Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck has a dream request for the NCAA: Let him hire a P.I.
“You’d love to be able to have a private investigator on staff and be able to do background checks on every player you have, (on) everything.” Alas, Fleck said, “you’re not allowed to do that.”
So coaches and their support staffs are left to become amateur detectives, especially during recruiting, which now includes the essential task of mining players’ social media accounts looking for bombshells.
It has become a new frontier of recruiting in the last decade or so.
There are cautionary tales everywhere in sports in which an online sleuth uncovers an embarrassing, questionable or disturbing post by scrolling through years of a player’s account and then reposts it. Draft night in the NFL and NBA has become particularly uncomfortable for some players and teams.
The topic is especially on coaches’ minds after Brewers pitcher Josh Hader had tweets from 2011 and 2012 unearthed during last week’s All-Star Game that included racial slurs, “white power” and “KKK.”
College football coaches have cautionary tales in their sport too.
In 2012, defensive back Yuri Wright was a four-star, top-100 national recruit being courted by powerhouse programs such as Michigan when his New Jersey high school expelled him after sexually graphic tweets surfaced on his account. He became a recruiting pariah before eventually signing with Colorado.
Old Dominion dropped running back Shedrick McCall III when it found a YouTube video of him discussing a trespassing incident and using profane language. He wound up at Norfolk State and now shares his experience to educate young athletes. In 2014, then-Georgia coach Mark Richt said he dropped a recruit for inappropriate tweets. Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen had racially offensive tweets from 2012 and 2013 revealed before this year’s NFL draft.
College coaches frequently emphasize their efforts to educate players on social media etiquette. But before they get on campus, coaches must monitor recruits’ online lives closer than ever.
It’s common to hear coaches talk about attempting to avoid recruits with poor character, but they also don’t want a public-relations disaster damaging the university’s reputation.
“People will find something about a kid that happened in his freshman year and you didn’t know that as a head coach,” Fleck said, “and you’re like: ‘I was never told that by the counselor or the coach or the principal or the mom or dad. How was I supposed to know that?’
“We have someone on staff who really checks the social media, Facebook, Twitter, keeping up on all the recent stuff that they have.”
When a troubling or questionable post on a recruit’s timeline is brought to his attention, Fleck said he has to determine whether he wants to help the player mature or whether the post reveals something darker about the player.
First-year Nebraska coach Scott Frost said he looks at “every ounce” of a recruit’s social media activity and draws a line at certain online mentions.
“If some kid tweeted something four years ago that’s bad, we’re going to know about it,” Frost said at a camp this summer, according to reports. “I’ll tell you this right now — if there’s anything negative about women, if there’s anything racial or about sexuality, if there’s anything about guns or anything like that, we’re just not going to recruit you, period.”
Coaches at Big Ten media days in Chicago this week echoed that sentiment. Those who talked to the Tribune about this topic said they appoint assistant coaches or support staff to scrutinize players’ online accounts.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find everything a person has ever done,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “But we’re trying to.”
Said Maryland’s DJ Durkin: “If we find something that doesn’t really line up, it causes you to ask more questions, find out more, dig around a little more. If it’s something absolutely heinous, then you make the decision to stop recruiting the guy, which in our time has happened but not very often.”
It’s not always as simple as scrolling through a player’s timeline to look for red flags.
Recruiting can be sleazy. Coaches need to be skeptical of information they receive.
“You could be having recruiting battles with somebody and somebody will write an anonymous letter about how bad the kid is so you drop them and they can have them,” Fleck said. “There’s a lot of things that could happen. You follow up on every lead you have to the best of your ability. You rely on the resources you have and your intuition.”
Middle-aged coaches also acknowledge that young adults are usually far more technologically savvy — and crafty.
“Kids are always one step ahead of you,” Fleck said. “There’s alias names. You’re looking over the course of social media to just find any resemblance of your players, pictures (of them), and make sure (they) keep it clean.”
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said that while his staff monitors recruits’ online lives, he hasn’t experienced many instances of players with ugly posts. Most highly recruited players have been trained — or warned — by their high school coaches and other advisers.
“Nowadays guys are a little more aware of it and are more careful,” Brohm said. “If they cross the line, they’re no longer going to be recruited. I think people nowadays (are educated by) their high school coaches: ‘Hey, if you want to get a scholarship and continue on this path, you can’t cross this line.’ ”
Frost left campers this summer with this piece of advice in hopes they’ll never get crossed off the list of an interested coach one day.
“That’s your resume to the world,” he said. “That’s what you’re trying to tell the world you’re all about. That’s how you’re advertising yourself. Be smart with that stuff.”
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