SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Dominic Raiola estimates he and his family have been on seven unofficial visits to Georgia. They've fallen in love with the place and not just because his son, quarterback Dylan Raiola, committed to the Bulldogs last month.
It didn't take the Raiolas long to figure out they were loved themselves.
Early in the recruiting process for the consensus No. 1 player in the Class of 2024, his family attended Georgia's 2021 game against Kentucky. They knew something was different.
Since it was an unofficial visit, there could be no elaborate tour of the facilities, no extravagant surf-and-turf meals, no hype videos and certainly nothing like an image of Raiola in a Georgia jersey projected on the Sanford Stadium scoreboard.
This was off campus at a family dinner in one of Athens, Georgia's legendary eateries.
Kirby Smart showed up, as he does every time. He wasn't alone. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken (now with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens) made an appearance. So did offensive quality control assistants Buster Faulkner (now at Georgia Tech) and Montgomery VanGorder.
The Georgia fam meeting the Raiola fam. It didn't necessarily matter what they said. It was what they showed: They cared.
"For Kirby to show up at a place like that, man, that's got to mean something," Dominic Raiola said. "Sit down and have dinner! The first time he sat down with us, he had [other] guys on their official visits. He came to see Dylan first. We felt it was a huge priority for them. You just feel that from him. You feel how important it is."
Smart isn't the first coach to fawn over a recruit. But there is a reason Georgia has risen to become the preeminent program in the nation sporting consecutive national championships. Over a recent cup of coffee near the Raiola's Arizona home, the former star center for Nebraska and the Detroit Lions offered a peek behind the curtain of the most expensive recruiting machine in the country.
In February it was revealed Georgia had the highest recruiting budget in the country last year at $4.5 million, according to USA Today.
No one else was close even close. Rounding out the top five were Texas A&M, Tennessee, Texas and Alabama, averaging $2.7 million. That's a gap of $1.8 million with UGA spending 40% more on recruiting than its closest peers.
Another way to look at it: Georgia spent more on recruiting than 74% of FBS teams did on their head coaches in 2022.
It's hardly surprising that Smart recruits well. It's the foundation of any program. And by any measure, Smart has done it better recently than anyone else. Georgia has established a dynasty in recruiting and is one national championship away from.
"That's the bottom line," Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks said of recruiting and the budget. "It's what we do. It's fundamentally important to everything we do."
That foundation -- that approach -- had to be started at some point and validated over the years. Georgia has finished in the top three nationally of the 247Sports composite team rankings every year but one since 2018. The Dawgs have dominated the NFL Draft and the game.
But what exactly does a program get for the $4.5 million that helped land the No. 3 class in the 2022 cycle?
The Athens Banner-Herald described some of Georgia's recruiting largesse that landed it the No. 3 class nationally while spending $3.7 million.
- $83,000 for the "Kirby Copter," Smart's version of a swag helicopter that allows him to make multiple stops in an area
- $210,000 on car services
- $220,000 was spent on eight local restaurants including, that five-star hangout Chick-fil-A
"Do we spend on recruiting? Absolutely," Smart said. "Do SEC schools spend a lot on recruiting? Absolutely. Is it necessary to be competitive? It is."
At the SEC level, some of it is a matter of accounting. Georgia charters its private planes for recruiting trips. That costs more compared to other universities, like rival Florida, who has its own private jets. Part of the 2020 recruiting expense for Georgia included 140 charter flights totaling more than $850,000. Smart called that the No. 1 recruiting expense.
At Georgia, recruiting methods matter. Winning helps, but Ohio State wins, too.
That's where Dylan Raiola was headed until mid-December when he decommitted from the Buckeyes. That made the 6-foot-3, 220-pound talent from suburban Phoenix once again a hotly contested recruiting free agent.
His recruitment to Georgia offered a glimpse of how that $4.5 million gets spent.
"I'll tell you something unique [Smart] does," explained Dominic. "Every conversation that he has with you, he knows exactly what's going on because he takes notes. The time before we talked, he had three pages, front and back. of notes of conversations with Dylan. Notes of whatever we talk about, whatever Dylan shares. … That tells you how much has gone into the detail of the recruitment.
"They know exactly what your grandfather on your mom's side is doing. It's unbelievable, and they take the time to do that."
It has been a process. Dylan received his first offer from Georgia in 2021 going into his sophomore year. That summer, he played in Georgia as part of a travel team baseball tournament. His teammates included some of the most talented baseball players in the country, including LSU commit Derek Curiel, Tennessee commit Chris Newstrom and the No. 2-rated player in Texas, pitcher/first baseman Jack Frankel.
"We would go out to Athens in between games," Dominic said. "The first time we were out there, they offered him. That summer, we kept my wife's car out there and used Atlanta as a hub. When you're in Atlanta, you have to drive through Athens.
"We stopped there three times. We went there a fourth time during the season for a game. Then we went last year in the offseason. We've been twice this year. [The next trip] will be the official visit. I think that's seven [unofficial visits].
"Kirby stopped by every time."
Dominic called the recruiting process "maniacal" in a good way. Dylan became ingrained in the Georgia culture. He was hosted by recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy, the 24-year-old who died in a tragic January automobile accident.
Dylan was told he'd be running the same offense despite Monken departing. That system aided Stetson Bennett in going from walk-on to two-time national champion starter. Dylan was alerted when Monken was leaving for the NFL in mid-February. Three months later, he committed to the Dawgs anyway.
"I went to two practices with Monken. We got to see the [play] script. I know the mesh between the NFL and their [play] script. We went back this year. Same plays. They're not reinventing the wheel," Dominic said.
He continued: "Kirby has said, 'This system is not changing. We built this thing to last, be sustainable.' In Dylan's head, he's thinking, … OK, they won it with Stetson. All I have to do is go there, get coached and fall in line. They don't win because of one person, because of one coach, because of one thing. It's a lot of things put together."
Dominic has become close with the Manning family. Why not? They are the first family of football, after all. Arch Manning, the consensus No. 1 recruit last year, is already enrolled at Texas.
"Why do it on your own if somebody already just did it?" Dominic said. "I love how they operate, such class. Same thing with Arch. You don't hear about his NIL deals. That's not why we're going to Georgia. The last thing you want to do is be a clown and go in and demand all these things. At the end of the day, it's still a performance-based business."
That's why the Raiolas want a front row seat. After being ingrained in the Georgia culture, they are relocating to Athens next year to watch Dylan.