Iowa’s recruiting pitch hasn’t changed. If tailored to a specific prospect based on location, position and personality, the common denominator is the Hawkeyes' coaching continuity. In specific, the focus is on a number, 21: Iowa's letters, texts and recruiting graphics center on giving members of the 2021 signing class 21 reasons to choose the program in recognition of Kirk Ferentz's 21 seasons as head coach.
It's everything surrounding the pitch that's changed. Beginning with the most basic interactions between coaches and prospects, the disruptive force of the coronavirus strain and near-nationwide quarantine that followed in the wake of COVID-19 has profoundly impacted the traditional flow of recruiting at Iowa and other programs in the Bowl Subdivision.
Face-to-face contact is out, suspended by the NCAA for nearly two months. Practices and normal team activities have likewise been tabled indefinitely, scattering players and sending coaches to the unfamiliar confines of home offices. All recruiting is done remotely, negating the boost often provided by official and unofficial campus visits.
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Yet Iowa recruiting is thriving, with seven known verbal commitments since the suspension of on-campus recruiting and a projected signing class that currently ranks just behind Clemson and Florida among the best nationally. This success dwarfs the Hawkeyes' pace during the same time period a year ago, when the staff landed just two verbal commitments under more optimal recruiting conditions.
"The biggest thing was we weren’t going to panic and alter the way we were doing things or who we are, change who we are, just based on what’s taking place," said Tyler Barnes, Iowa's director of recruiting.
A similar scene is playing out across the FBS. Even as COVID-19 eliminates the sort of in-person contact that has typically defined springtime recruiting, the explosive growth of a recent recruiting trend and the fear of missing out on the rapidly dwindling amount of scholarship space have contributed to a historic and unexpected flurry of activity.
More than 600 prospects in the 2021 class have verbally committed to FBS programs, doubling the number of commitments at this point a year ago and exceeding the combined total at this point from the past two recruiting cycles. Power Five programs alone have accounted for 286 commitments since on-campus recruiting was suspended. Fourteen programs in the Power Five have at least seven verbal commitments during this period, while 85 percent have added multiple commitments.
Technology has helped coaching staffs overcome the inability to host recruits, allowing for drone videos of campus, walkthroughs of football facilities conducted via FaceTime and virtual tours meant to mirror the experience of a traditional campus visit. Prospects more comfortable with text messages than phone calls have taken to recruiting spiels distilled into quick videos or graphics, and programs have responded by condensing material into smaller, more easily digestible chunks.
The NCAA made three recent modifications to rules related to the sort of remote contact that now dominates FBS recruiting. One change allows any university staff member, not just coaches, to participate in calls involving a recruit. Another removes the restriction on the total number of recruits who may participate in a call with an on-field coach. And the third allows current athletes to appear on recruiting calls with coaches, meaning college standouts such as Trevor Lawrence could participate in a call alongside Clemson coaches, for example.
"It’s really an information race," said Michigan State coach Mel Tucker. "It’s like remote education. It’s like marketing. It takes a high level of listening. You ask a specific question, you get a specific answer. Then service the need. That’s pretty much, philosophically, what we’ve done."
The increase in free time to make contact with recruits has played a significant role. The standard routine for most FBS coaches, especially head coaches, is to conduct recruiting calls during a window of time in the afternoon, following the completion of team activities. The cancellation of practices in April, for example, opened up the month for coaches and prospects to remain in constant communication.
"The time as a coach that you would spend preparing for practice, preparing for the meetings, watching film, you’ve not had that," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "That’s really a month’s worth of work with your own team where there was nothing to do from that standpoint. So where do you spend your effort and time?"
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has spent more time on the phone "than I ever would during this time period," he said. Michigan State's staff has taken off Easter and one random Wednesday since entering into quarantine, said Tucker, adding that the balancing act of staying in contact without inundating a prospect with calls and texts is "almost an art form in itself."
"A lot of what we’re doing, this is the first time," Tucker said. "The recruiting calendar and rules were not built for COVID-19, stay at home, dead period."
The biggest impact of the coronavirus on recruiting can be seen in the snowball effect of commitments that normally occur in the early summer. This intense stretch has instead come months earlier, as recruits see spots quickly filling up across the Power Five. Consider the example of an offensive guard who has five scholarship offers, with each program looking to take one guard during this cycle. As peers at his position begin to fill those spots months ahead of the normal schedule, the recruit must grab at an available scholarship even without first taking the standard official visit.
"I think some prospects are getting antsy and just want to get it over with, so they’re kind of casting their ballot," Ferentz said. "I think the official visit helps consummate the marriage. It makes the bond much stronger."
If heightened and expanded by COVID-19, this is a trend that has gripped the FBS since the advent of the early signing period gave programs the ability to conduct official visits outside of the regular season. Recruiting activity that was once conducted in May is now completed by December or January; now, the months of May and June are primarily used to identify and recruit prospects in future signing classes. For teams in the Power Five, the heavy lifting in recruiting can often be finished before the start of the regular season.
"The recruiting calendar has really sped up," said Pruitt. "Twenty years ago, guys wouldn’t be getting offers until the end of their senior year. Now, offers are coming out in the 9th, 10th, 11th grade and these guys are taking visits. It’s not unusual to have a guy that’s been on your campus four or five times before he even gets to his senior year. I think that plays a lot into it."
As a program and coaching staff, Tennessee will conduct an autopsy of its recruiting approach this spring, Pruitt said, in an effort to revisit and analyze what worked and what failed. (The Volunteers have six verbal commitments in May.)
That many teams in the Power Five have been so successful in recruiting remotely could lead to changes in how, when and where coaches and prospects interact, and to broader shifts in how athletics departments devote financial resources amid a looming budget crunch.
"Any school that tells you they haven’t learned a thing or two in this process, I think they’d probably be lying," Barnes said. "Everybody is trying to adapt and adjust as well as possible and find a way to make it work for them."
Of more immediate concern to coaches is the potential post-summer fallout. The avalanche of commitments during the past eight weeks could trigger an equally widespread rash of decommitted prospects should campus visits become an option come September. At the very least, programs are expecting current verbal commitments to explore taking official visits given the obvious opportunity: an all-expenses-paid trip after months in quarantine.
The reopening of normal recruiting practices may also lead programs to reevaluate current verbal commitments, especially as decommitments reenter the recruiting pool, joined by late-blooming senior prospects. Under unpredictable circumstances, college football has had a recruiting boom; a sort of market correction may await this fall.
"This is not the end," Tucker said. "This is more the beginning."