ATHENS — What does it take to sign the nation’s top recruiting class? A lot of money, to start with.
That’s one lesson learned from the Georgia Bulldogs, who in February closed on their second No. 1-ranked football recruiting class in the last three years. UGA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on chartered air travel just to get in front of some of the top prospects in America, many of whom resided far away from Georgia.
In a 13-day period that bracketed Georgia’s appearance in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 7, the Bulldogs spent $422,047.07 on 42 trips by chartered air planes for coach Kirby Smart and members of his staff. Those flights landed in 23 different cities outside of Georgia’s borders, some as far away as Van Nuys, Calif., and Ontario, Canada.
Those are just a few of the revelations discovered when UGA released this week travel documents requested by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January. According to those records, Georgia football coaches boarded chartered flights at least 74 times between September and mid-December of last year. On average, the UGA Athletic Association paid $9,409 for those trips, not including coaches’ personal expenses. The total: $696,269.99
About this, the Bulldogs offer no apology.
“You want a return on your investment, right?” said Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity, referencing to the recruiting class’s No. 1 rank. “This is just part of what we do to help Kirby get the job done at UGA. (Recruiting travel is) one of many segments that are important to facilitating our program. It illustrates our commitment to Kirby to achieve our mutual goals.”
Indeed, Georgia signed players from all over the U.S. Of the 25 players the Bulldogs inked, 16 of them came from outside the state. Some of them came from way outside.
Georgia signed two players from California, one from Nevada and another from Arizona. The Bulldogs also landed players from Maryland and New Jersey. They signed three recruits out of Louisiana and four from Florida. And these weren’t just any players. In many cases they were the best prospect at their position in their respective states.
The Bulldogs’ flight records indicate they would’ve taken even more out-of-staters if they could have gotten them. Georgia coaches made several trips to Ontario, Detroit and Kansas City in an effort to sign blue-chip recruits from each of those areas. Alas, even the indefatigable Smart can’t sign every prospect he targets.
The financial support hasn’t gone unnoticed. Smart made a point to thank UGA’s athletic administration, as well as the school’s faculty, his own assistants and Georgia football support staff, for their efforts after closing on the 2020 class.
“This really goes back to sacrifices that everybody made to give their time,” Smart said. “It really takes a team effort when you have kids coming from Texas and California and all over the country. People have to sacrifice their time to give you an opportunity to sign players like this.”
Time — and money.
Sometimes Georgia’s coaches flew on jets, such as the ones UGA hired from Georgia Jet, Inc., for $28,300 over two days in September. Other times they were on twin-prop airplanes, which come a little cheaper.
The most expensive flight logged was $27,153.50 for a trip from Athens’ Ben Epps Airport to McCarren International in Las Vegas on Dec. 8. Darnell Washington, the nation’s No. 2-rated tight end, lives in Las Vegas. That same day, UGA coaches also flew from Vegas to Van Nuys, Calif. Van Nuys is 15 minutes from Calabasas, where 4-star wide receiver Jermaine Burton resides.
Both Washington and Burton signed with the Bulldogs 10 days later.
That was the Sunday after Georgia lost to LSU 31-10 in the SEC Championship game. The Bulldogs rang up quite a bill in the days immediately after that contest.
That Monday, Georgia coaches were on planes traveling from DeKalb-Peachtree Airport to Love Field in Dallas, then on to Ontario. The Bulldogs were recruiting several prospects in the Dallas area of Texas, including 4-star cornerback Jalen Kimber, who signed with UGA. In Ontario, they were after top-ranked tight end Theo Johnson, who ended up signing with Penn State. UGA was charged $42,334.62 for those two sojourns.
The next day, a flight took UGA coaches from Phoenix, not far from where the nation’s No. 1-ranked cornerback Kelee Ringo resides in Scottsdale, Ariz., to Kansas City, Mo., where the Bulldogs were recruiting No. 3-ranked cornerback Dontae Manning. The former signed with Georgia. The latter inked at Oregon.
UGA coaches probably flew to Houston, Texas, more than anywhere else. Records show they were at airports in that city at least four times. Zachary Evans, the No. 2-rated running back in the country, lives in Houston. He signed with Georgia in December, but then the Bulldogs released Evans from his letter-of-intent in January. That’s a long story for another day.
In short, the AJC’s request for charter air expenses for football recruiting in Fiscal Year 2019-20 was filed on Jan. 30. All of the flight information UGA provided was for trips that occurred on or before Dec. 13.
The early signing date for college football was Dec. 18 and the final signing date for the 2020 football recruiting classes was Feb. 5.
UGA coaches certainly made many other sorties between Jan. 17 and Feb. 1 when the NCAA’s recruiting calendar allows in-person, off-campus contact with recruits. But those records weren’t made available because McGarity said expense reports for any of those trips were processed after the AJC’s Jan. 30 request.
The state of Georgia’s open-record law was changed in 2016 to give athletic departments 90 days to respond to requests for anything other than employment actions and salary adjustments. Smart and McGarity were consulted about the prospective change before it was voted on in April of 2016.
The AJC also requested expenses for helicopter travel. Smart is known for renting choppers to help him get around Atlanta’s notorious traffic during recruiting evaluation periods. UGA reported six instances in which it rented from Helicopter Express at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport. Those excursions, limited to Athens and Atlanta, totaled $55,900. Again, the last flight reported occurred on Jan. 30.
McGarity insists it’s money well spent.
“It’s respectful of the coaches’ time,” he said. “Recruiting is critical. If you’re trying to fly commercially, you’re probably not going to be able to go see people in consecutive places on the same day or consecutive days. As our results show, we recruited a lot more (prospects) out of state this year. Our guys were all over the place.”
Indeed they were. Georgia’s cross-continental romps explain its ascent from middle of the SEC to top of the nation in football recruiting expenditures. According to a survey by USA Today, the Bulldogs’ $3.7 million outlay for football recruiting in Fiscal Year 2019 was the most in the nation. That topped rival Alabama by $250,000 and represented a $1 million jump for UGA over the previous year.
It remains to be seen if that number will be even higher for Fiscal Year 2020, which ends June 30. It certainly was trending that way when all in-person, off-campus contact concluded on Feb. 1. Then Georgia, like all NCAA programs, had to shut down on-campus recruiting and off-campus evaluations in March, April and May due to health and safety restrictions created by the coronavirus pandemic.
McGarity said UGA’s place atop recruiting expenditure charts is more a function of accounting than lavish travel practices. He said the fact that UGA no longer operates its own plane inflates the figures.
Many of the SEC’s schools have their own planes. The University of Georgia used to own a King Air twin-engine, turbo-prop plane that was available for athletic department use, but sold it in 2018 for $1.4 million.
Between that decision and Smart’s penchant for recruiting the best players all over the country, UGA Athletics’ line item for travel has swelled ever since. It had $2.96 million budgeted for recruiting and coaches’ travel for Fiscal Year 2020, up from $2.26 million the previous year.
“That’s been my point,” said McGarity, who was deputy AD at Florida before becoming Georgia’s AD in 2010. “Different athletic departments account for it different ways. At Florida, the respective sports were charged only for the statute miles traveled or hourly expenses. That doesn’t reflect the cost of the airplane, pilots’ salaries, maintenance on the aircraft, insurance or anything like that. All of that was in the aviation budget. So it’s not really apples to apples.”
McGarity said the prospect of buying another plane was going to be a “topic of discussion” at the next athletic board meeting, which is tentatively scheduled for June 4 at Lake Oconee. But he expects it will be shelved due to current global circumstances.
“We’re constantly evaluating if we want to get back in the aviation business,” McGarity said. “We’ve had to delay that decision until a later date when we get more clarity on the virus. To go out and make a purchase like that right now probably wouldn’t be a wise decision.”
If nothing else, Smart has proven he knows what do with an airplane.
THE COST OF RECRUITING
In a sampling of records requested by the AJC, in the 13 days from Dec. 1-13, before and after the SEC Championship game on Dec. 7, Georgia officials made 42 airplane flights for recruiting visits. The cost of just those trips totaled $422,047.07.
Dec. 1/Detroit to Athens/$13,701.30
Dec. 1/Lakeland, FL to Athens/$8,706.22
Dec. 1/Kansas City, MO to Athens/$8,702.02
Dec. 4/Athens to Orlando/$7,628.12
Dec. 4/Orlando to Athens/$7,628.12
Dec. 5/Athens to Columbia, SC/$4,633.92
Dec. 5/Columbia, SC to Athens/$4,633.92
Dec. 8/Athens to Sarasota, FL/$9,148.05
Dec. 8/Athens to Las Vegas/$27,153.50
Dec. 8/Las Vegas to Van Nuys, CA/$6,323.46
Dec. 8/New Orleans-Houston/$9,262.76
Dec. 8/Athens to Orlando/$7,391.60
Dec. 9/Van Nuys, CA to Ontario/$8,065.52
Dec. 9/Ontario to Fresno, CA/$8,065.52
Dec. 9/Fresno, CA to Las Vegas/$8,871.23
Dec. 9/Las Vegas to Phoenix/$8,061.32
Dec. 9/Sarasota, FL to Athens/$8,534.45
Dec. 9/Arlington, TX to Phoenix/$16,763.70
Dec. 9/DeKalb to Dallas/$21,167.31
Dec. 9/Dallas to Ontario/$21,167.31
Dec. 10/Phoenix to Kansas City, MO/$20,155.41
Dec. 10/Kansas City, MO to Athens/$15,316.93
Dec. 10/Memphis to Houston/$9,795.30
Dec. 10/Houston to Athens/$11,074.60
Dec. 11/Floyd County, GA to Lakeland, FL/$11,284.17
Dec. 11/Lakeland, FL to Floyd County, GA/$12,089.88
Dec. 11/Floyd County, GA to Athens/$8,061.32
Dec. 11/Jacksonville to Lakeland, FL/$4,491.78
Dec. 11/Lakeland, FL to Fort Lauderdale, FL/$4,495.98
Dec. 11/Middle Georgia to Floyd County, GA/$11,074.60
Dec. 11/Floyd County, GA to Teterboro, NJ/$11,078.80
Dec. 12/Athens to New Orleans/$12,895.60
Dec. 12/New Orleans to Columbia, SC/$12,895.60
Dec. 12/Columbia, SC to Athens/$8,065.52
Dec. 12/Teterboro, NJ to Washington, DC/$11,074.60
Dec. 12/Washington, DC to New Orleans/$11,074.60
Dec. 12/Colquitt County, GA to LaGrange, GA/$4,083.82
Dec. 12/New Orleans to Jacksonville/$7,763.88
Dec. 13/Jacksonville to Athens/$6,171.37
Dec. 13/Jacksonville to Houston County, GA/$4,681.32
Dec. 13/Houston County, GA to Dodge County, GA/$4,406.32
Dec. 13/Dodge County, GA to Athens/$4,406.32