Football Recruiting Has Become Big Business

By Kyle Rowland on May 14, 2014 at 8:30 am

Recruiting budgets used to be miniscule. A few tanks of gas here, a few plane tickets there. Now, it’s become an almost million-dollar undertaking.

From Ohio State to Bowling Green to Akron, there aren’t just coaching staffs working in the football facility. Schools also employ multi-person recruiting staffs, aimed at scouring the state and beyond for blue-chip football players who will bring championships. Thirteen of the Big Ten’s 14 schools have a director of player personnel. Iowa is the lone holdout.

Urban Meyer brought recruiting point man Mark Pantoni with him from Florida saying, “I couldn’t do it without him.”

The pressure to win in college football, with coaches’ salaries on a never-ending rise, has never been greater. In college sports, players are recycled every four years, making recruiting an important industry. But it’s taken on added significance in an era where freshmen can win the Heisman Trophy and become the face of a university and the sport.

“There’s no catching our breath,” said Pantoni, Ohio State’s director of player personnel.

And it only intensifies each passing year. The Big Ten’s 11 public universities spent $4.1 million on recruiting in 2011, a fraction of the $6.5 million they spent in 2013, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Documents provided in accordance to open-records laws indicate the conference’s members spend on average $1 million more each year.

Big Ten Football Recruiting Budgets
School 2011 2012 2013
Illinois $545,363 $614,529 $791,972
Indiana $270,134 $393,764 $402,262
Iowa $307,226 $403,305 $477,455
Michigan $577,633 $493,464 $664,492
Michigan State $383,448 $421,944 $657,592
Minnesota $348,609 $543,994 $648,755
Nebraska $478,554 $752,681 $818,509
Ohio State $320,938 $344,987 $564,152
Penn State $258,800 $443,022 $736,739
Purdue $428,805 $404,385 $480,168
Wisconsin $204,181 $212,045 $256,967
TOTALS $4,123,691 $5,028,120 $6,469,063

The process all begins, where else, on Twitter and Facebook. Pantoni, who uses an extra battery pack on his cell phone, wakes up at 7 a.m. and is wired online until he goes to bed that night.

“Typically, I’m the first one who will reach out to a kid,” he said. “It’s a Facebook or Twitter message that builds the whole conversation and then I’ll get them going with a position coach.

“There’s a balance window of 150-200 kids. I’m trying to keep creating a huge umbrella and maintain some sort of contact with as many as I can and try and get them up here on campus. It takes a lot of time and effort, which I pride myself on.”

Arms races aren’t limited to just facilities. Ohio State saw a major surge in spending when Meyer was hired. Recruiting costs increased by more than $200,000, to $564,000. Many would consider it money well spent. The Buckeyes have netted three top-five classes since Meyer entered the fray and they sport a 24-2 record during his two seasons.

“I hope it’s never an arms race in terms of trying to out-hire another program,” 247Sports national recruiting analyst J.C. Shurburtt said. “I think having liberal limits on recruiting personnel is a good thing. I hope the day never comes when 100 people work for a program just in the recruiting department.

“The entire subject, from coaches to prospects to media, has blown up out of control during the past 7-10 years, and I think it hurts the quality of players and play on the field thanks to the psychological impact it has on recruits and the difficulty of de-recruiting.”

Even with the uptick in spending, Ohio State’s overall costs are among the lowest in the conference. Columbus’s central location in the Midwest is one factor, as well as the number of inexpensive flights from Port Columbus International Airport.

“We use every resource possible to initially find [recruits],” Pantoni said. “When coaches go into high schools, they bring back a list of names. We really spend a lot of time and resources on the evaluation process. My staff and myself break down a minimum of two to 10 games on every single kid on our board for the coaches to evaluate.  That way we aren’t just watching a two-minute highlight tape of good plays. We’re making good and bad play cuts so the coaches have a true evaluation of the players, and we avoid making a mistake.”

The most widespread changes have come at Penn State. In the final years of Joe Paterno’s tenure, the Nittany Lions had an assistant coach serve as recruiting coordinator with nary a single support staffer. Times changed under Bill O’Brien and James Franklin. Penn State currently has four staffers with recruiting specific titles.

The Nittany Lions’ recruiting expenses have tripled the past two years, surging to more than $736,000. Nebraska leads the league at almost $818,000. Wisconsin’s $257,000 is the low end of the spectrum.

Wealthy athletic departments allow the Big Ten to compete nationally for recruits from coast to coast. According to a USA Today database of athletic department finances, all 11 public Big Ten universities rank in the top 35 in total revenue. Maryland and Rutgers are just outside that number.

“I think the Big Ten institutions and the conference as a whole, top to bottom, has the resources to do anything they or it wants as far as having what the SEC has,” Shurburtt said. “The issue to me is that the states where the Big Ten’s footprint has existed for years – Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania – don’t turn out the talent like they once did or like the SEC states do now.

“Now, the league has addressed it. Adding Rutgers and Maryland gives the conference the entire northern fourth of the country. Throw in New Jersey, New York and [DelMarVa] and that’s a load of talent to go pull from.”

In four months on the job, Franklin and Penn State have secured 16 verbal commitments – 10 from four-stars. He crossed north of the Mason-Dixon Line from the SEC, like Meyer, where recruiting is a blood sport. The 24/7 cycle in the South consumes the region. A handful of SEC programs spend north of $1 million on recruiting.

All 14 SEC programs have recruiting staffs that rival the nine-man coaching staffs. When Ole Miss reeled in one of the nation’s top-ranked recruiting classes in 2013, the cries of rule breaking screeched across the country. How could Hugh Freeze convince so many high-profile players to go to Oxford as opposed to Tuscaloosa? Ole Miss’s recent football history is not littered with championships of any kind. The last SEC title came in 1963.       

Well, when you have associate athletic directors for recruiting, high school and junior college relations, an assistant recruiting director, two coordinators for recruiting development and an offensive and defensive recruiting specialist, chances are you’ll out-recruit a majority of competitors.   

“It’s very vital to have as many people directly involved with recruiting as possible,” Shurburtt said. “You have to scour the country to find talent if you don't have it readily available in your own state. I think EA Sports NCAA Football is to blame partially for this and media tracking coaches on the recruiting trail. But fans don’t realize for the head coach and nine assistants, just a part of their job is dedicated to recruiting. These guys coach their players and have other duties, plus families, and they don't have 7-10 hours a day to watch film and find kids. So the more eyeballs you have, the wider net you can cast and the more fish you will catch, so to speak.”

Some point to the SEC’s dominance on the national stage – the conference has won seven of the last eight national championships. Its stranglehold on football is also seen on Sundays.

But it all starts in living room visits, part of a undertaking that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes millions.

Said Shurburtt: “That takes money.”

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