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The Haves Need Not Fear Recruiting Deregulation

Major conferences are lining up to stop the NCAA's deregulation of recruiting. Their worries are overblown.


Bylaw Blogger John Infante posted an enlightening article this week about why major conference schools are actually trying to get the NCAA's recent decision to deregulate recruiting reversed. The Big 10 has come out against the move, and SEC members might do the same soon.

The argument that schools are making is basically that the NCAA needs to save them from themselves. As Infante points out, there are already arms races going on with coaching salaries and facilities upgrades. Georgia AD Greg McGarity is warning that deregulated recruiting might spark another arms race and, by implication, drive some programs to financial ruin. They also worry that a small number of schools that can outspend the rest will get unsurmountable advantages.

These worries are overblown. I don't doubt that some programs will not be able to stop themselves from spending far too much money, as we've seen programs like Rutgers and Maryland get into big financial holes. That has as much to do as anything with poor leadership and implicit bailout guarantees from universities and state legislatures. Participation in any football arms race is always optional, after all.

I'll give you a few reasons why I'm taking this position.

Location matters most in recruiting.

A few years ago, three economists put together a formula that was pretty accurate in predicting where the top recruits go. The formula hasn't been updated in a few years, but the insights are timeless.

The researchers found factors that made a difference in predicting where prospects would eventually end up. Two things stuck out above the rest. One was if the kid took an official visit, an act that indicates real interest (usually). The other was distance from home. On the whole, players tend to stay close to where they grew up. This separate study found that 50% of I-A players on 2009 rosters came from within 250 miles of their schools' campuses.

Colorado, for instance, could spend all it wants to try to draw big recruits out of Florida, but it likely wouldn't work very well due to distance. Glossy media guides and Fathead stickers are nice, but playing in front of family is a bigger deal for most kids. Money spent is not the biggest factor in recruiting, or else Tennessee would have the top class every year.

The college football talent pool is deep and wide, and player development makes a real difference.

The pool of players who can at least become solid contributors on the college level is enormous. Ten schools don't snap up all of the worthy players every year because they simply don't have the room to do so. Though Colorado couldn't make its living with players out of Florida due to distance, it could still pull a couple of good ones if it really wanted to because there are just so dang many of them.

High school athletes are also relatively raw skill-wise, and some may be far from their physical potential due to living in poverty. The ability to turn the lesser-regarded recruits into great players is a key differentiator for some great programs. Kansas State never, ever rates highly in recruiting, but Bill Snyder and his staff win a lot of games thanks to player development. Nick Saban brings in blue chippers better than anyone, but as I've chronicled before, some of his most important players have come in as three-star recruits.

Every team relies on a lot of players who didn't get the red-carpet treatment in recruiting. Even the 1980s SMU teams that had a payroll to keep had a relatively small payroll. The vast majority of those Mustangs never got a check for anything. Besides, most (if not all) of the SWC was cheating at the time, and not everyone won big. TCU got probation in 1986 for paying players, and that school had one winning season in the previous decade.

Football is a team game.

College football isn't like the NBA, where there are generally five to 10 superstars and any team without one is out of the title race before the season begins. Think about 2010 Auburn, the national champion most considered to be boosted by a couple of stars in Cam Newton and Nick Fairley. It still had a veteran offensive line, talented receivers, Dyer, Lutzenkirchen, and Eguae. Putting Newton on those 2010 Tigers turned a bowl team into a champion, but putting him on 2010 Vandy would have still rendered a train wreck of a season.

I also don't think analogies to MLB are terribly apt either. When baseball teams get into bidding wars, the money at play ends up in the players pockets. The above-the-table money spent on recruiting that we're talking about here will not end up going to the players. The recruiting materials that a school sends to players won't be legal tender for buying stuff. A player doesn't see benefit from the money that get spent to hire extra recruiting staffers. It's all indirect spending in recruiting, and that kind of outflow doesn't have the same effectiveness as the direct spending of a professional team paying salaries.

Plus, games come down to the kicker with regularity, and that's a position for which some schools don't even hand out scholarships to high schoolers.

Some schools will always have an advantage regardless of the rules.

Let's face it, the school McGarity is talking about when he fears that someone is going to go nuts with recruiting spending is Alabama. Even with the regulations in effect, Bama is still wiping the floor with most everyone in recruiting anyway. Since Bear Bryant retired, every Alabama head coach has won 10 games at least once. Yes, even the idiots like Dennis Franchione.

The schools most likely to pour lots of cash into recruiting are the ones that already have lots of cash. They have that money because they're already winners. If they're already winners, they've probably been winners for a long time. If they've been winners for a long time, they're likely to remain winners into the future no matter what the rules are. Sometimes we see schools make lasting leaps or falls between tiers, but it's in the single digits per decade. College football's pecking order has worked that way for a long time no matter what the rules have been.

How much you spend isn't as important as how you spend it.

No program has more money than Texas does. No one has the capacity to spend as much as it can. Let's bring up Auburn again. AU is not a small spender, but it spent at least $30 million less per year on athletics as a whole than Texas did over the past five years.

For the first decade of the century (2001-2010), the Longhorns had five division titles (won outright or shared), two conference titles, and one national title. In the same time span, Auburn had five division titles (won outright or shared), two conference titles, and one national title. Texas had 1.3 wins per year more and the same number of titles to show for all of its advantages.

I really think that schools begin to run into diminishing returns as their expenditures rise ever higher. Spending on good coaches is what really matters; the rest just needs to be good enough. Alabama outspends just about everyone on football because it can, but Saban would still win big with fewer resources. Hugh Freeze just pulled in an outstanding recruiting class on a much lower budget than what many schools have.

This fact is evident no matter where you look. Microsoft spends far more on R&D than Apple does, yet it trails its fruit-flavored competitor in both revenue and profits. In every presidential election from here on out, one side will spend more than a billion dollars and lose. Hollywood history is littered with big budget failures.

Don't get me wrong; it's far better to have and be able to spend lots of money than the alternative. However, the big time schools fighting this can choose not to participate in the predicted recruiting arms race and still be OK.