There was a time not too long ago when college football recruiting was decent, honorable and respectable.
No, not the part with cash-filled envelopes, fixed grades, family payoffs or slush funds. Texas oil magnates were lining pockets for Bear Bryant's Aggies over 60 years ago and both SMU's death penalty and Johnny Be Good turn 25 this year. The indecency of dirty recruiting is inextricably attached to the tradition of college football.
But there was one element of college football recruiting that actually used to be wholesome: The mail.
Coaches still may not be able to adequately construct a proper sentence (saying "we did/didn't play good" is required by the NCAA for all post-game press conferences) but their letters were always pristine in both language and appearance, arriving in perfect A9 Diplomat envelopes with either meticulously handwritten or hand-typed addresses.
The gentlemen running this business used mail correspondence to approach high school boys as fellow adults. Decades later, the boys are still boys but the men have changed: They've completely abandoned their typewriters and heavy-stock letterhead for mass-printing and magic markers.
This dance between men and boys has changed and expanded significantly while becoming almost completely automated, while it still reinforces the poignant, canned couch speech the head coach delivers to the entire family.
There's nothing subtle or nuanced about this courtship. As Benedick declared in Much Ado About Nothing, thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably. <-- this should be read in Ed Orgeron’s voice (actually, everything should be read in Ed Orgeron’s voice)
Traditional letter-writing carried what are now lost elements of personalization. A human hand – possibly even that of the author (!) – was responsible for folding and placing the paper in the envelope. The words were crafted for an audience of one by the most important figure of the program.
Days have gotten a lot shorter for college program stewards, so even the most elegant letters lack intimacy. But that doesn't mean they can't still carry the same aesthetic. It was no different for college basketball players either.
Michael Jordan’s letter from Dean Smith was concise and to the point. Baby Airness probably received dozens of letters just like it, though Smith was a legendary coach prior to Jordan’s arrival making a simple, typed letter signed by him a keepsake. The original Tango stands on its own. There's no need to throw in backspin or raise the roof.
The same could be said of Bryant's recruiting letters, which were not only poignant but also arrived pungently scented with Chesterfields and I.W. Harper 12-year.
Stanford's current recruiting letter detailing how much more its graduates will earn mid-career than the rest of the top 25 may appear to be obnoxious, lack important vocational context and seem petty – until you remember that college football recruiting is all of those things and Stanford is just shopping its value proposition effectively. They're offering envelopes of cash for life instead of for just a few semesters.
Speaking of wages, Jordan majored in Geology at North Carolina, which only seems like a rocks-for-jocks academic cop-out until you remember that UNC athletes today are less inclined to major in any subject that contains actual classes. A Stanford-like earnings average for North Carolina Geology majors would make for an interesting recruiting letter.
Auburn won the BCS title recently and simply added the image of its glass testicle to the recently deposed Gene Chizik's signature. When Auburn football deliberately goes on the record and in writing, the result is generally exquisite.
Tippy Dye, the only Buckeye QB to beat Michigan three times prior to Troy Smith's arrival crafted dignified, personal recruiting letters at Ohio State while deftly incorporating the slang vernacular of the day:
It is too bad your team was not at full strength when you played Roger Bacon because I imagine if you were, you would have licked them.
What's more aristocratic than licking Bacon? Nothing. It's elegance that transcends the generations.
If you were to find three dozen missed calls from the same person pursuing you in a single day, you would consider a restraining order. When Bank of America sends you the same goddamn credit card solicitation in each day's mail, it’s annoying.
However, when you discover 50 identical greeting cards from Nick Saban in your mailbox, that means he loves you.
Not only is that stack of 50 letters probably taller than Saban, they don't smell of Bryant's cigarettes and whiskey – and they definitely don't carry any level of personalization. This is not an exclusively Sabanistic tactic, either: Scarlet and gray valentines have arrived in mass quantities at five-star recruits' houses ever since Urban Meyer relocated back home.
It’s an obscure but scientific finding that high school football players who genuinely enjoy receiving junk mail play significantly faster than those who don’t. Saban and Meyer – and now Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss – are way ahead of their colleagues in spamming their way to a superior pass rush.
This is an interesting paradox that has exclusively grown roots in college recruiting. Perhaps there's an element to this practice that we aren't privy to yet. Which one of these 32 cards contains the cash? You have to open them all!
If you don't think this is exclusively a college recruiting thing, try it out yourself in December. Send someone you’re enamored with 50 identical Christmas cards and see what happens.
OMG YOU GUYS
Last week you're a BALLER made headlines when Mississippi State sent St. Clairsville LB Michael Ferns a card that only contained that hastily scribbled message.
Mississippi State is the diploma mill-iest school in the SEC West, but despite the card's primitive construction, you're a BALLER is the most honest and literal observation that can be given to a football player (you have ARMS is a close second).
The Bulldogs are also serving up tasty, refreshing cans of SWAG, the Drink of Champions for a program whose only conference title occurred 72 seasons ago while boldly beta-testing handwritten, unclickable hashtags. MSU is subtly reminding prospects that you can't spell DAWGS without SWAG, and all that’s missing is the D (which an unwilling professor might convert to a B if eligibility is compromised). #GoBawgs
NC State is way ahead of MSU and already operating at you're a BALLER 2.0 which includes a WHAT UP BIG TIME?!! upgrade. This is explicitly what happens when you take over for Tom O'Brien's staff and are forced to choose between selling the fading memories of a Belk Bowl championship or trying something else.
Mike McQueary, who famously witnessed the architect of Linebacker U raping a boy in the Penn State football locker room, was equal parts trolling and opportunist in referring to Penn State’s pristine NCAA record during the summer of Ohio State’s Tatgate mess. SUCCESS WITH HONOR still sounds better than you're a BALLER; it's just not quite as honest.
One year later, Alex Anzalone received a card highlighting that Goldman-Sachs heavily recruits from Penn State's business school (which itself is named for Goldman-Sachs partner Frank Smeal).
As with the mass-junk mailing trend being viewed favorably, this is another tactic unique to college sports recruiting: It's the only business in America where grown men openly use several different-colored markers to author greeting cards for prospective clients.
BURNING SENSATION: JILTED LOVERS
Michigan lineman Logan Tuley-Tillman and quarterback Devin Gardner both recently used letters they received from Ohio State as kindling. They both took to social media to then broadcast their displeasure with Ohio State which bridged the paper generation with the current electronic one.
Gardner, who favored Ohio State throughout his adolescence but never received that coveted scholarship offer actually burned a football camp invitation rather than a written promise of free tuition. Unfortunately for Gardner he was a five-star prospect, so it's quite possible Jim Tressel might have included a winning camp raffle ticket in that envelope. His loss.
Bitter pyromania is not unique to Michigan Men, though they do seem to have a firm grasp on this burgeoning trend. Brayden Kearsley (pictured to the left) verbally committed to Brigham Young by setting mail from rival Utah on fire and posting it to Instagram.
Soon thereafter, he wavered on his commitment and almost signed with Oregon State before switching back to BYU on Signing Day. He did not set any other mail on fire after the first occasion, and once again an OSU was involved in a public letter-burning incident.
It's unlikely that the trend for college football mail correspondence will regress back to the traditional. As society grows less inclined to read an entire note in boring typeface the goofy greeting cards and crude drawings of fictional SWAG beverages will continue to steal mailbox share from form letters.
And we certainly haven't seen the last burning blowback to these efforts. Hopefully the next Brayden Kearsley will display the same good sense to set the blaze above the toilet before doing so on the Internet.
(and if they sell that Bear Bryant-scented paper anywhere, please let me know)