For Purdue football recruiting, it starts with the look
More ($): Purdue looking the part
One Monday morning earlier this month, a graphic bounced around Twitter, shared by Purdue football commitments George Karlaftis, Cameron Allen and Marvin Grant, and target Isaiah Gibson (and his mother).
Captioned "Family" and "signed" by Boilermaker coach Jeff Brohm, the composite of images depicted picture frames showing the recruits, their families and various Purdue-themed visuals, underscoring one of the program's foremost recruiting pitches: Family.
That the graphic made so many social media appearances that morning spoke to the resonance of Purdue's messaging, but also the platform on which it's conveyed: Those graphics, the designs that have become a centerpiece of recruiting operations nationwide, but seemingly particularly well executed, and effective, at Purdue.
"They're sick," Boilermaker wide receiver target Milton Wright said.
So for as much time and energy and effort as Brohm, his coaches, his support staff, et al, will put into recruiting, and for all those miles they'll travel as part of that same process, one of the program's most important voices doesn't come from the football offices at all.
It comes, instead, from the bowels of Mackey Arena, where a converted conference room now exists as the athletic department's creative services suite and graphic designer Ashley McCaffrey works exclusively on football- and football recruiting-related projects.
Ideas may come from all over — from coaches in the football office to student interns in creative services — but those picture frames came from her desk, as did all other initiatives like them.
“They just want stuff that’s going to catch a recruit’s eye, and for me as a graphic designer, I try to stay to the brand as much as I can," McCaffrey said, "because I want to create something that’s recognizable to the recruit so if they start to see multiple things from us, it becomes something they recognize and know to be coming from Purdue.”
Judging by the target audience's reaction, the picture-frame graphic was especially popular, but one of many such works that struck a chord.
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There have been myriad such products, ranging from a mocked-up NFL Network draft combine screencap, to mocked-up clips derived from the popular video game "Fortnite,” to variations of quotes from Drake songs, and on down the line.
“It’s awesome," said Karlaftis, who committed to Purdue in the fall. "I get stuff from them just about every day and it’s great that there’s a change in the program and you can see it. The graphics program is a huge part of it, and it gets people excited.”
That's the goal, but it's about more than simply the visceral, coaches say.
“Sometimes if you can’t get a kid on your campus, the visual is how you’re going to have to present yourself," said Derrick Jackson, Purdue's defensive recruiting coordinator, "or attract them to visit and make them say, ‘I have to get down to see that school.’”
To that end, Purdue doesn't produce solely eye candy for its teenage-male audience. It highlights facilities, playing style, the program's accomplishments, and those of its players, but also academics, prominent alumni, the community, etc.
It can directly impact recruits and their families, but also score crucial viral marketing points when those graphics circulate through the social media echo chambers high school players exist in online.
“If a kid has never heard of Purdue, this could be their first impression of what Purdue is," McCaffrey said, "so if we make a cool mailer with his name on it that tells them we have a new facility, he may not know that. It’s important.”
And aesthetically effective, a balance that can’t be struck over the phone.
It can be on a phone, however.
“Back in the day it was all about mailers,” said Eron Hodges, Purdue's first-year director of player personnel. “Now, these kids, you send mail to their house, great. They’re not opening that mail. It’s just too much of it now.
"Sending it digitally is the best way to interact with a recruit because they see it, it’s on their phone, and that’s where they always are. Kids are looking at their phone more than they’re talking on their phones, which is what the phone was actually made for.”
An important element, too, is the crafting of a design or message to the individual, personalization in recruiting being such a difficulty due to the overwhelming numbers involved.
Thanks to Photoshop and the expertise at its controls, Purdue — and others all over – are able to superimpose recruits into the pitches being directed their way. But also, in essence, send Purdue football-themed e-birthday cards, or good-luck or congratulatory notes.
When defensive end JJ Weaver appeared at last month's Rivals.com Five Star Challenge in Atlanta, Purdue made a graphic for him.
When linebacker target Cameron Williams headed to the Indiana state track championships to compete in the 110-meter hurdles, Purdue sent him a black-and-gold-themed "good luck" card.
When wide receiver target and Warren Central basketball star David Bell hit the game-winning shot to beat New Albany in the state basketball tournament, Purdue sent him a graphic captioned "Buzzer Beater" with a picture of Bell in his basketball uniform.
“The big thing is the personalization factor," said Paul Sadler, the athletic department's creative services manager. "It might be a general template or look, but it’s all customized in some way to be for that kid, whether it’s his name on the jersey, his face on it. (McCaffrey) has lots of different tricks up her sleeve.”
Those Photos: Purdue may not have been the first school doing high-quality studio photography for recruits as part of their visit experiences — and that's exactly the mandate Brohm laid out for recruiting visits: "experiences" — but if it wasn't, it was certainly one of those at the forefront of something everyone's now doing.
“I like to believe that us taking studio photos of kids on visits, not many people were doing that (first)," Sadler said. "If they were, I never saw it. That kind of started several years ago when they asked me to make graphics of kids with their pictures in them, and they’d give me pictures off Google. I said, ‘I can’t make this look good,’ and then posed the question to compliance, ‘When these kids come on visits why can’t we get a professional photo?’ It took a couple years to get it going.”
But by about the midway point of Darrell Hazell's time at Purdue, the program was funneling each recruiting visitor — official visitor, back then, and now any visitor deemed a priority and when time allows — through a personal studio photoshoot.
The results of those shoots: Fodder for recruiting materials, signing day releases for those who wind up at Purdue and the visceral-experience component of the visit and its aftermath, during which schools can send those pictures to the recruits, permissible under NCAA rules because they're categorized as recruiting materials.
It's been Charles Jischke's job, primarily, to produce those photos.
“You want to give them an experience they can walk away with that feels unique, feels special and feels high-quality," Jischke said. "You want them to get their pictures and think, ‘Man, I look awesome in this uniform.’”
Jischke has mostly handled the photos from Day 1, but now does so as the athletic department's newly added head of photography, a reflection of a commitment made to image and branding.
“I’d say one specific thing we’ve done to support our recruiting across the board is we’ve added lots of resources in areas like graphic design, video production and communications," A.D. Mike Bobinski said. "We’ve become a lot more aggressive, productive and skilled in how we present ourselves, which supports (all sports). The more we present Purdue as a place that’s cutting edge and really good on social media, which we are now, that helps raise the profile and makes you look more modern, more with it, and a place that’s exciting.”
And, Purdue hopes, enticing.
“Graphics are visualization," Hodges said. "If you visualize yourself doing something enough, you might eventually want to start doing it."
Constant Change: As the recruiting process plays out publicly more and more through the convergence of digital communication and social media, the recruiting landscape is barely a recognizable one when held up against the conditions of the ground just a few years ago.
It raises all sorts of challenges, questions and interpretive loopholes to be managed.
The NCAA rulebook is a thick one, and sometimes its mandates butt heads with one another.
It's long been impermissable, for example, for coaches to promote recruits' visits to campus. Now, though, that those coaches are free to share recruits' social media posts, they can retweet a player announcing his visit to campus, which is kind of the same thing.
“We don’t want to be in the business of figuring out what we can and can’t retweet, quite honestly," said Tom Mitchell, Purdue's associate athletic director for compliance, about NCAA membership as a whole.
Along such lines, nuance looms large in modern recruiting and the imaging behind it.
Jischke and staff can take studio photos of recruits, either in an established space for such things or one of the satellite studios they’ll set up to streamline the process on particularly busy visit weekends.There, they can use a ball as a prop.
But if they wanted to take pictures on the Ross-Ade Stadium field, that's fine, too, unless there's a ball.
If there's a field and a ball, then the NCAA's rule against simulating game-day activities is triggered.
Schools can produce graphics for recruits when they're offered scholarships, but if they're sent out prior to Aug. 1 of a player's senior year, then the mention of an offer counts as a written offer and a rule has been broken.
Again, schools are free to send recruits photos and images and graphics and all such things since they're deemed recruiting materials. The school, though, obviously can't share them directly over social media channels or otherwise. Once something is sent to a recruit, it's his to share and the school is absolved of any publicity-rule missteps.
It's important to note that recruits can't receive any recruiting materials until they're juniors. They can visit, but can't have photos taken to be given to them. That includes "laundering" the photos through a high school coach, older teammate or parent or guardian, Mitchell said.
In one of the more glaring examples of just how much the recruiting world has changed, it remains impermissible for a school to announce the commitment of any prospect until they've signed.
What the school can do, however, is provide a commemorative — for lack of a better term — "committed" graphic privately to the recruit, which he can then use to announce his decision. And as long as it's the player himself sharing the image, then all's well.
It's these little bits of minutia that occupy so much of Mitchell's and his NCAA-membership colleagues' time and fluster Purdue's creative team when they see competitors appearing to play things faster and looser with a rulebook that's become a living document as the world keeps changing.
“That’s one of the hardest parts of what we do," Jischke said. "We want to push the envelope on everything we’re doing, be on the leading edge of things. There are schools totally stepping over the line, but we have to still be in the right.”
Mitchell certainly takes no joy in red-lighting things now and again.
He appreciates the aggressiveness.
“They’ve pushed a lot of envelopes in good ways and I think they’ve been ahead of the curve," Mitchell said. "I think they're the best in the country at what they do.
“They pay attention to the rules, but still think outside the box. Their designs are crisp and clean, not gaudy and when you have great photos and great designers, you’re going to have great content. It’s that simple. And they love Purdue, and you can’t fake that.”
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