Sense of normalcy remains on official visits
The 48 hours that a school can spend with a recruit can be the turning point in a high school senior’s recruitment. The South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James dove into what Notre Dame’s staff does to help tip recruits ND’s way.
Conversations only go so far.
A barrage of mailings, phone calls and instant messaging quickly turned the recruitment of college football prospects into a year-round job. With earlier verbal commitments and even earlier scholarship offers, a recruitment that spans just one full year has become increasingly rare.
Often connections are made, relationships built and recruiting pitches are being made for years in advance. But only when a prospect becomes a high school senior can he take part in the crown jewel of college football recruiting: the official visit.
The NCAA allows each qualifying prospect five official visits to use at separate institutions, where college football programs roll out the red carpet for their recruits. For Notre Dame, it’s a chance to show off the academic institution, the historic grounds shadowed by Touchdown Jesus and a football program rich in tradition that sticks with even casual sports fans.
Official visit or not, the Irish recruiting staff holds supreme confidence in the impressions it makes on recruits visiting Notre Dame.
“If we can get a kid on campus for a visit, we probably have a 50 percent chance to get him if we really choose to pursue him hard,” said Dave Peloquin, ND’s director of player personnel. “Even if he comes at an early age, if he's been to campus, we have a chance of getting him.”
The sped-up recruiting cycle washed away the importance of official visits for some prospects. A higher number of recruits across the country settle on a college decision before their senior year. That’s upped the pressure on colleges to impress recruits on unofficial visits as well.
“The way it's gotten these days, unofficial visits are just as important as your official visits,” Peloquin said. “You're trying to make sure that your unofficial visits in February, March, April, May and June are very similar to what they'd get on an official visit.”
Yet on an official visit, colleges can relieve the financial impact of making a trip to their campus. The NCAA allows the institution to pay for a prospect’s round-trip transportation costs and the lodging and meals provided in the 48-hour timeframe of an official visit. The NCAA has a number of restrictions on the goods provided to keep the playing field even between all schools hosting recruits.
With help from its compliance office, Notre Dame works within the guidelines provided by the NCAA. The trick comes in convincing a recruit to use one of his allotted official visits on Notre Dame. Then it becomes a juggling act to fit the visit into a high school senior’s busy schedule while working to set the visit at a strategically advantageous time for the Irish.
Notre Dame’s staff works ahead with the targeted recruits and will offer suggestions on when the player could make a visit. With the national recruiting landscape Notre Dame operates under, the staff often tries to identify bye weeks in a prospect’s schedule that will allow him the time to make what can be a cross-country trip. The recent tradition of an annual home night game gives Notre Dame another option that allows recruits plenty of time to travel into South Bend before kickoff.
“It probably depends on where that kid is from for us from a strategic standpoint,” Peloquin said. “Do we want to bring a kid from Florida or Texas in January or December? Or is it better to bring them in September or October for a game? My personal belief is that if a kid hasn't been to a game, we should have him come in the fall. If they've made it up to a game or they've been to campus for summer camp or whatever it is, try to get them maybe later in December or January.”
It’s a balancing act with sometimes unanswerable questions. Is it better to make a first impression or a last impression? Can a blustery winter day in South Bend ruin a visit? What’s the best snapshot of Notre Dame the staff can offer? The answer tends to be a fall Saturday with a packed Notre Dame Stadium.
“Our game-day atmosphere is very unique,” Peloquin said. “There are a lot of great atmospheres across the country. You just get the sense of tradition and the type of people that are around. It's a family atmosphere. I know everyone talks about it, but you sense that when you walk on campus on a game day.”
In preparation of the visit, Notre Dame’s coaching and recruiting staffs will combine to form an itinerary for a player based on his interests. The months an assistant coach has spent developing a relationship with the prospect comes in handy when crafting the schedule.
“Everything is custom to the individual kid and/or who's coming with him and how much time he'll be here,” Peloquin said. “All those factors play into the equation. If you know a kid is a high academic kid, well maybe there's more academic meetings that we set up on campus. If you know that a kid likes academics but in the end his decision is going to be all about football and all the kid wants to do is talk about football, we're going to obviously spend more time on that.”
Notre Dame’s message to recruits is simple: This is who we are.
Each scripted item on the official visit itinerary is designed to help paint the picture. In meeting with players, coaches, the support staff and members of the admissions office, a transparent identity should seem clear. On game weekends, Notre Dame doesn’t have to create the event. It only has to put it on display.
“We don't have to concoct all this different stuff,” said recruiting coordinator Tony Alford. “This isn't a facade. You come here. We'll take you through the weekend. What you see is what you get.”
“We're not going to try to make something up, and that's going to be good enough. That's going to be good enough because this school reeks of doing things in an excellent manner, doing things the right way. That's going to come out by the people that touch you every day and the people that touch our recruits when they’re on this campus — from the professors, to Adam Sargeant (associate director of academic services for student athletes), to the ushers welcoming them in the stadium.”
That requires everyone to be on the same page. It starts with the coaching staff that works to deliver a consistent message from every angle. When a player talks with head coach Brian Kelly, the offensive or defensive coordinator and his potential position coach, he should hear the same thing.
“What I think they notice here more than anything is the same message is articulated through the ranks,” Alford said. “You don't have Tony Alford say something and then Scott Booker or Mike Denbrock say something different. It's the same message. The message is very clearly articulated from above from coach (Brian) Kelly.”
The continuity becomes even more important on the mega-recruiting weekends the Irish have built around their annual night game. Last season, as Peloquin recalls, the Irish hosted more than a dozen official visits and more than 20 unofficial visits for the USC game. Because of the volume of visitors, the individual time with the coaching staff is limited. It’s a sacrifice the staff is willing to make if the recruits are going to be surrounded by a high number of other elite athletes.
“They know who each other are. They've met each other before. They've developed relationships,” Peloquin said. “That's a positive there. The negative then is they probably don't get as much individual attention with the coaches. When you come on a visit by yourself, you're spending a lot of individual time with the coaches but then again you might not be spending a lot of time getting to know the other incoming freshmen.”
Besides recruits recruiting recruits, the current players are often relied on by Notre Dame to convey the ideals of the program and school. Alford said he hopes the prospects see a bit of themselves in the players inside Notre Dame’s locker room. Sometimes it’s the best way to get a kid to imagine themselves at Notre Dame.
“In our minds, our players are sometimes our best recruiters,” Peloquin said. “They tell it how it is. Usually the kids we're bringing on campus that are coming, are very similar to the guys in our locker room.”
KeiVarae Russell realizes the importance of his voice when recruits are on campus. The Irish cornerback made an official visit for the 2011 Notre Dame game against USC, the first night game in Notre Dame Stadium in 21 years. It was heralded as one of Notre Dame’s biggest recruiting weekends in recent years.
Russell is the lone official visitor from that weekend that remains at Notre Dame. He fell in love with the total package the Irish had to offer. Now he tries to convey that same story to fellow recruits while being as honest as possible.
“If they ask me, I'm not just going to feed them the good,” Russell said. “Some coaches elsewhere might try to do that to them. I don't believe in doing that. It's in your heart where you think you should go. I can't try to convince you that since it’s Notre Dame you should come here. Notre Dame is not a fit for everybody.”
One of the staples of a game day visit at Notre Dame is the Irish Walk, when the team walks across campus and into the stadium while fans form a crowd around them. For visiting recruits, it’s one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
The group of recruits head over to the stadium before the team to watch the crowd adore the Irish. Many big-time recruits like Russell receive attention of their own.
“I had guys yelling, 'KeiVarae, KeiVarae, you need to come here. You need to come here.' And I don't even know they you are,” Russell said. “I'm sitting here like, 'This fan base is unreal.' However long that walk is, one or two miles, I probably got my name called by 40 people. I'm like, 'Are you serious? How do you know me?' I had my head down and everything. 'KeiVarae, we need you. We need you. You're going to be great for this team.' I was like, 'Wow. OK.' And that's when I realized how much the community supports the school.”
It’s one of the messages Alford hopes recruits leave with after attending a game.
"That's why you come during the season to get to watch a game,” Alford said. “Game day at Notre Dame is electric and that's probably putting it mildly. Our fan base is so supportive of our guys, and that has to be conveyed. They have to understand the love and adoration that our fans have for this university and our players. They need to see that, and it comes out in full color during official visits."
On the final day of the official visit, Notre Dame brings out its closer, Brian Kelly. As time permits, he will visit with the player and his family. They will have already had a chance to take in everything else the campus has to offer. A visit with Kelly drives home the meaning.
“What Coach wants to do then is have them get a feel for him and who he is,” Peloquin said. “He's as upfront and natural as he would be with any of our players about any of the issues that come up. It's going back to that sense of 'This is who we are.' We're not putting on a dog-and-pony show for you. We're not going to be running around and doing special things just because recruits are here. We're going to do what we do.”
It’s just a small part of the process, but official visits often leave the biggest impact.
In retrospect, Russell identifies his official visit as the reason why he committed to Notre Dame. The Everett, Wash., native later took official visits to Washington and California, but he didn’t find a better match than Notre Dame.
“I just didn't get that electric feel inside (while visiting other schools),” Russell said. “When I came here I got that spark. Just seeing everybody when I was in the stadium, I was like 'Yeah, this is cool. This is Notre Dame.' I actually got that feeling. I went to Stanford, and this was Stanford. Berkeley, this is Berkeley. But when I came here, this is Notre Daaame. I had a different feeling when I came. I knew I wanted to come here.”
The Irish found similar success with multiple recruits in the past recruiting cycle. In Notre Dame’s 2014 recruiting class, 14 of the 23 signees verbally committed to the program before their senior years and their chance to make an official visit. Of the remaining nine recruits, six committed to the Irish sometime after making an official visit.
Dallas cornerback Nick Watkins is one of the six. He visited Notre Dame as a junior for a spring practice, but returned for an official visit for the USC game in October. He committed two weeks later.
“It was really important,” Watkins said of his official visit. “I went up there for an unofficial in the spring, but my official visit just capped it all off. I grew closer with the school.
"I knew that was the place when I walked through the tunnel and saw all the fans in the packed stadium."
Defensive end Jhonny Williams of nearby Berrien Springs, Mich., fell for the Irish quickly. A November offer led to an official visit for the BYU game. He committed to the Irish within a week of his visit.
"It was probably the deciding factor,” Williams said. “Going on an official visit, you get the whole scope of things. You get to see clearly, 100 percent, what it would actually be like to go to that school."
Williams previously received the red carpet treatment at Toledo and Missouri, schools he at one time held verbal commitments with. He ditched the Tigers in November for the Irish.
"When I went to Notre Dame and visited, it was unlike anything I had seen before,” Williams said. “Literally everything was just better.”
Williams bought into the message Notre Dame delivered. He recites it just the same as a member of the Irish coaching and recruiting staffs would. The pairing is obvious. It’s how the Irish fill their quota of incoming freshmen every year.
"We are who we are,” Williams said. “We are ND. That's what Notre Dame gave off. There wasn't any confusion on what the program is and what it has been. This is what we are. ‘Do you want to come join us? Do you want to become great?’ I was motivated by it. I'm glad I made that decision." q