Ante up

Jeff Huth spent months researching how much Illinois has spent on recruiting in recent years. He found that across the board, the Illini are major players on the recruiting scene.

Related story: Donated planes a big help. Link

In his role as recruiting coordinator for the Boston College football team from 1971 to '74, Ron Guenther became intimately acquainted with the highways and byways of New England. With the exception of that annual flight into Detroit and then on to Chicago to check out receptive Catholic League talent for the Jesuit university, recruiting was virtually all regional and all by car.

"What you had back then was an unlimited number of (permissible recruiting) visits," the former Eagles offensive line coach said. "What you didn't have was an unlimited number of dollars."

Those dollars were stretched even further during the Arab oil embargo of that era – "When gas was approaching the outrageous price of 47 cents (a gallon) and we didn't know how we were going to make that work," Guenther said.

How times have changed.

A gallon of gas cost nearly nine times as much earlier this year. And Guenther? He now presides over a University of Illinois athletic department that recruits from coast to coast and sometimes beyond. A department that more than doubled its recruiting budget from 2002 to 2007. A department that devoted more than $1.26 million to recruiting during its 2008 fiscal year. A department that, according to one study, ranks among the national leaders in dollars and gifts-in-kind expended on the evaluation and signing of athletic talent.

"Recruiting is a priority for us," said Guenther, in his 17th year as UI athletic director. "We have not put any geographic limits on recruiting. It's going to impact your budget."

That impact is apparent in a study by The Chronicle of Higher Education that was published in August. In an analysis of financial data that college athletic departments are required to report to the U.S. Dept. of Education, the publication found UI recruiting expenses rose from $472,000 during the 1996-97 school year to $1,203,500 in 2006-07.

The latter figure, according to The Chronicle, ranked 11th among NCAA Division I-A schools and trailed only Ohio State (10th at $1,236,800) among fellow Big Ten members.

In addition, the amount Illinois spent on recruiting in 2006-07 was nearly double the median average ($632,000) for all I-A schools.

"It just shows how healthy our athletic department is," Illini baseball coach Dan Hartleb said.

To some, the UI's ranking might be surprising. After all, it does not belong to the fraternity of schools that have – and routinely fill – mega-sized football stadiums. Unlike Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and other athletic departments that can draw enormous amounts of revenue on home football Saturdays with 100,000-plus-seat facilities, Illinois' athletic budget is fueled by a comparatively small 62,870-seat football stadium.

So, how can the Illini stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the highest rollers in the area of money devoted to recruiting? Guenther attributes it to several factors. Unlike other schools that carry major debt service on athletic building projects, Guenther has insisted on a cautious fiscal approach that emphasizes private fundraising before proceeding with the construction of new facilities or the major renovation of existing buildings.

"We've been very conservate," he said. "All the building we've done has been with private money. We've also concentrated on the private dollar to fund our scholarships. That allows us to allocate income to other uses like recruiting."

A fiscally healthy budget, Guenther says, has allowed his department to target its financial resources to four areas he identifies as priorities: coaching salaries, scholarships, team travel and recruiting.

"We've aggressively tried to conserve monies in other areas to make sure those four areas are fully funded," he said.

*****

Not surprisingly, the Illini sports with the largest recruiting budgets are the biggest income generators.

According to figures provided to The News-Gazette by the UI, football spent $421,535 on recruiting in Fiscal Year 2008. With the value of gifts-in-kind added in – primarily courtesy cars and private planes used in recruiting – total expenditures in the sport amounted to $494,499.

The total for men's basketball – with a considerably smaller roster to recruit – was $186,415. For women's basketball, it was $153,570.

Men's basketball coach Bruce Weber – whose career has included stops at smaller schools (Western Kentucky, Southern Illinois) and like-sized programs (Purdue) – says Guenther has been "the most supportive of any" AD he worked for in providing the resources to recruit.

"He understands recruiting is the lifeblood of our program," Weber said. "Never since I've been here has he ever said, 'Well, we better be careful on this as far as recruiting.' He makes a commitment to it and makes sure we have what we need, within limits. Not crazy spending where you're doing outlandish things, but trying to get your job done."

While other UI sports have considerably smaller recruiting budgets, each has shared in the department's overall rise. In Fiscal Year 2002 – when football and men's and women's basketball are removed – spending on recruiting for all other UI sports was $200,452. In FY 2008, that same calculation – minus gifts-in-kind value that wasn't part of the 2002 numbers – was $355,340.

In that same span, several sports have seen striking increases. With gifts-in-kind removed to reflect only UI dollars spent, the men's tennis recruiting budget rose from $9,838 to $34,723. Women's track and field/cross-country went from $10,581 to $32,618. Wrestling from $11,939 to $29,197. Women's golf – a sport with the smallest of rosters – from $1,354 to $7,481.

"Ron's done a great job of giving us all opportunities to be successful," said Hartleb, whose baseball recruiting budget (minus gifts-in-kind) has exceeded $30,000 in two of the last three years. "It's something that's been important to him to fully fund all of our programs."

*****

What's the biggest line item in a recruiting budget?

UI coaches universally point to travel expenses. Illini volleyball coach Don Hardin estimates that 80 percent of his recruiting budget is spent on hitting the road – and the skies – to evaluate and visit with recruits. Other UI coaches offer similar estimates.

Certainly, the staggering rise in costs for ground and air transportation during the past few years is a major factor. Lodging and on-the-road meals also continue to grow more expensive.

"Travel costs have been skyrocketing for the last few years," said Susan Young, UI associate athletic director.

But that's only one factor in rising recruiting expenditures. Coaches increasingly are compelled to travel longer distances – at greater financial cost – to evaluate and recruit talent. What once was primarily a regional task has become a national – and even international – quest for recruits.

"It used to be you'd recruit within a three-hour radius or the conference's region," Illini football recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell said. "Now, it's more national."

Why?

Competitive forces. To become or remain competitive not just within their conferences but nationally, coaches say they must expand their recruiting horizons.

"Now, it's all about getting the best guys, the best athletes, wherever they are," UI wrestling coach Mark Johnson said.

Said Illini softball coach Terri Sullivan: "The number of college teams that are fighting to be the best and fighting to get the top-tier players has increased over the years. More schools making bigger commitment to their programs."

The fact that the UI is located hours from any major airport hub can add to the cost of national recruiting. To get the best air fare deals – or simply to find an available flight that gets them where they need to be – Illini coaches will fly out of Chicago, Indianapolis or St. Louis rather than Willard Airport in Savoy. That means adding ground transportation to the cost of the trip.

"We'll check flights," Weber said, "and whatever one is the cheapest flight we'll do unless you're making a two-hour drive to Chicago and the flight is only like $80 less (than from Savoy). Then it doesn't make sense."

Common sense also can make national recruiting more cost-effective. In the case of UI football, head coach Ron Zook and Mitchell say the staff typically targets regions where they've already established a recruiting presence.

"Obviously, we go into areas where we feel comfortable and we have contacts," Zook said. "If we go to the West Coast, it's for a particular reason. It's not to wholesale recruit."

Said Mitchell: "We do a good job of being able to evaluate the guys that are interested in the University of Illinois. Before we fly down to, say, Florida, we're going to make sure that the kid has a genuine interest."

*****

The distances coaches travel for recruiting isn't always dictated by where a recruit lives. During the past five to 10 years, many sports have seen a dramatic rise in youth travel teams.

These teams are hitting the road more frequently and to increasingly distant destinations.

"It's changed the way we have recruited," Hartleb said. "We still get a lot of in-state kids, but you need to go out of state to see them. There are some teams, you may have one opportunity to see them in a local tournament and the rest of the time they're running all over the country."

Said Hardin: "People might think, 'Well, why are you recruiting all the way out in Los Angeles?' Well, we're watching Illinois teams there."

Team sports like volleyball, soccer, softball and baseball have long staged mega national youth tournaments. They're a magnet for college recruiters, who can view large numbers of athletes in one cost-effective location.

With organized youth sports having become such a growth industry, more regional and national tournaments have sprung up to accommodate the larger number of travel teams.

"There are so many good tournaments to be at now," Sullivan said. "In the fall, there are 10 major ones within our (NCAA) recruiting calendar. Then, in May to August, you could be at a major tournament every weekend where you're going to find a big corps of (college) coaches from throughout the country."

For college volleyball coaches, one of the year's can't-miss youth tournaments is held each spring in Colorado. To accommodate more teams, the Colorado Crossroads was expanded from one weekend to two.

"We used to have to go there one trip – which is one of the more expensive trips we had to do," Illini assistant Kevin Hambly said. "Now we fly out for one weekend, come back for three days, and then go back out for the next weekend. It doubles the cost."

*****

Coaches also are traveling more to see the same recruits multiple times. These might be athletes they're strongly interested in but are still evaluating. They might be athletes they've offered scholarships to and are awaiting a decision. They might even be athletes who have orally committed to the coach.

In all cases, competitive forces are compelling coaches to attend as many of the athlete's games or to make as many school and home visits as NCAA rules allow. For the most coveted recruits, even one missed recruiting opportunity can be damaging, coaches claim.

"If you're not there, there's an assumption that you're not interested in those players," Illini women's soccer coach Janet Rayfield said. "So being seen is as big a piece of the recruiting as evaluating players."

Hardin likens the "being-seen" imperative to a poker game, with coaches as the card players and the recruit as the pot of chips.

"If you're in the hunt for a major recruit, then you're hands-in and you're anteing up at all these events," the UI volleyball coach said. "You have to be at every event they go to. You don't want it to be noticed that the other three (coaches) in the poker game are there and you're not."

When the stakes are high, the lengths to which coaches will go in order to be seen can be extraordinary. Rayfield recalls reading about a college football coach in California who rented a helicopter so that he could attend eight prep games in one night.

"He didn't evaluate players in those games," she said. "He wasn't there long enough. But he made an appearance at eight games and the players at those games said 'This coach is interested enough in me to take a helicopter ride to get from game to game.' And that makes a huge difference to a 16-year-old kid when you're willing to do those things."

Rayfield recalls a recruiting trip to the Chicago area to attend a joint practice and scrimmage of two club teams. To her surprise, two University of Florida coaches also were there for what on the surface was a mundane event.

"Obviously, that effort to fly out to see (recruits) play on a regular club practice day made a statement," Rayfield said. " 'We're so interested in you that we're going to do something out of the ordinary.'

"We're all trying to do something special to let that kid know that they're very special to us."

*****

Recruiting budgets can vary from year to year, depending on a team's anticipated roster needs. One coach might need to increase funds in that area because of heavy graduation losses during the next year or two. Another coach might have fewer immediate holes to fill and can temporarily scale back spending on recruiting.

A look at the most recent UI recruiting budgets illustrates the point. In Fiscal Year 2008, overall spending on recruiting (cash only, minus gifts-in-kind) was up 19.3 percent from 2007. However, eight of the school's 17 sports spent less on recruiting than the year before – with men's golf, men's gymnastics and baseball each reducing by 20 percent or more.

In Fiscal Year 2007, overall UI cash expenses for recruiting actually decreased from the previous year by 2.3 percent. However, that was the only decrease since Fiscal Year 2002, when cash expenditures leaped 69 percent from the year before.

A growing trend toward evaluating and recruiting sophomores and even freshmen figures to create further need to increase recruiting travel budgets. Coaches increasingly are lining up recruiting classes earlier in the past – with sports like basketball, volleyball, soccer and softball among the most aggressive.

"We're recruiting four classes now," Hambly said. "Before you'd start with the juniors and just kind of evaluate them and you'd only really recruit them when they're seniors. But now we're recruiting freshmen, sophomores, juniors. And then we're watching our seniors to give them some love. Be out there in front of them."

Once again, competition is at the heart of this change.

"Everybody's always looking for a way to get ahead," Sullivan said. "The biggest change is when you have to start recruiting players and when you start your evaluations of them. That process has just fast-forwarded. Now really what you're focusing on heavily and seriously is freshmen in high school, sophomores in high school."

The athletes themselves are influencing this trend, too. Increasingly, high school freshmen and sophomores – along with their parents or guardians – are taking a proactive role in the recruiting process. More and more are making unofficial campus visits to gauge their interest in a school, its sports programs, coaches and facilities.

"We're getting them here on campus in eighth grade, ninth grade," Weber said. "By 10th grade they've been around us for a few years and you develop those relationships."

For college teams, this is an all-too-rare budget-friendly trend. With more athletes orally committing before they are seniors – the first year NCAA rules permit official campus visits – there are fewer undecided recruits making such visits. And the schools themselves, having lined up most or all of their next incoming class, have less need to utilize their maximum number of official visits.

This translates into less money spent on travel, lodging and meals for official visits.

In the most extreme cases, schools are hosting only recruits who have already committed. That was the situation this year with Illini men's basketball, according to Weber.

"We can go up to 12 (total) official visits for the school year," he said. "We're only going to do four. Of course, that's not every year."

*****

With the U.S. economy now officially in a recession, college athletic departments are bracing for a rocky economic stretch. Schools across the country are re-examining their budgets and searching for cost-savings.

It's no different at Illinois, where Guenther anticipates both the NCAA and individual schools taking a hard look at travel costs and the number of athletes participating in postseason regional and national tournaments.

"There's a lot of conversation on a lot of levels right now on how to get some cost containment figures in place," Guenther said. "For the first time, I think I see on a national level a lot of institutions struggling with fiscal matters."

Despite his department's solid financial footing, Guenther is having those same conversations with his staff. If future cuts are necessary, however, the Illini AD has recruiting budgets far down on his list.

"We're looking, but not necessarily at recruiting," Guenther said, "because I still believe that to get where we want to get, we've got to get the highest-quality student-athlete that you can."

Costs of campus visits

What does it cost to host a recruit on an official campus visit to the University of Illinois? Here are four examples from the sports of football and men’s basketball during 2007-08. For privacy reasons, the identities of the individuals are withheld.

FOOTBALL
In-state visit
Mileage    $173.28
Recruit’s Lodging    $98.79
(two nights)    $98.79
Parents’ Lodging    $105.45
(two nights)    $105.45
Recruit’s meals
Snack    $7.01
Meal 2    $24.71
Meal 3    $17.90
Meal 4    $21.95
Meal 5    $18.95
Snack    $7.01
Meal 6    $10.30
Parents’ Meals
Meal 1 (two meals)    $62.10
Meal 2 (two meals)    $49.45
Meal 3 (two meals)    $35.80
Meal 4 (two meals)    $43.90
Meal 5 (two meals)    $37.90
Meal 6 (two meals)    $26.14
Meal 7 (two meals)    $20.60
Total Cost    $965.48

Out-of-state visit
Recruit’s Air Fare    $384.60
Recruit’s Mileage    $6.10
Recruit’s Lodging    $209.79
(two nights)    $209.79
Recruit’s meals
Meal 1    $37.08
Snack    $3.82
Meal 2    $15.00
Meal 3    $20.17
Snack    $6.00
Snack    $7.23
Meal 4    $13.11
Total Cost    $912.69

Men’s basketball
In-state visit
Mileage    $129.15
Recruit’s Lodging    $209.79
(two nights)    $209.79
Parent’s Lodging    $209.79
(two nights)    $209.79
Recruit’s meals
Meal 1    $23.64
Meal 2    $8.25
Meal 3    $28.30
Snack    $5.90
Parent’s Meals
Meal 1    $23.64
Meal 2    $8.25
Meal 3    $28.30
Total Cost    $1,094.59

Out-of-state visit
Air Fare    $409.80
Recruit’s Lodging    $98.79
(three nights)    $98.79
                            $208.54
Recruit’s meals
Meal 1    $9.08
Meal 2    $33.65
Meal 3    $15.50
Parent’s Meals
Meal 1    $9.08
Meal 2    $33.65
Meal 3    $15.50
Total Cost    $932.38

Notes: NCAA rules on official visits do not allow schools to pay travel expenses of parents or guardians; The higher costs of lodging for the men’s basketball in-state recruit and football out-of-state recruit reflect visits that coincided with UI home football games; The higher cost of the third night of lodging for the men’s basketball out-of-state recruit reflects his stay at a hotel near O’Hare International Airport before a flight home the next morning.
Source: University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics

Illinois recruiting expenses

MEN’S SPORTS            2008            2007            2006              2005            2004            2003            2002
Football                            $494,499    $457,572    $491,473     $342,028    $290,528    $221,412    $162,500
Basketball                        $186,415    $248,949    $179,566     $230,904    $127,214    $87,502       $107,011
Tennis                              $44,685      $34,070        $29,553       $25,389    $34,166      $13,910       $9,838
Track/Cross-country     $40,664       $38,086         $34,560      $28,772    $31,246      $12,821       $17,774
Wrestling                        $31,636       $28,370         $18,105      $17,496    $15,419      $7,937        $11,939
Baseball                        $30,375         $37,786        $36,680      $29,154    $19,494      $15,111      $20,999
Golf                                  $19,251        $22,278       $10,922       $11,033    $14,501      $8,511        $5,038
Gymnastics                    $15,156        $19,558       $26,339        $24,941    $23,225      $12,825      $13,799
Totals                                $862,681    $886,669    $827,198      $709,717    $555,793    $380,029   $348,898

WOMEN’S SPORTS    2008           2007           2006              2005                2004            2003             2002
Basketball                     $153,570    $80,431     $95,444        $93,688    $107,926    $63,200        $42,477
Volleyball                      $42,287      $39,343     $35,242         $29,575    $39,079       $29,106       $24,235
Track/cross-country    $39,016      $28,042     $23,144         $20,647    $35,002       $17,776       $10,581
Softball                          $36,841      $42,534      $40,461        $40,582    $41,700       $29,720       $18,934
Soccer                           $31,823      $24,213      $24,048        $25,408    $34,898       $26,601       $17,479
Swimming                    $29,329       $29,512      $27,892       $24,769    $25,779       $18,114       $18,254
Tennis                          $28,884        $32,014      $22,335       $33,698    $17,979       $19,334    $14,800
Gymnastics                      $27,838       $33,694      $26,017       $24,039    $20,259       $16,422    $15,427
Golf                                $9,695         $7,041         $3,556        $5,474        $11,576       $7,206        $1,354
Totals                            $399,283    $316,824    $298,139    $304,496    $334,198    $227,479    $163,541

Combined totals    $1,261,964    $1,203,493    $1,125,338    $1,014,213    $889,991    $607,508    $512,439

NOTES: 2002 and 2003 figures do not include non-cash expenses; Figures from 2004 and beyond include value of courtesy cars and gifts in kind (donated use of private aircraft); Figure from 2005 does not include charge of $6,616 marked as “other” in UI expense report
Source: University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics

Rising costs

According to a study by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Illinois ranked 11th in the nation — and second in the Big Ten — in spending on recruiting during the 2006-07 school year. A look at how recruiting expenditures by the top 20 have changed since 1996-97:
                        Budget for     Budget for   Budget for    Pct. change    Pct. change
SCHOOL        2006-07          2001-02    1996-97    2002-07    1997-2007
Tennessee     $2,005,700    $1,419,400    $915,000    41%    119%
Notre Dame    $1,758,300    $1,014,600    $674,000    73%    161%
Florida            $1,451,400    $1,097,300    $665,000    32%    118%
Auburn           $1,374,900    $1,228,900    $646,000    12%    113%
Kansas State  $1,316,700    $626,600    $359,000    110%    267%
Georgia          $1,284,000    $1,020,000    $605,000    26%    112%
Nebraska      $1,275,000    $925,0300    $826,000    38%    54%
Arkansas      $1,259,700    $749,000    $506,000    68%    149%
Duke             $1,245,300    $592,500    $378,000    110%    229%
Ohio State    $1,236,800    $691,200    $522,000    79%    137%
ILLINOIS      $1,203,500    $512,400    $472,000    135%    155%
Texas           $1,156,800    $1,047,200    $514,000    10%    125%
Syracuse     $1,121,200    $635,300    $474,000    76%    137%
Oklahoma   $1,120,800    $763,900    $908,000    47%    23%
Virginia        $1,112,000    $617,900    $616,000    80%    81%
Ga. Tech     $1,111,900    $835,000    $620,000    33%    79%
Mich. St.      $1,098,800    $890,500    $733,000    23%    50%
W. Virginia  $1,094,200    $524,200    $398,000    109%    175%
Oregon       $1,077,300    $841,500    $555,000    28%    94%
Kentucky    $1,056,100    $706,700    $589,000    49%    79%
Median for     $632,600    $499,000    $371,500    36%    82%
all D-I schools

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education from U.S. Dept. of Education data

Comments

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MarkHoekstra wrote on December 15, 2008 at 12:12 pm

I am confused. Illinois was 11th in the nation in the amount of money spent on recruiting-yet Ron Guenther won't spend money for a 7th home game for football?

CecilColeman wrote on December 15, 2008 at 12:12 pm

Why do I keep thinking that Hoekstra (and Himey) must own cheap motels in and around C-U)that love to jack up the prices (and have 3 night minimums) for home football weekends?

LoyalIllini wrote on December 15, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Agree with Hoekstra that 7 home games are an obvious need to rebuild and reward the fan base. Amazingly, it isn't likely with Guenther unless fans speak up.

Jshaw wrote on December 15, 2008 at 3:12 pm

How much money do you think we make off of the Missouri game in STL? Im sure we get something for being a part of that.. if we got rid of that game we could pick up the additional home game. This year was totally pointless to play in Detroit. I can understand playing maybe in Chicago where we have a big following.

ccherry wrote on December 15, 2008 at 8:12 pm

I would like to see an article about revenues.

RobMarine wrote on December 17, 2008 at 3:12 pm

An article about revenues would be interesting, particularly if it includes the value of having a sold out stadium for six and seven games.

I would prefer seven home games, but what I want most is that Illinois earns respect. Operative word: EARNS. So I have no problem with Fresno State, Mizzou and AzSt on the schedule in the same year. All home games will be sold out once we´ve joined the big boys. But getting there is the challenge, and Zook and Guenther know the path. Go Illini!