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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — When Taryn Christion was establishing himself as a star quarterback at Roosevelt High School, and college coaches came calling, South Dakota State University's football program didn't exactly roll out the red carpet.
And that's exactly what appealed to the youngster, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/1K51SAd ) reported.
"They were really plain with their recruiting style," says Christion, who will enroll at SDSU as a freshman this fall. "They just told you how it was, and I liked that. They didn't shove stuff in your face and say, hey, we have this and this and then it turns out to be (exaggerated). They told the truth, and I liked that."
It's an approach the Jacks seem to have perfected. According to NCAA finance reports compiled by USA Today, South Dakota State's recruiting budgets over a five-year period between 2009 and 2013 have ranked near the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference, yet they're coming off three consecutive Division I FCS playoff appearances.
During that five-year span, the Jackrabbits spent a total of $320,136 on recruiting, an average of $40,267 per year. Only Northern Iowa and Western Illinois spent less, and only Northern Iowa got more value for its dollar, averaging $7,572 recruiting dollars per win to SDSU's $8,652. USD ranks last in that time frame for dollars per win at $24,575.
While the Jackrabbits strive to add resources and revenue streams, they're comfortable with a conservative approach.
"We do a great job of getting bang for our buck in all sports in our recruiting," said SDSU athletic director Justin Sell. "We have really good outreach in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, and it's a lot less expensive when you're driving instead of flying. We get most of our kids in the surrounding states, and the ones we get from further away we typically have a pipeline of people we can trust that can help keep costs down, too. I don't see our strategy changing."
SDSU spent between $46,000 and $63,000 on football recruiting between 2009-2012, then saw that number jump to $103,000 in 2013, but coach John Stiegelmeier and Sell both said that jump was largely coincidental; the only possible explanation the coach offered was that "maybe we just needed to do a little more work that year".
But overall, the SDSU football staff doesn't find it difficult to keep costs down. They do most of their recruiting in Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa (in addition, of course, to South Dakota), with extended pipelines in Illinois and Arizona. They do occasionally reach out to California, Florida and other places. The recruiting budget makes up coaches' travel expenses and per diem, but the biggest portion comes from recruiting expenses. If SDSU wants to bring a player in for an official visit, the team pays to get him to Brookings - even if by plane - and also covers meals and hotels.
The coaching staff has to decide how extravagant they want to get with meals and hotels, both for athletes they bring in on visits and for coaches themselves when on the road.
"We never fluff up our budget," Stiegelmeier says. "What we'll do is we'll plan a trip, say, to Kansas, and check what it costs to eat at the hotel there. And if it costs $50 a meal we'll have to decide if we want to eat that $50 meal or go to a cheap steakhouse and eat a $20 meal.
"It's kind of the same with the athletes," he adds. "There are some schools that really spend a lot of money. We don't take the nicest hotel in town. We feel the kind of guys we recruit, you don't have to wow them, you have to be transparent. There are a lot of schools that max everything out for the wow factor. That kind of turns us off, to be honest with you."
And the Jackrabbits' success on the field allows them to save money, too. Kids want to come play for a successful school, and some athletes commit before official visits even begin. Plus, the team's success adds to the number of players that come to SDSU football camps. Those numbers have grown in recent years from just over 100 to nearly 300, and many of those are recruitable players that the staff is able to evaluate without leaving Brookings.
This past year, Stiegelmeier traveled no further than Chicago for any recruiting tips.
"Normally for every guy you want to sign, you bring in three or four guys," Stiegelmeier said. "But (last year) we had 13 (verbal) commitments by the time the playoffs started. If you already have 13 commits before you even start official visits, you eliminate a whole mess of guys.
"Most of the kids now want to make a decision before their senior season," Stiegelmeier adds. "Well that's before the official visits begin, so I'm not necessarily going to go to their home because we've already got them. It's not that they aren't important, but it makes a difference in cost."
Of course, there are limits to what SDSU could do even if they wanted to. Their current athletic budget for the entire athletic department is just shy of $16 million. The budget for Ohio State, where Christion's high school teammate Grant Schmidt will play, is over $109 million. While SDSU and USD have moved up in the world since the North Central Conference days, there's still another stratosphere out there. But the Jacks are fine with that, and area high school coaches like the way the old NCC schools have handled their transition.
"They all are really good recruiters who understand where they are in the pecking order," said Roosevelt coach Kim Nelson. "Young kids want to feel comfortable and their parents want to know they're going to be taken care of. I think the approach is really effective when you can let parents know their kid is going to be safe, that someone's going to make sure he's going to class. I mean, they're Division I but you're still going there for a degree. It's not an NFL vision."
That also means a school like SDSU is going to be more patient with a recruit, in part because their smaller budget lessens their margin for error.
"Eight of our coaches spent three days at Ohio State and the culture there is unbelievable," Nelson said of the national champions. "The pressure to perform there is so incredibly high. They can scholarship a guy and if he comes in and isn't performing they just get rid of him because they have five guys waiting in line for that spot."
It's not like that in the FCS world. Christion had a couple of FBS offers, but not from any programs as prestigious as Ohio State. Still, it wasn't even necessarily the football side of things that sold him on the Jacks.
"They cared more about you as a person - that was what got me," Christion said. "You're more than just a number on the football field. They really focused on the bond with the players and coaches and the people on campus."
That was apparent when Christion suffered a season-ending injury early in his senior season. Some wondered if that would affect SDSU's investment in the quarterback. It did not.
"Right away that night I had five coaches from the staff already messaging me," Christion said. "They weren't upset - they were just supportive. That really let me know how much they cared about me."
Of course, just because the Jacks are content with the way they do business doesn't mean they aren't looking for ways to add to their competitive arsenal. The $32 million Sanford Jackrabbit Athletic Complex (S-JAC) has been a huge recruiting boost, and the new Coughlin-Alumni Stadium - which will be partially complete for 2015 and fully complete by 2016 - should transform the entire college.
Roughly half of SDSU's $15 million budget comes from the state and university and student fees, the other half comes largely from ticket sales, fundraising and corporate sponsorship. The state money once made up about 70 percent of the total budget, now it's closer to 50/50 as revenue streams have increased. Even with conservative estimates on ticket sales, parking, concessions and sponsorships, Sell estimates the budget will jump to $20 million when the stadium is complete.
Some of that increased funding is necessary just to keep up with rising travel and tuition costs - Sell notes with some pride that just staying where they are is significant in an era where many colleges are cutting, some drastically.
"The goal is to get our budget to where we're in the top three in the Missouri Valley, to where we're in the top three in the Summit League (for other sports)," Sell said. "Our budgets in total have probably lagged behind across the board, just in terms of growth. Traveling, recruiting - those things haven't gotten less expensive but our budgets have stayed relatively the same. As we open the stadium and start generating more revenue we can come back to that.
"We don't have unlimited resources but we're making strides and we have a ways to go," Sell added. "I like to break things down into three-year plans, and right now we're probably toward the end of a second 3-year plan. With the stadium looming we'll have some more options to fund some things. If we sell all the premium stuff and do things right it's going to be a really exciting time for us."
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com
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