SEC prepares for cost cutting, even in football: 'This is a big deal' (2024)

DESTIN, Fla. — It’s easy to believe football coaches run the SEC. They earn the most money. They have the biggest names. And yet through the years, the Hilton Sandestin, the site of the annual spring meetings, has served as a reminder to those coaches that there are limits to their power.

There was a debate about signing limits for recruiting classes in 2011 when presidents overruled the coaches. The presidents have bucked the coaches on other issues since then. And this week in the wake of the NCAA vs. House settlement, a spirited debate is taking place behind the scenes — and publicly — about roster limits.


The coaches may lose that battle. And they may be asked to make other sacrifices.

“I respect our coaches, but sometimes how you’ve done things doesn’t have to be how you will do things,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said Wednesday.

SEC prepares for cost cutting, even in football: 'This is a big deal' (1)

The Pulse Newsletter

Free, daily sports updates direct to your inbox. Sign up

Free, daily sports updates direct to your inbox. Sign up

BuySEC prepares for cost cutting, even in football: 'This is a big deal' (2)

The constant refrain this week from athletic directors, on and off the record, has been that they need to adapt to new financial realities. The most quoted person this week has been Trev Alberts, newly hired as Texas A&M’s athletic director, who said before and during the meeting: “We don’t have a revenue problem; we have an expense problem.”

For years, SEC programs have gotten used to spending to win — not just in football — because the money was there. Starting next year, assuming the House settlement is approved, there will be around $20 million less for each program, with that money going toward direct payments to athletes.

SEC prepares for cost cutting, even in football: 'This is a big deal' (3)

Greg Byrne’s Alabama athletic department features 15 teams. (John David Mercer / USA Today)

The counter to that is the SEC has a new television deal with ESPN kicking in next year, which should pump between $12 million to $15 million more into each school’s coffers, along with the expanded College Football Playoff, which will bring in more money. But that all is set to be part of the national pool of money that determines the 22 percent going to athletes, so the believed $20 million going to athletes could end up being higher.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to pay for the new line item in our budget,” said Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, who said he never complained at the smaller additions through the years, like unlimited meals for athletes. “This is different. This is a big deal.”

GO DEEPERNCAA, Power 5 approve settlement making way for players to be directly paid

When it comes to cost-cutting, Stricklin was asked, is there any low-hanging fruit, or is every decision going to be medium-to-hard?

“Probably more hard than medium. I don’t know that there’s many obvious things,” Stricklin said. “We have always been able to race our way to more revenue, to prevent from having to make more hard decisions on the expense side. We’re going to have to make tough decisions on the expense side. We have to grow revenue at the same time. But we’re all going to rip open and do a total autopsy on every single part of our program’s economic health.”


Everything is on the table, athletic directors say, from travel to staff to roster limits, which is where the debate got interesting Wednesday.

SEC football coaches, who spoke out against low roster limits Tuesday, pushed back again during their meeting with administrators Wednesday. And with Nick Saban no longer in the room, it was the head coach with the most championship rings — who won those rings with a walk-on quarterback — making the case.

“Coach (Kirby) Smart represented us this morning and did a great job telling them what we’d like to happen with the roster numbers,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said.

Specifics are hard to pin down: The NCAA scholarship limit of 85 is set to be eliminated as part of the settlement, accompanied by an unspecified limit on players. That could be as low as 85, a huge change for college football coaches used to having 120-130 players, which they argue they need for depth, considering injuries are so common, while unlike the NFL, they can’t sign free agents once the season starts.

“We’re going to take care of the kids, that’s No. 1. We’re going to take care of their safety,” Pittman said.

GO DEEPEREmerson: What Greg Sankey didn't say may be as important as what he did

And there is the walk-on tradition in college football, which comes thanks to more roster spots.

“It means to each and every state that they have kids in their state be able to play, in our case for the Hogs, that means a lot to us,” Pittman said. “That we’re doing the very best we can to make sure we have enough in-state players on our team to represent the Hogs.”

The financial impact of cutting rosters is hard to pin down: Every player, including walk-ons, costs something when schools include travel, equipment, meals, liability insurance, etc. But the issue may be more about setting a limit that prevents spending on scholarship players much above the current 85.


“At the simplest level, what we’re going to see is a world where there’s going to be no scholarship limits, so they’re going to come in and they’re going to look at national limits on roster limits per sports,” Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks said. “That’s what’s going to drive a lot of this.”

Brooks added that this isn’t the SEC “making a decision in a vacuum.” It will be a nationwide decision, he indicated. Other decisions could be more local, such as how athletic departments cut costs and how much that involves football.

Cutting some teams altogether is a last resort, the athletic directors said.

“You don’t want to do that,” Byrne said. “You’ve seen a couple schools in the last few years since COVID who have reduced sports. Obviously, that would be the last thing we would want to do.”

“I enjoy sponsoring 21 sports,” Brooks said. “This is why I do what I do. I love this job, and I love supporting all 21 of them.”

GO DEEPERSEC coaches on why they want higher roster limits and to keep walk-ons

Staff cuts, including in football, could be on the table. Some of that could be on the margins, such as not filling jobs after they open.

“We’re not looking to cut positions when we talk about staff in general, but we’ve had conversations about when we lose a position, can we backfill it and bump up a few people, give them a little bump?” Brooks said. “It’s not saying cut, but, like, managing our expenses moving forward.”

Still, the indications are that even football programs will be asked harder questions about the need for certain things.

“Just the topic of roster limits, whether we have X number or X-plus-20 number for the roster limit for football, I don’t know that that sport is going to generate any more revenue for every person you add to that sport,” Stricklin said. “And I would say the same for our staff sizes. By having another coach, by having another analyst, does it grow our revenue number? I don’t think it does.”


Byrne was asked if there could be trades made with the football coaches: Coaches get the roster limit they want but have to absorb cuts elsewhere.

“I think we all have to be open to realizing it’s a new day,” Byrne said. “We’re all guilty, including me, when looking at challenging things, saying, ‘OK, I want to keep things as normal as I possibly can.’ We understand that. ADs all understand the importance of football in the SEC. They give opportunities to all of our Olympic sports: At Alabama, we have one sport that turns a healthy profit, that’s football; we have one that makes a profit in men’s basketball; and we have 19 that don’t. You need to be smart how you manage it. But at the same time from an efficiency standpoint, we all have to be looking at that. And (coach Kalen) DeBoer and I have talked a lot about that.”

Athletic directors and their coaches are having a lot of those conversations these days. But there’s still a lot nobody knows, as was apparent this week.

How much revenue sharing will go to football players, the ones bringing in the most revenue? Will revenue sharing have to adhere to Title IX and thus be a more even split between male and female athletes?

“We need some legal guidance there that we have not received yet,” Stricklin said.

And there are plenty more mysteries: What happens to collectives, and can they be taken over by the athletic department? What happens to NCAA enforcement of name, image and likeness recruiting rules?

Tennessee coach Josh Heupel summed up the state of things.

“We came in with a lot of questions,” he said. “And we’re leaving with more.”

(Top photo of Scott Stricklin: Matt Pendleton / USA Today)

SEC prepares for cost cutting, even in football: 'This is a big deal' (7)SEC prepares for cost cutting, even in football: 'This is a big deal' (8)

Seth Emerson is a senior writer for The Athletic covering Georgia and the SEC. Seth joined The Athletic in 2018 from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and also covered the Bulldogs and the SEC for The Albany Herald from 2002-05. Seth also covered South Carolina for The State from 2005-10. Follow Seth on Twitter @SethWEmerson

SEC prepares for cost cutting, even in football: 'This is a big deal' (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Reed Wilderman

Last Updated:

Views: 6289

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (52 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Reed Wilderman

Birthday: 1992-06-14

Address: 998 Estell Village, Lake Oscarberg, SD 48713-6877

Phone: +21813267449721

Job: Technology Engineer

Hobby: Swimming, Do it yourself, Beekeeping, Lapidary, Cosplaying, Hiking, Graffiti

Introduction: My name is Reed Wilderman, I am a faithful, bright, lucky, adventurous, lively, rich, vast person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.