LINCOLN, Neb. — Dan Van De Riet and his wife have three kids, which means they watch a lot of Nickelodeon. A show called “Paw Patrol” is a household favorite.
That also means there are times when the new head of the Nebraska recruiting department has to ask what is going on in the world. Like, who is Chance the Rapper? Or, why do so many people watch the Netflix sensation Stranger Things?
“Someone will come up with an idea and I’ll have to be like, ‘Well, what’s that?’ ” Van De Riet said, laughing. “I’m watching, like, Paw Patrol and stuff on Nickelodeon so I have to ask, ‘What is this?’ ”
But after a quick conversation about a new trend and how the recruiting team plans to implement it in a tweet or a social media campaign, and Van De Riet is all for it.
Because in this new era of recruiting — with social media dominating the conversation and viral videos and graphic edits nearly as important as a phone call from a coach — Van De Riet and the Nebraska recruiting department are trying to revolutionize the way they get the attention of recruits. They are continually trying to be on the forefront of recruiting in the digital age.
And right now, it seems to be working. Nebraska’s 2018 class is ranked No. 8 by 247Sports, and on track to be one of the best classes in recent Nebraska history.
“We’re trying to be more intentional in terms of what we’re doing in the broad recruiting realm of things,” Van De Riet told Land of 10.
The Huskers’ heightened focus on the recruiting trail has become evident in the last two years under coach Mike Riley. He’s made staff decisions based on recruiting, like the hiring of cornerbacks coach Donte Williams. Riley also helped launch the new department Van De Riet is running. It’s dedicated to acquiring talent, and is charged with contacting and engaging recruits, not just evaluating.
But the heightened attention on recruiting doesn’t mean the focus hasn’t always been there, said Van De Riet, who has been with Riley in some capacity since 2001. Putting more resources toward recruiting is sort of a no-brainer, he says.
“The more you study and the more studies you read that come out, they correlate recruiting to winning,” Van De Riet said. “Everyone always knows recruiting is the lifeblood. That hasn’t changed in the past 10 years, but the intentional focus on how we do things has always been an interest in Coach Riley and (Nebraska athletic director) Shawn Eichorst as well.”
Recruiting means keeping up with the ever-changing landscape in college football. The main objective is still the same, Van De Riet said. It’s all about building relationships. Earning trust.
But the avenues in going about doing that has changed dramatically in the past decade.
“Ten years ago there were just different channels,” Van De Riet said. “Now you’re able to tell your story almost instantaneously through those social channels.”
Once a week Van De Riet, director of football and recruiting operations Andy Vaughn, and a handful of others in Nebraska’s recruiting department meet to discuss new ideas. About what’s going on in the world and what would work well with recruits online.
It’s a lot of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks, Vaughn said.
The recruiting world is coated in rules and regulations, which hinders Vaughn, Van De Riet or anyone involved in recruiting about speaking specifically about what the game plan is for recruiting online. But both Vaughn and Van De Riet did acknowledge two things that are helping Nebraska recruit in 2017: keeping up with trends and pop culture, and fan interaction online. Both of which they do in order to try and create a connection with the recruits, to help sell the program as a whole.
Being up to date on pop culture is a key to connecting with teenagers, Vaughn said. It shows recruits that Nebraska isn’t an outdated school in a cornfield.
That is where Kelly Mosier, assistant athletic director for creative and emerging media, and his digital communications team come in handy.
They come up with ideas like getting Riley and Chance the Rapper in the same room, or sending caricatures of recruits who planned on visiting Nebraska for the spring game.
“I see [recruiting] as really no different than marketing,” Mosier said. “We’re trying to create new fans no matter what we’re doing, whether that’s a 17-, 18-year-old football player being a fan of Nebraska to come play here, or whether it’s trying to reach a 16-to-25-year-old football fan. It’s a very similar thing.”
Mosier says he and his team go out of their way to make sure the ideas aren’t just coming from a room of Midwesterners above the age of 25. Mosier says he listen to more hip hop music. He talks to young employees in the department, and talks to players.
“We have a great relationship with our players. They’re always in the office and always around, and so we’re always stopping them and asking what they’re listening to and what they have to say, see what they’re dressing like, who they act like, what they’re looking at on their phone, what songs they’re playing at practice, and you can see what’s effective,” Mosier said.
Nebraska also uses its fans to recruit, which can be a tricky game. There are rules behind being explicit online as to who a program is recruiting. But the department also knows how savvy Nebraska fans are online. So even a simple tweet can set the fan base ablaze.
When coaches hit the road, they often tweet out a photo or an area code. The subtle hints are then dissected and decoded by fans, who then pump hype and excitement to recruits accounts.
Some of Nebraska’s main Twitter accounts often rotate campaigns that show off different aspects of the program. Some weeks the accounts will be heavy on coaching videos, some on facilities.
And though Van De Riet and Vaughn can’t comment on why or how, those string of tweets about a specific coach seem to be aimed at whoever they may be recruiting heaviest at that time, be it a receiver, quarterback or offensive lineman.
One of the smartest things the department has done so far with fans, Van De Riet says, is opening up the summer Friday Night Lights camp to the public.
There are rules against the department saying specifically who is going to be at the camps, he said.
“But you don’t need to say who is going to be there. It’s Nebraska fans — they’ll figure it out and they’d come anyway,” Van De Riet said.
“I think what we’ve learned over our time here is the support in this state and fans nationally, the support they give the team is so classy and positive,” Van De Riet said. “And then you start to realize when you see people engage with recruits just the general fan and the impact that has on everything, that’s something that we really like.”
But with all that, one thing brought up often in meetings or idea pitches is basically: Is this Nebraska? Will this complete our mission?
Being genuine is something Van De Riet tries to stress with the message from Nebraska.
“Ideas come up in these meetings and sometimes someone will say, ‘that’s not who we are,’ and that’s kinda cool,” Van De Riet said. “We’re very, very cautions of making sure we’re not selling a product that isn’t real.”
Though most everything changes consistently in recruiting, being sincere in 2017 means just as much as it did in 2007, Vaughn said, be it on Twitter, Facebook or on the phone.
“We’re not just doing this for attention,” he said. “We’re doing fun things, exciting things, but it’s always genuine. The way we act on social media and the way coaches are on social media isn’t different than how they are at the school or on home visit.”
As the recruiting world continues to evolve, so will the department, Van De Riet said. They already have a few new ideas to try and stay ahead of the curve. In this digital age of recruiting, that is vital for the program.
“A kid you recruit out of California or Florida or Texas, they look and see Nebraska (online) and go, ‘really?’ And it’s really just taking advantage of the things you have and tell your story the best way you can,” Van De Riet said.