Steven Ortiz had been on nearly a dozen unofficial visits to schools across the country. Just not one like this.
“I’d never done it before,” Ortiz recalled, “so I didn’t know what to do.”
No bag, no plane ticket. All he needed was his iPhone and the FaceTime app for this trip from Arizona to Minnesota.
Steven Ruzic, the Gophers director of recruiting communications, walked — or rather, guided — the four-star cornerback recruit through a virtual tour of campus.
Strength and conditioning coach Dan Nichol joined the call, sending video of the weight room for Ortiz to watch while they talked. Cornerbacks coach Paul Haynes patched in with a video of TCF Bank Stadium. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi with a video of the Lindahl Academic Center. Safeties coach Joe Harasymiak with a video of the Twin Cities and all its lakes.
A 30-minute conversation with coach P.J. Fleck wrapped it all. And not one had to leave his house.
“They know the power of what the video and the technology can do. leck is a high-energy coach. … He understands the age that we live in and right now. … It definitely benefits him more than a school or a coach that will be taking an old-school approach.”
That virtual tour sold Ortiz without him even setting foot in Minneapolis, and he became one of the first in a wave of April recruits for the Gophers. The 2021 class has 14 members, four of four-star caliber, nine who committed since the coronavirus pandemic forced a ban on recruiting travel and visits. The class ranks eighth in the nation and third in the Big Ten, per 247Sports.com.
And the Gophers engineered this surge all from a distance.
“Our coaches are doing a great job creatively right now in the virtual market, being able to find a way to be just a little bit different,” Fleck said. “… Our coaches are even working harder right now than they were if they were even in the office. So the credit goes to them.”
Fleck gave special recognition to his recruiting staff, including the program’s general manager, Gerrit Chernoff, for pivoting quickly to an all-digital approach. Though that is something Fleck has been ahead of the curve on for a while.
At 39 years old, with much of his staff also skewing younger, Fleck has always shown a command of social media, using Twitter to connect with players and fans and to share cinematic hype videos.
Texas defensive end D’Marion Alexander, who committed April 22, shared part of a Gophers recruiting video on his Twitter that boasted scenes of fans storming the field after beating Penn State as well as picturesque views of the downtown skyline. Several recruits shared photo edits the team had made for them, showing them in Gophers uniforms.
“They know the power of what the video and the technology can do,” said Blair Angulo, Mountain Region recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com. “Fleck is a high-energy coach. … He understands the age that we live in and right now. … It definitely benefits him more than a school or a coach that will be taking an old-school approach.”
Angulo said some of the virtual measures could become new standards moving forward, using video chats to have more in-depth film breakdowns with recruits or invite professors from the school to answer questions. Fleck said in some ways this has been easier, since he’s been able to talk with the player and his family all on the same call with everyone stuck at home.
Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said Fleck has a unique skill of generating momentum that helps him win a flurry of recruiting battles.
“It’s definitely a [Gophers] class on the rise, and I’m interested to see if this continues or if the momentum stalls out,” Helmholdt said. “How quickly recruiting visits start back up will help determine that.
“Obviously, P.J. Fleck was very effective recruiting in the summer last year where he was able to get guys out on his boat and take advantage of all that Minnesota has to offer in the summer. And so I think that would benefit them.”
But one more advantage of this Gophers recruiting binge: It’s a self-sustaining machine. Ortiz and others in the class have already started recruiting their peers, creating a Snapchat group, playing each other in “Madden NFL” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” for dibs on the bigger dorm room once they finally come to campus. Newcomers have announced their commitments on Twitter and Instagram live, drawing comments and views from current Gophers and future teammates alike.
So in that way, these commits take after their coach. Energy and personality that translates even through a screen and a dedication to communication.
That will help clear even the toughest barrier — Mom.
“As soon as Coach Fleck and [my mom] had a little 10-minute conversation,” Ortiz said, “which I don’t even know what they talked about, she came out the room saying, ‘This is the move.’ She sensed that I was going to go to a good guy, a good program, a good culture.
“And I’m always not going to be alone.”