It’s a simple concept: Take a bunch of shiny gold letters and mail them out to football recruits with a catchy tag line. Here’s the trick: It works.
For the second consecutive year, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly has employed the #PotofGold recruiting campaign, which targets top football prospects using heavy-volume mail and using social media.
The 2013-14 version of the Pot of Gold recruiting mailers included a whopping 477 letters to each Notre Dame pledge and top target. The 477 letters represented each former Notre Dame player selected in an NFL Draft, and it appeared to have an impact, launching Notre Dame’s recruiting class near the national top 10. Players who committed received a second Pot of Gold with 128 pieces because they would be part of the 128th team in school history.
The 2014-15 Pot of Gold has been a bit more understated, at least in recruiting mass-mail terms. It features 244 golden paper coins, representing the 244 consecutive home sellouts that will be achieved when the Fighting Irish sell out their 2015 home opener against Texas on Sept. 5. That would be the first game for the 2015 recruiting class. It also includes 11 personalized coins as a nod to the school’s 11 national championships.
The effort is impressive, and at least one recruiting analyst thinks it’s giving Notre Dame an edge.
“To a 17-year-old, a lot of these schools can seem so homogeneous,” Scout.com managing editor and recruiting analyst Scott Kennedy told USA TODAY High School Sports. “You play in front of 80,000 fans, play on TV, go to a bowl game, get a world-class education. That applies to 50-60 teams. Anything you can do to differentiate on the recruiting trail is important.”
This year’s package went to about 50 players, including the Notre Dame commits, top targets and a handful of long shots whom Notre Dame was interested in, according to Tom Loy, the recruiting analyst for Irish247.com.
“People keep using the word creative and different,” Loy said. “It’s gone over big. It keeps them in the mix and shows how much a priority the kid is to Notre Dame. Notre Dame recruits a certain type of kid and it’s going to hit home. The right type of kid that Notre Dame looks for is going to appreciate it.”
Clearly, the message is getting through to the chosen few who receive the recruiting missive.
Loy credits a number of people for the idea, including the Notre Dame coaching staff for all being part of the process. The initial idea came from J.R. Sandlin, who worked in Notre Dame’s recruiting office and is now the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at Jacksonville State. Megan Whitt is in her first year as coordinator of recruiting operations and previously worked in the recruiting office at Ohio State and Loy said she has “taken it to another level and made it more individualized.” Tony Alford is the school’s recruiting coordinator and Dave Peloquin is the director of player personnel.
“It did exactly what it needed to do to build some excitement, make a splash,” Sandlin said. “We tried to do it at a time when not a lot of news was going on right before the all-star games.
“A lot of thought goes into it, to try to do it the right way and trying to make recruitment special for the kids, especially the guys you really want and guys coming in for official visits. We did it toward the end because we’re still trying to compete and get those guys.”
The move is not exactly what many might expect from Notre Dame, but Sandlin said it was an important part of teaching potential players about the tradition that exists at Notre Dame.
Sandlin had spent three years on the recruiting staff at Alabama and the first time he had seen a mass mailing was when the Tide coaches sent Alvin Kamara a package of 105 letters in a single day in 2012. Kamara, a running back from Norcross, Ga., was a junior at the time and would sign with Alabama before transferring to a junior college. He is enrolled at Tennessee and is part of the 2015 recruiting class.
“When I got there, they hadn’t sent a whole lot of mail in the past and coach (Brian) Kelly wanted to implement a strong marketing ploy to get the Notre Dame brand out there,” Sandlin said. “It’s a strong brand, but you have to rebrand it, tell the history and re-educate the kids just like at Alabama, some kids we were recruiting didn’t know who coach (Bear) Bryant was. Notre Dame had 11 national titles and seven Heisman winners. They don’t remember the last national title at Notre Dame was in 1988 because they were just barely born. The kids know that Alabama or Notre Dame are premier programs, but they don’t know why.”
The 477 was because Sandlin was looking for “what are the big numbers we have” at Notre Dame.
Some of the impact might came from the fact that the tactic was not exactly a classic Notre Dame approach.
“It’s not very Notre Dame-esque if you think about it,” Loy said. “Schools are always trying to be different and this definitely has caught the attention of high-profile recruits around the country. It’s something that the kids are finding to be cool and up to date and catches their eye. They want to see Notre Dame let their hair down and have fun with the process.”
The Pot of Gold is different, but it might not be as unique as you think. Flooding a recruit with a motherlode of letters is the strategy du jour for college coaches to get their school in front of the player they need to reach. Where Notre Dame has differentiated itself is in it’s thematic approach and the volume. While the likes of Kentucky may send more than 100 handwritten notes in a single day (hello defensive tackle Matt Elam), those all come on a one-off basis. Pot of Gold is a concentrated, dedicated effort to coalesce an incoming recruiting class by reminding it of Notre Dame’s rich heritage, all while adding enough faux bling to catch even a jaded teen’s eye.
“I’m still waiting for someone to send 1,000 pieces in one day to one person,” Sandlin said. “That’s going to make an impact.”
But add Notre Dame’s national profile, based on the dual pillars of football and Catholicism, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that Kelly’s Pot of Gold has helped land its share of top recruits at the end of the rainbow.
“Notre Dame is always able to recruit nationally because it’s the pre-eminent Catholic school in the country,” Kennedy said. “Notre Dame is one of the last true national recruiters out there. Instead of becoming stodgy, old Notre Dame and tradition, (they’re trying to) become fun again. I think it’s good for them in the short run.”
It could turn out well in the long run, too. This is year two of the #PotofGold strategy. If we’re talking about it in another 10, the annual mail campaign may be a bona fide tradition itself.