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Missouri shows it’s better to recruit smarter than harder

Coach Barry Odom’s budget is modest, but a new facility, stable coaching staff and savvy use of transfers could close the on-field gap.

MU Athletics

In early August, the doors to Missouri’s new football complex swung open, welcoming players to a facility housing the program’s organizational infrastructure in one gleaming spot.

On the department’s balance sheet, the $98 million cost likely lands in the bland column accounting for construction cost and debt service. Practically speaking, though, it’s a massive infusion into MU’s recruiting budget, one that should be spread out over the next several years. And in a sport where labor doesn’t draw a paycheck, isn’t every expense really related to recruiting?

Unfortunately, that’s not how accountants operate.

Instead, NCAA bylaws dryly define recruiting expenses as costs associated with “transportation, lodging and meals for prospective student-athletes and institutional personnel on official and unofficial visits,” and the “value of use of institution’s own vehicles or airplanes as well as in-kind value of loaned or contributed transportation.”

While trend stories are a fixture of covering college athletics, few are as common as scrutinizing how athletic departments spend their money. In particular, exploring what programs spend to acquire talent is low-hanging fruit and guaranteed to generate interest.

Earlier this week, The Courier-Journal and USA Today, its parent paper in the Gannett monolith, teamed up to drop a piece proclaiming that those expenses are “through the roof.”

Like a dutiful professor going over a syllabus, I encourage you to do the reading, but here’s the gist of what the report found.

Fifty-two Power Five public universities collectively spent more than $50 million to recruit football players in 2018, the most recent year totals were available. That was up from roughly $35.5 million just two years before.

During the 2018 fiscal year, public schools in the SEC averaged more than $1.3 million in football recruiting costs, compared with public schools in the Big 12 ($961,981), ACC ($938,424), Big 10 ($855,437) and Pac-12 ($708,750).

The SEC spent the most, but costs are climbing nationwide. Texas’ expenditures increased from $420,227 in 2016 to $1.82 million in 2018. Meanwhile, less prominent programs such as Kansas, Minnesota and Utah were among the 19 Power Five public schools to pass the $1 million list in 2018.

Within the SEC, Alabama and Georgia led the way in spending, which comes to the surprise of absolutely no one. And when you assess the rest of the conference’s membership, the hierarchy won’t leave your jaw agape, either.

Talent Acquisition | SEC Football Recruiting Budgets

Program 2017-2018 Budget
Program 2017-2018 Budget
Georgia $2,626,622
Alabama $2,344,057
Tennessee $2,002,871
Texas A&M $1,710,101
LSU $1,287,344
Arkansas $1,254,138
Florida $1,155,802
Auburn $1,081,836
South Carolina $861,747
Kentucky $791,863
Ole Miss $704,836
Missouri $685,834
Mississippi State $453,116
Vanderbilt NA
Average $1,304,628
USA Today

Having pored over budgets and data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, I can tell you that there’s often not a lot of detail about how recruiting dollars get spent. While each program conforms to a set of accounting standards, they’re also flexible enough to produce variability. Put simply, these figures are light thumbnail sketches of how each program operates.

Still, it might be disheartening to see that Mizzou situated near the bottom of the list. That is until you look at that outlay against the program’s overall budget. In this case, roughly 2.9 percent of MU’s total expenses went toward recruiting. Now, here’s the rest of the SEC.

Talent Acquisition | SEC Football Recruiting

Program Budget Overall Budget %Budget
Program Budget Overall Budget %Budget
Georgia $2,626,622 $44,909,546 5.8
Tennessee $2,002,871 $45,343,685 4.4
LSU $1,287,344 $31,561,996 4.1
Alabama $2,344,057 $62,944,472 3.7
Texas A&M $1,710,101 48,119,071 3.5
Kentucky $791,863 $27,206,659 2.9
Missouri $685,834 $23,659,474 2.9
Arkansas $1,254,138 $44,633,637 2.8
South Carolina $861,747 $33,317,645 2.6
Auburn $1,081,836 $43,605,320 2.5
Florida $1,155,802 $47,342,367 2.4
Ole Miss $704,836 $33,317,645 2.1
Mississippi State $453,116 $23,226,169 2
Average $1,304,628 $39,168,284 3.3
Note: Vanderbilt is a private institution USA Today, U.S. Department of Education

As you can see, Mizzou finds itself in the middle of the pack when it comes to the proportion of spending allocated toward scouting and courting prep talent. The more noticeable gap is between what MU spends on football as a whole compared to its SEC peers. At the same time, the athletic department ran at a slight budget deficit of roughly $2.2 million in the fiscal year 2018.

Keep in mind, too, that no other SEC program has to go as far as Mizzou to land talent in the SEC footprint. Consider: Memphis, which sits 393 miles away from Columbia, is the closest potential hotbed.

The financial and geographical distance between MU and its peers is unlikely to shrink any time soon. Gutting the south end zone of Faurot Field is an obvious attempt to close some of the gap, but coach Barry Odom’s deployed more nuanced tactics. He’s assembled a diverse and experienced staff. The slow work of building a recruiting pipeline to St. Louis is reaping dividends. Lastly, the MU staff savvily has worked the transfer market—defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, wide receiver Jonathan Nance, wide receiver Alex Ofodile, safety Khalil Oliver and quarterback Kelly Bryant— to shore up the roster.

Ideally, Odom’s staff displays a measure of continuity and steady player development, creating a consistent on-field product. That product then becomes enticing to top-talent in St. Louis, which more often than not looks outside the state’s borders. All the while, selectively importing transfers girds the roster when necessary.

Meanwhile, the athletic department launched a fundraising campaign in January to more than double membership in the Tiger Scholarship Fund. If the TSF reaches 18,039 members, which is the stated goal, MU would boast the third-largest donor base in the conference. It would also have the financial wherewithal to infuse Odom’s recruiting budget with more dollars.

(Note: A winning program obviously generates more momentum on that front.)

Above all, Mizzou serves as a case study in how bottom-line numbers don’t precisely capture the variation from program to program.

For example, the Courier-Journal analysis noted that Iowa State outspent Texas each year in recruiting from 2013-2017. That might sound shocking, but consider that Austin sits in a state that churns out 50-plus four- and five-star prospects each year. Iowa, by contrast, only yields two to three. Simple geography explains why the Cyclones spend more. They have to go find players.

There’s no doubt that high-major programs have more resources—generated from lucrative TV deals— to amplify their burn rate for recruiting budgets. Yet the inherent advantages possessed those in the upper reaches of the sport remain entrenched. Sure, its middle class has more money to throw around but thinking creatively and operating efficiently are still invaluable.

If all goes well fall, Mizzou might prove that its template is working well, even if it appears frugal.