After high school football star Kyler Williams died last month in a car crash, Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema retweeted a photo Williams had posted on Twitter three weeks earlier following a tour of Arkansas’ campus.
The photo showed Williams, a receiver from nearby Springdale High, and Bielema at Razorback Stadium. To his retweet, the coach added this message: “Prayers and thoughts to Kyler Williams & his family. Couldn’t help but stop & get my picture made with this big smile!”
Then he started worrying about what he’d done.
“I was just going to tweet out to him and his family, and I thought, ‘Did I just violate an NCAA rule?'” Bielema said, choking up. “It just made me sick. As a human being, you want to say, ‘Hey.'”
Though Bielema didn’t violate any rule, the incident demonstrates how college football coaches appreciate that Twitter allows them to show their personality to fans and recruits alike, while also remaining wary of its potential drawbacks. The issue has crept up recently as coaches struggle to understand a new NCAA rule change that has some of them using their Twitter accounts more than ever.
Under the rule change that took effect in August , athletic department staff members are allowed to retweet or show their approval of social media posts made by recruits. The policy change has been nicknamed “Click, Don’t Type” because coaches still aren’t allowed to add any sort of comment to a recruit’s post.
NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham said that “generally speaking, a coach cannot tweet or post a photo of himself with a recruit unless the recruit has signed a formal offer of admission or financial aid, or the post would be considered publicity before signing.” But, she added, it isn’t a violation to do so as a way of paying tribute to a deceased recruit.
“The purpose of the rules limiting publicity before signing is to prevent a coach from engaging a fan base or boosters to place additional pressure on the prospect to sign at a given school,” Durham said.
Plenty of coaches use Twitter, whether they’re capitalizing on the new rule or communicating indirectly with fellow coaches.
Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh called out Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, Georgia coach Kirby Smart and Tennessee coach Butch Jones on Twitter during the offseason for their comments about his decisions to hold spring practice sessions in Florida and to conduct satellite camps.
But tweeting also comes with risks that aren’t limited to concern about NCAA violations.
On the day after Notre Dame lost to Michigan State last month, Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly’s Twitter account “liked” a fan’s post that recommended the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Kelly said later that it was a mistake made by one of the people who help manage his account, though VanGorder actually was fired the following week.
“I have a number of people that manage my Twitter account,” Kelly said at the time. “Obviously going through it, somebody unfortunately made a mistake as they were scrolling through, inadvertently hit it.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe says he doesn’t give anyone else access to his Twitter account for that very reason.
North Carolina’s Larry Fedora says other people have access to his Twitter account, but all the tweets posted there are his and his alone. He says he makes sure to close out of Twitter whenever he leaves behind his computer or phone.
“Anytime you open your account and you leave it open for other staff members, you run the risk of something happening,” Fedora said. “(It may be) something negative (or) something good, but something could happen.”
It isn’t uncommon for multiple people to help out with a coach’s Twitter account.
Nebraska’s Mike Riley says Cornhuskers director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson tweets on his behalf. Gunderson played quarterback for Riley at Oregon State from 2003-07.
“We talk about the messages and then ‘Gundy’ actually does the work,” Riley said. “That’s our process here. I need a little bit younger guy to help me out with that.”
Bielema says Arkansas sports information director Patrick Pierson has access to his Twitter account. Jones says a staff member assists in monitoring his account, though all tweets must be approved by the Tennessee coach.
Riley said he and Gunderson “try to be really careful as to how we represent ourselves all the time, personally and program-wise and university-wise.” Jones said he makes sure to proofread before putting anything on his account.
“We always think in terms of double-checking, triple-checking before you push a button,” Jones said.
As far as the rule change allowing coaches to “like” or retweet prospects’ posts, some coaches are capitalizing on the new policy more than others.
“If a guy bases his decision on if you like or retweet his posts, that ain’t the dude that is going to fit in our program,” Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez said. “If that’s his most important decision-making process … I mean, you want to give him attention, but, I mean, what are we, schoolgirls chasing Justin Bieber? Give me a break.”
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard, Joedy McCreary, John Marshall, Eric Olson and Kurt Voigt contributed to this report.