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X's, O's and hashtags

Athletic recruiting in the age of social media

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David Cutcliffe is rarely cryptic—he’ll give an honest, thoughtful response to nearly any question you throw at him. But when it comes to recruiting, Duke’s head football coach has to be intentionally vague, so as to avoid the wrath of the NCAA.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t leave clues. If you were to scroll through Cutcliffe’s Twitter page, you’d see some inspirational quotes, photos of former players returning to Durham and yes, a video snippet of Pharrell’s concert during the build-up to Super Bowl 50.

But keep scrolling, and you’re bound to come across the same phrase several times:

Bang Bang.

And whenever you see that, Cutcliffe has told you all you need to know: Duke just secured another commitment.

“We can’t make reference to that specific recruit, but it’s a way to let our fan base know, and a way to let other recruits that we’re recruiting that ‘Bang Bang’, we just added another member to Duke Gang,” cornerbacks coach Derek Jones said.

“Duke Gang” has become the rallying cry for the Blue Devil football program, embraced by players, coaches and fans alike as Cutcliffe and Co. have slowly but surely turned the program around.

And for a 61-year-old who claims to be “not that good at tweeting,” Cutcliffe has turned “Bang Bang” into something of a personal trademark.

“Marketing and branding can either have substance or not have substance, so we’re all drawn to things that are marketed and branded well,” Cutcliffe said at his signing day press conference in February.

For Blue Devils across all sports and athletic programs across the country, that brand is increasingly being built on social media, the tool that is shaping the constantly evolving world of college recruiting, 140 characters at a time.

The rise of ‘Duke Gang’

“Duke Gang” got its start thanks to wide receiver Donovan Varner, a freshman on the 2008 squad that ushered in the Cutcliffe era. The Blue Devils struggled in those early years on the field, but they held fast to that nickname, which has subsequently turned into a unifying hashtag.

“It was a brotherhood, it was a family and it was during that time when we weren’t very talented on the field but we were building into what we’ve been able to build now,” said Jones, who joined Cutcliffe’s staff when it was first assembled back in 2008. “We want every young man that’s been a part of this program in the past [to know that] everything that we’re doing now is because of the foundation that they laid when we got here.”

On-field success is a self-fulfilling cycle—the best players go to the best programs—and “everything we’re doing now” undoubtedly helped Cutcliffe ink his best class ever at Duke in February. Four straight bowl game appearances and the program’s first bowl victory since 1961 have changed the culture—and image—of football at Duke. The program has transformed itself physically as well, with hundreds of millions of dollars poured into upgrades to Wallace Wade Stadium and the surrounding facilities as Cutcliffe strives to make Duke perennially competitive in the ACC.

Add to that multiple successful NFL draft picks in the last few years, and Duke is no longer the afterthought it once was on the recruiting trail.

“When we first got here, you would go in to see a really good player and the high school coach would look at you like you were crazy, like you had no chance at him,” Jones said. “And now, we’re going after the top players and coaches are glad to see us coming. They open the doors when we come in—it’s just the perception. Most of the guys that we’re recruiting right now, the only thing they know about Duke University football is that we win.”

Back in 2008, the Blue Devils deployed a “national” recruiting strategy, eager to lure talent to Durham wherever they could find it. But as the wins have mounted for Cutcliffe, Duke has carved out a spot for itself in the state of North Carolina and has expanded its recruiting footprint in other hotbeds like Georgia and Florida.

Cutcliffe said he likes to recruit the high schools and high school coaches, building up relationships as talented players flow through the same program. That strategy paid off last month—Class of 2017 linebacker Ellis Brooks from Benedictine College Prep committed to the Blue Devils, following in the footsteps of former Benedictine wide receiver Scott Bracey, the prized wide receiver in Cutcliffe’s Class of 2016.

Brooks posted news of his commitment on Twitter at 12:43 p.m. March 24. Four minutes later, Cutcliffe spread the news as only he could:

“Bell’s Ringing Loud!!! BANG BANG DUKEGANG17”

‘The culture has changed’

It’s been awhile since Mike Krzyzewski’s program needed a platform to subtly trumpet his latest commit—the nonstop media coverage of Duke men’s basketball tends to take care of that for him. 

Krzyzewski does not have an official public presence on Twitter, placing him in the minority among ACC head coaches, but all the members of his coaching staff are regular users. The program itself boasts multiple Twitter accounts—the straight-laced @Duke_MBB handle and the more off-the-cuff @dukeblueplanet—and last month became the first college basketball program to eclipse 1 million social media followers.

Of course, when it comes to recruiting, Duke doesn’t necessarily need the world’s best Twitter brand, even though its online presence is very strong. It has Krzyzewski, the winningest head coach in Division I men’s basketball history. The 69-year-old has reeled in a class ranked in the top two in the nation each of the last three seasons, and the top two freshmen in the incoming class—Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum—will be taking the floor in Durham next fall.

Like their peers adorned with stars from recruiting services and laden with prep awards, Giles and Tatum were quick to post the latest update on their status—another offer, a trimmed list of schools under consideration and, ultimately, their commitment announcement.

“Everything happens quicker now—there are no secrets. Whatever interest a kid is getting from a school, they put it out on Twitter, they put it out on Instagram—immediately. Good or bad news, it’s out there,” Duke’s Jon Scheyer said in October 2014 before the start of his first season as an assistant coach. “That’s one of the things that surprised me getting back into it, how much everyone puts out there for public knowledge.”

Implied in the seemingly constant flow of high school stars to Durham is the reality that most of them will not be sticking around for the long-term—any other arrangement would result in possibly the most awe-inspiring, lethal lineup of all time.

Former Blue Devils Kyrie Irving, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and others have joined the list of college players heading to the NBA after their freshman seasons, igniting debate that Krzyzewski has embraced the one-and-done phenomenon after early NBA entrants from the Duke program were sparse for most of his career on the sidelines.

“We haven’t changed course—the culture has changed course. We still recruit the same guys we did 20 years ago,” Krzyzewski said in mid-February.. “Everyone says ‘You’ve gone to one and done’ or whatever. Grant Hill could have been one and done, [Christian] Laettner or all those guys.”

But the calculus for college coaches is starting to get a little more complicated. A new NCAA rule approved in January pushed back the deadline for players to withdraw their name from the NBA draft until 10 days after the NBA draft combine. The change gives players more time to gather feedback as they decide whether or not to remain in the draft pool and forfeit their remaining NCAA eligibility, and a flurry of underclassmen have already submitted their names.

This year’s draft combine runs through May 15—after the national letter of intent signing period has begun—meaning head coaches now have to go through the recruiting process while not fully assured of the group of returning players their new signees will be joining.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari—no stranger to churning out top draft picks—tweeted that his entire team would be exploring the NBA waters, walk-ons included. Duke figures to have several sure-fire NBA lottery picks in the next few years, but how it affects Krzyzewski—who typically does not fill all 13 of his available scholarships and would thus have some measure of flexibility—remains to be seen.

‘The Pied Piper’ of social media

Cutcliffe says he runs his own Twitter account and has an Instagram, though he does not make frequent use of it. For Jones—one of the most active Duke coaches on social media—having Cutcliffe’s voice online is a big part of defining the program, no matter how often he posts.

“He is the CEO of the company so to speak—he’s the head coach of this football program, so people want to hear what he has to say,” Jones said. “When people hear him saying something and hear me echoing that or saying or doing things that are very similar, they know that that’s a characteristic of our program.”

Jones populates his Twitter with motivational thoughts, or photos or videos of his secondary—a unit that has developed its own brand as both ‘The Cheetahs’ and #TheCoalition—doing drills.

But he also uses it as a platform to educate high school players about the constant scrutiny they face because of the magnifying lens of social media. It’s one of the first things he says Duke coaches look at when taking a first glance a prospective recruit.

“If you’re a 2017 or 2018 recruit after signing day the attention will shift totally to you. Make sure your social media pages are clean,” warns one tweet.

“Don’t say, do or post things to make people question your character when it can be the difference [between] getting or not getting an opportunity,” cautions another.

Jones got turned on to Twitter by his former graduate assistant and current safeties coach Matt Guerrieri, and has simply adopted his style from Facebook (“It turned into parents being on Facebook pages”) to Twitter.

“A lot of the things I say on social media are things that people need to hear in general,” Jones said. “It generally comes from within—I sit down in the morning, think of a couple of things that I want to put up, post and then get on with my day.”

Jones has more than 16,000 followers on Twitter—including Cutcliffe.

“Derek Jones is a guru—he has a following now. He’s the Pied Piper—he’s really good with it, and he has great messages,” Cutcliffe said. “I follow Derek Jones because I’m going to learn something from him. He takes that role seriously.”

The social media funnel

Social media’s biggest advantage—and its most obvious—is the mass audience suddenly reachable with the click of a button. 

Once upon a time, recruiting wasn’t always so easy. As he announced his 21-player class in early February, Cutcliffe mentioned that he’d already spoken with about 20 Class of 2017 recruits that same day, already sowing the seeds for next year’s group. But he also reminisced about a trip he once made through a snowstorm to visit a high-school-aged Randy Moss. Although those in-person visits are still commonplace and critical to the process, so much of the communication between coach and recruit has moved online.

“When I first started coaching…you tried to get kids to call you by calling their coach to tell them to call you, and you wrote them letters. You wrote a lot of handwritten letters and you tried to be different from the competition by not sending things out of the office, and that was it. Now, in the age of social media, that’s all kids do,” Jones said. “You read an article that one of these kids may put up and he’s like ‘I talked to Coach Derek Jones last night.’ Well actually, I haven’t talked to the kid verbally in three weeks, but we talk every night because that’s how they communicate.”

Cutcliffe says he prefers Twitter’s direct message feature to texting with recruits, because direct messaging requires that both parties follow each other’s accounts, rather than a free-for-all with text messages.

That extra hoop to jump through also serves as a funnel, helping the Blue Devil staff hone in on recruits who have a genuine interest in Duke.

“If a guy won’t follow you back after you’ve followed him, guess what he’s just told you? He’s not interested,” Cutcliffe said. “That saves me a lot of time and money in travel.”

Sometimes, though, it works the other way around. Jones said several recruits have found his Twitter page, liked what they saw and reached out to him. One of them, defensive lineman Terrell Lucas, signed as part of the most recent class and will be a freshman in the fall.

“Physically with nine coaches, with restrictions on the days you can get on the road, you can only get to so many places and evaluate X amount of kids,” Jones said. “But social media opens up a door.”

‘Our pool has shrunk’

In theory, social media should increase the number of potential recruits on a coach’s radar. But Duke women’s basketball head coach Joanne P. McCallie is finding the opposite may in fact be true.

“I don’t know what causes what, but I can tell you on the women’s side, there are [fewer] kids prepared for Duke. I’m talking grades, test scores, AP classes. Our pool has shrunk,” McCallie said. “There have been some players where I was surprised when I saw their grades, saw they had Bs and Cs and a few more Cs than Bs that put us in the ridiculous position because we can’t get those kids in.”

On paper, those limitations have not kept McCallie from delivering top class after top class to rival those at national powers Connecticut and Notre Dame. But she acknowledged that player rankings—a near-maniacal obsession for football and basketball recruiting services—don’t mean as much in today’s recruiting world. Injuries and the youthfulness of Duke’s five contributing freshmen did not add up to a winning formula last season. The Blue Devils missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994 and have not made a Final Four during McCallie’s tenure.

Led by Geno Auriemma, the Huskies continue to dominate the sport, but there are signs that the rest of the game is exhibiting more parity. Syracuse, Washington and Oregon State joined Connecticut at this year’s Final Four—the first-ever national semifinal appearance for all three of those programs—and Washington and Oregon State combined to give the Pac-12 its first-ever Final Four with two representatives, a big step forward for a league long dominated by Stanford.

The top schools of yesteryear used to always have a sure-fire superstar—Tennessee had Candace Parker, Baylor had Brittany Griner, Stanford had both Ogwumike sisters and Connecticut ran the gamut from Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi to Maya Moore and current star Breanna Stewart. But as McCallie surveys the landscape, those program-changing players are fewer and farther between.

“Once upon a time, if you signed a Maya Moore, you had hit the lotto with her ability, or even [former Duke center] Elizabeth Williams,” McCallie said. “I don’t see an Elizabeth Williams, I don’t see a Maya Moore…. You have to really do your homework and figure out which kid is going to really develop. Which kid is going to be better in college than they were in high school? Which kid is really dedicated? Who’s a gym rat, who’s not?”

On the move: Recruiting 2.0

More than ever before, though, the recruiting process does not stop with a player’s high school commitment—players are opting to transfer from one program to another at a rapidly growing pace.

ESPN’s Jeff Goodman and Jeff Borzello have tracked the number of men’s basketball players seeking transfers for much of the past decade. Their initial list had around 200 players—in 2015, there were more than 700.

The phenomenon has carried over to the women’s game as well. McCallie has watched several players depart her program in the last four years, including the April 1 defections of leading scorer and rebounder Azurá Stevens and freshman Angela Salvadores (who will return to Europe to begin a professional career). Sierra Moore left for Penn State after her freshman season, point guards Kianna Holland and Sierra Calhoun both departed for Ohio State during winter break in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and floor general Alexis Jones moved closer to home after ACL surgery following the 2014 season, leading Baylor to the Elite Eight this season.

“It’s become too easy to transfer,” said McCallie, who acknowledged that her daughter, Maddie, transferred from Miami (Ohio) to Elon after the 2013-14 season. “It’s one thing if you’re not playing than if you’re not wanted. That’s a different kind of transfer. It’s another thing if you’re a player who just wants to go through recruiting a second time. The loyalty piece, the piece about playing for your school—that’s important to us and we want it to be important to our student-athletes. It hasn’t always been, but for the most part, it has been.”

NCAA rules require a player who has yet to earn an undergraduate degree to sit out the following season after transferring, but that deterrent may not be as strong as it once was.

“People think ‘Well, I can sit out a year, that might not be so bad,’” McCallie said. “They almost think of it as a luxury.”

Krzyzewski has watched four Blue Devils bolt for greener pastures in the last five years—Michael Gbinije went to Syracuse after the 2011-12 campaign, Alex Murphy headed to Florida partway through the 2013-14 season and Semi Ojeleye left for Southern Methodist midway through Duke’s 2014-15 slate. Just a few weeks removed from the end of the 2015-16 season, point guard Derryck Thornton—who reclassified to join the Blue Devils a year early—announced he too would transfer elsewhere after just one season in Durham. A fifth player, Rasheed Sulaimon, was dismissed from the program in January 2015 and later transferred to Maryland after graduating from Duke in just three years.

By earning his degree early, Sulaimon was eligible to play immediately under NCAA rules as a graduate transfer and helped the Terrapins to the Sweet 16 this season. Although much attention and scorn has been devoted to the era of one and done players, Krzyzewski maintained throughout this past season that the rise of the fifth-year transfer is one of the biggest issues facing the sport, because those transfers inject immediate veteran talent into a locker room.

“We go after the same type of guys, and some of them now go early. There’s not the predictability, so it can become more chaotic,” he said. “With the transfer thing, with 700 kids transferring in a year, that’s hit everybody. And then the fifth-year player—that’s the biggest one and done.”

Last year in the ACC, Louisville seemed to all out of scoring options after losing top scorers Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier to the pro ranks. But head coach Rick Pitino secured reinforcements in the form of graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. The duo combined to score 27.2 points per game and led the Cardinals to a second-place finish in the conference’s regular season.

At the time of publication, ESPN’s most recent list of transfers had 286 names, 47 of which were graduate transfers.

Krzyzewski and McCallie have won the transfer game at times, too. Rodney Hood sat out his required one year after leaving Mississippi State for Durham, but then teamed with Jabari Parker to create one of the most dangerous offenses in the country in 2013-14. Rice transfer Sean Obi suited up for the first time this past season, and though his playing time was scarce in 2016, he bodied up Okafor in practice on Duke’s way to the 2015 national title. And McCallie will have Maryland transfer Lexie Brown and her Final Four experience at her disposal in the backcourt this coming season.

A double-edged sword

Social media creates problems as well. Several coaches interviewed for this story lamented the lack of face-to-face communication during the recruiting process as things have shifted online; McCallie said she cherishes the on-campus visits because it’s her opportunity to really get to know the recruit.

For Cutcliffe, the ability to communicate with a recruit via social media has become vital, but he worries about the extent to which the process is played out for the world to see.

“I think sometimes that’s a mistake—you become too transparent as to every place you are, or what you’re doing,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m not sure how healthy that part of it is.”

Even without having to navigate the twists and turns of social media, recruiting itself can be hazy at best. Four-star quarterback recruit Chazz Surratt committed to Duke last April. By late June, he had backed out and given his commitment to North Carolina instead.

Reopening a recruitment is not unusual these days, but adds another complication to the puzzle. After Surratt departed for the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils did not add another quarterback to this year’s class.

Cutcliffe offered a bare-bones hypothetical solution in February: Do away with signing day, and allow recruits to sign with a school as soon as contact is allowed to start during their junior year.

“If you offer him, he can sign that day if he chooses to do so. Wouldn’t that be unique? Then all these terms would come out of the non-committable offer, the soft verbal, the decommit, et cetera,” Cutcliffe said. “It would make you think twice before you offer someone. It would also make you think twice before you said you were coming.”

A switch to that model is unlikely—Cutcliffe acknowledged as much—in part because it would likely benefit academically selective schools like Duke, which don’t find themselves in the position of waiting for a recruit’s senior grades to make the cut.

“I can tell you when I look at a four-semester transcript if the guy’s a candidate here, because they’re not going to come from the grave and get in here academically,” Cutcliffe said. “The ones that would fight it, I think, are the ones who are hoping a guy qualifies.”

Back to ‘Bang Bang’

Duke’s rise back to prominence under Cutcliffe coincided perfectly with the rise of social media. The challenge now is to keep the message up to date and accessible to recruits as technology continues to change.

Whether the next frontier is Snapchat or something entirely new, don’t expect “Bang Bang” to go away anytime soon.

“Had we said ‘Bang Bang’ back in 2008 or 2009, nobody would have known or probably cared what that meant,” Jones said. “But we’ve turned it into something now that identifies us as Duke University having gotten a recruit. And you want to put hashtags on things like that because that’s your brand.”

Like everything else Cutcliffe is doing—on the recruiting trail and on Saturdays—the branding seems to be working.

The online version of this story was updated to reflect the departures of Stevens, Salvadores and Thornton, which were announced after the print issue had been sent to press.

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