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Penn State Football: James Franklin’s Newly-Minted $24 Million Recruiting Class

by on February 07, 2014 12:01 AM

During his signing day pep rally Wednesday night in the Bryce Jordan Center, James Franklin showed off his first set of big investments.

And the five of them were just the tip of a $24 million Class of 2014 blue and white iceberg.

Before about 3,500 diehard fans, Penn State’s new head football coach trotted out 37 feet, 4 inches and 1,290 pounds of early enrollees. They came from Georgia, Ontario, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia.

It was a new beginning for all of them. They started classes on Jan. 13, Franklin began his new job on Jan. 11.

The five brand new Penn State freshmen had been sitting with dozens of their Nittany Lion teammates in the section at end court. At Franklin’s urging, and with microphone in hand, they filed to the foul line wearing five white Penn State football jerseys and two knit caps.

A quarterback, a wide receiver, an offensive lineman and two D-linemen. Their worth, this year alone, is about $1.15 million. That’s what Penn State will invest in the five of them as a group – just for 2014.

In total, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletes, Penn State will spend about $230,332 on each of them this year. That’s based on the 2011 average numbers for the Big Ten Conference, and adjusting for annual inflation of about 3%. It’s a bit of an educated guess,  because only 98 of the 123 FBS schools took part in the Commission’s most recent survey. Penn State did not. Perhaps now, in these days of transparency, it will in the future. It should. And why not? The purpose of the Knight Commission’s “Athletic and Academic Spending Database for NCAA Division I” is just and right:

Mission of this Project: Improve the accountability for spending in college athletics. More effective disclosure of finance -- and of financial priorities -- enhances the ability of colleges and universities to ensure athletics programs are advancing the mission of higher education."

25 SCHOLARSHIPS x 4 YEARS

Here's the bottom line for Franklin's first recruiting class: 25 scholarship football players x 4 years x $230,332 annually adjusted 3% for inflation = $24,090,939.

It is very possible it would be a lot higher at Vanderbilt. We don’t know for sure, since Vandy also didn’t participate in the Knight Commission survey, but overall in 2011 the SEC spent an average of $259,251 per scholarship football player. For one season. The median for a “normal” FBS school? About $138K.

In comparison, each Big Ten school spent $127,646 per scholarship athlete and $18,831 per “regular” student. That academic spending per full-time student is tops in the FBS – and 42% more than what the average SEC school spends. Sure seems like Franklin was right when he told Penn State’s Faculty Senate that the SEC’s primary reason for being was football. (Of course, one could make a case that the Big Ten’s No. 1 reason for being these days is to provide programming for BTN, owned by the conference and FOX.)

To the Big Ten’s credit, its average member’s athletic department gets just $2,254 from its university’s general coffers to support each athlete. At the time the last survey was done, Penn State was one of less than 20 universities whose intercollegiate athletic program was self-supporting – meaning it paid its own bills. Likely, with NCAA and Big Ten fines, that is no longer the point. Still, Penn State football -- with gross revenues of $58.7 million in 2012-13, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education -- is easily athletics’ most vital cog of it all.

Hence, the big money needed to keep that recruiting pipeline flowing. Sometimes, that $230K is a bargain. Take the only two Nittany Lions who actually played in 2013 to take the floor on Wednesday.

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is far and away Franklin’s Most Valuable Pennstater. Hack’s a bargain at a little over a quarter mil a year, given that the average QB in the NFL – from clipboard carriers to anyone named Manning – makes $1,970,982. Imagine what would happen if he got hurt this fall. Junior Jordan Lucas, an aggressive shutdown corner, brings a lot to the field and the locker room. The average NFL corner makes almost $1.2 million. He costs a quarter of that. Here’s an important factor, too: Both are good and earnest students.

They’ve handled the pressure of being a Penn State star, a leader through times of transition and turbulence, a role model, a likely NFL employee.

They made it.

NEWLY-FRANKLIN MINTED RECRUITS

But what about the five new kids on the foul line and the other 20 newly Franklin-minted recruits? Most will never be stars. Odds are, well over half will never be regular starters – there are only 24 of those a year – and some will get hurt, transfer or may even lose their scholarship. Then what?

The pressure has to be immense. The hype and attention, which they no doubt love and some even demand, can make things worse.

In some ways, with signing day war rooms (not just at Penn State) and big screen highlights and glowing accolades before they visit campus, the process could be setting them up for failure. And some will fail. If they don’t fulfill their promise, if they have trouble adjusting and aren’t afforded a redshirt freshman season and just aren’t all that good, who’s to blame?

The kid? He believed it all. Not just from the recruiters, but from the recruiting sites, the fans, the media, social media, ESPNU, me and maybe you.

The coach? He said the kid was great, he had the tools, he’ll make an immediate contribution. If he doesn’t play like a $230K player, was he not developed or was he not good to begin with – despite the accolades? Either way, the coach has some culpability, especially if the player is praised to high heaven and ends up with a hellish career.

Joe Paterno used to say: “They work better and harder with no expectations.”

Bill O’Brien told a handful of media types about this recruit: “He’s not calling me dude when he gets to campus. I’m not his friend.”

MISTER SMITH REMEMBERS

Yes, times change. PSU assistant coach Terry Smith came into Penn State in 1987 like a lamb. As was Paterno’s policy — continued by O’Brien – freshmen weren’t even listed in the media guide. Four years later, Smith went out as the Lions’ all-time leader in career receptions and single-season receptions (records since broken).

“We had nothing like this” celebration, said Smith, his hairline receding and grey patches framing his beard. “We didn’t do anything like this. You signed the sheet and mailed it away and that was it.

“Today kids are far more advanced than they were years ago, with the Internet, with media exposure and things of that sort. They know more and are prepared for more. Each year just has to get bigger and better. I think it was Florida State’s quarterback who said, ‘When we doing something, we do it big.’ That’s the way things are right now.”

The $24 million follow-up question to Smith, less than three weeks into his new job at his alma mater after spending most of his adult life coaching high school football in suburban Pittsburgh, was this:

“Do you feel OK with that?"

“I don’t have an opinion as to whether I’m OK with it,” he answered. “It’s just what the times are dictating. And for us to get these top kids, it’s what’s necessary.”

At $1 million per recruit these days, much of college football feels it can't afford not to.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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