This offseason, Will Hall will be a football coach for just a few hours a day. He’ll attend morning winter workouts and, once spring practice starts, lead his Southern Miss football team on the field.

Aside from those instances, Hall is a fundraiser. On a random Wednesday in February, Hall, the coach, starts his day at 7 a.m. observing workouts. By 10 a.m., Hall, the fundraiser, is meeting with donors in his office. At 11, he jumps in his car for the 90-minute drive to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where more donor meetings are held at 1:30 and then 3. His goal is to meet with 12 donors a week.

“I do zero football anymore. Zero football in my life right now,” Hall said. “I do culture and recruiting.

“Most of my day is spent all across the southern United States raising money,” he said before pausing, “for NIL.”

Hall’s offseason is a window into life these days at the Group of Five level — the lower-resourced bottom half of FBS where tight budgets and small staffs have coaches pushing aside football for fundraising. Gathering donor dollars for name, image and likeness (NIL) deals gives schools the ability to recruit players and, more importantly at this level, retain them.

Plenty of Power Five coaches are operating in a similar capacity as Hall. But in the Group of Five, NIL fundraising isn’t only more arduous — smaller donor bases, fewer school resources – but it is much more urgent. G5 coaches are scrambling to amass enough dollars to ward off Power Five poachers.

Already historically disadvantaged from brand and budget perspectives, programs in the Group of Five are now struggling to compete with their bigger brothers in compensating players. Power Five programs, equipped with on average five times more NIL cash, are outbidding Group of Five schools to take their best players, pillaging rosters of returning all-conference athletes and transforming FBS football’s lower subdivision into a veritable minor league.

“We are a farm system,” said Liberty coach Jamey Chadwell. “No matter who you are, you are going to have to try hard to hold on to your top players. That gets taxing. We are taking the approach that if a freshman plays and he does well, we are only going to have him for one more year.”

STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 18: Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles head coach Will Hall watches his team during the game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Southern Miss Golden Eagles on November 18, 2023 at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field in Starkville, MS. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Southern Mississippi head coach Will Hall says actual coaching is only a small part of his job anymore. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Trouble retaining players

Many within the G5 ranks attribute NIL and the free transfer movement — two transformational NCAA rule changes — to a handful of unprecedented, or at the very least, unusual coaching decisions that highlight the difficulty of sustaining success at both the G5 level and the lower tier of the Power Five.

Three Group of Five coaches left to be assistants at Power Five schools, the latest of which made quite a stir: Shawn Elliott left Georgia State to be South Carolina’s run-game coordinator and tight ends coach on Feb. 15 — two days into GSU’s spring practice. The school paused spring drills, postponed the spring game and hired a firm to conduct a mid-February coaching search.

Bizarre, yes. But it is perhaps not even the wildest move of the 2024 cycle. A head coach (Chip Kelly) left a Power Five job (UCLA) for a coordinator job (Ohio State) within his former school’s new conference (the Big Ten) for less money (at least $3 million).

Meanwhile, Boston College coach Jeff Hafley skipped off to a coordinator job in the NFL.

“It is more movement than what I have ever seen,” said Craig Bohl, the new American Football Coaches Association executive director who retired this year after more than four decades of college coaching, the last 10 at Wyoming. “What has changed is the salary scales, job demands and the uncertainty of where things are going in the next five years. I got a feeling of uncertainty and angst at our coaches’ meeting. There are seismic changes happening.”

The industry’s ominous future coupled with the NIL-related transfer movement exacerbates what’s been a growing trend of players, coaches and even administrators scurrying to reach the upper tier of the sport. There is more money, or at least good money, to do less demanding jobs with additional security as college sports’ next evolution arrives: in all likelihood, compensating athletes directly in a more regulated framework.

The NIL-related gap between those in the upper and lower tiers of the sport is only the latest and most impactful split in an ever-growing chasm attributed, mostly, to differences in the biggest revenue-generating streams in athletic departments: ticket sales, donations and television contracts.

Figures bear out the fissures between the haves and have-nots.

In 2023, 43 Power Five public school athletic departments generated more revenue than the highest-producing G5 department (San Diego State). That gap is on a path of inevitable growth.

Within three years, projections show SEC and Big Ten schools earning nearly twice as much in TV revenue distribution ($80-90 million) as their Power Four brethren, the Big 12 and ACC ($40-50 million). And the Big 12 and ACC will earn at least three times the distribution as the richest G5 league (historically, the American).

It’s a trickle down to the NIL world, where Group of Five booster-led collectives generate around 20% of those in the Power Five, said Blake Lawrence, the CEO of Opendorse whose platform is used by more than 40 collectives. Those familiar with figures in the NIL space believe that the upper tier of G5 collectives annually generate around $1 million to $1.5 million a year.

“Every conversation that I have with G5 coaches, administrators and collectives is about retaining all-conference caliber athletes,” Lawrence said.

Of 247Sports’ top 100 transfers this fall cycle, 20 of them moved from Group of Five or FCS to a Power Five team. That represents some of the best players at the G5 level, such as UTSA edge rusher Trey Moore (Texas), Liberty receiver CJ Daniels (LSU) and Toledo QB Dequan Finn (Baylor).

“We develop these young players and give them an opportunity and the minute they can leave, they do,” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said.

While those are the best G5 players, plenty more exit their schools as G5 starters to take backup jobs in the Power Five for more NIL cash, championship aspirations and/or ability to reach the NFL, said Terry Bowden, a longtime college coach who spent the last three seasons at Louisiana-Monroe.

In fact, last cycle, a total of 144 players from the Group of Five moved to the Power Five with one year of eligibility remaining, according to a G5 coach who calculates such figures.

“Anybody who is 6-foot-5 is gone, even if it’s to join (Power Five) scout teams. If you’re a 6-1 corner, you’re gone. You lose your best players,” said Bowden.

“It’s a hopeless feeling,” said SMU coach Rhett Lashlee, whose school is moving from the G5 American to P5 ACC next year. “That’s why you see coaches leaving.”

Chadwell’s Liberty team capped an undefeated regular season with a Conference-USA title and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl only to then lose three of his top returning players: a defensive tackle (Duke), cornerback (Oregon State) and receiver (LSU).

“Those guys would be all-conference for us,” Chadwell said. “LSU paid for a car and an apartment and like $300,000. What do you do?”

The NIL recruiting landscape is casting doubt, too, on the value of a scholarship.

Multiple Group of Five coaches tell Yahoo Sports that Power Five programs, having hit their NCAA-mandated 85 scholarship limit, are adding players as “walk-ons” with collectives footing the bill for a scholarship through NIL. The NCAA permits at least 30 walk-ons.

One Power Five collective director, in fact, acknowledged this trend, telling Yahoo Sports that they often “layer on top” an extra $50-60,000 to cover a walk-on’s tuition, books and fees.

“They’ve got to make up what a scholarship covers. I get it. It’s smart,” Chadwell said. “But the NCAA needs to create a rule requiring players to sit out a year if they are not on full academic scholarship.”

Chadwell is a proponent of the Group of Five holding its own championship. So too is Lashlee. The suggestion: Have the top four teams in Group of Five play for what Chadwell calls a “mythical Group of Five national championship.”

The games could be held at bowl sites sandwiched among games of the expanded College Football Playoff. However, a very important question lingers: Will such an event be valuable enough to cede both access and revenue that the Group of Five receives from the expanded CFP?

In the 12-team expansion, the top G5 conference champion gets an automatic berth into the field as, in all likelihood, the 12 seed. Each G5 team, for now, also receives about $1 million annually in CFP distribution.

Chadwell suggests that the top G5 team could still compete in the CFP in addition to holding a four-team G5-only tournament. But Lashlee questions the reality of a 12 seed playing at the home field of a No. 5 seed Power Five program.

“Imagine going on the road against Georgia. You’re done,” Lashlee said. “The divide is becoming so great.”

That said, many schools even within the Power Five upper tier are finding trouble in retaining players.

Alabama lost its top safety, offensive tackle and receiver to Ohio State, Iowa and Texas, respectively. Texas A&M lost its prized defensive tackle (Ole Miss) and receiver (Oregon). Ole Miss itself lost top running back Quinshon Judkins to Ohio State. Even Georgia lost two players, both cornerbacks, to Big Ten schools.

“It’s all levels,” said Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton, the former coach at USC. “This is my 30th year of college football. The responsibility of a head coach has changed dramatically. You’re recruiting the players on your team. Now more than ever, there’s more administrative duties to raise funds. You’ve seen some guys make lifestyle decisions rather than being a CEO of a major corporation.”

In an interview with CBS Sports Network, Hafley explained that his move from Boston College to the NFL was predominantly about a return to coaching more football and less roster management. He equated his job as a college head coach to a “general manager.”

“You’re trying to manage ‘the cap’ and you don’t really know what the cap is and now you’re fundraising,” he said.

Race not to get left behind

Despite all the revenue differences, there are examples each season of Group of Five teams competing with those from the Power Five. Last football season, at least a dozen G5 teams beat their P5 brethren, including New Mexico State’s takedown of Auburn, Texas State’s win at Baylor and South Alabama beating Oklahoma State.

Helton shoots down talk of a G5-only playoff and believes that the automatic spot for a Group of Five champion will make G5 stronger and more attractive to players. Hall, meanwhile, points to operations at the Division II level, where he spent more than a decade as a coach. DII schools operate under a varying degree of football scholarships. Some have as low as 15. Others offer the maximum of 36. And yet still, they all compete.

“People are worried about (the Power Five) teams breaking away and they’ll get all the best players,” Hall said. “The best players are going there anyway. Only 11 can play at a time. Kids want to play.”

However, the separation between P5 and G5 is happening both on a granular level (NIL recruiting) and on a global level. For example, the major conferences are pushing for their teams to get more access and revenue in both the CFP and NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Many within the Group of Five are worried that, at some point, Power Five programs will limit or completely stop the amount of football games they play against the lower subdivision teams — matchups that generate as much as $1-$2 million for G5 schools.

Such changes could leave the Group of Five further behind. Realignment has weakened its ranks already. The G5’s top revenue-producing football programs of years past — Cincinnati, UCF and Houston — now all compete in the Power Five.

But the gaps extend to the upper tier as well. Perhaps Hafley and Kelly’s departures from Boston College and UCLA highlight the growing gap within the Power Five itself, where realignment has already left behind two schools: Oregon State and Washington State.

Many within the industry believe that, eventually, more schools — G5 and P5 — could be left behind by some of the richest programs in the sport. Either they cannot afford to or refuse to join whatever future athlete compensation model is adopted by college football’s top hierarchy.

Legal losses are eroding the NCAA’s amateurism model, and more court defeats are potentially on the way that could topple any rules around transfers and NIL inducements and lead to billions of retroactive dollars owed to athletes — the reason behind a search for a new model from both the NCAA and a new SEC/Big Ten joint board.

“I’m talking to people about what’s going to happen in college football,” Hall said. “We’re going to get parameters around NIL and run it through the school with revenue sharing. For 2-4 years, we are in this (NIL) business. We’ve got to embrace it or we get left behind. If you get left behind in this next change, it’s catastrophic. You might never come back from it.”

It’s a jarring comment from a sitting head coach but one that many within the sport feel is real.

“You’re heading to a model where there is a consolidation at the top and then a batch of others and then a group that is out,” said Toledo athletic director Bryan Blair. “We want to make sure we are in that second category. We want to be in that catch-all after that.”

Until a more structured model is adopted, programs are trying to survive in a world without many rules or regulations. For many coaches, that means pushing aside X’s and O’s to raise money to compensate the Jimmys and Joes.

Can the Davids of college football do enough to continue playing with the Goliaths?

“When I talk to our fans, I don’t hear a whole lot about, ‘Remember that time we won a MAC title!’” Blair said. “I hear, ‘Remember that time we beat Michigan or Penn State or Arkansas!’

“Hope is one of the most incredible things this country has to offer,” he continues. “Toppling Goliath is what makes college football and college basketball special. That to me is what this country is all about.”

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