Text messaging has become a routine part of the average teen’s experience. Now, it’s entering the big-time world of college recruiting, too.

When John Peterson wants to make sure a prized recruit is thinking about playing football for Ohio State University, he reaches for his phone–and types.

Buoyed by an NCAA rule change, more college coaches are text messaging recruits. Coaches still send letters and make phone calls, but some say the short messages transmitted from a cell phone or handheld device are more effective than traditional recruiting tools in communicating with top prospects.

“It’s an instant letter or note to a recruit,” said Peterson, the recruiting coordinator for the Buckeyes. “As prevalent as cell phones and text messages are, it’s a tool that is definitely being used across the country.”

An NCAA subcommittee on recruiting picked up on the trend, voting in 2004 to change the designation of text messages to general correspondence. The rules change, which went into effect Aug. 1, 2004, treats text messages like letters instead of phone calls, which are limited based on the student’s age, sport, and time of year.

During approved recruiting periods, the NCAA allows coaches as much general correspondence as they want.

“The rationale was … to take advantage of technology and provide greater flexibility for institutions to contact prospective student athletes,” said Crissy Schluep, an NCAA spokeswoman. “On the flip side of things, for the prospects’ well-being, they can choose to respond or not.”

Some groups within the NCAA membership, such as the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, are discussing the effect of the text-messaging designation, but no formal rule changes have been proposed, Schluep said.

Phone calls remain more regulated, she said, because prospects have little choice about responding.

With text messaging, a wireless variation of eMail in which a person’s cell-phone number serves as the address for sending and receiving short messages, recipients can choose to respond at a more convenient time or ignore the message.

Text messaging, though more widespread abroad, is growing in the United States.

More than 32 billion text messages were sent in the United States during the first half of 2005, up from 24.7 billion during the last half of 2004, said Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a cell phone trade group.

In June alone, 7.3 billion messages were sent, an increase from 2.9 billion in June 2004. Text messaging has been used to reach Hurricane Katrina survivors when phones went down, organize protests, and–of course–flirt.

It’s taken some adjustment for coaches, who haven’t grown up with the technology as have the teenagers they’re recruiting. Some have adapted quickly, while others are still learning.

“I’m an older guy and obviously a little technologically challenged like most of us at this age,” said 53-year-old Chuck Heater, the defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Florida. “But … it’s not so far out there that you can’t figure it out. Since we’ve got it, it’s become a great means of communication.”

Coaches keep it short and stick to basics, congratulating athletes on great performances or sending them words of encouragement before a big game.

“During the season, coaches at Ohio State were always texting me right before the game, telling me good luck,” said running back Chris Wells, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior from Garfield High School in Akron who reportedly has verbally committed to the Buckeyes. “Then, after their game, they would text me about how their game went.”

Officials with the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the American Football Coaches Association say they don’t have any hard data on the use of the recruiting tool but believe it’s being used widely, based on conversations with members.

The NABC might discuss the practice at its annual convention at this year’s Final Four in Indianapolis April 1-3, said deputy executive director Reggie Minton, who warns there could be excessive use of the technology.

“We need to get a full airing and a full feel as to how our membership feels about it,” he said.

Wells said he’d much rather get a text message than another letter. The prep standout said he has received so many letters that he started throwing them away. And while recruits like the technology because it’s less obtrusive, coaches say it’s also more convenient for them.

“It’s an easier way to get through to them, honestly, because a lot of times kids don’t want to get caught up in the phone calls,” said interim Cincinnati basketball coach Andy Kennedy, who was the Bearcats’ recruiting coordinator for four years.

“They’re getting inundated, and after 5 [or] 10 minutes, you get into this uneasy, ‘What are we going to talk about now?'”

Coaches also use text messages to follow up on phone calls, said North Carolina linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen.

“You ask about his girlfriend or his mom and dad or his favorite class,” Thigpen said. “You just talk about everyday things just to let him know you’re thinking about him every single day.”

Wells said he still gets text messages from schools even though he has verbally committed to Ohio State. It can make for some good-natured ribbing when he is out with friends.

“They think it’s funny. They think it’s cool that I’ve got coaches just after me like that,” he said.

Links:

National Association of Basketball Coaches
http://www.nabc.com

American Football Coaches Association
http://www.afca.com

CTIA-The Wireless Association
http://www.ctia.org