt said a hand-written letter can go the distance when trying to show a recruit that he matters.
“Sitting down and taking the time to write hand-written letters is a great way to get positive feedback from recruits, because it allows you to customize the letter in a way that is special to a kid. They respond really well to that,” he says.
Newly passed rules allowing for communication via text message, and the controversial topic of satellite camps, have been at the forefront of even more modern trends.
“Getting kids on campus as much as possible is very important because kids are becoming more and more selective about where they take official and unofficial visits, so if you can get them there through a camp or some sort of visit, it provides your program with an advantage over those institutions that were not fortunate enough to get that opportunity,” says John Mark Hamilton, director of player personnel at Appalachian State University.