How COVID-19 changed college football recruiting, likely for good

By Dennis Dodd


No one is feeling sympathy for the riches and swag-copters Kirby Smart can layer on in the recruiting process. His Georgia program spent $3.7 million on recruiting last fiscal year.


That was a quarter of a million dollars ahead of Alabama. That's five times what Georgia was spending five years ago. That's more than all but 35 FBS coaches make as an annual salary.


But bear with the Bulldogs coach for a hot second. By the time the laptop is closed on another recruiting cycle, Smart will have assembled a class amid a pandemic, over Zoom, preparing for a bowl game with the specter of both name, image and likeness as well as one-time transfer legislation empowering the next generation of Dawgs like never before.


"It's more difficult than any year in the past because you've combined about eight different factors, where it used to be really one factor," Smart said. "Then the early signing day made a second factor. Opt outs and transfers were another factor. Juniors coming out early … is another factor. Seniors with the ability to stay has added another factor. You can worry about it all you want, but you can't control it."


So Smart and legions of his peers will reluctantly adjust. The recruiting world is shifting under their feet. The three-day early signing period starts Wednesday with the game -- and world -- in upheaval.


Virtual evaluation


Never has it been harder to evaluate talent. Due to COVID-19, the NCAA has extended the recruiting dead period -- the time when coaches are not allowed to meet face-to-face with prospects -- from March 2020 to April 15, 2021. At least.

When the Class of 2021 is finalized in February, a large swath of signees will have never met their coaches in person. Some won't have been on campus. They will have been totally recruited over Zoom or a similar platform.


Mighty Ohio State is expected to sign at least one player who has never seen Columbus, Ohio. The coaches themselves are already assured of not seeing a prospect in person for more than a year. That dead period could be extended again amid COVID-19.


"There is nothing like in-person," said David Johnson, Florida State's recruiting coordinator. "You can only do so much on a Zoom call. Being able to look that person in the eyes, sit down with his family and kind of seeing the whole dynamics of the family. See the body languages."


"The tough thing is we haven't been able to have any kids on campus," said Mike Pantoni, Ohio State's director of player personnel. "But the good thing is nobody has been able to have kids on campus. It avoids the last-minute drama in typical years where kids may take a last-minute visit somewhere else and fall in love. That's kind of been taken away. We expect a pretty non-dramatic signing day."


247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons believes the resourcefulness of high school coaches and players has modernized the recruiting process, ensuring colleges get verified information without having to see prospects in person -- at least as often.


"I think there will be a growing comfort level of recording your own workout, showing your own measurements and creating some validation without in-person contact," he said.


What's left is something reshaped and unique. Those who adapt the quickest will be the most successful.


Managing swollen rosters


The one-time transfer rule, years in the making, is expected to become a reality next month when it is voted in at the NCAA Convention. It is still not certain when it will become effective, but coaches are planning on August -- the beginning of the 2021 season -- at the latest.


Staffs already have a dedicated person or persons checking that transfer portal each day. Graduate transfers have already changed recruiting since they were allowed to leave for their final year of eligibility beginning in 2011.


Coaches must decide how much room to leave in a recruiting class for incoming transfers while projecting the number of outgoing transfers. The term "roster management" has become as common as "hard commit" in recruiting.


Philosophically, coaches have to decide whether to go exclusively for high school prospects or try to overhaul the roster with what promises to be a glut of transfers in the portal.


"There are some [high school] slam dunks you know are going to be great players," said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "Sometimes, it's a lot easier to already take a player from an FCS program who is an All-American."


"The dynamic is changing," Louisiana coach Billy Napier admitted. "There's another way to acquire players. That's through the transfer portal. It looks like free agency in the NFL."


Rosters are almost guaranteed to swell with the NCAA already having awarded an extra year of eligibility for the 2020 season due to the impact of COVID-19. That means not only that can seniors return but freshmen from the Class of 2020 getting an extra year may still have to be accounted four years from now. In essence, those freshmen will have six years of eligibility to play four instead of the traditional five to play four.


There are going to be hard decisions. Schools are on the hook only for that extra year of eligibility, not paying for the scholarship that goes with it. The immediate impact may be some difficult discussions between coaches and seniors coming back for a fifth (or sixth) year.


"We love ya, Bobby. But we don't love ya enough to pay for your scholarship for another year."


"College football coaches have enjoyed perhaps the most control over the administration of college sports than anyone in history," said Tim Nevius, a New York-based attorney involved in athlete advocacy. "They're not used to having to compromise when it comes to control."


Changing recruiting landscape


Many of the game's most powerful coaches have found some of their recruiting advantage neutralized. Beginning about 15 years ago, the NCAA head coaches could go out recruiting in the spring. That addressed the bang-up jobs the likes of Saban and Pete Carroll were doing on the road. Instead, assistants were dispatched on the road each spring while the actual CEOs running the program stayed home.


Key evaluation time was lost. So was that bonding between coach and player. That doesn't remotely compare to today when some high schools in California and Virginia didn't play in the fall because of COVID-19.


Ohio State will probably rely more on recruiting prospects in the Midwest because of it, Pantoni said.


"It's a real disadvantage for the kids," he added. "If you're comparing apples to apples and one kid has film and another doesn't, you're going to take the kid that you know more about."


The one-time transfer rule was inevitable. In all but five sports (football, baseball, men's and women's basketball, hockey), athletes are allowed to transfer once in their careers without sitting out. That year-in-residence for those five other sports indentured a lot of athletes, keeping them from transferring. It was also unfair and a legal liability considering the NCAA is all about the athlete experience being as close to the normal student.


If there is a transfer free-for-fall in football, so be it. Nearly 40% of Division I basketball players already transfer before the end of their sophomore season. That free agency Napier referred is the way of the recruiting world.


"It only drives the coaches crazy when they're the ones losing the players but they're more than happy to gain a player," Nevius said.


More recruiting angst: Schools that allowed fans in the stands this fall in the SEC, ACC and Big 12 season were theoretically at a recruiting advantage. Prospects could make an unofficial visit on their own. Meanwhile, that wasn't the case in the Big Ten and Pac-12, conferences that didn't allow fans.


"I think it's a big-time disadvantage," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said last week. "We had recruits, even last weekend, that visited other schools up in the stands watching games. We can't do that."


You wonder how far all of this can go. Ohio State staged a game show with recruits and parents online as a bonding exercise. A group of committed players got together on Zoom over of the summer, Pantoni said. The innovation is just beginning. Perhaps parents should be allowed to interact with each other virtually the same way they would during an official visit. Why not allow professors and academic advisors to sit in on a Zoom call?


"To me, it puts recruits in their natural comfort zone because they are typically at home," Pantoni said of Zoom visits. "You can see their mannerisms. We had a couple of kids who are sprawled out on the couch with a hood over their head or walking around outside and not really paying attention. You can see them in their natural setting."


Zoom may be some sort of recruiting default. The corporate world is already considering its value compared to bringing employees into an office. Berry says he's had 500 people in a Microsoft Teams meeting in carrying out his AFCA duties. The association's annual convention is going virtual next month. How much would you pay to be able to hack into that meeting with all 130 FBS head coaches in attendance? Lane Kiffin unmuting himself would be entertaining enough.


"It makes no sense for us to have people on the road as long as we have them the way we have then spending the dollars we have," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said last week. "When the reality is you can use today's technology and future technology that helps us in the recruiting process."

Hello Zoom, goodbye living room? Florida coach Dan Mullen said it out loud last month.


"Maybe the NCAA looks and says, 'You don't need to go on the road anymore,'" he said.


247Sports national recruiting analyst Bud Elliott does not believe these recruiting tools will stop being used once the dead period is ended. "I expect schools to continue to use virtual meeting and virtual tour technology even when visits are allowed to take place," he said. "It's not a substitute for visits, but the comfort level with it has increased dramatically."


SEC commissioner Greg Sankey suggested traditional Friday night high school recruiting be addressed.


"[It means] a lot of travel the night before a game," Sankey said. "I've always heard that's hard on [assistant] coaches. You're there to be seen. You're not digging in deep. Should fall evaluations exist?"


Those who adapt the quickest will prosper. Some schools have quickly moved into the void, creating virtual campus tours online for prospects to simulate (as best as possible) what an official visit would be like.


"It's hard for me in a Zoom presentation to show what standing in the middle of The Swamp is like," Mullen said. "What being down here in Florida in November, December, January and February is like when it's 75 degrees and palm trees."

Impact of name, image and likeness


Berry has gone as far as to say between the implementation of name, image and likeness and one-time transfer, "everybody is going to enter the transfer portal every year. Every player on the team will. Why would you not?"


Well, for one thing, a coach/school has the option of pulling a scholarship for a player who enters the transfer portal. At that point, even if the player takes his name out and returns, there a team relationship dynamic that is injured.


But the point is well taken. Players have never had more leverage. Some form of NIL rights are expected to approved at that NCAA Convention. It gets tremendously complicated from there. How liberal those rights become may depend on the two Senate run-off elections next month in Georgia. If Democrats control the White House and Congress, the NCAA's relevancy could be a stake. A group of influential Congressmen favor a College Athletes Bill of Rights.


Without an antitrust exemption from Congress, the NCAA faces a hard deadline of July 1, 2001. That's when the state of Florida's NIL law takes effect. The last thing the NCAA wants is having its NIL rules in conflict with the states. That's a legal battle it may not have the resources to battle.


"The implementation is a mess, and sadly so," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said last week. "We've got a number of state laws. We've got Congress … and we've got the NCAA struggling what the final legislation may look like."


What's certain in the recruiting space is some prospects will be evaluating their earning ability with NIL rights as much as playing time. Imagine a five-star recruit with his marketing agent sitting across the table from an AD discussing NIL earning power.


"This is a perfect time in my opinion," Berry said of a new recruiting model. "Let's have no restrictions on this. … Let's let people be creative here. Most everybody has found that this has been unbelievably beneficial. We would never have done [some of] this if we hadn't had a pandemic."


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