Recruiting a major yet vital expense

Mark Richt's job includes a year-round focus on recruiting elite talent to Georgia. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ATHENS, Ga. -- Take a glimpse at the average college football program's annual budget and one of the biggest line items will almost assuredly be recruiting.

At the University of Georgia -- which, according to an ESPN.com story last year, ranks among the sport's biggest recruiting spenders -- that line item accounted for $600,000 of the football program's $14,069,837 budget in the 2011-12 academic year.

But where does that money go? The only more costly budget items -- coach compensation, stadium expenses for home games, team travel and opponent guarantees -- are straightforward expenses. Recruiting, however, is a more nebulous spending category, and yet few elements in the sport are any more important in building and maintaining a competitive program.

"The kids are your lifeblood. You have to recruit them," said Georgia executive associate athletic director Frank Crumley, who is in charge of financial operations for the UGA Athletic Association. "I think you've got a staff that's been here and they've refined how they do it so it's not just haphazard. It was Rodney [Garner, who served as Georgia's recruiting coordinator for 14 years until taking a job at Auburn late last year] really focusing on it, and now we've got DJ [director of on-campus recruiting Daryl Jones], where that's his job and he can map out the 12 months."

And, make no mistake, recruiting has become a 12-month endeavor. The planning and budgeting needs of a major college football program have outgrown the old method of asking an assistant coach to serve as the coordinator of all things recruiting in addition to his on-field responsibilities.

Today, football recruiting staffs are expanding rapidly, and off-field staffers like Jones -- who signed on with Mark Richt's staff last May -- are beginning to helm most teams' recruiting enterprises.

Changing business

Jones' recruiting department at Georgia is the "Little Engine That Could" compared to the locomotives that coaches like Alabama's Nick Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn have recently put in place. Both SEC rivals have assembled teams of off-field analysts and veteran coaches like Alabama's director of player personnel Kevin Steele, who has oversight for recruiting.

Georgia's relatively small recruiting team starts with Jones and includes longtime program coordinator Connie Connelly, full-time assistant Ben Brandenburg, intern Thomas Guerry and a team of eight to 10 student assistants who assemble mailers and assist with research and graphics-related tasks.

The recent explosion in hiring for off-field recruiting positions -- thanks in part to NCAA recruiting deregulation measures that were curbed to a point during the spring -- leaves Georgia staffers curious about where the business is headed.

"In five years, there's really no telling what it's going to be like," said assistant athletic director for compliance Steve Flippen, who is intimately involved with the football program's recruiting work.

Although Jones' department is composed of just a few key members, those who help in the recruiting effort are numerous.

"There's so many people that are in the background that are working for us in our recruiting office," Richt said. "We've got professors all across campus that help us, people in admissions that help us.

"Even on our official visit weekends, when we try to show off the Butts-Mehre [athletic complex] and every part of the University of Georgia, we've got our fans that may show up to a basketball game or a gymnastics event or we may have even our custodial staff. They do a great job of making everything look awesome when everybody comes into our building. There's just so many people that get involved in this process."

The administrative staffers who aid Georgia's recruiting efforts number far more than just Jones' team, as well.

There's someone like associate athletic director for internal operations Josh Brooks, who acts as the liaison between the football program and budgeting head honcho Crumley. There are Flippen and his fellow compliance workers, who must make sure athletes are academically clear before arriving for an official visit -- along with taking the lead on assorted other rules- and academic-related issues.

And, as Richt mentioned, there are dozens of academic advisers, professors -- charismatic natural resources, recreation and tourism professor Gary Green is one whom the football program often invites to speak to recruits -- and other university employees who devote their time to help the university's most identifiable asset remain competitive on a national level.

"It's not really a 9-to-5 job where you don't see the outcome of it so much other than profit gains and things like that," Flippen said. "For us, there are 12, 13 Saturdays a year where we see the outcome of the fruits of our labor. There's a lot to be said for that. For me, we work day and night, 365 days a year, and that's what's exciting about it."

Expensive travel

Of the $554,436.10 that Jones' office spent on recruiting in the 2011-12 school year, a bit less than half ($224,203.86) was spent on getting the coaching staff to the prospects. Coach travel is by far the biggest line item in the recruiting budget, as the mileage and airfare required to visit and evaluate the best players in the state and region -- and to a lesser degree, the nation -- are prohibitive costs.

In January and February 2012 alone, as Richt's staff was putting the finishing touches on the nation's No. 5 class in the ESPN team rankings, Georgia's football recruiting general ledger shows 42 entries totaling $66,446.80 in expenses paid toward staffers' recruiting trips.

Their destinations included cities as close as Atlanta and Milledgeville, Ga., and as far away as Newark, N.J., Miami, Baltimore, Kansas City and Wichita, Kan. That's where Athletic Association travel coordinator Barbara Boyd, whom Jones described as a "rock star," often gets involved, helping line up travel for Richt and his staff on either the university's planes or on a commercial airline.

Quite often, the mode of transportation is the university plane when Richt will be one of the passengers.

"Our head coach at the University of Georgia should not be expected to spend four or five hours in a car. It's just not good use of his time," Jones said. "We need to be efficient with Coach's time. He's the guy that seals deals. He's the guy that can change people's minds and convince them that Georgia's the place to be, so to drive him five hours to visit one person as opposed to flying him to three different stops for 30 minutes only makes sense."

The schedule often gets more complicated as Richt's assistants board and deplane during some trips, attempting to see as many prospects as possible. Richt, meanwhile, is continuously making a phone call or researching a prospect on the computer throughout the trip, requiring an assistant's help as they hit their various destinations.

"If you ever try to call him, he's working the entire time." Jones said. "He's literally on the phone, continuing to not only recruit, but he's running the University of Georgia football program. So he's dealing with a lot of different things, and he doesn't have time to pop in an address in the Garmin [GPS navigation system].

"He needs to be taken to where he's going to have the impression he's going to have, and then he's going to continue working while the coach is continuing to take him to the airport or wherever he's going as he gets on the plane with his laptop and continues to work while the plane's in the air."

Pricey visits

Ranking behind coach travel are expenses dedicated to Georgia's official ($105,221.87 in 2011-12) and unofficial ($86,786.51) visits.

The official visit is a high-profile opportunity for Georgia, as it's the time when the program shows off what it has to offer to the prospects Richt's staff is most interested in adding to the roster.

Once Flippen's office clears a prospect to make an official visit, Georgia picks up the tab for his travel to and from campus, plus meals, lodging and entertainment while he is in town. The staff and players also have the opportunity to show prospects the academic, social and athletic opportunities that await them if they pick Georgia.

"Connie makes sure that things are taken care of once they're on campus, that all provisions are taken care of and provided for that we're allowed to by compliance," Jones said. "Then, there's a group huddle before an official visit with the compliance department and our department and others who are going to associate with that visit to make sure that we detailed an itinerary and to make sure that we're in compliance and we're giving the positive experience that we want to give."

Prospects are allowed to take five official visits and programs are allowed 56 official visitors per year, but Georgia hasn't approached that number in many years. In 2011-12, Georgia hosted 34 official visitors, making the average cost for an official visit $3,094.76 -- although the cost of specific visits varies widely depending on how far the prospect had to travel to reach Athens.

Unofficial visits are far more common, as Georgia typically hosts large groups of high school prospects each game weekend. The visitors typically register and fill out recruiting paperwork before the game at the Bulldogs' football building, view academic presentations, meet with Richt and the coaching staff and then bus to the Tate Student Center to see a team highlight reel before standing on the sidelines at Sanford Stadium and watching the team participate in pregame warm-ups. Each prospect gets a ticket for himself and two guests.

That routine typically accounted for most of the program's unofficial visits, but the expanding recruiting business has changed that fact.

"The biggest change, I think, is the summer," said Connelly, who has worked as a recruiting assistant under the program's past two head coaches and has worked for Georgia's athletic department since Vince Dooley was coach in the 1980s. "It used to be that the summer was very quiet. Now, there are kids on unofficial visits all the time."

Telling Georgia's story

The end goal of Georgia's recruiting enterprise is obviously to land players who can help the Bulldogs win championships. Their work rarely garners much attention, but dozens of university employees beyond the high-profile members of the coaching staff play a direct role in whether Georgia's efforts are successful.

"It's exciting. It's never boring. Not at all. Days go by really, really fast, so it's fun."

Georgia is a fairly easy sell thanks to the social, athletic and academic opportunities that exist in Athens. And that's the message that Jones' recruiting department endeavors to send, explaining exactly what the prospective future Bulldog can expect if he chooses Richt and his program over Georgia's competitors.

"It's our job as a recruiting department to tell the story of the University of Georgia, to follow the lead of the head coach, which I think the pendulum is swinging back in our favor," Jones said. "Because of technology, because prospects communicate now with each other more than we actually communicate with them, they know what coaches are telling them and they're comparing notes, and when you've got a guy that's consistent -- he may not be glitter and glitz, but he's just consistent -- our guys are realizing that consistency is really what they're after.

"What we try to do is, we're not going to throw a rock concert to try to wow recruits. We don't have a rock-concert type of head coach. We're going to be genuine and sincere in telling that story so it lines itself up with our leader. Otherwise, you're disjointed if you're not following the lead of your leader."