Related story: Jeff Huth's special report on UI recruiting expenses. Click here.
Like any frequent flier, Bruce Weber has horror stories to tell from experiences in the terminal, on the runway and even in the air.
Once, while the Illinois men's basketball coach was on a commercial flight, the airplane was hit by lightning. Another time, an engine in a private plane "blew up" on takeoff.
Then there are those "Just get me home!" moments when bad weather has made a mess of flight schedules.
"Where you see on TV people are starting to climb over and go after the agent, I've been there," Weber said. "Now, that's not me doing it, but I've raised my voice a couple times. When you travel a lot like this, it takes tolls."
Which is why this 29-year veteran of college coaching welcomes the periodic use of a donated airplane for recruiting trips. Particularly during the basketball season, when time is so precious for coaches.
"In season, we still have to get our recruiting done," Weber said. "If I can get to see three to four (recruits) in a day and also watch tape, be rested, actually maybe get home at night at a decent time, we'll take advantage of it."
According to figures from the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, gifts-in-kind donated to men's basketball averaged $62,317 per year for fiscal years 2005 through 2008. Most of that figure is the value of donated use of private planes from UI boosters.
From Weber's observations, his program utilizes donor planes considerably less than other comparably funded teams. This fall, Weber was among six coaches who attended an open gym in another state.
"I was the only one that went commercial," he said. "All the other five had flown in on a private plane.
"There's some coaches in the country, they don't even go recruiting unless they use somebody's plane."
Use of donor planes can be particularly valuable, Weber says, when the next incoming class isn't finalized during the early signing period. In such cases, a coach often is forced to expand his geographic horizons in search of still-available prep seniors or junior college players. Donor flights can reduce the costs of travel that otherwise must be absorbed through commercial flights.
"If you don't sign your kids early, that's where the extra costs usually come," the sixth-year Illini coach said. "Because now you're searching out new kids that you maybe have never seen, and a lot of times it's long-distance recruiting. You're going to California, Florida, Georgia, and trying to see kids. That can add, no doubt, to your costs. And we've had to do that a few of the years."
According to UI figures dating to fiscal year 2005, the donated use of planes is almost solely a perquisite afforded to men's basketball and football. The only other Illini sport with such an entry is soccer, with a gift-in-kind value of $392 during fiscal year 2007. Clearly, the highest-profile sports are most apt to attract high- flying booster help of this type.
Gift-in-kind figures for UI football were available dating to fiscal year 2006. In this sport, the value of donor flights averaged $50,152.
Like Weber, Illini football coach Ron Zook appreciates access to private planes for recruiting purposes.
"It's impossible to cover the ground you have to cover unless you have something of that nature," the fourth-year UI coach said. "To able to be efficient and cover the ground you have to cover, you almost need to be able to do it that way."
It also can be a welcome reprieve from some of the taxing auto/commercial flight trips Illini coaches more commonly face. Weber recalled a recruiting trip by car this fall in which he traveled a total of seven hours to see four players.
"It takes a toll," he said. "If I use (a donor plane), it's for time. It's for my own quality of life and also to be time-efficient recruitingwise. I can see a bunch of kids. Can watch tape when flying. Prepare practice the next day.