Jimmy Smith, the football coach at Cedar Grove (Ellenwood, Ga.) High School, looked at his three players, Netori Johnson, Tre’ Shaw, and Justin Shaffer, standouts in the Class of 2017, and asked this recruiting question:
“If Kentucky and Auburn were recruiting you, and you thought the quality of the education was the same at both schools and the playing time was the same at both schools, but you knew Auburn was going to give you this for expenses, and Kentucky was going to give you this for expenses, where would you go?”
Smith pointed to a sheet of paper listing Cost of Attendance (COA) stipends for each of the 14 SEC schools. Auburn’s number was $5,586. Kentucky’s number was $3,598.
Shaw, a defensive back who has 24 offers, didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“War Eagle,” he said with a smile.
Starting in 2015, college football programs could give student-athletes a check each month above the costs of the athletics grant-in-aid (scholarship). The amount of the stipend is called Cost of Attendance (COA), or the difference between what it actually costs to attend a school and the scholarship amount awarded, which is lower. Schools could give tuition, fees, room and board, and books with the typical athletic scholarship.
The COA came about as Division I programs started hauling in more television revenue and there was an outcry to share that revenue. The stipend is designed to pay the athlete for out-of-pocket expenses, such as travel home.
As it becomes better known, and more of the conversation in recruiting, will COA become a recruiting tool?
“Yes,” said Shaw, a 6-foot, 175-pound cornerback. He said his biggest reasons for attending a school are “If I like it there, if it is easy for me to get home, and playing time,” but now that he understands the differences from school to school in COA, the stipend would be part of the discussion, too, in the overall value of his offer.
Shaffer, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound offensive lineman, also said he would consider COA. He ranked his deciding factors as 1) quality of education, 2) whether he liked the campus, and 3) playing time.
Typically, COA checks are cut to student-athletes once a month for the nine months during the typical academic calendar year. Auburn can write a check to a football player for $620.66 a month. Kentucky can write a check for $399.77 a month to a player.
“I didn’t know much about it,” said Shaw, a defensive back who said he has offers from many SEC schools. “I’m going to pay more attention to it.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound guard, who has committed to Alabama, said he heard about Cost of Attendance from players at Auburn. Alabama was on the low end of the COA, but in a calculation provided to CBSsports.com, the Tide jumped to third in the SEC this year in COA ($5,386). Johnson said the number did not concern him regardless in making his decision.
“I’ll make mine back playing in the league,” said Johnson, referring to the NFL.
Johnson said what Alabama was offering might still be enough to get a car and pay insurance. That’s why he has interest in the COA.
Shaw said it might not matter in the long run how much he received because, “my mama’s going to have that account in her name.”
All three said the money could come in handy for their families back in Atlanta, either for their mothers or grandmothers.
Smith said if a school has a better indoor facility it is going to trumpet that edge in recruiting. If it has better dorms, it will say so. If a school feels its training staff is better than others in the SEC it will use that to convince high school athletes to come to the school.
“It is the job of the recruiter to use anything he can to get that kid,” Smith said. “This stipend is another tool.”
The COA is new and is still not a significant part of the discussion in recruiting for some schools. Fyrone Davis, who helps coordinate recruiting for Buford (Ga.) High School, which regularly produces FBS players, said he has not heard the stipend come up in discussions between schools and Buford students who play football.
Smith said he meets regularly with college recruiters and players together at school and the COA stipend has not come up in the wide-ranging discussions. Smith said he thought recruiters were more casual about it “off to the side” with students.
Will it become routine soon when it is less casual? Will Tennessee recruiters say to a recruit who lives in Dalton, Ga., “We can write a bigger check than the Dawgs?”
Rush Propst, the head coach at Colquitt County High School, which has won back-to-back 6A titles, said some recruiters already are trumpeting their stipends. COA is “huge” in recruiting, Propst said.
“Coaches are using it in two ways: to get in the mix with a kid or close the deal,” Propst said. “Bret Bielema has used it. He’s like me, he doesn’t beat around a bush. There’s a big difference in what one school can offer over another and kids are told that.”
Propst said he cannot blame high school football players if they pick a school based on the size of a monthly check.
“They can’t work for four years from the time they show up on campus; they are in football,” Propst said. “When are they supposed to have jobs? They need money. With all the money being made in the game, I can’t blame kids for thinking about it.”
SEC athletics directors met in Birmingham, Ala., for their annual December meeting earlier this month. Greg McGarity, the Georgia AD, said COA would come up in discussions.
In a fall meeting, the athletic directors of each school had to submit the data they used for arriving at the Cost of Attendance stipend. The criteria and the methods for arriving at the COA, McGarity said, was different for all 14 schools in the SEC.
“No two were the same,” he said.
McGarity would like to see a more uniform method of arriving at the Cost of Attendance, perhaps along guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Labor. It might remedy arbitrary calculations.
There are charges that athletic departments, and their recruiters, are influencing schools’ Cost of Attendance calculations. The COA applies campus-wide, not just to athletes, but if you have been following the influence of college football nationally it is not hard to imagine athletics’ influence on campus-wide issues.
If an athletic scholarship out-of-state is worth $42,000, schools do not want the actual Cost of Attendance (travel to home, etc.) to be much higher and scare away all prospective students. Schools have an incentive to keep the COA number low.
Obviously, there are schools in the SEC that would like to level the playing field, so to speak. There is quite a difference between a monthly check for $620 and $253.
“There are several of us who would like there to be some threshold there,” McGarity said. “Those at the top are not worried about it. Those at the bottom are concerned about it. There is more concern from those where it could be a recruiting disadvantage.”
Are some SEC schools at a competitive disadvantage?
“We don’t know,” McGarity said. “That would be answered by remarks from these young men and women would make at the appropriate time (in their recruiting).”
The SEC not only has to look at the issue from a conference perspective, but also a national mindset. Shaffer is being recruited by Louisville, which offers $5,202, the third highest nationally. Smith expects SEC schools to get on his junior guard heavy in the coming months of recruiting and the Cardinals could have a recruiting tool to use over, say, rival Kentucky.
Oklahoma and Texas offer more of a COA stipend than Texas A&M, which routinely gets into recruiting tussles with the Sooners and Longhorns.
Of the SEC’s 14 schools, seven ranked in the top 20 among the schools in the Power 5 conferences, according to numbers gathered by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Tennessee and Auburn ranked first and second, respectively. Mississippi State was fourth.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was asked in his first press conference as commissioner about Cost of Attendance and whether he wanted all SEC schools to allow the same amount.
“Well, we’re going to follow the expectations of legal outcomes first,” Sankey said. “This conference comes together to work on issues . I expect Cost of Attendance to be the same (as other discussions of differences). We’re supportive of our student-athletes and this is a new way to do that.”
Whatever the number, Smith wants SEC schools — all 65 Power 5 schools schools — to allow the same amount of money for COA. He said there is a trap just waiting for the student who plays football.
“It should be even across the board because eventually it is going to be too much of a recruiting tool and you don’t want a kid’s mother convincing a kid to go to a school just because of the money,” Smith said. “She’s going to say ‘You have to go here baby, I need a new car, too’.
“If that’s the reason you decide to go to a school, the money, and not the education, not the playing time, then there is a problem. Then you get there and its’ not right for you and you say ‘I should have gone somewhere else’.
“It’s going to happen.”
COA breakdown for the SEC
- Tennessee $5,666
- Auburn $5,586
- Alabama $5,386
- Miss. State $5,156
- Mississippi $4,890
- Arkansas $4,500
- Missouri $4,290
- South Carolina $4,201
- Florida $3,830
- LSU $3,800
- Georgia $3,746
- Kentucky $3,598
- Texas A&M $3,528
- Vanderbilt declined to provide
Source: CBSSports.com survey