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Athlete money throws wrinkle into recruiting landscape

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day questions a referee's call during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer

Published: January 16, 2023

Ohio State has produced the most first-round draft picks of any school and is about to make its fifth College Football Playoff appearance.
Those facts would seem to provide quite the recruiting pitch to any college prospect. Yet athletic director Gene Smith still felt the need to issue a public call this month for fans to support one of three collectives assisting Ohio State athletes in name, image and likeness compensation opportunities.
Smith's statement underscored just how much the NIL era, still just 18 months old, has impacted the recruiting landscape.
"I think it was never part of the conversation, then it became part of the conversation," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. "It's trending toward being the conversation for a lot of folks. As time has gone on, it's become more and more of a priority for folks."
One year ago, there was still some uncertainty over how the new rule changes allowing athletes to profit off their celebrity would impact the recruiting landscape.
Now there's no question what kind of difference it has made.
Prospects aren't shy about discovering what kind of financial benefits they could earn at each school they consider. Programs are quick to trumpet how much their athletes already have made.
"I think last year, no one really knew what it was going to be like," North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said. "And now it's kind of common-place communication, as far as the questions. So it's a lot different."
The same schools are still getting most of the elite prospects.
As of Monday afternoon, Dec. 19, 13 schools in the top 15 schools when it comes to the best classes according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports also ranked in the top 15 in 2021, the last class to sign before NIL's arrival.
But it would be naïve to assume that means NIL hasn't changed things drastically. NIL has dominated just about every major recruiting story that has unfolded over the last year or so.
There was an offseason war of words between Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who said the Aggies had essentially "bought" the nation's top-ranked recruiting class last year. At Ohio State, Smith's appeal for fans to support collectives came six months after he gave a speech to Columbus business members in which he stated it would take $13 million to keep the Buckeyes' roster together.
Pay-for-play situations or improper inducements are still banned, but there is nothing stopping colleges from letting recruits know how athletes on campus are already profiting through NIL deals.
The NCAA says collectives should be treated as boosters, which means they should not be contacting recruits and influencing where they go to school. Boosters can be involved in NIL deals with athletes after they have enrolled.
"There are a handful of kids whose decisions are completely based on NIL and so that's the only factor, but I wouldn't say many," said Steve Wiltfong, director of football recruiting for 247Sports. "Obviously it's an element for everybody now because people want to know what kind of value they can earn, whether that's seeing what college players are making on current rosters or even hearing what you're pitching me as a high school target. "
Los Alamitos (California) High School coach Ray Fenton said his conversations with college staffs suggest programs are following one of three different philosophies in how they deal with NIL.
"What's happening is some kids are just going to the highest bidder and some programs are playing that game," Fenton said. "They're bidding the highest. The problem that they are running into is that a kid or a family will come in and say, 'Hey, we're getting this much money from this school,' and it's not true. They're just almost like at a swap meet, haggling on prices."
He said other programs will not recruit an athlete "because he's just looking for a payday, he's not looking to put in the grind that (they) want him to grind to get to the NFL level."
"Some programs are just going with a flat fee. You come here and this is what you get. Nobody gets more. Nobody gets less," he said of the third approach. "That's what they're building their program around, and they feel that if they get that kid in who doesn't care what he's making compared to everybody else, then that kid's less likely to go to the transfer portal."
Fenton emphasized that these are just based on general discussions he's had with staffs about the NIL landscape and didn't have anything to do with his own players. Los Alamitos' long list of college prospects includes two top-35 recruits in quarterback Malachi Nelson and wide receiver Makai Lemon, who both committed to Southern California.
The increasing number of people entering the transfer portal has given colleges another option for restocking their rosters. Southern California's emergence this season and Michigan State's rise last year showed how teams can rebuild quickly by landing multiple high-profile transfers.
That's not an option for all programs, of course. Texas State signed only a few high school prospects during the last two recruiting cycles while instead building its roster almost entirely through the portal. The Bobcats fired coach Jake Spavital after a second straight 4-8 season. New coach G.J. Kinne said in his introductory news conference that "the foundation of our program's going to be Texas high school football players."
Other new coaches also have discussed the need to focus on high schools rather than relying on the portal to provide a quick fix. For instance, Wisconsin's Luke Fickell said he'd only pursue guys on the portal to "fill gaps" on his roster.
"Everybody would say, 'What about the transfer portal?'" Fickell said. "That's not the way we want to continue to build our program. That's not the vision I have. I don't think that's the vision for what this place is and should be. You take high school kids, you develop them over a four- and five-year period and you get amazing results."


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