Men's basketball takes on the Twittersphere

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BY BEN ESTES
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 2, 2011

It’s hard to believe — and humorous, in a way — that Bacari Alexander didn’t realize the powers of Twitter until last summer.

Alexander, an assistant coach for the Michigan men’s basketball team and, it appears, the unofficial public relations king of the program, became a convert after the team's former video coordinator Matt Duprey extolled the virtues of the exploding social media application.

“He said, ‘What a great way to kind of reach out to fans, followers (and) students, (with) Twitter,’ ” Alexander said. “I said, ‘What’s Twitter?’ because at that time I wasn’t a Twitter nor a Facebook guy.”

Alexander’s first tweet (“Big shout out to our enthusiastic media that stopped by our conference room today for lunch and a conversation with Coach Beilein. Go Blue!”) was published Sept. 2, 2010. Six months and 4,931 tweets — and counting — later, Bacari Alexander isn’t a Twitter guy.

Twitter is a Bacari Alexander platform.

Because, for those keeping score at home, that’s approximately 25 tweets per day, and the basketball season didn’t even start until two months into Alexander’s Twitter tenure.

Branching Out

By now, an ever-growing, yet still relatively small number of Wolverine fans, is so in tune to Alexander’s Twitter universe that the fans don’t even blink when they see his nonsensical catch phrase “HALOL” pop up on their timelines.

Alexander, along with fellow assistant coaches LaVall Jordan and Jeff Meyer, and head coach John Beilein are now constant presences on the application, pumping out messages everyday from the Michigan program in 140-character bursts (the assistants more so than their boss).

Beilein said he doesn’t direct his coaches to use Twitter in any certain way, but emphasizes that they be responsible with what they post.

But just how much has Twitter grown as a tool for the Athletic Department in the past year? Consider that when he hired Alexander last April and Jordan last June, Beilein didn’t even raise the subject or make it a point of evaluation in his search and interview process.

Yet here the coaches are, tweeting their fingers off.

“I do (tweet) about every other day,” Beilein said. “I’m not living off of it. Bacari and LaVall and Jeff do a wonderful job of getting our message out to all our fans … I think it’s significant that we’re at least involved. Where young people are involved, that’s where we have to be so that they hear the Michigan name over and over again.”

There lies one of the several functions that college basketball coaches in 2011 can derive from Twitter: promotion. It’s not just about the repetition that Beilein points to, though that's significant — those associated with the Michigan basketball program are able to put out the specific message they desire.

That’s what makes it slightly different from other forms of new media like Facebook. Though Twitter was launched as a form of social media, it has rapidly morphed into an application streamlined to deliver news and updates around the clock.

Follow the right people, and it won’t matter that you don’t have time to watch your favorite team, or if the game isn’t even televised. You have the power to choose to read updates from countless numbers of people who are watching the game.

And if you follow Wolverine basketball coaches, you’ll receive the same positive talking points constantly. It’s a powerful way for the program to convey an upbeat attitude — one that can easily bring in greater support.

“Nobody wants to self-promote, but I think it’s a great way to get information out expeditiously,” Jordan said. “You get it out quick. As far as marketing and business, it’s a great tool. Social networking is a big thing for kids and recruiting and what we do.

“It’s just another way to spread the word about Michigan, and get out information, maybe a little bit of insight into what we’re thinking, (and) our program.”

There’s no filter here, either. This isn’t the traditional sport communication form of press conference-to-reporter-to-story; it’s nearly impossible for a message to get distorted when the final version of what is put in the public sphere comes directly from the coach or player.

The media, then, can’t alter the point the Twitter user wants expressed (an unavoidable outcome of mediation, even when there’s no intention to twist a person's words).

That’s what Beilein finds so valuable, and it's the reason he decided to start a personalized website: JohnBeilein.com. Since it launched last July 31, 2010, the website has offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Michigan basketball.

The “Beilein Daily” section occasionally provides entries from the coach himself about his recent activities or thoughts — like the post on Sept. 15 that announced Duprey’s exit from the program — while the “Sights and Sounds” page contains links to stories, highlighted by all-access videos produced by the team’s support staff. Aside from the general information the site contains about the Wolverines, Beilein likes that he can include information about upcoming camps and clinics.

“We want to be able to give people more of an inside idea of Michigan basketball, of how the coaches live, how I live, how we like to live our life,” Beilein said. “What we’ve found is there’s a lot of interest in those type of things … I feel funny doing it sometimes because who cares about me?”

But people do care, as 3,858 users follow Beilein on Twitter. Jordan has 1,542 followers, Meyer has 476 and most of Alexander’s 2,313 followers probably know that “HALOL” stands for “Having A Lot Of Laughs” in Bacari-speak.

“I think it’s the new Twitter craze,” Alexander said with a laugh. “Everybody’s going to start eating that up. It’s going to become commonplace. I need to copyright protect it, get my agent (sophomore walk-on guard Josh) Bartlestein over there on this, so we can make a little money off that.”

Combined, the staff’s followers could barely fill half of Crisler Arena. But it’s still more people getting these messages than before, and the numbers are only growing.

A Fun Distraction?

Freshman forward Evan Smotrycz won’t ever forget the Jan. 27 win at then-No. 25 Michigan State. And not just because it was the first time Michigan won at the Breslin Center in 14 years or because the victory spawned a turnaround that shockingly has the Wolverines in the NCAA Tournament.

After the game, Smotrycz tweeted just two words, but they stung the hearts of all Spartan fans:

“Big Brother.”

“I found out I had a lot of Michigan State followers because my mentions were just going crazy,” Smotrycz said. “ ‘You can’t say that.’ ‘That’ll come back to get you.’ ”

Smotrycz’s experience reveals a unique problem of Twitter — the unprecedented access it brings. A “mention” is a message directed at a specific account that the recipient sees even if he does not follow the sender. In other words, though the athlete may choose not to read it, there are no restrictions as to what a person can send to a Michigan basketball player.

For junior guard Zack Novak, Facebook is more problematic. Trying to balance a hectic basketball schedule with a Ross School of Business course load, he gets frustrated when random fans (and even friends) become upset with him when he doesn’t always respond to their Internet outreach.

And particularly annoying are the criticisms and tips Novak receives, especially when he doesn’t even know the person lashing out at him.

“You kind of just want to say, ‘Alright, who are you to talk?’ ” Novak said. “But you really can’t. You just got to let it go. It’s funny because I’ll get messages, and I’ll be like, ‘What’s this guy talking about?’ And then I go watch the Packers or something, and I’m like, ‘What’re you doing? Catch the ball!’ or whatever.”

The flip side of the college athlete’s use of Twitter and other forms of new media is the danger that his own posts present. Without even realizing it, a player may write something in the heat of the moment that doesn’t exactly represent himself or his team all too well, whether it’s a profane message or disrespect toward an opponent or teammate.

In October, Kentucky center Josh Harrellson tweeted negative comments about Wildcats coach John Calipari after he criticized Harrellson in a press conference following a preseason scrimmage. Calipari promptly suspended Harrellson’s account and ordered him to do extra running before practice.

Then, in early February, Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Stansbury banned his entire team from using Twitter after players Rayern Johnson and Renardo Sidney criticized Stansbury and Bulldog fans after a game. This all came after a football season that saw several top programs ban Twitter for players, with coaches wary of the potential distractions it presented.

But the application’s openness hasn’t always been negative. Recently, Ohio State freshman star Jared Sullinger took a liking to a sign that Minnesota student Andrew Wagner brought to a game, even though it was mocking Sullinger's singing performance in the now-infamous “Party in the OSU” video. The two sent several messages to each other on Twitter, until they made arrangements for Wagner to send the sign to Columbus.

Sullinger gave it to his mother.

For Smotrycz, Novak and other players with accounts, it ultimatley comes down to intelligent use of discretion.

“We try to school (current players) the best that we can on that, about what should be out there,” Beilein said. “We’re a family, and (they know) how dangerous that can be, when you’re telling your family business. We’re pretty adamant about that, but we got good kids. They understand that.”

Added Novak: “One of the things we pride ourselves on is having a pretty bright group of guys. Don’t be an idiot, don’t say anything stupid, just be careful with it and enjoy it.”

And when the danger is avoided, Twitter remains a fun bonding activity for Michigan. Assistants interact with players and players interact with each other. Novak even said he and his teammates have friendly competitions regarding who can get more followers.

He also joked that despite the phenomenon that Alexander has become, he could easily open up a significant lead in followers if he tweeted nearly as much as his coach (for the record, as of March 16, Novak had 2, 463 followers — 150 more than Alexander).

New Way to Recruit — With New Problems

It should come as no surprise that college basketball coaches — always searching for the newest and best ways to communicate with high school student-athletes — have taken to using Twitter as a recruiting tool.

Those positive messages about the program that the coaches constantly tweet? Perhaps they are designed for the general public, but it certainly doesn’t hurt Michigan if a recruit (and his family) gets the added reinforcement or if a player who didn’t previously have the Wolverines on his radar sees the message and bumps up his interest.

Additionally, the NCAA considers a “direct message” at a recruit — along with Facebook messages — an ordinary e-mail. Since plenty of high school kids now check their social media pages much more often than their e-mail, posting on Twitter increases the likelihood that they will take notice, and that they’ll respond more rapidly.

It’s happened fast, too. Smotrycz is just a freshman, and he committed to Michigan late in his junior year of high school. But even then, Smotrycz said he really didn’t engage Twitter at all during his recruitment process. Now, countless potential players are on the application.

“Kids like to type more than they like to talk these days,” Jordan said. “(Twitter) allows recruits and parents to keep up with the program — follow updates with scores and games — and individuals on the team as well. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, but if you use it the way it’s meant to be used, it’s a good thing.”

But the same risks current NCAA players face are there for recruits as well — long before they even make it to college.

Player safety is even more of a concern, since most recruits on Twitter are under the age of 18. Where college athletes have received plenty of education and coaching in dealing with people attacking them on the Internet, a high school student has received considerably less guidance, if any at all. And, obviously, Internet abuse can be much more harmful to those in high school than those in college, who are legally adults and more mature than their younger counterparts.

And the potential consequences of an athlete slipping up on Twitter are much more significant for a recruit than a college player. Harrellson had his account suspended and was forced to do extra running; ESPN.com national recruiting analyst Dave Telep has seen high school players actually lose scholarships as a result of ill-advised Twitter posts they’ve written.

“Some of what I’ve seen on Twitter, it’s just unacceptable,” Telep said. “We don’t have any rules for this right now, so kids are going to have to learn the hard way. I know I’ve contacted a couple kids who I know are really good kids (and said) ‘Everybody’s reading this, this is not the kind of thing you want to have your name attached to.’

“I think we have to educate our kids about it, so they know how to properly use it. It’s a public forum.”

Telep doesn’t necessarily see Twitter as an ideal new method for coaches to contact recruits, though such communication does happen often. Instead, he sees it as an effective way for coaches to evaluate recruits, based on what they choose to post.

The process works both ways: While recruits learn about Michigan through general updates from coaches and specific contact from a staff member, the Wolverines can assess character — a critical part of evaluation, especially in Beilein’s philosophy.

“College basketball coaches are like spies on Twitter,” Telep said. “They figure they read everything a kid says, and try to gain an insight and advantage into what he’s thinking … (coaches) put on their CIA and FBI hats, and that’s how they use Twitter.”

A dark cloud, though, could be brewing on the recruiting horizon. NCAA rules generally prohibit contact between recruits and fans, students and boosters, as it essentially constitutes illegal recruiting undertaken by non-staff members.

But with Twitter and Facebook, anyone has access to recruits. Any fan of any program — or even someone posing as a fan of a different team — can send messages that recruits can’t necessarily filter. It all constitutes illegal contact and could mean a boatload of vagaries and enforcement problems for the NCAA as Twitter continues to grow.

With the surge in text messaging in the last decade, the NCAA had to quickly adapt and make new rules surrounding coaches’ use of texting to talk to recruits. The same may have to happen soon with new media.

“I don’t know how much the NCAA can police this stuff,” Telep said. “This is the world we live in. This is life. Twitter, Facebook, social media, it’s what kids do nowadays. I don’t know how the NCAA can be responsible for policing every single thing on Twitter.

“At the same time, you don’t want to accept it. What’s the right answer to this? I don’t think anybody knows.”

Moving Forward

It is impossible to predict how college basketball and new media will interact in the future. After all, who could have predicted Facebook and Twitter would become the cultural behemoths they are now?

The one thing Beilein knows: He and his program have to keep up with it all.

“It’s really important for us to (not) say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to go there,’ or ‘I’m not going to do e-mail,’ or ‘I’m not going to’ — you have to do it,” Beilein said. “You have to delegate it well, and you have to manage it very well.”

Otherwise, Michigan may fall behind in a rapidly changing college basketball landscape.

Telep warns that it could do “more harm than good” if a coach goes out of his comfort zone in trying to adapt to social media. One would think that he’s referring to someone exactly like Beilein, a 58 year old who has spent much of his career in the lower, less pressure-filled ranks of college basketball — a coach who you wouldn’t expect to use Twitter regularly, let alone even know its ins and outs.

And perhaps Beilein truly doesn’t know a lot about it. But he’s successfully adapted, and more importantly, just as he said, he has delegated effectively. He quickly realized his assistants had great potential with the newer, ever-more-important forms of media, and Beilein has essentially given them free reign to build interest in Michigan.

So far, they’ve done so very successfully — probably better than most other college basketball programs — and they’ve done it all within the rules.

But as innocent as they may appear now, Twitter and other new media forms will play a critical role in the future of college basketball and, indeed, all sports. Beilein, Telep, Alexander and others have said they’re not sure where it’s all headed — and nobody can really know for sure.

“I (heard) recently on NPR that our body’s wired to have 150 people that we deal with,” Beilein said. “Back in the day, back in the caveman day, you maybe had 50 people, 100 people in your village (and a) couple people from different villages.

“Now, it’s literally millions that you’re corresponding with in some small fashion. You’re overloaded, so you have to be very careful with that.”

The Michigan coaches may be “HALOL,” but below the surface, Twitter is serious business.