Kansas spends more money recruiting men’s basketball players than any other public school in Division I, about $2.1 million over a recent five-year span. Louisville, at $2 million, and Kentucky, at just under $2 million, are right behind. That makes sense. Each is a name-brand powerhouse with national championships of recent vintage.
Auburn, the next biggest spender at about $1.6 million, is a bit of a surprise. The Tigers doubled their spending over five years without so much as making the NCAA tournament field.
“It was a bad return on investment,” Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs told USA TODAY Sports. He said he authorized the increased spending — from $203,000 in 2008-09 to $465,000 in 2012-13, the most recent school year for which full numbers are available — at the behest of then-coach Tony Barbee, hired in 2010.
“It didn’t work out,” Jacobs said. “So I fired him.”
Recruiting is the lifeblood of college sports and a USA TODAY Sports analysis of 214 public schools found a correlation between schools that spend big on recruiting and schools that had success making the NCAA tournament from 2010 to 2014. (The one-year lag accounts for the time it takes for recruiting classes to enter school.)
Among the eight schools that made the tournament all five years, the average five-year spending was $1.2 million and the average annual spending was $231,000. Among the 33 schools that made the tournament three or more times, the average five-year spending was $912,000 and the average annual spending was $182,000. Among the 181 schools that made the tournament two times or fewer, the average five-year spending was $384,000 and the average annual spending was $77,000. And among the 144 schools that did not make the tournament in any of the five years, the average five-year spending was $325,000 and the annual average spending was $65,000.
But don’t use recruiting dollars as a guide to fill out your bracket. Once a team is in the tournament, recruiting expenses are a much less reliable predictor of how deep teams will advance. The spending of programs that reached the round of 16, the round of 8 and the Final Four over the five years shows little connection to spending, with as many thrifty programs as big spenders among the teams in those elite rounds year after year.
Certainly, many of the biggest spenders didn’t get far in the tournament at all. Among the top-25 recruiting spenders, seven didn’t win even one tournament game in the five seasons, 10 never reached the round of 16, 15 never reached the round of 8, and 19 didn’t reach the Final Four.
Two programs that reached Final Fours — Kansas and Louisville — spent more than $400,000 a year on average while two others —Wisconsin and Virginia Commonwealth — spent well below $100,000 a year on average. Everyone else is fairly evenly distributed in between.
Wisconsin gets a big bang for its recruiting buck. The Badgers, who enter this tournament as a No. 1 seed, spent $299,000 over the five-year span, with average annual spending at a bit under $60,000. Likewise San Diego State averaged below $55,000 — less than the five-year and annual averages of the 144 schools that did not make the tournament in any of the five years. The Badgers and Aztecs made it in all of them.
“I see a lot of other people’s money,” Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard said, “and I think it would be hard to spend that much money. You really have to try.”
Recruiting costs, by the NCAA’s definition, include transportation, lodging and meals for prospective student-athletes and institutional personnel on official and unofficial visits, as well as telephone call charges, postage and such. The costs also include the value of use of an institution’s own vehicles or airplanes as well as the in-kind value of loaned or contributed transportation.
Kansas’ recruiting spending is driven in part by the program’s use of private aircraft, mostly university-owned. For example, according to data published earlier this month by the Lawrence Journal-World, KU’s basketball program spent nearly $275,000 on private aircraft for recruiting during the 2013 fiscal year. That accounts for just more than half of the nearly $515,000 the school reported spending on men’s basketball recruiting that year.
“We trust Bill Self to know what he and his staff need to keep our men’s basketball program among the very elite programs in the nation,” Kansas athletics director Sheahon Zenger said Tuesday in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “It would be difficult to overstate what Kansas basketball has meant to this athletics department, our university, the City of Lawrence and the state of Kansas.”
Jacobs said Auburn increased use of a university jet when Barbee was hired “so that our coaches could go wherever they felt they needed to go to sign the best players in the nation. … I wanted to take away every possible excuse. I wanted to give (Barbee) and his staff whatever it was they thought they needed to be successful here.
“It did not pay off for us, but it took the excuse off the table.”
The average five-year spending for all of the 214 public schools in the analysis was $465,000 with average annual spending of $93,000. Of the 49 public schools in the five power conferences, the average five-year spending total was $954,000, with annual average spending of $191,000.
Taken together, men’s basketball recruiting costs at Division I public schools were $22.7 million in 2012-13, up $5 million in five years. Some of the increased spending is due to higher costs of travel and some of it is likely due to an NCAA rule change that took effect in 2012 allowing schools to pay actual round-trip transportation costs for up to two of a prospective recruits’ parents or guardians on their official visits. That rule applies only to basketball recruiting.
Just 13 schools accounted for about half of the $5 million spending increase, including four that went up about $250,000 each. Kansas’ spending increased by 35% over five years, Louisville’s by 91% and Kentucky’s by 60%. Somehow Wisconsin gets by spending only 15% of what the top spenders do.
Schools in power conferences spending more on recruiting
Gard pointed out that Wisconsin concentrates its recruiting in the Midwest, which cuts down on national travel, or the need for university jets.
“I don’t think we have any secret potion,” Gard said. “We don’t go overboard when we travel and when we stay places.”
Auburn hopes its spending will bear fruit under the tenure of Bruce Pearl, who just finished his first season as coach with a surprising three-win run in the SEC tournament before falling to Kentucky. Jacobs said Pearl did not ask for any increase in the recruiting budget. Jacobs believes Pearl’s name and oversize personality mean he is a known quantity to recruits and their parents.
“From a recruiting standpoint,” Jacobs says, “that just pays dividends you can’t put a price tag on.”
Contributing: Nicole Auerbach, Christopher Schnaars and Kevin Trahan