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During his sophomore year at Santa Barbara (Calif.) High, Roberto Nelson placed a cardboard box behind a green recliner in the family room of his home. It was a decent-sized container—it once had been used to ship a microwave—and a sufficient catchall. If he tossed something behind the recliner, it almost always fell safely into the box.
Mail arrived at the apartment complex where Nelson lived at around 2 p.m. each day. Larger envelopes didn't fit through the slot in the front door, so the mail carrier often dumped the delivery on the doormat. Nelson would leaf through the stack when he got home from school and then toss everything over the green recliner. Sometimes he would mimic a jump shot as he cast that day's bundle into the box.
In November 1984 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ran a story about recruiting letters that to this day remains an illuminating glimpse into the business of how colleges court elite basketball prospects. Three of the top high school players in the country at the time—Chris Washburn, John Williams and Danny Manning—allowed SI to examine the mail they received from college coaches, including North Carolina's Dean Smith, North Carolina State's Jim Valvano and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. The mail was an effective way to influence the college choice of the best prospects back then; a thoughtful sentence in a timely letter could make all the difference. As Washburn explained just before choosing the Wolfpack later that week, "Those letters showed me how much N.C. State really cared about me."
The box Roberto Nelson placed behind the green recliner was part of an experiment to see what, if anything, had changed 25 years later. In the era of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and the like, did coaches still use old-fashioned correspondence to court players? Could recruiting by the post still sway a kid? In short, does recruiting mail still matter?
Nelson would eventually receive scholarship offers from UCLA, Florida, Ohio State and a dozen other top programs. A 6'3" guard, he was ranked among the top 100 players in the class of 2009. At SI's request, Nelson saved every piece of mail he received from recruiters. The collection started with that big box but quickly expanded to include another, and then a milk crate, three shoe boxes and two large paper bags. Nelson received 2,161 pieces of mail from 56 programs, a haul so massive that at one point his mother, Roberta, threatened to throw it all in the trash if SI didn't cart it away. "It can't stay here anymore," she said, likening the expanding pile to a giant blob. "It's taking over my house."
A brief history of recruiting letters: Courting kids through the mail was once viewed as one of the least effective tactics. "When I coached, I never wrote letters," says Barry Switzer, Oklahoma's football coach from 1973 to '88. "There were no restrictions like there are today on how many times you could call or visit a kid. I also had four assistant coaches who did nothing but recruit. They didn't even come to practices."
Coaches who sent letters did so judiciously, conveying the message that it was an honor for a prospect just to make the mailing list. Bill Walton was 15 years old when he got his first letter, written by assistant coach Denny Crum, from UCLA, in 1967. "It has come to our attention that you are a good player," began the letter, one of only a handful Walton received from the Bruins. "Make sure to focus on academics so that when the time comes you will qualify to live the privilege of being a UCLA Bruin."
For Walton, the line "it has come to our attention" suggested that someone had whispered his name to the UCLA coaches, as if he were a special secret. He says he also loved the phrase to "live the privilege," which encapsulated his feelings about playing for John Wooden and his program.
As the 1984 SI article noted, basketball coaches began embracing the mail as a recruiting technique after the NCAA put restrictions on alternate methods, such as the repeated visits made by Switzer's assistants. In the 1990s innovation came only in the form of carpet-bombing campaigns such as the one USC basketball assistant David Miller orchestrated in 1996. He twice sent a future Trojan, Kevin Augustine, 500 handwritten letters in a single day.
The only significant change in the last decade has been the targeting of recruits at younger ages. Middle schoolers began receiving handwritten letters from basketball coaches, and some recruiters started sending notes to fifth- and sixth-graders. The NCAA changed the language in its bylaws last year and now prohibits coaches from mailing recruiting materials to a player before June 15 of his sophomore year of high school. But there is a loophole. Coaches are allowed to send camp brochures, questionnaires or NCAA-printed materials, such as eligibility guides, to prospects regardless of their age. Some recruiters inundate a young prospect with those documents so as to get envelopes embossed with their school's logo into his mailbox. In one instance a basketball program sent one page of the NCAA's 21-page Guide for College Bound Student-Athletes to a recruit each week over a stretch of more than five months.