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Commitments, Coaches, and Bulk Mail: Writer Danielle Elliot Answers Our Questions

Writer Danielle Elliot answered some questions about her SB Nation longform, "Committed(?)" which focused on Notre Dame Quarterback signee Brandon Wimbush, his high school teammates, and the obscene amount of mail they receive each week.

The fax machines have been powered down and put away as college football closes the books on another National Signing Day. As the relief of NSD passes over college football fans, it does not compare to the relief felt by the recruits, their families, and their coaches now that the long, wild, and strange cycle of recruiting is done. Last week, Danielle Elliot wrote "Committed(?)" about this process as it concerned St. Peter's Preparatory School students Minkah Fitzpatrick, Brandon Wimbush, their coach, and their families. The piece detailed and humanized the recruiting process as it regards the young people most affected by it. Danielle was kind enough to answer some follow-up questions last week about her article.


OFD: What were your impressions about the whole recruiting world? Was it much different than some of the other high school sports stories you've covered in the past?

Elliot: The entire process was just so much more intense than I ever could have expected. I'm more of a science writer, so when I first pitched this story as, we're putting all of this pressure on teenagers at a time when psychologists say average teenagers are already under more pressure than at any other point in history I wanted to see what it was like for them. If they enjoy the attention, then it's great for them. If, like Brandon, they want nothing to do with all of this attention and they just want to be teenagers who are enjoying their last year of high school, it's just an overwhelming process.

It's overwhelming for their parents because you want to help your kid make the best decision possible. Every parent experiences that, but there's something about the intensity of the football process that is worse than just any other sport. For these kids, they know that they are going to stay for three years, so they really have to make sure that they like the coaches that they're going to play for, that they develop the right relationships, that they know what they're getting into. Whereas with other sports, you're not really thinking that you're going to have to necessarily play for three years and you don't know if it is going to lead to a career.

What did you find the most surprising about the whole process?

I just couldn't believe the sheer amount of time these college coaches spend on Twitter direct-messaging recruits. To me it's just baffling. One of the things I kept saying to the boys too was just ‘Look at how much time they're spending talking to you. Next year when they're your coach? They're going to be spending this much time talking to recruits again.' You build this relationship now, but then you wonder what happens with the relationship once they get to college. ‘We've got this recruit, he's on the team, now we're going after the next kid.'

I spoke to a lot of the college coaches who came around Prep. By the time they were coming, the coaches at Prep were essentially just presenting me as part of the team. Sometimes when these coaches were talking to me, they didn't know who I was until they had been talking for 20 minutes. Over and over they said to me, ‘I want nothing to do with being on Twitter, but if I don't do it, the next guy will.' They work too hard to jeopardize their positions, but at the same time if they don't at least bend the rules, every other coach will and they'll end up missing out on a recruit.

One other incredibly surprising thing was the amount of money that these schools spend recruiting kids. We talk about how high tuition prices are for everyone, how much of that tuition is going to recruiting? I saw thousands of dollars worth of mail that was never opened. And some mail is from state schools, so taxpayers are paying. So when you get into it, the nitty-gritty that way, it was shocking to me.

Especially because that's one of the advantages programs have with no cap on how much they can spend recruiting kids, with all the mail and everything. It's a way to take advantage of the rules as they stand currently.

I think a cap would help them so much. It would help the schools with their budgets. If every school had a cap they would be back on an even playing field [in terms of recruiting costs].

I don't think it sets them apart. I don't think it helps them to send all this mail. I looked at the date stamps on the mail from Cincinnati. They had mailed Brandon and Minkah letters at least three days a week from the time I first went to Prep in September through the last time I was there towards the end of December. There were still at least three pieces of mail arriving from Cincinnati every day. And they were big envelopes, at least a dollar each. So you figure they are sending them to everyone on the Rivals100 or whatever group they choose. It's just baffling. Then they're flying out there, with hotels and they rent cars. It goes on and on and on.

In a bunch of recruiting articles I've read, when the subject of mail comes up, so many of the recruits are just saying ‘Yeah, I get so much mail I can't even open it' just from the standpoint that they don't have enough time to look at every piece they get.

Yeah, you should see the stacks that Brandon has at his house. We counted more than 300 pieces from one school. There were multiple stacks that were the same size. They're not even all offers. They're just invitations to games or these weird, creepy Photoshopped magazine covers. I saw one that Penn State sent him where they turned his pupils into the lion. Why do you think that's going to convince a kid? Maybe it worked twenty years ago when Photoshop was this amazing, but these kids are all smart. They know how to do this. They know what's going into it. I don't think the recruiting process has caught up with how smart seventeen and eighteen year old boys are at this point.

Coach Hansen figures pretty prominently into the story. He holds this influence on Brandon and Minkah, but he definitely seems like he has all of his players' best interests at heart. Did it seem easy for him dealing with recruits, families, reporters, and college football coaches while also having to coach a football team? Does he have a large support staff helping him with all those tasks?

There's a large support staff at Prep. I would say there are at least a dozen coaches. There are a lot of guys coaching these kids who are either Prep alum and they just want to volunteer, or they grew up playing football with Hansen. It's a community. Hansen at one point told me that he's just a translator, so his job is to make sure that these kids understand what the college coaches are saying to them. He's been hearing these pitches for thirty years so he knows exactly what each college coach is saying. One of the interesting things in the article is that some are ripping Hansen apart, saying he forced Brandon's decision and had too much of an influence on him. The thing to remember is that Brandon, Minkah, and the other players trust Hansen. They chose to go to this school because everyone trusts Hansen. Somebody online was saying ‘This is so wrong. His parents should have been his primary council in this decision.' But honestly Brandon's parents turned to Hansen a lot of the time because he understands it.

I don't really know how he does it. He's also the athletic director at the school. He oversees, I think, seventy-six coaches total for all the sports so he's also overseeing any issues with any other sports. Any recruiting mail for any sport is coming to his office. His approach is that the kids have to take ownership of the process. He'll guide them, but he's not going to do it for them. All of the mail for Prep athletes comes to him and he puts it out on a giant conference table in his office and it is the athletes' job to see if they got any mail that week.

Once you have the right offer and once you know something's a good fit for you, he does want you to take it and then just concentrate again. In Minkah's case, you know you have two really good options, just make a choice. You can keep weighing your options until your deadline, and maybe Minkah's just better at working on deadline. Once you know you have a good offer and a good fit, you're never going to be 1000% sure. The coach you choose to go play for - he said to Brandon, ‘Brian Kelly could be gone next year, who knows. But you just have to make a decision for what school is right for you and where you want to spend your next three or four years.'

I saw the other article you wrote last Wednesday about Corey and Jordan, teammates of Brandon and Minkah, who are going to play football at Fordham and Stanford, respectively. There are a lot of other kids on the team. What was it like for other kids who weren't getting offers, or guys who knew this was going to be their last year playing competitive football?

For some of them, they were happy that it was their last year playing competitive football. There were twenty-four seniors. Not all twenty-four wanted to play in college. For a kid like Corey, he grew up in a great family and his family is very supportive, but he's just from a rough area in Jersey City. So he saw college as a way out. It was very stressful for him seeing the attention on Brandon and Minkah. It was also stressful since he didn't grow to the size that matches his talent. He referred to DeAnthony Thomas and said ‘It worked for him. It could work for me. I need the college scholarship so that will prove I can keep getting better and I could make it to the NFL.' It was really stressful for him but at the end of the day he was on a normal timeline.

For Jordan, it took all the stress off, because he only put stress on himself once he decided on Stanford and needed to get the grades. Hansen is putting all this work into Minkah and Brandon, but he's also juggling these other kids. There's Dennis James who I don't know if he has the potential to be a Division I football player, but he quit basketball this season because he's so determined. Hansen couldn't give him his full attention while he had the top recruits to worry about. Ever since they won that state championship and ever since Brandon and Minkah are -for lack of a better term - out of his hair, Hansen still has coaches come in every single day. They're going through the second tier players at Prep, what their offers are, and what they should be doing.

There's another kid, Chris Geissler who they call ‘Goose' who is going to go to Fordham. He also felt like he wasn't getting as much attention as he wanted from Fordham during the season, so he started swaying towards Lehigh. Then Fordham showed up again and Corey convinced him too that he wanted to play with him. The process is stressful for other kids too. It's just stressful in a different way. It's ‘Am I going to get an offer' as opposed to the stress of ‘what offer do I choose?'

Going back to Brandon, for most of the piece, he's committed to Penn State, but then Notre Dame quarterback coach Matt LaFleur notices and convinces the staff to focus a bunch of attention on him. Did you speak to any of the other Notre Dame coaches at length about the process?

I didn't speak to any Notre Dame coaches. The stuff I have in there about LaFleur comes from texts he sent to Hansen and conversations with other coaches. It honestly happened so quickly. I would say to them ‘Please let me know if anyone's coming' and then I would show up two days later and they would tell me all these schools had been there. You can't even keep track. If I showed up, I was lucky to see who was there because so many coaches come in. When LaFleur came in, he went out to dinner afterward with Bill Fitzgerald, the offensive coordinator from Prep, and one of the defensive coaches, Ryan O'Flaherty. During a conversation, they had at dinner where LaFleur said that Brandon had Heisman potential and how he watched that September 11th game and said ‘I have to get him.' When I asked for LaFleur's number to fact check a couple things, everyone said ‘He's not allowed to talk to you. You're a reporter.' That was the only time that I wasn't part of the family, was when I was trying to talk to Notre Dame coaches. No one wanted to get them in trouble, which I understand.

Looking in the comments in the article and on Twitter, college football fans are notoriously prickly. What has been the reaction from the fan bases you have been experiencing?

I've been surprised. The biggest thing my editor was worried about was that I'm usually not a college football reporter so he kept saying ‘Fact check, fact check, fact check.' So I fact-checked this so many times and made sure I reported it soundly. I had Florida State fans emailing me saying ‘Thank you for being fair with the piece.' It seems to have Florida State fans excited that they think they still have a chance [for Minkah's commitment]. I haven't heard anything from Alabama fans at all. But I think that they are confident that Minkah is going to stay there.

There hasn't been any backlash, except from Penn State fans, but their only backlash has been against Hansen, which I find so interesting because Brandon's mom is a Penn State alum. That's really the only backlash. There's still Penn State fans who feel that Hansen had too much of an influence but I've actually gone into the comments and responded to one or two of them and just said ‘Remember Hansen is someone that Brandon really trusts.'

There have been recruiting battles come down to exactly what a kid wants to study and with a lot of the specialized focuses at different schools, it comes down to specialization rather than the overall school ranking.

With Brandon, it was completely academic. His mother Heather had him looking at Stanford, but he didn't want the distance. She started talking about Duke and said, ‘Just you watch, in the next however many or so years, your top academic schools are going to be your top football programs just because everyone's getting too smart about injuries.'

There was a change when Harbaugh first came on at Stanford sort of propelling this recently down program to a bunch of great seasons, people realized you could have success at these places if you have the right guy. Maybe that's going to be resonating with parents and coaches going forward.

I think that's a theme we are going to see consistently. Because I know even with Jordan who is now going to Stanford, there are other coaches who really, really wanted him. A few of them said to me, ‘He's the type of kid you can build a program around.' He wanted the academics. His brother is a wrestler at Harvard, and he wanted Stanford. I think a trend we're going to see is that players want the best academic opportunity.

For a program like Prep, you said you were presented as being part of the team, but it did seem there were a lot of other people around. How many recruiting reporters and college scouts were hanging around and at practice?

I was surprised there weren't more. For the most part they were calling and they were direct-messaging them on Twitter or Facebook. I think the amount of calls that they get is overwhelming. I can't imagine what it would be like in a southern state. In New Jersey, you have one publication covering high school football, for the most part. This one reporter named Braulio Perez gets stories out there. If he weren't making the calls, they wouldn't be overwhelmed with local coverage. I wasn't around last spring, but I think they dealt with a lot of reporters from Bleacher Report and ESPN before they made their initial commitments. For the most part, it was the overwhelming number of calls. If they had the Under Armour presentation coming up, they had that reporter came in that day to talk to them.

It wasn't surprising to just see another reporter in Hansen's office. The last day I was there, TV network MSG Varsity had a camera crew there interviewing Brandon about being named Metro Area Player of the Year. The boys are just used to it. One of my favorite anecdotes about Brandon was that he had just eaten lunch before an on-camera interview. He put gum in his mouth because he didn't want his breath to smell bad. Hansen was like ‘It's on camera. You have to take your gum out.' Brandon was thinking about the guy interviewing him and didn't want him to have to smell what he had just eaten for lunch. Because they have had the reporters around so much, they do know what to say. Honestly that's why I spent so much time at Prep because I needed to get beneath that surface level. They're just like professionals at this point. They know how to talk to media. They know what to say. They know what's going to stir something up or what's not.

What do you think should be changed about the whole recruiting process to help players, their families, and even the coaches navigate it more successfully and make their lives a little less crazy?

You could either say you can't offer a kid until he's a junior, because then that way it's harder for the college program. I think that right now it's actually geared too much towards the colleges. I think it needs to be geared more towards the kids, protecting them, and making their lives easier. I also think that once junior football season ends, you absolutely should be allowed to go on visits - official visits, paid-for visits - during the spring of your junior year. Having official visits during their final season of high school football is just a disservice to the kids. It used to work because most schools played on Friday night and colleges played on Saturdays. With the way the schedules have changed, more than half of the Prep games were on Saturdays this year, so the kids couldn't go visit a school any of those weekends.

Or if you're still allowed to make offers as young as you want, as soon as a kid gets an offer, he needs to be allowed to go on an official visit. One thing Minkah's mom said to me is that you should be allowed to go on one visit a year because your school will have a bye week every year. The way it's set up right now, it just doesn't help the kids. They're just trying to be seniors, make it through their senior seasons, and think about next year. But there's no time to go to the schools when the schools could pay for it.

The schools should also be able to pay for one parent or guardian to come with the kids on an official visit. As seen in the story, some visits aren't booked until the day before.  So many parents can't afford to just book a flight the day before and go out to the school. These are kids. They're seventeen and eighteen year-old boys, but they're still kids and most of them want their parents there to help them decide. Or even a high school coach. If Hansen could have gone with Brandon, just to help translate. We all think we know everything in high school but we don't know anything. I just think the visits need to be restructured.

I know that so many people who are much more in the know with college football than I am think there should be an early signing period, but I don't really think that's the answer. Look at Brandon. He didn't even know Notre Dame and Stanford were going to be interested when he committed to Penn State. I think it's letting them go to the schools earlier and making sure that every kid has the advantage of having a parent go with them.

There was that one detail you had in there, where Minkah's family was getting ready to drive all the way to Florida from New Jersey.

There was a Friday night game. They drove down, I want to say, to Alabama. Adding to the Minkah story, he would have loved to get out to Notre Dame to see it, but it just wasn't going to work out. His mom told me that with four other kids, the only way to do it was with the whole family. I think the NCAA reimburses her gas mileage so if you drive, your entire family can go. She said that they drove because it's the only way they could afford to go through this and actually be on the campus. ‘We're parents. We've never sent our kid away. We want to be comfortable with the campus we're sending him to.' Many parents Minkah's mom spoke to hated that they couldn't go to any of the visits because they couldn't afford it. Some of them are sending their kid all the way across the country and they've never had a chance to go. The costs are just so prohibitive for so many of these families. Imagine the kids who don't have a coach like Hansen who understands the process. Their parents have never been through the process. Those kids are pretty much navigating on their own.


Thanks to Danielle for her time and answers! Danielle Elliot is a freelance writer who focuses on science, sports, health, and the many intersections of these fields. You can follow her on Twitter here, and read more of her work on Grantland, at Vice Sports, and at The Atlantic.