- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
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It has been well documented over the past few years that programs have little choice when it comes to some aspects of the college football recruiting process.
Whether it is extending offers to juniors, sophomores, freshmen and eighth-graders, or the first 100-piece bundle of mail that chokes a prospect's mailbox, coaches across the country have rushed to catch up and join the race.
But while the unofficial visit and recruiting mailings become more and more important to the process, the official visit remains a significant tool, and one of the few remaining recruiting tactics that can be wholly personal to a coaching staff and program.
When most recruits begin thinking about what official visits they want to take, the first thing they discuss is what big games they'll be able to attend. In the Pac-12 this season, there won't be any official visitors for two of the biggest games recruits will be watching -- when Oregon visits Stanford and USC hosts UCLA -- because the Cardinal and Trojans have decreased in-season official visits.
"For a long time, there was kind of a lore that the official visit is about getting to see a game -- a notion that has been in movies, on television, in books and magazines," said Mike Eubanks, Stanford Assistant Athletic Director and Director of Football Administration. "The official visit is about going to see a game, see what the campus is like afterward and then sitting down in the coach's office."
But as Pac-12 coaching staffs dissect exactly what they want to showcase during an official visit, several schools are continuing to focus visits around a game weekend, while others have targeted the offseason as the best time to bring in official visitors.
Oregon, Utah and Washington State have combined to host 33 official visitors this season, compared to 27 for the rest of the conference combined.
It's not surprising to see those three programs hosting visitors during the fall. Not only could weather concerns in late January put a damper on bringing a majority of recruits in then, but Oregon specifically can take advantage of its game-day atmosphere.
"They're really cool either way and encourage you to go up and see a game," said Oregon quarterback commit Morgan Mahalak (Kentfield, Calif./Marin Catholic) of the Ducks' coaches and visits. "It's a pretty fun game-day atmosphere to experience."
Mahalak said the policy has paid dividends already this season, as Oregon grabbed verbal commitments from ESPN 300 running back Tony James (Gainesville, Fla./Gainesville) and four-star receiver Jalen Brown (Phoenix/Mountain Pointe) after official visits.
"[Brown] had a great visit for the Tennessee game," Mahalak said. "I think that was huge for him to see what it'd be like to play there. You definitely leave Oregon after a visit with a better sense of the program."
Last weekend, Arizona had its first opportunity to host official visitors. The Wildcats went two-for-two with their uncommitted targets, grabbing commitments from offensive linemen Layth Friekh (Peoria, Ariz./Centennial) and Levi Walton (Cape Coral, Fla./Ida Baker).
Friekh, like more than a few recruits, said taking an official visit at this stage was a priority for him.
"Since I was planning on committing early, they said to come in whenever I wanted," Friekh said of the Arizona coaches. "It was really important for me to take an official visit now because I wanted to see if the school is behind the team and if all the fans are behind the team. I didn't want to go to a school where nobody supports the team, so that was cool to see."
While Friekh said he felt he had enough time with the Arizona coaches, that seems to be the biggest worry among schools -- Arizona included -- looking to push visits into the offseason.
"You want to be able to spend the whole 48 hours with them," said Matt Dudek, Arizona's Director of On-Campus Recruiting and Player Personnel. "You don't want to be worrying about a football game and you don't want to waste it, because we believe that you'll fall in love with our coaches when you get some extended time hanging out with them. That's our No. 1 selling point."
Dudek said an official visit on a game-day weekend is "more hectic than crazy or difficult," but they will always try to get official visitors to come after the season in order to spend more time with them.
"Every kid is different and we're never going to say no if a guy wants to come on an official during the season," Dudek said. "Some want to come on a game day, and if that's your deal breaker, you come on game day. There's a little less time to hang out and ask a bunch of questions at each stop. Out of season, it's no big deal to be five or 10 minutes behind schedule, but if there is a game scheduled for 7 p.m., that's not going to change."
For USC, Dec. 13 seems to be the first big recruiting weekend -- though what happens with the coaching staff could determine the true schedule of events. In the 2013 class, USC didn't host a visitor before Dec. 7, which was the big weekend for early enrollees. But the Trojans also found out the hard way this season that having a plan for official visits and carrying it out successfully can be two different things.
Enter the somewhat strange case of ESPN 300 cornerback Adarius Pickett (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito). Early in the process, it looked as though USC had the inside track for a commitment from Pickett, and the four-star cornerback alerted all his potential choices in the spring that he would take his official visits in the first four weeks of his season, then announce his decision the following week.
UCLA, going with the growing trend in the conference, suggested that Pickett wait to take his visit after the season.
"I explained to them what I was trying to do and they said it was fine with them," Pickett said of the Bruins' coaches allowing him to take an official visit for the first game of the season. "I told [USC coach Clay Helton] during the spring that I was going to UCLA first week and that I wanted to try to set up a visit to come down after my fourth game."
That visit to USC wasn't allowed to happen. Pickett said the decision to deny him an opportunity to take an official visit during the season ultimately came from coach Lane Kiffin and was delivered through Helton, but it didn't come as much of a surprise when Pickett announced his commitment to the Bruins following that conversation and his UCLA visit.
In large part though, USC's shift over the past few years to a January-centric visit schedule has paid dividends, and it's something Stanford has found success with as well.
In the 2013 class, 13 of the Cardinal's 14 eventual signees took their official visits during the "Big Visit" weekend in January. It's a success rate that is helped both by the number of already-committed prospects in attendance, as well as a clear message from the beginning about the official visit policy.
"By the time we get far enough into the process and building relationships, if somebody has this interest in Stanford and we're still with them because they've met all the academic challenges we've given them, then the recruit who has met us that far along in the journey tends to have the perspective and values that wants their official visit to be the same thing we want their official visit to be," Eubanks said.
That includes having the Big Visit begin on a Friday morning in the offseason, which allows Stanford to give its visitors an extensive look at a full day on campus during the school year -- something that is virtually impossible to do with an in-season visit, as recruits either have school or football responsibility on Friday and often can't arrive on campus until Saturday.
"To have somebody come here and not see a class is really shortchanging a good look at what Stanford should be," Eubanks said. "If it's just Saturday and Sunday, you've not done anything to address the academic question, which is maybe one of the biggest questions in the mind of these young scholar-athletes. That's pretty important for us."
While prospects will almost always hold the cards when it comes to their recruitment, it's easy to notice a fairly sizeable shift in the visit schedules for Pac-12 programs. While schools such as Oregon, Utah and Washington -- among others -- will almost always look to take advantage of nationally-recognized game-day atmospheres, Eubanks was careful to point out that it's important to note the decision to move away from in-season visits -- for Stanford and the other conference schools -- can't be seen as hiding from that experience.
"Especially as a national recruiter, going up against these giant stadiums with highly-regarded game day atmospheres, you don't want to make it look like you're hiding," Eubanks said. "If you argue against the importance of the game or the game day atmosphere to a young man who thinks the most exciting experience is to be on the big stage that he's dreamed of since he was little... If at any point you are dictating how things should be done, or talking instead of listening, you can lose them. And if you do, then that's rightfully so."