How Notre Dame Recruiting Adjusted To The Pandemic
Notre Dame handled Boston College 80-58 in the second round of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament on March 11, 2020. It was the type of momentum-shifting victory a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble required prior to a quarterfinals matchup with Virginia, the sport’s reigning national champion.
But before the Irish could take on the Cavaliers one day later, the remainder of the ACC Tournament was canceled, with the NCAA Tournament and the rest of winter and spring college athletics soon to follow. Uncertainty swelled as the entire world turned its attention toward the COVID-19 pandemic, a foe best fought by staying indoors and avoiding even small-scale events.
Without games, practices or players on campuses, collegiate athletic departments across the country were forced to adjust to a new normal.
In response, Notre Dame coaches from each program gathered for a weekly Tuesday virtual lunch. This provided them with an opportunity to share information over Zoom on how to best manage their teams during such an unprecedented time.
Each program shared many concerns, but one problem that needed to be addressed immediately was attracting prospective student-athletes with on-campus visits canceled. For instance, the football program lost one of its most important visit weekends of the offseason on March 20-22, when several top-100 prospects in the class of 2021 were scheduled to be on campus.
This obstacle wasn’t unique to Notre Dame. Every program had to cancel visits. Then again, most schools don’t recruit prospective pupils from across the country, with just one-third of Notre Dame's student population hailing from inside the school’s geographic region.
Most of the university’s athletic programs reflect a similar state-by-state demographic. For example, of the 112 players listed on the 2020 football roster, 67 come from outside the Midwest (and that's only by counting Pennsylvanians, which is a stretch). This includes several long-distance players who weren’t all that interested in Notre Dame until they set foot on campus and saw that life in northern Indiana differed from their initial perception. Quarterback Tyler Buchner and wide receiver Braden Lenzy fall into such a category.
Eventually, the Notre Dame coaches invited Fighting Irish Media leadership to attend a Tuesday lunch, where the coaches expressed their recruiting-related concerns, as well as a solution: If recruits were unable to visit campus, it was time to bring campus to them.
With no collegiate sporting events last spring, Fighting Irish Media reallocated resources usually reserved for airing live broadcasts and clipping together hype videos. The production team was put in charge of creating a custom virtual tour for each athletics program, and the communications staff was responsible for recruiting-centric Adobe Spark pages to aid coaches during presentations.
"Every team can have an Adobe Spark that they could walk through in a Zoom meeting with a recruit to say here's our facility, here's the kind of swag you're going to get when you come," said Rob Kelly, the Senior Associate Athletics Director Media & Brand, who oversees Fighting Irish Media. "Here's what to expect from an academic services perspective. Here's what the dorms look like. We had great video and photography that the communication directors were able to integrate into that the Adobe Spark pages."
When it comes to football, as the NCAA progressively postponed in-person visits for the next year and a half, such tools became vital to recruiting.
“I got involved with a number of the recruits that were on the fence about making the decision,” Brian Kelly, Notre Dame’s head football coach, said on national signing day.
“I told them, ‘You’re going to have to make a decision without visiting. I know that this is what you want to do. You want to wait until you visit, but it’s not happening, There’s not going to be an official visit. I can pretty much tell you that with great certainty. So you’re going to have to figure out another way to do this. And start to get your mind around it that you may have to make a decision without an official visit.’
“Now some made a decision to drive up on their own and drive around campus, and that's great. Others just relied on the virtual visits.”
In the end, the Fighting Irish signed 27 football players in 2021, which is tied for the largest class in Brian Kelly’s tenure. The team also finished in the top 10 of Rivals Team recruiting rankings for the first time since 2013.
Notre Dame recruiting is off to a hot start in 2022, with the No. 6 class thus far according to Rivals. Nine players are already committed, six of which are four-star prospects.
There’s optimism that by the summer, the NCAA will once again allow on-campus recruiting visits, where the coaches can actually interact with the prospects and their families as they tour Notre Dame's campus and athletic facilities.
But that doesn’t mean the lessons Notre Dame learned during the pandemic will go away. Each of Notre Dame's athletic programs will continue to recruit talented men and women from across the country. Being able to expose them to campus from the comfort of a prospective athlete's home will always be an asset.
If not for the pandemic, Fighting Irish Media wouldn’t have had the time to build resources for each athletic program. But now that they have, those tools may be used for the foreseeable future.
“These virtual tools will be evergreen with some updates, as facilities get updated and other distinctions for each program are updated. But Adobe Spark can also easily be updated,” Rob Kelly said. “For those, it's just about swapping out photography, maybe changing some copy. Ninety percent of the content is already there and reusable.”
For more on how Fighting Irish Media adjusted over the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, be on the lookout for part II, which will run this week.
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