Houston coach Tony Levine quickly tells you the wisest investment his program has made in the past six years: Gas money and a hotel room.
Forget about the helicopter trips some coaches at more well-funded programs take to hit the recruiting trail. Forget about multimillion-dollar stand-alone academic centers, or flat-screen televisions in the locker room, or 100,000-seat stadiums that are continually refurbished with bigger and bigger replay boards and fancy suites for boosters and donors.
Or bloated, $100 million athletic budgets for that matter.
Houston has none of that. Yet gas money and a hotel room got the Cougars more publicity than they could have ever gotten with a gigantic budget.
Gas money and a hotel room got Houston record-setting quarterback Case Keenum.
"That," Levine said, "is one of the best values in college football."
Value may be a laughable word on the campuses in Columbus or Austin or Gainesville or Tuscaloosa, where growing athletic budgets have swelled to what some might classify as obscene amounts of money spent on sports.
Some programs in richer conferences can afford to keep up. Others, like Houston, cannot. So they use every penny at their disposal to get as much as schools that spend triple.
Just consider in-state neighbor Texas, expected to spend $163 million on athletics next year. Know how many total national championships the Longhorns have won across all sports in the past six seasons? Two.
Boise State, on the other hand, had a total athletic budget of $37 million for 2011. Yet over the past several years, the Broncos have fared much better on the football field than the Longhorns. They remain the only program in college football to finish in the Top 10 in the final BCS standings in each of the past four seasons.
Much in the same way Keenum helped Houston, Kellen Moore transformed the Broncos, with 50 wins since 2008.
You can bet that wise investment also cost gas money and a hotel room.
"There's a lot of good football players that don't get recruited by these caliber of schools with big budgets, or aren't quite as big or people think are a step slow," said Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes, whose team just won a WAC football championship with $17 million in total expenses for 2010-11. "That's how Boise's made a living. Kellen Moore's not the strongest armed guy, not the tallest guy in the world but he's one of the best quarterbacks around.
"What you have to do is find those kinds of guys because they're out there. Facilities and all that kind of stuff are nice, don't get me wrong. But at the end of the day, football games are decided between the lines. They're not decided by budget sheets. When we played last year against teams with bigger budgets, I can guarantee you our kids didn't care, and our coaches didn't care."
Boise State has proven it does not care, either, taking down Georgia ($80 million in athletics expenses in 2011), Virginia Tech ($63 million) and Oregon ($76 million) since 2008, with the 2012 season opener set at Michigan State ($84 million).
So how does a school like Boise State do it? Here is a behind-the-scenes look at how programs like the Broncos succeed, despite what some may perceive to be inherent disadvantages.
First and foremost, you need a smart, charismatic face of the program who can wear multiple hats: coach, recruiter, talent evaluator, marketer, fund-raiser, salesman, academic adviser, manager and bean counter.
A head coach with all those traits nearly always wins, regardless of the resources.
"The greatest thing is you get to paint a vision," said Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, whose program spent $43 million on athletics in 2011 to rank No. 5 among the six public schools in the Big East. "When I want something, I drive really hard to get it."
Jones arrived at Cincinnati in December 2009 after three years at Central Michigan. The Chippewas spend about half of what the Bearcats spend on athletics. That never deterred Jones from getting what he wanted in Mount Pleasant.
He met with the president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association and got a deal to receive donated milk. He cajoled donations out of supermarkets and bakeries. He found a way to set up a nutritional bar for his players, a first at Central Michigan.
What you have to do is find those kinds of guys because they're out there. Facilities and all that kind of stuff are nice, don't get me wrong. But at the end of the day, football games are decided between the lines. They're not decided by budget sheets. When we played last year against teams with bigger budgets, I can guarantee you our kids didn't care, and our coaches didn't care.
”-- Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes
Keenly understanding the importance of fund-raising and donations, he created a special club for donors who gave a certain amount to the program. He has a similar group at Cincinnati called the 1200 Club, where donations of $1,200 get you in. Money from that group has helped renovate coaches' offices, meeting rooms and the players' lounge, now complete with flat-screen televisions, computer stations, video games and pinball machines.
But perhaps his greatest feat of persuasion happened going into his final year at Central Michigan. The team badly needed a new locker room. The cinder block walls and metal lockers had to go. Jones just so happened to be neighbors with Shaun Holtgreive, associate director of residence life. Holtgreive lends a helping hand with Central Michigan facilities projects, the perfect man for Jones to make his ambitious pitch.
Jones presented his idea -- would it be possible for new lockers to be made in the on-campus woodworking shop?
"I will never forget this," Jones recalled. "It was in January. My birthday is in January. So my friend said, 'Butch let's go for a ride.' He goes, 'Happy birthday. We found a way to make your locker room a reality.' If we would have had to gone outside, we would have never been able to afford it."
Not only were big, oak lockers installed in the locker room, the on-campus graphics department made action shot photos of each player to hang on the door.
"We are not going to let budget or finances or resources deter us from being successful," said Jones, who went 27-13 in three years at Central Michigan and won Big East Coach of the Year honors after a 10-3 campaign in Cincinnati. "When you roll the ball out to play, having a bigger budget doesn't give you any more points. The starting score is still 0-0. We're working to be the best football family in America and budget doesn't have anything to do with that. The formula for winning never changes. That was our mindset there, and that is our mindset now."
Facilities obviously help attract good players. But before they set foot on campus, coaches have to find quality players to bring in. Quality players who some of the bigger schools might be overlooking. Quality players who need a second chance. Quality players who you can project as having that certain "it" factor to make a difference in your program.
So recruiting, then, plays a huge role in whether schools with smaller budgets have success. Being within driving distance of some of the most fertile recruiting grounds is a huge plus. Take a look at the non-AQ programs that have had the most sustained success on the field over the past 10 years: Boise State, TCU, Houston, Southern Miss. Each one is either in a recruiting hotbed, or near a recruiting hotbed.
Southern Miss, for example, recruits into Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida -- while going up against SEC programs for the talent within closest proximity. Despite a small budget and the SEC heavies around them, the Golden Eagles have gone to 10 straight bowl games -- tied with Boise State as the leaders among all non-AQ schools.
Not only that, Southern Miss has posted 18 straight winning seasons -- and just won its record fifth Conference USA title. And its expenses for 2010-11 were among the lowest in C-USA, at $19.6 million.
"You go in with a philosophy that it doesn't matter who's recruiting them," said former Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora, who is now at North Carolina. "At Southern Miss, you sell the things the school has to offer that other schools can't. We had the highest graduation rate in the Southeast. You look at the winning tradition, players who have gone on to get drafted into the NFL. Kids come to Southern Miss because they expect success on the field and off.
"We knew that we were not always going to be able to get the ready-made player, coming out of high school, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound kid. We were taking the kid that was maybe 6-4, 250, 260 pounds. But you're developing him in your program over time. Those kids end up being just as good through that development. Because recruiting has sped up so much, you are now evaluating and making decisions on juniors in high school. There's a lot of growth for a young man to take between 17 and 21."
Houston also recruits against heavies from the Big 12 and essentially every top-notch program in the nation because of its location in Texas, one of the most fertile grounds for high school players. Five of the nine Cougars assistants recruit the greater Houston area, saving the school plenty in recruiting travel costs. The others scour Texas for hidden gems.
That explains how they found Keenum, who played high school football about 350 miles away in Abilene, Texas. Keenum threw for more than 6,000 yards in his high school career, but there were concerns about his size and ability to pilot an offense on the FBS level.
Houston was the only school that offered Keenum a scholarship. He ended his career as the NCAA FBS career leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns and is the only quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season three different times.
"He was overlooked for whatever reason," said Levine, who was not involved in Keenum's recruitment. "But for us, it was very inexpensive to recruit him. We didn't have to fly all over the country and spend money on airplane tickets and rental cars."
Levine and Fedora also find themselves working much harder at selling and marketing their programs. Fedora took spring scrimmages on the road to Jackson, Miss. He also set up camps at five different cities across the state. Last year, he worked some camps out of state.
That is a no-frills way of getting your school out there.
So is creating an April Fools' Day joke that ended up going viral.
Levine, on the job at Houston for just a few months, decided he wanted to have a little fun with his players this past April. It ended up benefitting him more than he ever imagined.
To lighten the mood around spring football practices, Levine came up with a prank. He decided to announce he was moving star running back Charles Sims to cornerback, complete with a news release and video interview.
Houston posted both on the school's website on the morning of April 1. Boy, did people buy what Levine was selling. Angry tweets and emails were directed at Levine, most of them too unsavory for print.
After a few hours, Levine announced he was just joking. But then, the video had gone viral and folks who had no idea who Levine was before April Fools' Day all of a sudden had a better picture of the new coach at Houston.
Levine not only got a good laugh out of his players and fans. All of a sudden, he started getting calls from national sports writers, recruits and parents. It was an invaluable -- and free -- way for a first-time head coach to gain exposure for his program.
"I just wanted to give a little insight into my personality," Levine said. "I think it showed people we're thinking outside the box."
"Outside the box" is a term Levine, Jones, Fedora and Dykes all used when describing how their programs have won recently. Thinking differently and creatively gets programs with smaller budgets huge rewards.
That leads to the biggest key of all. You don't get "outside the box" ideas from dollar signs on a budget sheet, Jones explains.
"We have to use our greatest resource of all, and our greatest resource of all has no dollar amount," he said.