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Recruiting expenditures have skyrocketed for college football programs after the sport implemented an early signing period, a move some had believed would help cut those costs.
Instead, teams are spending more money than ever to recruit players.
An examination of figures reported to the NCAA by 52 public universities in Power Five conferences showed they collectively spent more than $50.3 million in football recruiting in the 2018 fiscal year, the first full year with the early signing period in place. That total was nearly $7 million more than in 2017 and nearly $15 million more than in 2016, according to data compiled by the USA TODAY Network in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“It certainly didn’t accomplish what everybody hoped it would,” said Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee’s athletic director and former head football coach.
Division I college football adopted changes to its recruiting calendar in spring 2017, and a three-day early signing period was introduced in December of that year. This allowed high school recruits the option of signing a National Letter of Intent early rather than having to wait until the traditional February signing date.
MAJOR EXPENSE: Spending on college football recruiting is skyrocketing
At the time, some suggested the early signing period would help cut costs since coaches would no longer have to continue to recruit already committed players until February.
“It financially helps all schools involved,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told the Tulsa World in 2016.
“I have always been at a school where we don’t have free-flowing cash,” former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema told Hawgs Illustrated in 2016. “We have to account for every penny we use, and I love it that way. I think an early signing period would cut down on a lot of costs.”
Not all coaches, however, were in favor of the early signing period.
Georgia’s Kirby Smart, for example, cautioned that the change wouldn’t bring the financial relief some were suggesting.
“People think it’s going to cut down on cost,” said Smart, according to The Macon Telegraph. “(But) you’re not going to spend less because you do that. You’re going to go see someone else.”
Smart, as it turned out, was correct.
His Georgia program spent more in the 2018 fiscal year to recruit than any other Power Five public college, totaling more than $2.6 million, an increase of $355,662 from the previous year.
Spending more than doubled for Gundy’s Oklahoma State program, going to $715,492 from $353,468, while Tennessee’s recruiting tab topped $2 million in 2018 for the first time, nearly doubling what the Vols spent in 2015.
“Some of this is the product of changing the recruiting calendar, I think,” Fulmer said. “Everybody is trying to get out there and not only see seniors-to-be but juniors-to-be and sophomores-to-be and in some cases younger than that. That in itself creates more … expense, whether it’s air travel or hotels or whatever.”
The rising recruiting costs in 2018 can’t necessarily be pinned on coaches’ travel as much as a rule change for recruits that accompanied the early signing period.
Along with the early signing period, the NCAA also began allowing high school juniors to take official visits to schools in a three-month period beginning April 1. Prospects previously had to wait until September to begin official visits.
Universities are allowed to pay costs for a prospect’s official visit (as opposed to unofficial visits), and the additional opportunity for visits has thus impacted recruiting budgets.
“Now a kid shows up and he’s there for 48 hours and you get that one shot,” said Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton, who last season was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. “So everything has to be right. The organization and the detail of it, there’s a lot of work that goes into it.”
Also in 2016, rules were changed to allow colleges to pay for two guardians to accompany a recruit while visiting a school.
The combination has caused the cost of football prospects’ visits to soar.
Texas A&M reported $247,979 in costs for football recruits’ travel, food, lodging and entertaining in the 2017 fiscal year. In 2018, that expense jumped to $588,026.
As a result, Texas A&M’s overall spending jumped from $1.28 million to $1.7 million from 2017 to 2018, despite its coaches’ travel expenditures actually decreasing $25,000.
“There’s been some relaxing of some of the rules that put more of a cost on some of the operations,” said Aggies athletic director Ross Bjork.
“With the visits in the spring with April, May and June, it’s tough on a coach right now,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “The time spent, every weekend is a recruiting weekend. … These assistant coaches, they take a pounding now. It’s really tough.”
Only 11 of 52 public Power Five schools spent less to recruit in 2018 than in 2017. One of those 11, South Carolina, decreased coaches’ travel expenses by $117,192 from the previous fiscal year. But costs for the Gamecocks’ prospect visits in 2018 totaled $451,723, more than triple the $137,951 the program spent for prospect visits in 2015.
Alabama’s $2.34 million recruiting total in 2018 marked an increase of more than $800,000 from the previous fiscal year.
“Recruiting has become 24/7,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “because we’ve created a scenario where we have to recruit constantly because we’re recruiting guys in advance as we move up the recruiting calendar.”
The costs for coaches’ travel — already increasing as more schools are using private flights for assistant coaches in addition to head coaches — perhaps haven’t been impacted as much by the early signing period, “but it didn’t curb anything,” said Randy Ross, director of football operations at Arkansas.
While coaching staffs don’t have to continue to recruit the majority of a class already signed, they’re still using the opportunity to travel and scout prospects in future classes.
“I think the principle that kind of everybody thought was, well, if (recruits) know where they want to go, then less time and money will be spent on that young man … and you don’t have to ‘babysit’ him for the next three or four months and everybody’s happy,” Fulmer said. “Well, you accomplish part of that with the signing, but it also gave coaches, it’s like they’re afraid not to go and start recruiting the juniors because everybody else is.”
And that often means casting a wider net than when the list of targets was smaller for a class nearly completed.
“They thought (the early signing period) might cut the cost a little bit,” Ross said, “because you can get those kids signed and now you don’t have to go travel as much to visit them. But I think what you’ve found is even if those kids sign in December, we’re recruiting such an early age now that it never ends. There’s nothing that really ever slows it down.”
Editor’s Note: Dollar amounts used for this story were reported by schools through the annual NCAA Financial Report process. In a small number of cases, the reported recruiting totals differed slightly from those supplied directly by the schools via separate requests, including totals from the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville that were used in previous coverage by the Courier Journal.
USA TODAY’s Steve Berkowitz contributed to this report.