Investigation: NCAA schools' spending on college football recruiting is skyrocketing
Coach Kirby Smart’s newest slogan befits a good college football program eager to kick down the door to greatness: “Do more.”
During Smart’s tenure at the University of Georgia, those haven't just been words but a financial reality, playing out in the school’s investment in recruiting football players.
To that end, no public college has done more than Georgia.
Annual recruiting costs are soaring for Power Five college football programs across the nation, a USA TODAY Network investigation found, especially in the “It Just Means More” world of the Southeastern Conference.
And Georgia leads the way.
From fiscal years 2016 through 2018, Georgia’s football recruiting expenditures totaled just over $1.5 million more than any other of the nation’s 52 public Power Five universities, according to figures reported to the NCAA and obtained by the Courier Journal and USA TODAY Network in partnership with Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
At Georgia, such spending has marked a dramatic upturn that has accompanied Smart’s arrival after the 2015 season.
From 2016 to 2018, Georgia exceeded its budgeted amounts for football recruiting by millions to collectively spend more than $7 million, well ahead of No. 2 Alabama (roughly $5.56 million) and No. 3 Tennessee ($5 million).
Georgia’s football recruiting expenditures have more than quadrupled in recent years, going from $581,531 in the 2013 fiscal year, when Mark Richt was head coach, to roughly $2.63 million in 2018 (not adjusting for inflation).
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“When you’re in the SEC, you’d better be able to compete at the highest level,” Smart said. “That’s across the line of scrimmage. That’s in the administration buildings. That’s in what you can do for student-athletes, and we’ve been able to do that.”
On the field, Georgia under Smart won the SEC title and reached the national championship game to end the 2017 season before again reaching the SEC title game in 2018. Those past two title games ended in close losses to Alabama, but Georgia has continued to compile some of the nation's top-rated recruiting classes, trending closer to ending a Bulldogs' national title drought that goes back to 1980 and Herschel Walker.
The coach of Georgia's last national champion team, Vince Dooley, later served as the school's athletic director. He said the financial investment for football at Georgia "has always been at a high level, but never as high as it is now."
"I'm not surprised that Georgia and Alabama are right up at the top at spending the most," Dooley said. "To be able to compete at that highest level, the way that you do it is to recruit at the highest level, and the way you do that is that you spend a lot of money going wherever you need to go. No limit."
Budgets ballooning everywhere
The NCAA defines recruiting costs as including “transportation, lodging and meals for prospective student-athletes and institutional personnel on official and unofficial visits,” and the “value of use of institution’s own vehicles or airplanes as well as in-kind value of loaned or contributed transportation.”
Fifty-two Power Five public universities collectively spent more than $50 million to recruit football players in 2018, the most recent year totals were available. That was up from roughly $35.5 million just two years before.
During the 2018 fiscal year, public schools in the SEC averaged more than $1.3 million in football recruiting costs, compared with public schools in the Big 12 ($961,981), ACC ($938,424), Big 10 ($855,437) and Pac-12 ($708,750).
The SEC spent the most, but costs are climbing nationwide. Texas’ expenditures increased from $420,227 in 2016 to $1.82 million in 2018. Meanwhile, less prominent programs such as Kansas, Minnesota and Utah were among the 19 Power Five public schools to pass the $1 million list in 2018.
"I don't think this is sustainable, and I've said that publicly," said Florida State athletic director David Coburn. "I think there are very real risks in not trying to rein in the rate of growth in your athletic budget. And I don't think they are necessarily long term. ... I think chickens are coming home to roost everywhere. With the exception of a very small number of schools, everyone is feeling the pressure."
Recruiting spending for Florida State football soared from $655,785 in 2016 to roughly $2.28 million in 2017, which led all 52 Power Five public schools that year and was more than $600,000 over the amount the Seminoles had budgeted for it.
Coburn was appointed FSU's athletic director in May after serving since August 2018 in an interim role, and he has spent much of his time in charge addressing an athletics department budget deficit, which has necessitated cuts.
During the 2018 fiscal year, FSU's recruiting costs for football dropped back to $1.58 million while Seminoles head football coach Jimbo Fisher departed in December 2017 for Texas A&M.
Coburn said the dramatic jump in recruiting costs in 2017 could have been because of changes in the accounting process. He added, "I suspect that there may have been more use of private planes that one particular year," but with sweeping changes since atop FSU's department and football program, Coburn said he couldn't "really find anyone who can give me a good explanation for that jump."
Fisher's new program at Texas A&M spent more than $1.71 million to recruit in 2018, well-exceeding its budgeted amount of $951,500.
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In budgeting ahead for recruiting, administrators can often be in a tough spot. They don’t want to offer a blank check, so to speak, but "you're not going to tell them to stop recruiting," said Tennessee athletic director and former football coach Phillip Fulmer.
"Of all the things that we do, that's probably the No. 1 thing that we have to do," Fulmer said, "short of supporting them academically when they get there."
UGA athletic director Greg McGarity cited travel costs and a strategy to recruit more nationally as a reason for the Bulldogs' rising expenditures.
From 2015 to 2018, Georgia exceeded its budgeted amount for football recruiting by $2.38 million (an average of $593,948 per year), according to information obtained by the Courier Journal separately from the NCAA reports. The overage peaked at $945,966 in 2016, when Georgia's budgeted amount was $1.25 million. That budgeted amount increased to about $1.9 million in 2017 and $2.27 million for 2018, as well as for 2019.
“They can’t sit here (ahead of time) and say, ‘I’m going to make 10 trips to California. I need to make eight trips to Miami.’ I mean, there’s just no way to do that,” McGarity said. “There is a bit of flexibility because you’re not going to shortchange, especially, football recruiting. … Contingency funds within your operation budget, that’s how you cover overages. But you try to do the best job that you can to estimate the expenses that you’ll incur during the year.”
McGarity stressed that comparing recruiting costs for schools is not apples to apples. In particular, amounts for travel can vary based on access to planes.
For instance, Georgia does not have regular access to private aircraft for coaches' travel, McGarity said, “so we basically use four of five different groups to facilitate our travel depending on where coaches have to go.”
Yet in a previous job, McGarity oversaw aviation for the University of Florida's athletic department, which he said had access to two private planes.
“That was a great thing to be able to use the aircraft at Florida because their budgets just had to absorb the fuel costs,” McGarity said. “The pilots were on salary. The plane, it was all in a different account. It’s different than us. Basically, we just write a check to a vendor for the trip, whichever trip that our coaches may be on.”
‘It just means more’
Arkansas director of football operations Randy Ross, who previously worked for 17 years at Alabama and oversaw recruiting efforts, recalled a player once choosing Tennessee over Alabama while citing that the Volunteers had soft-serve ice cream readily available.
“Buddy, you’d better believe we had a soft-serve ice cream machine in Bryant Hall after that,” Ross said with a laugh.
When Ross arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1990 and was put in charge of Alabama's recruiting operations, he met with then-athletic director Hootie Ingram.
“He said, ‘Listen, at Alabama, there is no recruiting budget,’” Ross said. “Whatever we’ve got to spend to recruit — now he wanted it done legally — but there is no limit. He said, ‘I want you to go get the best players you can. Money is not a factor.’ … I never heard the word (‘budget’) again in the 17 years I was there. I heard it that one day, and I never heard it again, because of the support. And that’s what I think you’ll find at a lot of SEC schools.”
In 2006, the year prior to Nick Saban’s arrival at Alabama and the final full year of Ross' tenure in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide spent $237,774 in football recruiting. Five national championships later, Alabama spent $2.34 million in 2018, second only to Georgia among public Power Five programs and ahead of third-place Tennessee.
Those top three spenders all have ties to Alabama's coach and program.
Georgia's Smart was hired away from his post as Saban's defensive coordinator at Alabama, and Tennessee is coached by Jeremy Pruitt, who replaced Smart as coordinator in Tuscaloosa before being hired in Knoxville.
“Really, (recruiting costs) are just a reflection of the coach and how they approach recruiting, how they approach official visits, how they approach the entire world of recruiting,” McGarity said. “... I would just say you have some coaches that are visionaries, and a lot depends on who you surround yourself with and where you’ve been.
"I think in the case of Kirby, he had experience at other institutions, saw some things that we could do better. So we’re moving forward in a lot of those.”
Schools are spending more to recruit football players because, generally, it's an investment with proven results.
Only three teams — Alabama, Clemson and Georgia — have played in the past four national title games, and each of those three ranked in the top five nationally among public Power Five colleges in 2018 recruiting expenditures, with Clemson (fifth at $1.79 million) coming in behind UGA, Alabama, Texas and Texas A&M.
Georgia’s 2017, 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes ranked third, first and second in the country, respectively, in 247 Sports’ composite rankings. The next highest spender, Alabama, ranked first, fifth and first in those three years.
“They do more (in the SEC) than anybody else as far as recruiting-wise,” said Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton, who was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator this past season. “It’s money well spent. … It’s an arms race, and if you’re able to get that particular two, three, four guys, they’ll make a difference. Because in the SEC, the parity is everybody is pretty much the same. It’s just those few marquee guys.”
After losing the 2017 season’s national championship game in overtime to Alabama, Georgia’s Smart pledged, “We’re not going anywhere.”
In 2018, Georgia spent $2.63 million on football recruiting and roughly half — $1.36 million — on all other sports' recruiting combined. The next highest sport was men’s basketball at $341,064.
The price tag for football recruiting was more than Georgia spent for athletic financial aid for its six men’s teams other than football ($2.45 million) and for travel for all of its women’s teams combined ($2.37 million).
“I think Kirby would be very aggressive in recruiting,” McGarity said. “It just is the style and the approach that the head coach desires to take. … I think he’s going to find ways — as he talked about at (SEC) media day — what are the incremental improvements we can make that may make a difference?
“Because there’s a thin, thin line between really being good and great. And what can you do to close that gap?”
Where does the money go?
Costs for prospects on official visits to campuses can be steep, especially if those visits happen on game weekends with increased travel and hotel rates. Along with the addition of an early signing period for football, the NCAA recently changed the window for official visits to include months in the spring, thus increasing visits and costs.
But additional cash is now being spent on recruiting travel via private planes, specifically for assistant coaches.
“Before if the head coach was flying on the plane, then the assistants could jump on,” said Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork, who until recently held the same role at Ole Miss. “Now there’s assistant coaches flying by themselves or in a smaller group on private planes, and then the head coach might be on another plane going somewhere else.”
Schools willing to spend more to charter expensive flights for assistant coaches can obtain an advantage of having them reach more prospects in a short period of time — and then be back and ready to do it again the next day.
While on Pruitt’s staff at Tennessee, Helton would catch chartered flights before dawn.
“You’re flying to Atlanta, Georgia,” Helton said. “You’re flying to South Georgia. You’re going to Tampa, Florida. You’re going to Miami, Florida. You’re headed back up to Jacksonville to pick up a coach. You’re flying across to Mississippi to pick up a coach. And then you’re back in your hometown all in the same day.
“I don’t know what that bill looks like, but just the gas alone, I couldn’t imagine paying that bill.”
Rising costs have also accompanied larger staffs devoted to recruiting, whose salaries aren't reflected in the budgets. The additional input means more brainstorming and more extravagant efforts to impress prospects, not just on visits.
Some coaches, including Georgia's Smart, have traveled via helicopter to watch practicing prospects at high schools.
“The splash of the coach showing up in a helicopter, I think I did that one time at Kentucky,” said Rich Brooks, UK’s head coach from 2003-09. “… It doesn’t make sense, a lot of it. But you have to one-up the competition, and it gets very, very expensive, and I’m not sure where this round of the great volleys of ‘Let’s see who can outdo the other’ is going to end.”
Arkansas will often send daily mailouts with promotional materials, whereas in the past those might have gone weekly from schools.
“Everybody has got 20 people in their recruiting department,” Ross said, “and when kids come on campus, they’ve got all the fancy bells and whistles. … Everything we do focuses on recruiting. So we’re always trying to think of something. We’re always trying to keep up with the latest things that we can. You have to spend money to make that happen.”
Closing the gap
Some schools might be new to higher recruiting costs, but at Tennessee, "We've been there from a commitment to recruiting," Fulmer said.
In the previous decade, Tennessee was consistently the SEC’s pacesetter in football recruiting expenditures. From 2006-08, during Fulmer's time as head coach, the Vols were the only program in the conference that annually spent more than $1 million.
“When I was growing up, Tennessee was one of the premier programs in the country,” said Pruitt, the Vols' current coach, “and that's still the expectations of the fans, everybody associated with the athletic department, our coaching staff and our players.”
Tennessee remains one of the leaders among Power Five public schools in recruiting expenditures, ranking third in 2018 behind Georgia and Alabama. In 2017, Florida State ranked first. Pruitt worked at each of those four universities in the past six years, serving as defensive coordinator for the Seminoles, Bulldogs and Crimson Tide.
Unlike the other three programs, the Vols haven't enjoyed much success on the field since Fulmer was fired as head coach during the 2008 season.
"As we build our program back and show young people that we're for real again," Fulmer said, "our facility and tradition and history and all those things are still very much intact. Our goal is to get back competing at the top of the league. Nobody is going to roll over and just play dead and let us do that, so we've got to fight and get there."
Oddly enough, prior to Smart’s arrival in Athens, Pruitt sought to publicly herald Georgia’s transformation in football.
In November 2014, Georgia was in the early stages of building an indoor practice facility, the lack of which had been a sore spot among the Bulldogs’ faithful. It would open in early 2017, but it wasn’t finished yet, and — with an eye on recruiting — then-defensive coordinator Pruitt addressed that fact with reporters after a practice had been deterred by rain.
“The people we compete against, they're going to say, 'There's great people at Georgia. Coach Richt's a great guy, a great coach,'” Pruitt said at the time. “But what they say is, 'How important is football at Georgia?' because they don't have an indoor practice facility.”
Georgia has since finished its indoor practice facility and has renovated areas of Sanford Stadium, work that carried a price tag in the range of $93 million, McGarity said.
“I think it’s being competitive,” McGarity said. “Once you decide that you want to compete at this level, there’s certain things that you need to do.”
The cost of the facilities race in college football goes well beyond budgeted amounts for recruiting, but in many ways, it’s tied to the same pursuit: Impressing recruits to want to attend your school.
"I'm not sure that recruiting expenditures are any different than facilities expenditures or coaching salary expenditures, quite frankly," FSU's Coburn said. "... Practically, it's your lifeblood. You have to compete. You have to spend what you need to spend.
"Politically, it's very hard to defend cutting your recruiting budget, not just with your coaching staff but with your supporters and your boosters, your former players. You draw back a nub if you're not careful."
Now in the administrative chair as a former coach, Fulmer said, "It's undeniable that it's an arms race."
When the costs are going to be too much for colleges to support?
"You wonder about that," Fulmer replied. "You see the escalation of facilities, the competition of stadiums. Does it become corporate with people and advertising? I don't know. But everybody said 20 years ago this is not sustainable.
"But here we are, right?"
USA TODAY's Steve Berkowitz contributed to this report.