IOWA CITY — Coaching changes at some of the Big Ten Conference’s blue blood football programs have led to significant growth in recruiting expenses over the last four years.
Financial data obtained by The Gazette through state open-records requests show that the Big Ten’s 13 public-school football programs report a combined 39.2 percent growth in recruiting expenditures over a four-year period. Northwestern, the league’s only private university, is exempt from providing those documents.
In the 2012 fiscal year, the Big Ten’s 13 public football programs (counting newcomers Maryland and Rutgers) combined to spend $5.71 million in football recruiting. By 2015, that number swelled to $7.95 million. Some of the league’s powerhouse East Division programs were most responsible for that growth.
Ohio State hired Urban Meyer in late 2011 — part of the 2012 fiscal year — and the Buckeyes spent $344,987 on football recruiting. Last year, that number grew to $614,619, a 78.2 percent increase. Spanning four years, Michigan’s recruiting expenses grew by $245,873, with a nearly $155,000 jump coming in the 2015 fiscal year. Coach Jim Harbaugh, a tenacious recruiter, was hired in late December 2014.
But no program’s football recruiting costs have soared quite like at Penn State. Third-year coach James Franklin took over in January 2014, and the Nittany Lions spent nearly $1.4 million in the 2014 fiscal year. Franklin’s program followed up with more than $870,000 in expenses in the 2015 fiscal year.
From 2012 through 2015, the Nittany Lions’ recruiting expenses rose by 96.5 percent. Had the research ended in 2014, the number was set at 214 percent. Perhaps most astounding, in Joe Paterno’s final year as head coach, Penn State spent $258,800 on football recruiting.
“Penn State has realized, as well as our football program, and studied other programs in the Big Ten as well as nationally, the things that you need to do to be successful,” Franklin said. “I think the other thing that people realize is we’re a little isolated here at Penn State so travel expenses, being able to get in and out of here, is a little bit different than maybe if you were closer to a major city or closer to an international airport.”
Penn State administrators declined to elaborate why recruiting costs have soared.
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“We do not comment on budget-related items,” said Kristina Petersen, Penn State’s associate director of strategic communications.
Both Franklin and Harbaugh participated in out-of-region satellite camps, which added to the costs. Nebraska also partook in several satellite camps as well. Among Big Ten schools, the Cornhuskers spent the most over a four-year period at $3.47 million. But Nebraska’s growth rate of 31.7 percent was lower than six other programs. Nebraska traditionally recruits nationally, which incurs more costs. In the 2015 fiscal year, which included seven months under second-year coach Mike Riley, Nebraska spent nearly $992,000 on football recruiting.
Michigan State, which has won two Big Ten titles over the last three years under Mark Dantonio, saw a 52.4 percent spike in football recruiting costs. Among Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska, the Spartans were the only one to not have a coaching change in the last four fiscal years.
WHAT’S IT MEAN?
Every school reports financial data to the NCAA in thousands of entry points. When it comes to recruiting, it’s broken down by sport and gender. The criteria involves transportation, lodging and meals for prospects, as well as staffers on official or unofficial visits. Additionally, the recruiting umbrella includes telephone calls, postage, use of school or donated vehicles and aircraft.
But there’s also ambiguity,
“Anytime you’re reporting financial data, whether it’s recruiting or anything else, the challenge you face is it being reported apples to oranges or apples to apples?” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. “It’s not intentional that someone’s trying to report differently. I think it’s just so complex that it’s hard to get everybody to report the same way.”
Such is the case with Wisconsin, which annually ranks at the bottom of recruiting expenditures among Big Ten schools. Wisconsin tallied just $1.02 million over four years, about one-third of Illinois’ costs and about 29 percent of Nebraska’s expenses. But that hardly means the football program is struggling. Wisconsin recruits at a high level regionally and nationally and has won 38 games, including two divisional titles, over that four-year period.
So what is the difference? Each institution catalogs revenues and expenses differently. That’s part of the reason why the Badgers’ numbers appear so low, said Mario Morris, Wisconsin’s associate athletics director for business operations.
“Some things we use for recruiting may be categorized in other areas,” Morris said. “Maybe a recruiting software, which is an expense all coaches incur, that would be categorized by office supply or subscriptions category. There is no recruiting type of supplies categories that would go in. That’s one small example.”
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Wisconsin itemized airfare provided by boosters as “other operating expenses” in the past. For the 2015 fiscal year, that totaled $11,700. Moving forward, Morris said those trips will be counted as recruiting expenditures.
Illinois’ numbers rank among the highest for the opposite reason. The Illini designate anything recruited-related as recruiting. That includes gifts in-kind from airfare to meals. Illinois registered $2.98 million in football expenses over the last four years. That’s the second-most among Big Ten West Division schools, nearly $1.3 million more than Iowa ($1.714 million) and $1.95 million more than Wisconsin. Yet the Illini have a 6-26 Big Ten record over this data cycle.
In an effort spearheaded last summer by Cathy Rossi, the University of Minnesota’s former director of budget and finance, officials at several Big Ten schools volunteered to share information about how revenues and expenses were categorized on the annual NCAA report. Morris anticipates that cooperation will continue.
Iowa’s football recruiting expenses fluctuate within boundaries. The football department revamped its recruiting operation entering fiscal year 2015 and spent about $140,000 more than in 2014. But that’s only $9,000 more than in 2013.
Unlike Nebraska, which employs five people in its player personnel department, Iowa has two. Still, the Hawkeyes don’t believe they are at a disadvantage when compared with other programs. Nebraska recruits nationally, while Iowa hammers the Midwest and in small pockets around the country. Over the last four years, Iowa (19-13 in Big Ten play) and Nebraska (20-12) have split their four meetings.
“There’s a lot more people out there that are selling to us as a staff, to universities across the country, that they can minimize the workload, so to speak,” said Seth Wallace, who formerly served as Iowa’s recruiting coordinator and now is the linebackers coach. “They can start to pare it down for you, which is helpful, because there is a lot out there.
“You’ve got choices. You can spend it that way (with vendors) or you can have a room full of 10 guys that are in behind the wall behind you that are watching tape, and they’re trying to narrow it down for you.
“To me, it’s all about how you spend your money. Do you spend your money paying those folks to do that or pay a service you can trust to pare it down a little bit?”
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As much as anything, Iowa focuses on intangibles in the recruiting process. That’s everything from locating athletes to spending money.
“We’re not over the top in any one area,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “For us it’s about finding the right players, right fit. Hopefully they gravitate to what it is that we’re trying to promote.”
“We’re going to go out and try to find the best student-athletes that fit our program within a budget but not with a comparison of ‘Oh, we’d better spend much as much as or less than any other school in the Big Ten,’” Barta said.
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