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Original Issue

College Lettermen

In decline everywhere else, the art of putting pen to paper is being kept alive by a collection of unlikely wordsmiths: NCAA football coaches

We knew from his visit with the Tuohy family in the film version of The Blind Side that Nick Saban has a gentler, more sensitive aspect than he allows the outside world to see. "This is an incredible home," he tells Michael Oher's adoptive mother, Leigh Anne Touhy (played by Sandra Bullock). "The Windsor valances are a nice touch."

In addition to his passion for interior decoration, it turns out, the Alabama coach is a noted belletrist. Saban and members of his staff strained both credulity and the hinges of at least one family's mailbox in Norcross, Ga., in February 2012 when they sent four-star running back Alvin Kamara 105 letters in a single day.

That unofficial record was broken last month by the coaches at Kentucky, who occluded the Hebron, Ky., postbox of quarterback Drew Barker with 115 letters. (Had the Wildcats sent just one more missive, the total would've matched their 2012 national ranking in scoring offense: 116.)

While these mass mailings are noteworthy and attention getting, they pale in comparison to the one-day haul harvested by Allie Hamilton in The Notebook. Recall how, in that treacly romance, the lovelorn swain Noah (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) writes a letter to Rachel McAdams's Allie every day for a year. Those communiqués, alas, are intercepted by Allie's meddling mother (Joan Allen), who seven years later hands her daughter a bundle of 365 letters, setting a standard that even Saban will find difficult to approach.

Noah's love for Allie is feeble and halfhearted compared with the ardor coaches like Saban and first-year Kentucky head man Mark Stoops feel for such difference-makers as Kamara and Barker. Yet this exchange from The Notebook captures both the promise-'em-anything ethos of the recruiting process, and the jaded attitudes of the athletes:

Noah: "I could be whatever you want. You just tell me what you want, and I'm gonna be that for you."

Allie: "You're dumb."

While they don't often go over the century mark, coaches across the country indulge in such mass mailings. Of course it's overkill. But is it dumb?

"If [recruits] are getting a hundred pieces of mail and they're not opening them," says Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, "is the message really getting through?" Indeed, if a tree falls in the forest, and its pulp is used in a thousand unread recruiting letters, did it make a sound?

At least it didn't break a rule. The bylaw-obsessed NCAA is very particular about the size of "institutional note cards" with which schools may deluge a prospect (they "may not exceed 8½ by 11 inches") and the contents thereof: They may include "only handwritten information (e.g., words, illustrations) on the inside." But nowhere in the NCAA's tome of rules does it say how many such "cards" members are allowed to send out. Entire forests have been felled by that loophole.

The ironic result, in this era of e-mail, Facebook and Twitter: The waning art of letter writing is being revitalized by a group of men not exactly known for their prowess with the pen. Collins of Mississippi State has gained renown of late for the terse compliments he's been sending to select schoolboys. To see an Instagram of one of his YOU'RE A BALLER notes is to register mild surprise at both his penmanship (atrocious, even for a football coach) and the fact that he spelled you're correctly.

Such condescension, it turns out, is misplaced. To chat with Collins is to realize that he is smart and well-read (as, come to think of it, are many doctors, whose handwriting is no better than his). As an assistant coach at Fordham and Georgia Tech, he took graduate-level courses in educational and organizational psychology. A subscriber to Psychology Today, he says he is "intrigued by the human psyche, how the mind works. I find that stuff very interesting."

When he sits down to pitch some woo, as it were, Collins bears in mind that he's competing with scores of other schools for young men with limited attention spans. To pierce the clutter, he keeps his messages brief. Or, like a defensive end dropping into coverage, he'll go outside the box, and draw a picture. His "Can of Swag" card—a surprisingly deft illustration of a faux energy drink—has been retweeted all over the SEC. "I've got a truckload over here in Stark Vegas," Collins promised Marlon Humphrey, a cornerback at Hoover (Ala.) High, who tweeted a picture of that note along with a promise that was sweet music to Collins's ears: "Guess I'll be going to Mississippi State soon...."

Even in the age of social media, there is an enduring potency to the act of putting pen to paper. Nicholas Sparks, who wrote the novel The Notebook, knew it. The Box Tops knew it; their song "The Letter"—later covered by Joe Cocker—reached No. 1 in 1967. And Saban knows it.

Some recruiters believe that once you send a kid over, say, 50, 60 letters in a single day, you reach a point of diminishing returns. "If you send [a recruit] 105 pieces of mail in one day," points out Ole Miss recruiting coordinator Maurice Harris, "how do you follow that up?"

One man's wretched excess is another's heartfelt declaration of love. "It was crazy," Kamara told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, of getting 105 letters from Alabama, "but I liked it." In February, one year after he received that bulk mailing, he chose the Crimson Tide over Georgia, telling Saban, not in so many words: "Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours."


Josip (Jozo) Gašpar was fired as the coach of Croatian soccer team NK Precko Zagreb after he allegedly stole a credit card from one of his own players and used it to buy 36 bottles of Jägermeister.