Arms race: Costs soar in college football recruiting

CLEMSON — Always highly regarded for his power of persuasion, the recruiting coordinator turned head coach at Clemson recognized how quickly times changed.

A decade ago, Dabo Swinney had the help of nearly nobody strictly dedicated to wooing elite high school prospects to Clemson’s little corner of South Carolina. As the staff, time and effort devoted to recruiting has skyrocketed, so have the dollars set aside for that initiative.

The salaries and the hourly wages, the gas in the plane and the hotel lodging, the new-age software and widespread graphics — they all add up to a recruiting budget more than doubling in-state rival South Carolina for the 2012-2013 school year, yet leaner than five SEC schools.

“We’re very fortunate to have the resources, but we’re still not where we need to be comparatively to some of our competitors,” Swinney said. “But I know Clemson’s getting a good bang for its buck.”

It’s become an arms race.

Spend more, earn more.

Colleges spend six figures — and in a couple of cases, seven figures — per year solely to win on National Signing Day.

According to a recent USA Today Sports study, SEC programs spent an average of $582,000 on football recruiting during a five-year period ranging from 2009 to 2013. The ACC checked in at $426,000 per school; the Big 12 averaged $450,000, the Big Ten $444,000 and the Pac-12 $403,000.

South Carolina won 11 games three consecutive years, and Steve Spurrier was relatively thrifty. The Gamecocks’ $302,249 recruiting tab for the 2012-13 school year was up 28 percent from 2009, but they spent about $100,000 fewer in recruiting costs than any other SEC team. Conversely, out of 13 SEC public schools, South Carolina spent the least recruiting dollars per win ($26,846) during the 2009-13 span of five seasons.

Meanwhile in that span, Clemson ranked fourth out of the ACC’s eight public schools in recruiting dollars spent per win (52,702). Private institutions were not included in the report because they are not required to release their financial information.

Clemson’s recruiting expenses in the 2012-13 school year were $617,524 — outspent within the conference only by Georgia Tech — which represented a staggering 36 percent increase from four years prior. It’s paid dividends: Clemson won 42 games the past four years, a school senior-class record, and on Wednesday the Tigers hauled in their fifth consecutive top-15 ranked recruiting class.

Auburn led the USA Today list at almost $1.4 million on recruiting; Tennessee spent nearly $1.3 million and Alabama just under $1 million.

More than 20 years ago, before the birth of recruiting web sites like Scout.com and Rivals.com, an outside linebacker named Thad Turnipseed was on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team before tearing up both his knees.

Turnipseed became a student-coach, often finding himself in a cramped cubicle occupied by graduate assistant and former teammate Dabo Swinney.

“I knew he was special then,” Turnipseed said Wednesday, as part of his first public comments since defecting from Alabama’s staff to become Clemson director of football recruiting and external affairs.

Turnipseed spent his previous 11 years in Tuscaloosa, serving as Nick Saban’s director of external affairs. His old teammate and mentor from the early 90s plucked him away in May 2013.

“Thad Turnipseed has done a fantastic job helping us build what my vision for our program was as far as taking our recruiting to another level,” Swinney said. “We were a little behind, I thought, as far as our efficiency.”

This is the best way Swinney describes Turnipseed’s role: he wakes up every day and thinks about recruiting. That’s something a multitasking coach can’t say.

“Thad Turnipseed’s been an awesome addition,” said Jeff Scott, who was Clemson’s recruiting coordinator from 2009-14 before his promotion to co-offensive coordinator. “We’re light years ahead of where we were before he got here.”

There was one student volunteering her time to recruiting when Turnipseed arrived at Clemson.

A year and a half later, as many as 40 students at one time can be assisting Turnipseed or Scott, or new recruiting coordinator Brandon Streeter, or Scott’s father Brad, who handles player development, or director of high school relations Mike Dooley, or director of new media Jonathan Gantt. Turnipseed also has two full-time assistants and two graduate assistants.

Clemson University owns and operates one prop plane commonly used on recruiting trips. The athletic department employs three full-time pilots: James Allison, Dan Arblaster and Jason Williams.

All those people and more are part of the equation that adds up to 26 recruits signed Wednesday, a class ranking up there with the likes of Alabama, Florida State and Southern Cal.

“It takes over 200 people, really, to make a day like today happen,” Jeff Scott said. “More than 200 people from Clemson who touch these prospects at some point in the recruiting process.”

But it’s all relative. Staffs like Clemson’s still lag behind SEC powers like Alabama and Auburn.

“We’re definitely a lot smaller still. But we’re exactly what we need,” Turnipseed said.