How Notre Dame's recruiting pitch transcends wins and losses

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Disastrous seasons can wreck a recruiting class.

When high expectations aren’t met, many high school football players start looking at other options. Throw in a coach on the hot seat, and the damage increases.

That’s the case for Texas, which entered the week at 5-6 and with reports of head coach Charlie Strong’s almost certain firing. The Longhorns also entered the week with only seven recruits committed to their 2017 class.

Look around the country and you’ll find more programs struggling this season after recent runs of success. They’re often paired with a shriveling recruiting class.

UCLA (4-7) just gained its 10th commitment on Monday. TCU (5-5) has only nine commitments after winning 23 games in the previous two seasons. Ole Miss (5-6) also has 10 commitments and the uncertainty of an NCAA investigation. Even Stanford, which has self-corrected a rough start into an 8-3 record, owns a recruiting class of seven commitments.

Yet Notre Dame, sporting just four wins and sparking endless speculation of head coach Brian Kelly’s future, sits comfortably with 18 commitments in the 2017 class. Rivals ranks it as the No. 6 class in the country. 247Sports slates the Irish at No. 8.

The work done early in the recruiting cycle by Notre Dame has held steady. The Irish have suffered only one defection — four-star defensive lineman Donovan Jeter — since the start of the season. Michigan, who received Jeter’s latest commitment, hosted Irish cornerback commit Elijah Hicks over the weekend for a visit.

But the vast majority of Notre Dame’s 2017 class hasn’t entertained a commitment switch — at least not publicly. The two-plus months until signing day will certainly be stressful, but most have expressed an unwavering confidence in their decision.

Still, it’s easy to wonder why a recruit would be so certain of a situation that seems like a lost cause to many fans. A certain amount of faith comes with a recruit giving a commitment. The hope that this season is more fluke than a reflection of the future remains.

And the recruiting pitch from Notre Dame should be unchanged by a losing season. When Mike Elston took over the recruiting coordinator role in March 2015, he wanted the Irish to put an emphasis on what makes Notre Dame different. Yes, the football tradition is unique and the expectation of excellence exists, but every program wants to win football games. The Irish are trying to show they have that and more to offer.

“Our selling point is different than other people,” Elston said in August. “So we call them distinctions – what separates us from other schools. Academics is one of them. The network is one of them. The spirituality piece is huge for us.

“There are a lot of things that we have as distinctions that other people don’t, and the kids that are mature and understand that at the age of 18, they get it. The ones that don’t, they’re always looking for something a little bigger, flashier, better and it doesn’t hit their brain the same.”

Sometimes those selling points are better received with parental guidance. Elston believes the common perception that Notre Dame resonates even more with parents to be true.

“We do really well with players who have parents involved in the process,” Elston said. “If the parents aren’t involved in the process, we don’t do as well with the recruits.”

How Notre Dame’s distinctions are received, particularly on the academic side, could be altered by the NCAA sanctions announced Tuesday, which the Irish will appeal. The ramifications won’t impact recruits directly as the sanctions won’t affect future seasons, but it could fuel questions about the rigors of a Notre Dame education and the academic support available. The Irish will argue otherwise.

Back in August, I asked eight juniors or seniors on Notre Dame’s roster the same question: What have you come to learn or appreciate about Notre Dame that you didn’t know or understand as a recruit? None of them answered with anything football-specific. Instead they listed some of those distinctions Elston is trying to embrace.

“The network,” said senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. “It’s definitely pretty strong. It’s definitely helped me out a lot. Everybody here is so helpful and wants you to succeed.

“It’s professors meeting with me outside of class trying to help me out if I got back late from a baseball game. Or my sophomore year, my management teacher said he knew people that he could get me in touch with if I needed a job. It’s just different things like that. The people here are just really helpful and they want you to be successful no matter who you are, no matter what sport you play.”

“Just taking classes seriously,” said senior running back Tarean Folston. “A lot of young people come in and they’re just thinking football. I have to admit, I was doing the same thing. I have a lot of people in my corner, so I know now and I’ve known for a while that the classroom is really where it’s at.”

“There are so many people looking out for us and so interested in us,” said senior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. “The people on campus want to help us. Everywhere you go, the Notre Dame family is there. That’s something that’s definitely stood out to me in my time at ND, the people that are involved with this school and this program. It’s just remarkable.”

“The pursuit of excellence in every aspect of life here,” said junior safety Drue Tranquill. “The students are absolutely incredible. You can’t understand that in recruiting because you don’t really know anyone here. The people here are amazing. Everyone is pursuing excellence in everything they do whether it’s our video guys that video practice, whether it’s our trainers who are there day-to-day for us helping us recover and stay on the field, whether it’s your classmate who might understand the material a little bit better than you and helps you the night before an exam. The people here are just incredible.”

Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan played high school football 90 miles away in Crete, Ill., and even he didn’t fully grasp the Notre Dame reach as he understands it today.

“It’s just really cool knowing how big this alumni system is and how much people really value Notre Dame,” Morgan said. “It’s been down the street from me all my life coming up in Chicago, but I had no idea how important it really was.”

That’s why he’s taken it upon himself to try to help inform recruits on his own. He recalled a conversation he had with sophomore linebacker Te’von Coney when he was a recruit. Coney asked Morgan how he felt about Notre Dame.

“I was like, ‘Listen, bro. I’m not even going to lie to you. The school is hard. It’s really hard. You’re not going to party as much. You probably won’t have as much fun, but when we’re done with this place it’s going to pay you tenfold,’” Morgan said. “So I asked him, ‘Are you just trying to party all your life and just have fun and probably get in trouble and mess up or actually have a good career and a good life once you get done with college?’ And T was like, ‘Hmmm. I’ll take the good life.’”

One of the biggest challenges for high school recruits is sorting through all the information and determining how much of it is spin and how much is reality. One common piece of advice for recruits is to talk to the current players themselves as they’re more likely to speak honestly with little benefit to doing otherwise. Some Notre Dame players, like Morgan and Folston, are happy to share their insight.

“When you’re coming in as a recruit, you feel like every school is going to tell you this is the best program,” Folston said. “But this is really the best program. Everything that they said was true about this program. I’ve been to programs where it wasn’t so true. This is the real deal. It’s better for a player and a student, somebody who is closer to your age range, to tell you rather than trying to listen to all these older guys all the time. I definitely preach it to the people that are coming in.”

But even the program’s best representatives can struggle to articulate what they value about Notre Dame.

“People here harp on it,” McGlinchey said. “You try to explain it. It’s certainly a very difficult thing to do. But it’s so special here. You can feel it as soon as you start school on campus.”

Filling in the blanks falls on Elston and the rest of Notre Dame’s coaching staff. They’ve been successful with 18 commitments in the 2017 class but continuing to get through to new targets to end the recruiting cycle might be the hardest challenge yet.

“It’s hard to explain to a kid that’s 17 or 18 years old,” said senior linebacker James Onwualu. “To say, ‘One day you’re really going to realize that this is something special.’ It’s hard to explain. It’s important to go through that journey and learn and experience for yourself how crazy this all is. It’s been a fun journey.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Mike Elston, recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach, during Notre Dame football practice on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, at LaBar Practice Field at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN