Recruiting battles get creative, graphic on social media

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi checks his phone during National Signing Day on Feb. 1, 2017 at the team's facility. College football recruiting nowadays is much more than phones and fax machines. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi checks his phone during National Signing Day on Feb. 1, 2017 at the team's facility. College football recruiting nowadays is much more than phones and fax machines. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

Credit: Matt Freed

Credit: Matt Freed

Perhaps if Don Draper had risen to prominence in a different era, "Mad Men" would have been about the director of creative media for a college football program.

The world in 2017 is about cellphones, social media, constant connection — and college football is no different. Especially when you're dealing with excitable teenagers who can help make a team into a contender.

For coaches and recruiters across the country, that means videos, creative graphics and being ever-present in the lives of top prospects. And finding people who can build that presence has become more and more important for any program hoping to achieve success.

"It's a must," said Pitt linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Rob Harley. "And that's kind of the new arms race, I guess, is the recruiting department itself. How many people are you hiring? What do you believe in? Is it a massive amount of people or do you keep it tight? What's your head coach's vision?"

Pat Narduzzi's vision is to be the best in any facet of the game, whether that's pass-blocking or Photoshop. With Harley and Pitt's recruiting department, the Panthers hope to get there.

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson never used to pay much mind to his program's recruiting efforts on social media. The staffers who handle that would send out a graphic to a prospect, hopefully the kid would like it, and that was that. After all, Clawson had actual coaching to do.

But after one particular recruiting ploy, he decided it was time to start looking at these things.

"We sent one where we had a player with one of the Kardashians," Clawson said last month at ACC media day.

With a big Wake Forest logo plastered on there?

"Yes," he said, shaking his head. "I'm just like, 'Guys, from now on, I need to see these.' That's when my involvement changed. I kind of gave them free rein until that baby came out."

Whether you consider the Kardashian sisters offensive, Clawson said there's a fine line between being creative and taking that creativity too far.

At Pitt, an idea for reaching out to recruits can start just about anywhere, but always goes through Narduzzi in the end. That's especially true if it's something that will eventually be posted from Narduzzi's own Twitter account. There's a chain of command that includes the recruiting staff and now Harley, who was named recruiting coordinator in late June, and goes all the way up to the top with Narduzzi.

"It's keeping up with the Joneses, and it's getting better — period. ... You have to do it. (Recruits) like pictures of themselves," Narduzzi said with a grin. "I hate pictures of myself, but guys like it."

Zach Lantz gives a slight chuckle at the mention of Narduzzi boiling down his duties to "guys like pictures of themselves," but he doesn't hold it against the CEO of Pitt football. In fact, Lantz is delighted that Narduzzi and his staff hired him in April to be their director of creative media, a football-specific position rather than under the broader umbrella of the whole athletic department.

Lantz, 26, had been video coordinator at his alma mater, James Madison, but also did graphic design work for the defending Football Championship Subdivision champions whenever he had time. Pitt and other schools noticed his work on James Madison's social media accounts and liked it so much that they wanted him to join their team.

"We knew he was a special one, and we knew we had to have him," Harley said.

So now Lantz, a former Division II college football player for one season at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, has become Pitt's secret weapon in recruiting. He specializes in what kids these days call "edits" — basically, a photo or graphic that Lantz re-touches or enhances in a way that makes it pop off a page ... or, more often, off a screen.

"He's got a great vision," Harley said. "He's a great executor of what you want. You tell him what you want, 24 hours later — not even, two hours later — he's got something mocked up and ready to go. He's fast and works fast, which is the pace of recruiting."

While Harley heads up recruiting efforts among Pitt's 10 full-time coaches, Lantz was initially contacted by director of recruiting Mark Diethorn. Diethorn's department includes player personnel staffers Graham Wilbert and Da'Vell Winters, both hired this offseason, and as a group they spearhead the comprehensive grind of finding future Panthers.

It certainly helps to have a graphics guru in the mix.

"The hardest part, especially from a recruiting standpoint, is coming up with what's gonna be different from what other schools do and how you can kind of relate Pitt to them on a personal level," Lantz said. "It's something I've been thinking about. Since I don't do the actual recruiting part with talking to the players, I don't know what will connect with them."

Lantz did let out a chuckle when asked if he has ever had a request like the Kardashian incident at Wake Forest.

"That's just weird because I feel like athletes crash and burn when they date them anyway," he said with a laugh.

This summer, a recruiting video of North Carolina coach Larry Fedora went viral. It was produced in-house, borne of an idea from a football staffer, and took five minutes to film.

"You hear that new Migos song? Pretty lit, right?" Fedora asks the camera, sitting in his office. "Don't mind me and my fidget spinner," he says next, twirling the popular toy between his fingers. "At UNC, we play fast. Zero to 100, like my man Drake says."

There's a few more "hip" phrases, but you get the picture.

"I thought Migos was a burrito restaurant or something, is what I thought," Fedora joked. "I don't personally know 2 Chainz. ... But those guys, they really do come up with some really unique ideas. The fans love it, recruits love it, so it's well worth it. Five minutes of your time? The publicity you get from that thing, we couldn't have paid for it. There's no way."

While Narduzzi hasn't been filmed rapping "rain drop, drop top" just yet, the same concept applies to all coaches. It's about connecting with your audience, but most of them are more concerned with drawing up game plans or sorting out their depth chart than brainstorming sessions.

For Pitt, Harley describes his new responsibility as a "liaison role" more than coordination, but others call the 35-year-old former ESPN analyst an idea man.

"He has a passion, and a creativity," Narduzzi said. "He's a younger guy, and I think we're in a younger game. Why come into my office and ask me a young man's question?"

Lantz took that even further, calling Harley "super creative."

"If I could have the ideas that he has, I'd be set," Lantz said. "I'd never have a problem in my life being creative. If he knew how to execute and do the things that come into his head, I don't think he'd be a football coach."

Harley declines to take too much credit, but does admit he has a little bit of a background in graphic design that gives him his creative side. He insists he just "throws things at the wall and lets the professionals do it."

In the end, everyone from Narduzzi to Harley to Lantz hopes it comes out looking spiffy enough to help make a high school player commit. Silly as it may seem, they'll all tell you that "stuff" does matter.

"No doubt," Lantz said. "It's what recruits like to see, and it's a different way of recruiting them, too."