SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the ultra-competitive, no-days-off world of college football recruiting, programs are always looking for a way to gain an advantage in convincing 18-year-olds to play at their respective universities. For Notre Dame, one of those ways turned out to be Showtime’s “A Season With Notre Dame Football,” the behind-the-scenes reality show that followed the Irish throughout the 2015 season.
Notre Dame agreed to allow Showtime’s cameras inside its offices, locker rooms and practice fields not necessarily because of the recruiting bump it’d surely get from the show. But coach Brian Kelly told Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman last week that four-star cornerback Troy Pride — and, more importantly, his parents — were indirectly pitched by the show’s look into everyday life as a football player in South Bend.
“We didn't do it to try to change those that don't like Notre Dame or are not fans of Notre Dame,” Kelly said during his signing day press conference last week. “We wanted them to respect who we are and what our student-athletes do on a day-to-day basis.
“So I think more than anything else, I think it gave them insight as to what their day is like and who they are, and I think if anything, we were able to gain a lot of respect from those that saw what the student-athletes do on a day-to-day basis.”
There were missteps, of course — a trailer airing Ronnie Stanley’s apology to the team for not being able to accept his captaincy created an early snafu — but the reaction Irish coaches said they received on the road about the show were overwhelmingly positive.
Recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, who helped spearhead some of the program’s outside-the-box strategies, said the series was “awesome,” and that it provided excellent exposure for the football team and university. Running backs coach Autry Denson, who emerged as an ace recruiter in his first cycle at Notre Dame, agreed.
“It was good that a lot of people mentioned it and all the feedback was very positive,” Denson said. “It allowed people to see beyond the football (and) the things you see on Saturday. It definitely made us a lot more personable to our recruits and people in general.”
Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said he was able to use the show to fortify his pitches to recruits. Of course, not everything Showtime’s cameras captured was aired, but coaching criticisms of players were weaved with praise, and the exciting moments of sideline celebrations on Saturdays were spliced in with footage of mundane meetings.
“What this show did for us is it allowed us to really tell a story,” Sanford said. “And what I loved about it was it told the true story. I’ve been around coaches that, when the cameras come around, they’re different and they get their camera coaching on. This was, during the season, exactly what it was like during spring ball when nobody was around. So people got to see an authenticity of our program and the human side of our program, and I think that really helped us tell the story in a positive way.”
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Notre Dame won’t do the series again — two years would be a lot — but during a recruiting cycle that began with three assistant coaches departing for other jobs and another being bumped to an off-the-field analyst role, Kelly, Elston & Co. had to get creative. Notre Dame’s recruiting class doesn’t rate especially well, at least by its standards — Rivals has it 12th, Scout 13th, 247 Sports 15th and ESPN 16th — but it did fill red-line depth needs on the defensive line and in the secondary. Plus, five-star receiver Demetris Robertson is still undecided, with Notre Dame a finalist — and he could make those team ratings look much more favorable if he winds up picking the Irish sometime later this month.
But even if Pride, a native of Greer, S.C. who will be in the mix to fill a gaping hole on Notre Dame’s secondary depth chart, was the only recruit to choose Notre Dame in part because of the Showtime series, it still can be considered a success.
“A lot of the families of the guys that I happened to be directly involved in recruiting loved the series, and they really felt like they got a lot more of an inside look with what was going on in our program in particular,” associate head coach/wide receivers Mike Denbrock said. “… To see it throughout the whole season and see the dynamic we have with our student athletes and see the relationship they have with us and how we work together with a football team and really as a Notre Dame community, I think really showed well to recruits out there and was a real positive to us.”