BOULDER, Colo. -
Dan Hawkins offers no sales pitch on the recruiting trail. He says the best approach when trying to build a relationship with any young man is always honesty. But that doesn't mean Hawkins frowns on gimmicks and big productions to grab a prospect's attention.
Forming each recruiting class requires several years of hard work, plenty of patience, consistency, creativity, and flexibility. With Hawkins, it constantly involves new ideas. In the past, his youngest son's expertise with video games has been called into service, and more recently Hawkins mailed recruits boxes filled with $333,000.
Well, sort of. More on that later.
"I tell them what we're about, what we're doing," Hawkins said last year in describing his typical conversations with recruits. "We are trying to attract the kind of guys that will fit in here, the guys that we want, and if that fits with what their needs and wants are, then it's good."
Some of the process is universal for all college recruiters at major programs. It is dozens of long days and nights on planes, in cars and hotels away from family. It's being forced to wear the same clothes two days in a row just to stay on the road to see one extra linebacker and his parents.
It's not getting rattled by the impulses of 17 and 18 year olds or the grumblings of guardians who are determined to see their sons play for XYZ University because it has warmer weather, better facilities or is closer to home.
It's hours of video review, stuffing envelopes, reading Internet reports, some of which contain half-truths and misinformation about prospects. It's dozens of meetings in which hundreds of recruits are discussed, ranked and weeded out.
Hawkins, though, is all about the personal touch. He wants Colorado recruits to remember their experiences in Boulder on official visits and in every bit of communication a young man has with the program along the way. It's all about standing out.
He is willing to tackle any newfangled technology if it will help him develop a relationship with players and better understand the world in which they live. He has a Facebook page from which he can email recruits.
He used to wear out his thumbs and fingers sending text messages to prospects before the NCAA banned the practice. He also has set up the capability to conduct video conferences with recruits in the spring evaluation period when rules prohibit head coaches from off-campus recruiting.
"He always wants to be the first to do something,â said Robert Tucker, director of football operations at CU. "If we hear about someone who did something before we did, he's upset about it. He'll slap the table and be like, 'Man, they got us on this one.' He always wants to be on the cutting edge of recruiting.â
Hawkins strives to personalize and individualize the process for each recruit to the fullest extent allowable under the rules. The NCAA has done its best over the years to prohibit tactics that personalize recruiting, such as forbidding putting a prospects name on the back of a jersey or setting up a locker with the player's name on it when that prospect visits.
Still, Hawkins finds ways that don't violate the rules to make an impression on recruits.
"What are we doing special for this guy?â is a question staffers and assistant coaches hear Hawkins ask over and over again throughout the year. It has been that way since Hawkins first became a head coach back at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., in 1993.
Two of the men most responsible for organizing the recruiting effort at CU first met Hawkins back then when they were student-athletes. Tucker was recruited by Hawkins to Willamette. Mark Nolan, who is Colorado's assistant director of operations, played for Hawkins for three years at the school.
"He really hasn't changed as a coach or as a person,â said Nolan, who watched Hawkins turn a 1-8 program into an NAIA national title contender.
"I think his foundation has been the same over the years, but his techniques, he's always evaluating just like he does with everything in his program,â Tucker said.
While they insist Hawkins hasn't changed the fundamentals of his approach in recruiting, succeeding at the Bowl Championship Series level requires much more than the non-BCS or NAIA levels. It's a much faster pace and the war never ends.
At the BCS level, coaches are required to begin making decisions about what prospects to pursue when recruits are still sophomores in high school. They want to be prepared to offer players beginning on Sept. 1 of their junior season in high school.
"If you're not sure or you just don't know yet, there is a pretty good chance you will be left behind with that recruit,â Nolan said. "The great impetus is on all of us to find out if the guy has the right character. Is he academically sound, three semesters or four semesters into his high school career? And is he a good enough football player that we're going to want to recruit him and maybe offer him on Sept. 1 of his junior year?â
Hawkins holds recruiting meetings early in the week leading up to weekends with official visitors on campus. He has staff members put ideas on a dry-erase board for how to make each visit special in some way for each recruit. Once there is something special for each recruit it can be a challenge to pull off during some weeks when more than a dozen players visit.
Ideas that have been used in the past run the gamut from taking a prospect sledding to making sure a recruit has his favorite dessert or is able to see his favorite professional sports team play in Denver. Staffers won't talk about new ideas in use in recruiting this year because even the smallest advantage can be big.
'That's always our No. 1 question,â Tucker said. "What are we going to do special for this guy? What's going to stand out? What is going to make this visit special for this guy and hopefully make him want to come back.â
Nathan Fellner, a safety from Fresno, Calif., made an official visit to Boulder last weekend. Though he came to CU already committed to Washington, he left feeling like he could easily become a Buff. He will choose between the two programs in the coming weeks.
Fellner, a three-star prospect, according to Scout.com, said there were two special parts of his trip. One was when coaches showed him a home black and gold No. 5 jersey and told him he would have first dibs on it for next year if he comes to CU. The other was spending time talking with Hawkins.
"He's easy to talk to,â Fellner said. "You could easily talk to him about anything. I mean, more than just football. He's there for you as a person, and he's a good person, too, not just a football coach.â
Hawkins has drastically beefed up recruiting efforts in the program in terms of manpower and money spent.
The program spent $241,554.25 on recruiting in the 2004-05 fiscal year, the last full cycle in which Gary Barnett was coach.
Hawkins spent $551,099.09 on recruiting during the 2006-07 fiscal year, according to budget figures obtained through open records requests.
Under Barnett, the vast majority of recruiting responsibilities were handled by coaches, the director of football operations and one assistant. There were three full-time positions dedicated to secretarial work and two computers used for recruiting.
Under Hawkins, every person working in the office has a recruiting component to their job, including students and the 14 volunteers who work fours a week answering phones, logging recruiting information into computers and stuffing envelopes.
The program has traded two secretarial positions for a recruiting coordinator and two assistants.
All of those efforts are geared toward helping Hawkins develop tight relationships with recruits and get him and his assistants in the player's front door.
"He's such a salt-of-the-earth, down-to-earth guy and he's so comfortable in his own skin, that his exuberance is kind of contagious,â Nolan said. "People just feel comfortable around him. He can go to any home in America and they're going to have a good time while he's there.â
One of the characteristics Hawkins seeks in hiring people to work for him is creativity.
He allows his assistant coaches and recruiting assistants to be free thinkers and have autonomy. That philosophy has led to strokes of genius and thoughtful personal touches that lead recruits to want to play for him from Willamette to Boise State to Boulder.
Julie Manning, associate athletic director for compliance, said Hawkins is constantly checking out new ideas produced in brainstorming sessions to make sure they're allowable under NCAA rules. One of those ideas was approved and used during the 2007 calendar year leading up to the 2008 recruiting class.
Instead of sending envelopes with the school logo to prospects who receive dozens of similar pieces of mail each week, CU sent small, black cardboard boxes about Ã the size of a standard pizza box.
Intrigued recruits opened the box to find it filled with a pile of hundreds of business cards designed to resemble $100 and $500 bills. A message inside the box told recruits the money totaled $333,000, equal to the value of an education at CU.
"Again, it just comes back to that autonomy that he lets people have and having the right people in place and letting them be creative in their jobs,â Tucker said.
Each card had a CU coach's face where the former president would normally be on currency. The cards featured contact information for coaches on one side and the core values of the program on the other. CU went through a lengthy approval process with the Secret Service for the project, but it was scrapped after other programs began asking questions about its legitimacy.
"We reviewed that very closely with our staff and we felt it was permissible,â Manning said. "But the Big 12 Conference was getting some inquiries from peer institutions questioning it. The NCAA didn't shut that down if you will. The Big 12 Conference frowned on it, and we decided to play ball how they wanted us to do that, and we pulled that project back in.â
The NCAA has since produced an official rule interpretation that would make the idea impermissible if it was tried now. The interpretation clarified that athletic department staff members are allowed to use only one business card at a time for each employee.
Tucker and Nolan said the ingenuity behind the idea and others is vital in helping turnaround the CU program.
"Even from moment one, when you can start sending material to a guy, they're already on information saturation,â Nolan said. "They don't want to open envelopes. They don't want to look at stuff. They don't want to take phone calls. They're already burned out from the word, go. They already know that they're good and they don't want to deal with the process typically.
"Well, how do you motivate that recruit to look at your stuff? I think that is where some of the difference makers can come in.â
One tactic that used to be popular years ago was showing highlights of a recruit on the stadium video board when that prospect was on campus for an official visit. The NCAA banned the practice years ago.
Hawkins' enlisted his youngest son, Drew, with an idea during the early part of his tenure there.
He asked his son to play video games throughout the week. They designed players in the video games to look like players Hawkins was recruiting, wearing the Boise State jersey in the Broncos' stadium. They recorded the games Drew Hawkins played using those players and took the best plays for each player and made a highlight tape that they showed on the big screen in the stadium.
"That, at the time, was very innovative,â Tucker said. "That gives a kid chills up his spine and that's really what we're looking for.â