Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin said a lot of things about name, image and likeness, pay-for-play and the future of college football in a recent Sports Illustrated interview.
It was a refreshingly honest, matter-of-fact look at how open money in the recruiting process is here to stay. It mercifully lacked the sanctimony and cries about "unsustainability" that have clouded reality.
“You have kids going to schools now, and some haven’t even taken a visit,” Kiffin said, not blaming the players at all. “[They sign] because of NILs. You’ve got to think that it is here to stay. To say that it’s not sustainable, why? Ten years ago, no one would have said schools were going to pay coaches $10 million a year. Well, they do now.”
In real life, people jump jobs for more money all the time. In pro sports, players make exponentially more than the coaches. This is the future for college athletics.
So Kiffin is trying to adjust and “evolve like great programs and great coaches.”
No, Ole Miss won’t be able to go dollar for dollar with Alabama, let alone Texas A&M or Ohio State, for every recruit. That’s been true for decades. Ole Miss has almost never won direct recruiting wars with those schools.
While Kiffin hasn’t concluded this yet, direct dollars to recruits can actually allow a place such as his — with money, but not monied — to recruit more effectively by targeting its buys.
If direct dollars are now overriding proximity to talent, or the ability to get recruits on campus for visits, then that’s good for schools in small towns far from population centers … such as one in Oxford, Mississippi.
The most recent trend in recruiting has been the so-called facilities arms race. Bigger and flashier buildings and locker rooms and so on were needed to wow recruits. The richest spent with reckless abandon. Consider that in 2017 Alabama, as part of a multimillion dollar facility facelift, renovated its so-called “recruiting room” inside Bryant-Denny Stadium in an effort to impress high school prospects when they visit for a game.
It was considered one of the best, if not the best, in the country.
By 2020 — just three years later — the school ditched the entire thing and moved into a new, expanded “recruiting lounge” that doubled to 12,000 square feet.
It was even better.
“Absolutely first-class,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who himself donated $1 million to the overall funding drive.
Alabama had to do this. Georgia, after all, was in the middle of a $200 million facility glow-up in an effort to tip recruits to the Bulldogs. So was LSU and Ohio State and Texas and Clemson and so on.
Secondary spending was skyrocketing. In 2013, Georgia spent about $581,000 on recruiting expenses (scouting, mailing, travel), per school records. By 2018, it was almost five times that — $2.65 million.
Places such as Ole Miss — or Indiana or Wake Forest or Georgia Tech or Wisconsin — couldn’t keep up. The more slow and entrenched the spending — and building facilities is slow — the better for the establishment.
Now, the script is flipping.
Forget dropping $500,000 on some video boards inside a recruiting lounge that may or may not impress a wide-swath of recruits. Just give the very best recruit the $500,000 directly. If he doesn’t want it, move onto the next best recruit. And so on.
“It’s totally changed recruiting,” Kiffin said. “I joke all the time about it. Facilities and all that. Go ahead and build facilities and these great weight rooms and training rooms but you ain’t gonna have any good players in them if you don’t have NIL money. I don’t care who the coach is or how hard you recruit, that is not going to win over money.”
Good. This is an inefficient dollar going to college town contractors turning into an efficient one going to the players.
When facilities were everything, coaches were trying to fish with a wide (but hole-ridden) net. The strategy was: We will impress everyone with some bells and whistles and hope one or two difference-makers sign with us.
Now they can come in with a spear for the precise fish they want. There's a reason NFL teams don't care about facilities as a way to attract free agents. Money does the talking.
Will Alabama have more money to spend on players than Ole Miss? Yes. But Alabama doesn’t have all the money. It can't outbid Ole Miss on every recruit. Besides, there are still playing time issues (let alone scholarship limitations) that cut its recruiting haul.
If Ole Miss boosters want to use a big sum to overpay — and thus outdo Alabama — on a few select recruits, well, they can.
The efficient, direct dollar is favorable for schools that have fewer dollars. It matters less where you can afford passive recruiting efforts such as sending recruiting letters via FedEx rather than the mail or erecting billboards in a prospect’s hometown or renovate the recruiting lounge every three years.
The inefficient dollar benefits the schools that have money to waste.
No, Ole Miss isn’t going to surpass Alabama in full recruiting classes overnight. It might clip the Crimson Tide off at the edges. A five-star here. A four-star there. The Rebels can spend more on their top target than Bama can on its 20th.
This happens in business all the time. And if a lot of schools begin clipping off one or two players every so often, then talent spreads out. Not only is Ole Miss (and other schools) a little better, but Alabama is slightly worse. The gap closes.
The “gold-plated facility era” of college football has produced completely lopsided results. Of the 24 college football playoff games ever played, just five schools (Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State) have won 23 of them.
It can’t get worse. It will get better.