LAST MONTH, MOREHEAD STATE men’s basketball head coach Preston Spradlin entered Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas around 4 a.m., 90 minutes before his flight to Cincinnati was scheduled to depart. He’d just evaluated high school prospects at multiple grassroots tournaments, and he was ready to go home.
What should have been a four-hour direct flight, however, became extended as the plane was forced to stop in Indianapolis due to weather. When Spradlin reached Cincinnati, hours later, he still had to drive two hours to Morehead, Kentucky, which doesn’t have a major airport.
Spradlin finally arrived home, nearly 21 hours after leaving Las Vegas the previous day. But he couldn’t rest. He had to prepare for a 9 a.m. practice.
“If you’ve got the resources and the ability to hop on a private plane and fly, that’s more time you get to spend with your team on campus or with your family,” Spradlin, who led his team to an Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title last season, told ESPN. “Those are disadvantages you have at this level, but you’ve got to figure out ways to be creative with it.”
Spradlin’s recruiting predicament is familiar to head coaches at Division I mid-major men’s college basketball programs, who must identify creative, often taxing, ways to travel the country — and sometimes the world — to find players in a landscape that has dramatically changed in recent years. It’s a different experience compared to the more luxurious recruiting lives of coaches at elite programs, who often have access to private jets, high-end hotels and fewer cost concerns.
The University of Kentucky, for example, has a $2.3 million recruiting budget for its men’s teams, per Department of Education data. In contrast, Morehead State — an hour outside Lexington — spends $111,000 annually.
Kansas, which won the 2022 national championship and recently added Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, pays $20,000 a month to private charter service WheelsUp for head coach Bill Self to use for personal and business use, including recruiting trips. At Michigan State, Tom Izzo has had access to private jets for recruiting since 2010, when he signed an extension following back-to-back Final Four trips. Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson’s contract includes a clause for “use of charter flights for regular season and tournament games and for recruiting trips,” per the Houston Chronicle.
And earlier this month, Florida State‘s booster club, the Seminole Boosters, agreed to pay $9 million to buy two planes the athletic department will be allowed to use, per the Tallahassee Democrat.
Wealthy boosters can also lend their planes to coaches for recruiting needs, such as former Iowa representative Steve Sukup, who has loaned his private plane (and pilot) out to Iowa State coaches on recruiting trips in previous years.
But the differences extend beyond the amount of cash each school has to use in recruiting. The complexities of the transfer portal further complicate the job for non-Power 5 coaches, who try to add more talent each offseason without losing their best players to bigger, richer programs.
“What the NCAA has done is it has turned us into general managers, instead of basketball coaches,” said North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton. “We’ve got to assemble a roster every single year. It’s hard for us, being at this level, because now, with all that said, we haven’t even spoken about NIL. The one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t out-recruit money.”
To the coaches who endure those sizable financial disparities, recruiting on a budget requires patience, efficiency and, well, a working cell phone.
During the Peach Jam tournament in Augusta, Georgia, St. Thomas – Minnesota head coach Johnny Tauer’s iPhone crashed. He had to borrow other coaches’ phones to make recruiting calls and to stay in touch with his staff that week.
That can happen to anyone. But he was also worried about getting to the airport to catch his flight home, not a concern for some of his high-major peers who’d flown to Augusta on chartered jets that would never leave without them.
“Fortunately, I’d been there two weeks earlier and met a taxi driver and I still had his business card, so he was my lifeline to the airport,” Tauer said.
Travel is not the only consideration for Tauer and other non-Power 5 coaches who attend events around the country. Cost-effective recruiting also demands tough decisions related to official visits and staffing major grassroots events, which can sometimes charge more than $500 for official team rosters so coaches can identify players on the court as they evaluate.
“I joke that some of these AAU events are the most expensive basketball games I’ve ever gone to,” Tauer said. “You and I could buy courtside Minnesota Timberwolves tickets for less.”
RICHIE RILEY AND HIS South Alabama staff sleep well on most recruiting trips, although they’ve had to crash at an airport or two due to delays. But the Jaguars’ head coach said the influx of talent in the transfer portal has changed his program’s approach to recruiting.
With more than 2,000 players available each spring on top of the thousands of high school targets, Riley said he now doesn’t attend a grassroots event or facilitate an official campus visit unless he’s confident South Alabama has a real shot to sign a player.
That has become the norm in the transfer portal era. At NCCU, Moton said his staff has a whiteboard that lists his school’s top prospects in three categories: junior college, high school and transfers. Evaluation at the ground level, he and other coaches said, has demanded more time but subsequently saved money by limiting road trips.
“For us, the approach has to be, more than ever, of finding the right fit and identifying that early in the process of recruiting so you don’t waste a lot of time,” Riley said. “We’re limited in what we can do with NIL versus the Power 5. But if that’s the main driving force in a recruitment, it will be hard for us.
“We try to evaluate, at the front end of recruiting, what their driving force is. If it’s about the money, then it’s hard to get those guys to come here. But if it’s about increasing their role dramatically and giving themselves a chance to make more money on the back end with being a professional basketball player, [we have a better chance].”
Daniyal Robinson spent seven seasons at Iowa State, a program rebooted over the last decade thanks to transfers. When he took the head job at Cleveland State last season, he took the same approach, and led the Vikings to a 21-14 record and the Horizon League tournament title game. Tristan Enaruna, who followed Robinson from Ames and had also previously played at Kansas, led the program in scoring (15.6 PPG) and rebounding (6.5 RPG), while also averaging 1.2 BPG.
Robinson said he can save money on pricy grassroots tournaments when he attends as a parent — his son is a 2024 prospect — instead of a coach. But the transfer market is often the greater priority. His pitch to transfers, like that of other non-Power 5 coaches in his position, is the opportunity to shine at a new school but also lead a team to a conference championship and the NCAA tournament while showcasing their full skillset.
“When I was at Iowa State, there was a certain level of transfer you could get involved with immediately because of the name of your school,” Robinson said. “Then you go from there and try to connect the dots and find out what makes sense. Here at Cleveland State, you have to do a little more sifting, a bit more of a sales job, because you’re not on a national scale. You’re not on Big Monday or those showcase games on the weekend. You have to enlighten kids and say, ‘Hey, you can have an opportunity here at Cleveland State.'”
JIM LARRANAGA STILL THINKS about the days when he never slept.
As the head coach at Bowling Green (1986-1997), he once stayed on the road for 24 hours to save cash.
On one trip to New York, he left with an assistant at 6 p.m., drove through the night, slept at a rest stop and attended a tournament. He then met with a local recruit and attended other games in the area before making the eight-hour drive back to Bowling Green.
“Our recruiting budget was $13,000,” he said. “So I told the coaches, ‘You don’t spend any night at a hotel.’ Wherever you go, you drive back. We used $13,000 as gas money.”
Today, Larranaga leads a Miami team with a much larger budget. More importantly, he has showcased the potential of recruiting in the NIL era, with a run to the Elite Eight in 2022 and the school’s first Final Four trip in April.
As the NCAA currently seeks federal involvement to standardize NIL regulations, most non-Power 5 coaches must navigate a climate centered on compensation without the access to funds their richer counterparts have. Due to the money available to players now, some of the questions and challenges of today are much different than the obstacles coaches encountered even a decade ago.
One mid-major coach recently told ESPN he had a key transfer ready to sign with his program until the player received a promise of a $25,000 NIL deal if he agreed to attend another school and decided to sign there.
Eric Duft, head coach at Weber State, said Damian Lillard, who played for the school from 2008 to 2012, might have been tempted to transfer had he competed in the current climate. The NBA star frequently returns to support the school now, demonstrating the value of strong relationships within the program. Those same ties, Duft said, encouraged Dillon Jones (16.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG), an all-Big Sky first team performer last season, to return to school and reject significant NIL offers from Power 5 schools. Lillard’s support has helped convince players that they can succeed at Weber State, too.
“[Lillard] believes in what we do here,” Duft said. “He believes it to his soul. He watches our games. He texts our players what they need to do better or what they’ve done well. He’s all into Weber State.”
Beyond relationships, non-Power 5 coaches have also found other ways to create a niche and build their rosters. They’ve used FaceTime and Zoom to build connections without spending the money on costly visits. Duft said only one of his five incoming recruits — three are European — took an official visit to the school before committing.
Montana‘s Travis Decuire takes advantage of buy games — where Power 5 schools pay his program to play them during the nonconference season — by sending his coaches to recruit nearby on those trips.
“We use what we call our backyard,” he said. “Those are the places we typically go. We have a direct flight to Seattle. We have a direct flight to Portland. And then one connection into either the Bay Area or Los Angeles. We don’t really have travel problems because of recruiting. … I do a little bit of what Tom Izzo does.”
It’s all worth it to Spradlin, the Morehead State head coach without a major airport in his city or a private jet to use. His car racks up a lot of miles every summer and he said he could write a book about America’s airports.
For everything his team might lack compared to some of the game’s powerhouses, he enjoys the way he can sculpt his roster and attract the players who make the most sense for his program. Even if that means he has to sometimes deal with flight delays and some sleepless nights before early practices.
“I’m double-fisting the coffee on those mornings,” Spradlin said. “If you really love coaching, when you walk onto that court, no matter how tired you are, you’re going to get a great shot of energy just to have the opportunity to get back with your team.”