Back in the day, a college football recruiting coordinator’s office was filled with stacks of video cassette tapes.
Now there’s a computer, a mouse and a link.
BYU player personnel coordinator Alema Fitisemanu is a busy guy directing the school’s football recruiting efforts. The other full-time position — on-campus recruiting coordinator — is not staffed at the moment. Fitisemanu has five students assisting him but when he gets sent a link to a prospective player’s video highlights, he responds.
“I get links on a daily basis,” Fitisemanu said. “So few guys fit our program that I have to click on the link.”
Fitisemanu is fond of saying that BYU’s football recruiting effort is like fishing.
“Our kids, we’re fishing with a spear,” he said. “Other schools are fishing with a net.”
Fishing with a net is expensive: According to an August story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Georgia spent $7 million on football recruiting from 2016 to 2018. BYU’s rival to the north, Utah, spent over $1 million for this first time last season.
Those nets also cast pretty wide: According to 24/7 Sports, SEC power Alabama has made 259 scholarship offers to the Class of 2020. Utah sent out 222.
BYU? The Cougars have offered 99 scholarships, according to 24/7 Sports, for what will likely be around 25 spots.
BYU spends far less than $1 million on recruiting. A 2019 Cougar Club mailer indicated that 40% of BYU’s athletic department operating expenses go to salaries and benefits; only 1% to recruiting. Not just for football, but for all sports.
We’re talking about resources here, both tangible and intangible.
Does BYU have enough spears — and are they sharp enough — to recruit effectively against other programs willing to break the bank?
Fitisemanu worked three years at the University of Utah as an assistant director of player personnel, director of high school relations and a recruiter.
“It’s all about managing relationships,” he said. “The coaches go out on the road but our recruiting office is an extension of those relationships. We do anything we can to enhance those relationships with info mailers, graphic design and keeping track of the player’s statistics. It’s mostly about being creative and exchanging meaningful information.”
Fitisemanu said BYU doesn’t try to compete with schools spending millions of dollars on recruiting, instead focusing on those intangibles that make the program special and unique.
“Our coaches work on having meaningful relationships with a prospect,” he said. “I don’t think (other schools) having two or three more visits creates more meaningful relationships. And it’s not aligned with how we spend the LDS Church’s money. Recruits in this day and age aren’t that impressed with getting 50 notecards from recruiting departments that sometimes coaches aren’t even signing.
“We don’t think a kid is impressed with all that stuff. We tell them what BYU can do for them and that’s how we go about our business.”
If a recruit is more interested in being shown “more love” by schools, Fitisemanu said it’s likely that prospect isn’t a good fit for the BYU program.
“Our kinds of guys want a real relationship built on things that are real,” Fitisemanu said. “We’re not that different than the Academies (Army, Air Force, Navy) in that way.”
BYU recruiting takes advantage of a wide network of loyal fans across the country.
“We want to find a guy and develop him,” Fitisemanu said. “We don’t go after guys at BYU that might fit the stars criteria. We also take a lot of pride in finding kids in Utah who are under-recruited and turning them into contributors.”
One of the unique resources used at BYU is a software program called “WarRoom.” It was originally built by Cougar fan and programmer Randy Larson when Bronco Mendenhall was the head coach at BYU. Former Cougar kicker Vance “Moose” Bingham is vice-president of sales.
“Nothing comes close to what we’re doing for BYU with WarRoom,” Bingham said. “The scholarship management in WarRoom makes it different. The cool thing is we’ve seen so much success everywhere else. Bronco took it with him to Virginia. It’s a full team management software and every school has different needs. The program evolves differently at each school.”
For instance, Navy — which is based in Maryland — has a prep academy in Rhode Island. The software was customized to allow the Navy coaches to instantly access the information about the players at their prep academy nearly 400 miles away.
Prep WarRoom has been beta testing and is ready to launch nationwide, creating ways for high school programs to track equipment and depth charts as well as handling various other needs such as messaging and concussion protocols for helmets.
BYU’s obvious WarRoom needs include managing players that could spend up to eight years in the program due to mission and redshirt seasons.
Bingham said Virginia has five full-time employees under recruiting coordinator Justin Anderson, a graphic designer, a videographer and 10 to 15 part-time student assistants. At Michigan or Notre Dame, there are as many as 20 people on the recruiting staff.
Despite the disparity in those resources, Bingham said BYU can still be success in recruiting.
“BYU is such a unique place to recruit,” he said. “It really is one of the best stepping stone recruiting jobs in the country. It should be a cradle for getting smart and intelligent recruiters. They should be just bringing in kid after kid.”
Running backs coach A.J. Steward is in his second year at BYU, leaving the same position at Rice for the opportunity to work in Provo.
“I think we have the necessary resources to recruit here,” he said. “We’re a niche recruiting school. We’re not wasting time or resources on dead ends. What makes it really cool here is we get to develop kids. We have to really do our due diligence and evaluate a recruits strengths and weaknesses. Fit is really important. The number of stars a guy has doesn’t show fit.
“I think this place is a gold mine if a prospect is open minded to the opportunity. This place has some things other places don’t have. We have a nationwide fan base. I saw something the other day that said we would be the No. 2 in home attendance in the Pac-12. It’s a great program that wins, is blue collar and is very respected around the country. That’s what I sell to the kids.”
Steward believes that recruits respond to the culture being built by Kalani Sitake and his staff.
“We have a culture of love and learning,” Steward said. “Coach Sitake has done a great job of making that the foundation for our program. If players come here they have a great opportunity on the field but we’ll develop them off the field as well. As a Christian man myself, this is a good fit for me as a coach.”
The biggest selling point, according to Steward, is getting the athlete on campus and in front of Sitake.
“If that happens we can get a high percentage to commit to us,” he said. “It’s a hard place to turn down when they see how much support they’re going to have on a day-to-day basis. They see how genuine and loving this place is and how much happiness they’ll have being part of our program.”
The cynical college football fan would say more recruits would respond to the flash of getting recruited by a Power Five program with their cathedral locker rooms, or being taken out to an expensive dinner with their family.
“It goes back to fit,” Steward said. “If they’re looking for the flash, they’re probably not the right fit and shouldn’t be a fit for any coach anywhere. You don’t come here for the flash, you come here to be a part of something, to do your part in making this place great.
“We have really good resources here. We’re not at the bottom of the barrel. We have a really nice indoor practice facility, but we don’t sell that to the kids. That’s not what we hang our hat on. We hang our hat on things that have substance, the day-to-day love they’re going to get, the way we teach them and the type of program we have.”
Sitake is in his fourth year as head coach at BYU and has produced a 23-23 record. Recruiting rankings haven’t increased in his tenure, but Bingham said it really should be a six-year game plan as Sitake brings his own guys into the program.
“He had his first two years that were all Bronco’s guys,” Bingham said. “Then he has the next two years building up his own guys. You’ll really see in the next two or three years if he’s a good coach. Depth is getting developed and they are still really young. The games won this year are by the guys that were recruited three or four years ago. BYU fans need to realize this and take a step back.”
Sitake said he thinks the program is still on the right track when it comes to recruiting.
“I’ve been evaluating players for a long time,” he said. “The way we evaluate it’s interesting with this whole star system and everyone is intrigued by it, the rankings of the recruiting service. We have to evaluate what their ceiling is and what their potential is, and that’s not really according to recruiting services. Our evaluation process doesn’t change. Some of the guys we evaluated early on, they didn’t have a lot of stars but they are big-time in college football. We’re just worried about finding guys who fit our program. We’ll take shots at guys who can be difference makers but they have to fit the lifestyle at BYU and they have to be able to make it with the academic performance at the school.”
BYU freshman receiver Keanu Hill has played in just one game this season and will likely redshirt. He is a three-star recruit from the recruiting hotbed of Texas and has seen a lot of his friends and teammates get caught up in the flashy recruiting cycle.
His recruitment by BYU was low key. He said coaches came to watch him in practice or games and that was more important than the social media interaction or mailers sent his way.
“I know BYU is a school-first kind of school,” Hill said. “They told me I would get a good education and be able to compete for playing time.”
Hill consulted with his father, Lloyd Hill, who played collegiately at Texas Tech and is the older brother of former NFL star Roy Williams. He also talked to his uncle and his mother. All of his family gave him advice but left the decision up to him.
Hill had teammates that teased him about going to Provo, but also told him to do what he thought was best for him.
“They just said to go in there, ball out and do it for our city,” Hill said. “I’m just focusing on what I need to do in practice and getting better every day. When game time comes, I’m just waiting for my number to be called. When I’m called, I’ll go in there and do what they recruited me to do.”