Word spread quickly when Georgia head coach Kirby Smart landed in a helicopter on the Northside High School football field in Columbus earlier this year.
“The field was basically surrounded when he arrived,” Northside athletics director Morgan Ingram said. “Everyone was excited with so many Georgia fans here. It was definitely a day to remember.”
It was yet another example of a college football program pulling out all the stops to try to land a commitment from a prospective student-athlete. The Northside football team featured defensive lineman Caleb Johnson, who Smart hoped to recruit.
The Jan. 23 trip was one of four at the end of the month in which Smart traveled around in a helicopter to visit recruits. Those trips, which spanned Georgia and North Carolina, cost Georgia $36,651, according to invoices The Telegraph requested under the Georgia Open Records Act.
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In total, Georgia has spent $66,763 on helicopter trips for Smart since he took over the Georgia job, documents show.
Smart used helicopters on 11 days since he became the Bulldogs’ head coach in December 2015, said Georgia Athletics Director Greg McGarity. Ten of those days were for recruiting purposes.
“Your recruiting budget is north of $2 million, so I think when you look at the grand scheme of things, it’s a very, very, very small part of the recruiting budget,” McGarity said. “It’s only used like 10 times just for recruiting in a little over two years. Once you take it into context, it just illustrates it’s used very infrequently.”
What effect the helicopter use actually has on recruiting is hard to quantify. The Bulldogs, however, were able to land the No. 1 class during the past recruiting cycle, according to the 247Sports.com composite. (Although Johnson, the Northside recruit, ultimately didn’t choose the Bulldogs and instead will play football at Auburn this fall.)
“Time spent going slow doesn’t work,” Smart said on National Signing Day in 2016, when he was first asked about using a helicopter for recruiting purposes. “We had to get to a lot of places in a short amount of time. We want to use every advantage we can to try to get to see as many kids as you can. That was basically the goal there.”
The cost of these helicopter trips have risen slightly each year under Smart.
In 2016, Smart used a helicopter three times, at a cost totaling $8,560, according to Georgia’s response to The Telegraph’s open records request. In 2017, Georgia spent $18,585 on helicopter rentals.
Following the week of recruiting via helicopter in January, Smart took a helicopter in February to speak at a “silver circle donor” event in an undisclosed location. That trip cost the athletic association $2,967.
Using helicopters was never discussed during Mark Richt’s tenure as head coach, McGarity said. Instead, it was Smart’s idea, one that McGarity had no issue signing off on.
“They were all very valid reasons given for time-sensitive transportation needs,” McGarity said. “It wasn’t discussed in the past. It was an idea that Kirby brought to the table, and we gladly approved.”
McGarity said the cost was a small price to pay for the coaches to make the most out of a given day.
“It’s all a matter of managing your time and being able to get Kirby from one place to another as quickly as possible,” he said.
‘Other people started doing it’
It’s unclear when exactly helicopters became a recruiting tool in college football. Some credit LSU head coach Ed Orgeron for coming up with the idea.
In 2009, Orgeron was an assistant on head coach Lane Kiffin’s staff at Tennessee. Orgeron suggested the idea of renting a helicopter to see offensive lineman Ja’wuan James and other recruits in Atlanta.
Riding in style in a helicopter seemed to work for Orgeron and company, as James committed to the Volunteers that November.
Since then, college programs around the country have used a helicopter to get to and from high schools in quick fashion. Both Smart and Alabama head coach Nick Saban used helicopters to visit receiver Tyler Simmons, of Powder Springs, during his recruitment. Simmons is now entering his junior season at Georgia.
Orgeron, who has continued using helicopters to recruit, said he was unsure if he was the trendsetter. But he did notice that other coaches picked up and ran with it.
“We were at Tennessee, and we (would) come and recruit the city of Atlanta, and there were several games that we wanted to go to, and the only way to get there was by helicopter,” Orgeron said. “That’s the reason we did it. ...
“The teams that we went to see, obviously everybody was looking up and seeing Kiffin and I coming in a helicopter. And other people started doing it.”