Universities look upon official visits as their best opportunity to sell the merits of the football program and the school. For a brief period of around 48 hours, recruits get a chance to try out everything firsthand, and football coaches and administrators are allowed to use all their best powers of persuasion.
Official visits can occur at any time of the year, but the great majority occur either during the football season or during the months of December and January. Like most schools, Vanderbilt saves most of its official visits for the winter months in hopes of enticing some of the best uncommitted prospects to tender commitments.
What generally happens on an official visit? Typically recruits-- and sometimes one or both parents, whose expenses are also picked up by the university-- are met at the airport by members of the staff on Friday evening and chauffeured to the campus. They are assigned a room at the Marriott and fed at a local restaurant. Recruits are assigned a host player for the weekend, generally someone from a similar state or background-- or failing that, someone who plays the same position.
Then it's off to a series of pre-arranged parties, where the recruit gets a taste of campus life. The parties often last well into the wee hours.
Saturday is generally consumed with tours and meetings for a recruit and his parents. Escorted around campus by his player host or someone else, the recruit generally meets with a professor in his proposed course of study. He takes a look at Vanderbilt's facilities-- the stadium, the weight room, the John Rich Practice Complex. He meets with his position coach.
Chancellor Gordon Gee and Vice Chancellor David Williams have also been known to get involved in the recruiting process. With Vanderbilt's recent athletic department restructuring, Gee and/or Williams usually makes himself available in Kirkland Hall to meet personally with recruits and their families and help clear up any misunderstandings.
Recruits rub elbows with others who may be considering Vanderbilt, and that interaction is critically important. Many times, like this weekend, the staff brings in recruits who are already solid in their commitments to help influence others who may be wavering. Current Vanderbilt players are generally on hand to answer questions about what it's really like to be a Commodore student-athlete.
Official visitors are encouraged to eat as much as they like, as often as they like, at the Hendrix Room at McGugin Center. With chef Majid Noori supplying the cuisine for one of the country's finest training tables, the value of this experience should never be underestimated. "It seemed like we were always eating," said defensive back Jared Fagan, Vandy's most recent commitment.
Saturday usually ends with tickets to some kind of on-campus sporting event, like a basketball game (or in football season, a football game). The recruit and his parents are given primo tickets, and are encouraged to let down their hair a little bit in order to support the Commodores. Ideally, the recruit witnesses a big win by the home team, in front of a rowdy crowd, and is swept up by the euphoria.
The last item on the agenda is typically the meeting with the head coach on Sunday. The questions run something like this: How did you like everything? Was there anything you didn't like? Are there any concerns you have, about school, football, or anything else? Is Vanderbilt a place you would be comfortable spending the next four or five years?
If the answers to all these questions are positive, typically-- but not always-- the head coach will extend a scholarship offer, provided one has not already been extended. He will push for a verbal commitment-- how hard depends on the player's desirability-- and explain all the ramifications of making such a commitment. Many times a recruit will make his decision then; other times, he will ask for more time to decide.
If the recruit waffles, the head coach sometimes explains that, although a scholarship offer is available today, it may not be available by next week, if another player snatches it up. And he's not lying. Scholarships are limited, and are often awarded to the first player at his position who expresses a desire to accept it.
Sometimes this strategy works, and sometimes it doesn't. "Vanderbilt when I went up there made me feel like they were pressuring me a bit," said defensive back recruit Kevin Patterson, who visited in December, "and I didn't really like that."
It's impossible to tell what will connect with a 17- or 18-year-old high school student. Sometimes it's the facilities; sometimes it's the school; sometimes it's the food, or the girls. Sometimes it's even something like the school colors.
"I really liked the players I met on my visit," Fagan said after his visit. "That was what sold me."
The recruit is then escorted back to the airport and given final instructions and handshakes, and the whirlwind-ish weekend comes to an end. "The whole weekend I only got like six or seven hours of sleep," said Fagan. On some occasions, a cadre of players and coaches have been known to accompany the recruit all the way back to the airport, in order to help leave a favorable impression of Vanderbilt in the student-athlete's mind.
When a player makes his choice, he makes a "commitment" simply by informing the head coach that he plans to accept the offer. The commitment is non-binding, however, until the player signs his name to a binding letter-of-intent. According to NCAA rules, that can't happen until the first Wednesday in February (Feb. 4 this year).