The Helicopter Parent Descends on College Football

When Leslie Smith, a high school senior from Miami, made his official visit to the University of Pittsburgh last month, he got an idea before a photo shoot in which he was to pose wearing the Panthers’ football uniform.

He asked his mother, Lucretia Chapple, who was accompanying him on his visit, to put on the jersey.

His request was too mild for her.

“She decided, ‘I’m going to put on the whole uniform,’” Smith said.

The result is a pair of pictures of Smith, who will suit up for Pitt more regularly next season as a freshman linebacker, and Chapple, who in years past played basketball and ran track. Both are clad in the school’s blue and gold colors, head to almost-toe (they did not appear to have cleats that fit Chapple). Long hair flows from the back of her helmet.

“She looks pretty good in that uniform,” said Smith’s future coach, Pat Narduzzi. “She looks like a player.”

Parents of college-age students have long proudly advertised where their students attend school on sweatshirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, etc.

But football parents — a special species of sports parent — have a new twist on that this year. As national signing day dawns Wednesday, the trend du jour is parents dressing up in uniforms alongside their talented sons.

The resulting shots are, of course, posted to Twitter and Instagram, from which they ricochet across the web.

“I had buddies coming up to me being like, ‘You know you’re on Barstool Sports?’” said Steve Snyder, who posed alongside his son, Sam, a tight end, during Sam’s official visit to Missouri.

There may be no bigger date on the calendar for college football teams than signing day, since personnel overwhelmingly dictates a team’s ultimate success or failure. For the past two years, players have also been able to sign during a brief window in December, as Smith did, but signing day is still when ultimate judgment about coaches’ recruiting is rendered.

“For college football, recruiting is the lifeblood,” said Luke Stampini, a recruiting analyst at 247Sports. “If you’re not recruiting well, you’re probably not going to be around for long.”

The uniform photo-op arguably reflects broader currents in child rearing. It could be cast as helicopter-parenting — or perhaps the next generation of helicopter-parenting, in which the parent ropes down from the chopper right after his child.

“This is the era of ‘we’ parenting, i.e., ‘We have a midterm. We’ve got a game tomorrow. We’re being recruited by top-tier schools,’” Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford administrator and the author of “How to Raise an Adult,” said in an email.

“If the child is wearing a jersey signaling their recruitment status, the we-speaking parent wants that cool jersey, too,” she said, adding, “But where does this intertwined-ness stop?”

What the novelty undeniably reveals is a crucial secret to recruiting nowadays. For all the talk that prognosticators may offer about how well a certain linebacker meshes with a certain coordinator’s defensive philosophy or how successful a college program is at developing players for the N.F.L., much of recruiting comes down to the more basic element of feel. Even for top football players, college football is also college, and that means getting the family to sign on, too.

“The recruiting process is not just about the player. They can’t recruit the player. They’ve got to recruit the family,” said Jamal Hill, who posed alongside his older brother, Jeffrey, who got to wear Oregon’s neon green uniform as opposed to Jamal’s black one.

“It’s a long-term decision,” Hill added. “You’ve got to trust them. Once you start recruiting the whole family, that makes it go more smoothly.”

During their campus visits, recruits typically tour not only football facilities but academic ones. Coaches are as likely to shoot the breeze as to draw Xs and Os on a whiteboard, hoping to make recruits — and their families — feel like their college is a suitable home-away-from-home.

Steve Ognenovic — whose son Nikolas, a tight end, posed alongside his father at Pitt and Kentucky before signing with the latter — recalled a long visit with Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn. “We spent 20 minutes talking about football,” Ognenovic said. “The rest was about the new addition on his deck, the truck he bought. He’s a regular guy.”

The trend can also be a way for coaches to signal to recruits, present and future, what kind of program they are running. For instance, Florida’s second-year head coach, Dan Mullen, appears intent on reintroducing to Gainesville the kind of whimsy one expects from a team whose fans do a gator-chop on game days.

In contrast, a Tennessee assistant coach recently spoke out against the practice, tweeting that one of the things he prays for was “that I NEVER have to outfit someone’s dad in full gear for a photo shoot.” It is not shocking that the assistant first worked with Tennessee’s head coach, Jeremy Pruitt, when both were on the staff of Alabama’s supremely buttoned-up Nick Saban, whose recruits are probably less likely to pose alongside mom or dad.

So why do some kids and parents want these photographs, which may be compelling but are also a little bit absurd? And why do they make heavy rotation on social media and in the sports blogosphere?

The photos are a reminder of the human dimension in college football’s annual meat market. For all the hoopla over which program has signed the best class (spoiler: yet again, it will probably be Alabama) and which team whiffed on a prized in-state offensive lineman, often overlooked is how big a day this is for the prospects themselves, who, like so many other adolescents who are less gifted on the gridiron, are finally completing the large and much-celebrated process of deciding where to go to college.

Steve Snyder said that, when a Missouri coach asked if he wanted to put a jersey on, “I thought to myself, how many opportunities am I ever going to get to have an experience like this with my son?”

His son ended up signing with Baylor, and, Snyder said, friends and family had already loaded up on Bears gear. “You’re very proud parents,” he said. “Lot of hard work.”

Doris Burke contributed research.

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