A recruit stopped by the Gophers football complex for an unofficial visit recently. Coach P.J. Fleck was unavailable since he was taking part on the Gopher Road Trip outside the metro.
Fleck’s staff attached an iPad to a 50-inch TV, had the recruit sit on a couch in Fleck’s office and Fleck dialed FaceTime from his hotel room. Fleck and the recruit shared a 30-minute conversation remotely. Face to face, in a 2017 sense.
That meeting provides a glimpse of Fleck’s recruiting style. A simple phone call would be too boring or impersonal for the youngest Power 5 coach in college football.
The 36-year-old Fleck has yet to coach a game in Gophers gear, so it’s impossible to know if he will succeed in making the program an annual Big Ten West contender.
Fleck’s tenure will be judged on wins and losses, not by how he recruits, though those two things are intertwined. But his first months on the job have revealed Fleck’s ambition in recruiting and perhaps just as important, the athletic department’s willingness to upgrade resources in that critical area.
Football recruiting budget increased by $101,000 this fiscal year. That adjustment was made before Tracy Claeys was fired, making it near certain that Fleck’s recruiting budget will swell even more.
The football department has two staffers who specifically produce recruiting content for social media, one of those positions newly created. Fleck also is launching full-throttle into summer satellite camps, events hosted by smaller schools that invite coaches from Power 5 programs to help run them.
The NCAA briefly banned satellite camps after Southeastern Conference coaches complained, but later lifted restrictions. Satellite camps are recruiting opportunities at their core, and Fleck didn’t just throw darts at a map in picking areas of the country where he will bring his nine full-time assistants and four graduate assistants.
Chicago, Houston, Atlanta and Canton, Ohio. All fertile recruiting turf.
This more aggressive focus on recruiting gives Fleck fuel to compete against programs of more prestige. The Gophers already have 14 verbal commitments in the 2018 class, including 10 from outside Minnesota. Fleck has set a goal of finishing with a top 25 nationally ranked class.
Fleck treats recruiting like a favorite toy. He never ignores it, constantly searching for new ways to connect with an Instagram generation.
He prefers FaceTime to phone calls when talking to recruits. When he learned that Jornell Manns, a wide receiver commit from Ohio, is a member of his high school’s bowling team, Fleck challenged him to a game. They went to a bowling alley at the student union during a campus visit. Fleck showed up with a customized Gophers ball and bowling shirt.
Recruiting essentially is a sales job. Fleck has attracted eyes to Gophers football in a manner that feels foreign. The school is finalizing details with ESPN for a four-part series focused on Fleck. Four 30-minute episodes to air before the season will show Fleck behind the scenes. The payoff? Recruiting.
For the spring game Fleck wore customized, hand-painted shoes that took two staffers 60 hours to complete. Why? Recruiting.
Fleck doesn’t pass out normal business cards to recruits and their parents. His creative team-designed specialized cards include one shaped like an oar and made out of real wood with his contact information on one side and his “Row the Boat” catchphrase on the other.
Coaches who undervalue new media in recruiting are foolish because teenagers are addicted to technology. Fleck’s staff has pounced on a relatively new trend of digital content. Many programs now employ at least one graphic designer focused specifically on recruiting. Will Henry holds that position for the Gophers after working for a national recruiting website.
Henry produces volumes of personalized “edits” — graphics that usually include a recruit’s image tied to a Gophers-related theme — that are shared by text or direct message.
One example: During the NFL draft, Gophers recruits received a photo illustration of themselves holding up a Cleveland Browns jersey with a mock draft card declaring him the No. 1 overall draft pick.
The football department also recently hired a full-time digital content coordinator. Chris Jackson’s primary role is to record video of Fleck in action and pump it out on social media.
If Fleck is at practice, visiting a hospital or delivering oars to businesses, Jackson will record that interaction and produce a package. Fleck unplugged.
Winning remains the best recruiting tool, of course. Fleck must start initially by selling his vision. Some coaches view recruiting as necessary evil. One gets the sense that Fleck lives for this stuff.
Chip Scoggins email@example.com