Coaches walking the fine line on Twitter

It is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. That holds true for college coaches, especially when it comes to dealing with Twitter and staying out of the NCAA’s crosshairs.

“A coach texted me this morning asking if he can send out this tweet,” said Jen Vining-Smith, Notre Dame’s assistant athletic director for compliance. “Our coaches like to ask for permission rather than forgiveness.

“It happens all the time, especially if coaches want to walk that line.”

Coaches aren’t just walking that fine line on Twitter while recruiting; they are taking up residence and setting up shop.

Coaches cannot publicly name a prospective student-athlete unless that recruit signs a national letter of intent or a financial-aid agreement with the intention of enrolling early. However, that does not prevent coach Kevin Sumlin from tweeting “YESSIR!” when Texas A&M adds to its class. Coach Mark Stoops is well within the rules to post “#YAHTZEE” if Kentucky adds to its best class in school history.

And nothing prevents Miami assistant Brennan Carroll proclaiming “#WelcomeToTheU” when Miami finds a future Cane. The commit’s name is never mentioned, so compliance and the NCAA don't bat an eye.

“It’s like being a law student and trying to find out loopholes in the law,” one recruiting assistant said. “It’s legal and OK for them to do that.”

That same coach fights an itchy trigger finger when it comes to tweeting a borderline message to the Twitterverse.

“If you’re talking on Twitter, you might as well be talking to the L.A. Times,” one BCS assistant said.

That same recruiting assistant keeps a checklist and carefully pores over every tweet before he rolls his mouse over the blue "send" button. If any part of the tweet feels as if it could be an NCAA violation, he gets out of his chair, walks down the hall and knocks on his compliance office’s door.

Not every coach plays it as safe, and some just cannot contain themselves when there is a big commitment. Michigan State recruiting assistant Curtis Blackwell tweeted the name of a couple of Spartans commitments a few months ago while he was new and unfamiliar with NCAA rules. Last fall, Kerry Cooks, Notre Dame’s recruiter in Texas, landed ESPN 300 prospect Nick Watkins, and while he did not tweet Watkins’ name, he retweeted Fighting Irish fans who guessed correctly that it was Watkins and had tweeted at the No. 123 player nationally.

A retweet is equivalent to a tweet in the NCAA’s eyes. Cook’s was a double no-no, as fans are not allowed to recruit on behalf of the university, either.

Both coaches deleted the tweets within the hour, but they did not go without notice by fans, media and others in the coaching community.

The NCAA cannot monitor everything. Its office lends tools to help coaches with the rules “but this responsibility also is in the hands of the schools to make sure their staff knows, understands and follows the rules,” NCAA spokeswoman Stacy Osburn said.

However, athletic department compliance offices also cannot keep an eye on everything their coaches are doing.

“That would be one person’s job 24 hours a day -- if it is even just one person’s job,” Vining-Smith said.

The NCAA rulebook does not specifically mention Twitter or social media, either. Instead, it considers the correspondence akin to emails.

“There’s nothing in the bylaw that says this is what you can’t do on Twitter,” Vining-Smith said. “You won’t find the word Twitter in the manual.”

Once a year, Vining-Smith sends out the Twitter modus operandi to the Notre Dame coaches. It lists the dos and don’ts of Twitter, and in educational meetings, she will bring up examples of violations from their own staff or by other coaches. If it would be a violation to send an email or talk about a player to the media, then it is a violation to send a message or post a name on Twitter.

“You have to know you’re being monitored,” the BCS assistant said, “by the friendlies and the enemies.”

On the surface, the NCAA is not all that concerned with a coach slipping up on Twitter and mentioning a prospective student-athlete. There are bigger fish to fry as far as the NCAA is concerned, and Vining-Smith said it is not something she is going to lose sleep over. If a coach is a repeat offender, the NCAA or compliance office could shut down the coach from corresponding with recruits for a week or so.

If it is a mere slap on the wrist, are maybe some of those small slipups a smart strategy?

Lane Kiffin, then the coach at Tennessee, said the name of Bryce Brown -- the No. 8 prospect in the Class of 2009 -- on a local radio station. Brown was uncommitted and unsigned, making it a violation. Kiffin’s willingness to commit a violation to impress a recruit was not lost on Brown, and the ESPN 300 recruit eventually signed with the Vols.

Would a coach do the same on Twitter?

“Does it happen? I’m sure. There’s all kinds of rules being broken,” the BCS assistant said, “but eventually they catch you and eventually the little slaps become punches and pops on the butt.”