Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart initially cited “culture” and “hard work” in a press conference on Sunday, when he was asked how his program has managed to maintain excellence. But he didn’t stop there. “Obviously recruiting plays a part,” Smart said. “If you don’t have good players, you’ve got no chance.”
No school understands this notion quite like Georgia. For three straight years prior to the pandemic, Georgia was the most extravagant spender in the football recruiting category, allocating a total of $9.04 million during that timespan. The only other school to even come close was conference rival Alabama, which spent $7.08 million.
Those numbers come from budgets that schools submit annually through the NCAA’s Membership Financial Report System, and which have been gathered in Sportico’s Intercollegiate Finances Database. In the recruiting category, schools are instructed to report expenses for “transportation, lodging and meals for prospective student-athletes and institutional personnel on official and unofficial visits, telephone call charges, postage and such.”
Accounting practices are not identical for all athletic departments, but Georgia has clearly made an organizational investment towards matching or exceeding Alabama’s level of excellence under head coach Nick Saban. According to 247Sports rankings, Georgia has drawn a top-four class in each of the past seven cycles, with Alabama also placing in the top five every year. No other school has even finished in the top 10 every time.
Georgia was already a magnet for football talent in the first half of the 2010s, but the program was typically a fringe member of the top 10 in the recruiting class rankings. That was back when the Bulldogs spent significantly less on recruiting: a mere $583,000 in 2013, for instance.
Alabama and Georgia took big jumps in the recruiting power rankings in the years directly following the hirings of Saban and Smart, respectively. Perhaps even more so than the quality of a campus visit, a future head coach is a huge factor in high school players' decisions.
Therefore, a financial investment in a well-respected coach is also, in a sense, a recruiting spend. Smart is the third highest-paid coach in college football, earning $11.3 million this year, just a shade behind Saban at $11.8 million.
Georgia is back in the College Football Playoff finals for the third time in six years. In addition to winning, the program is a money-making powerhouse, finishing second among FBS public schools in revenue generated from football over the past four fiscal years.
The Bulldogs’ opponent, TCU, however, shows that elite talent is not a prerequisite for a championship game appearance. Since 2017, the Horned Frogs have drawn a class in the top 30 three times, but never one ranked higher than 23rd. That could change, however, given the team’s new national prominence.
“There's some doors open to us now, because of this success, that have been closed for a long time,” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes said in a press conference. “It's up to us to figure out how to reap the benefits from—when it comes to recruiting, the opportunity to recruit a different kind of player.”
The importance of recruiting is reflected in the fact that it bleeds into the entire college football calendar. “We were preparing this week for a national championship game and we had six transfers on campus on an official visit,” Dykes said. “And you're just kind of like, really? I mean, are we really doing this?”
A second Georgia national championship could encourage even more schools to increase their recruiting spending in order to keep up. It's not the only route to success, though: Stetson Bennett, Georgia’s star quarterback, 2021 national champion and 2022 Heisman Trophy finalist, was a walk-on.