Editor’s note: This is part three of a five-part series titled “Moving Mountains: How the reformation of intercollegiate athletics could affect West Virginia schools and the amateurism of the student-athlete.” This story appeared in the Wednesday, June 25 editions of the Charleston Daily Mail. The series concludes Friday, June 27.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The NCAA board of directors meeting scheduled for August has the potential to end by introducing a vastly different landscape for college sports than the one its fans have long identified.
With the possibility for greater autonomy for the 65 schools tied to conferences tagged by the NCAA as “high visibility” being realized at this meeting, a different playing field could result insofar as the recruitment of student-athletes still in high school.
Those high visibility conferences — Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, Southeastern — could potentially gain the ability to offer all student-athletes the cost of attendance as compensation for the services provided to those schools by those athletes. One key element of this plan is that non-scholarship players would also be covered by it, allowing walk-ons to essentially go to one of those schools without an athletic scholarship, participate in the sport and still be compensated to the same degree as one receiving a scholarship.
Schools outside that high visibility designation might not be able to offer the same compensation agreement, as their budgets could prohibit those schools from offering such compensation to every student-athlete.
In the at times cutthroat world of football recruiting few players are willing speak on the record regarding their preference between a scholarship offer at smaller school or a walk-on spot in a power conference. Coaches, too, are often content to focus on what has been established rather than to speculate on what might happen in the coming months.
“Kids are walking on to Marshall and WVU already,” South Charleston coach Donnie Mays said. “I don’t think it’s going to do much, really. I think it’s good that the NCAA is recognizing that every kid should be able to eat.
“You give them the same amount of meals. It’s sad that a kid that earned a scholarship gets to go out and bust his butt in a two-and-a-half hour practice and then eat, but the walk-on kid gets to do the two-and-a-half-hour practice then he’s sitting at home because the school can’t feed him,” Mays said. “We’re talking about food. Everybody needs nourishment.”
A problem that makes the potential impact of NCAA changes on high school sports difficult to assess is that there is nothing concrete to use as a template for a future landscape. All that has been decided at this point is that schools are now able to provide unlimited meals to student-athletes. While that is a boon to walk-ons, high school coaches find it hard to believe it will lure future prospects away from accepting scholarship offers at the Division II or FCS (formerly I-AA) levels.
Though he preferred to focus on the reality of now rather than the possibilities of later, Mays tipped his hand at what could become a trend as early as August.
“Rich Rodriguez, when he was at WVU, said one thing that stood out to me and that was, ‘We don’t treat a scholarship player or a walk-on player any differently, as long as they come out and bust their hump every single day.’ I thought that was tremendous,” Mays said. “But at the same time, as a high school coach, I want our kids to play where they’re going to get money, where they’re going to get their books, their room and all that taken care of, because you know as well as I do, student loans are no fun.”
The effects could vary by location. If Marshall is unable to offer the same cost-of-attendance stipend to its non-scholarship players, it is unlikely that the Thundering Herd will improve its ability to keep players from nearby schools like Huntington High, Cabell Midland, Hurricane, Spring Valley or Wayne from taking scholarship offers elsewhere. Meanwhile, North Central West Virginia could see a more significant shift in the directions taken by its college prospects after high school.
Morgantown and University high schools, for example, have produced a significant number of football players who ended up at WVU as walk-ons. Some of those players — University graduate Scott Gyorko, for instance — finished their Mountaineer careers by playing key or starting roles for the team. Gyorko was a starting linebacker at WVU in 2003 and 2004, who averaged 87 ½ tackles and 5 ½ tackles for loss in his final two seasons.
But stories like those belonging to Gyorko and Rodriguez — who became a starter after beginning his college career as a WVU walk-on after he graduated from North Marion — are rare. More eventually leave the program and remain in Morgantown as students or transfer to Division II schools to play.
There were eight players from West Virginia on WVU’s 2013 roster, including walk-ons. Of them, three — Bridgeport product Wes Tonkery, Morgantown’s Tyler Anderson and Fairmont Senior’s Logan Moore — came from North Central West Virginia’s core counties of Monongalia, Marion and Harrison. The five others were more widely scattered, with one each coming from the Kanawha Valley (Cody Clay of George Washington), the Eastern Panhandle (Justin Arndt of Martinsburg), the Mid-Ohio Valley (Michael Molinari of Parkersburg South), the Beckley area (Houstin Syvertson of Shady Spring) and the Huntington area (Elijah Wellman of Spring Valley).
Of that group only Tonkery, Clay and Wellman are on scholarship.
West Virginia University has almost always carried more players on its football team who hail from its core region than from anywhere else in the state. It’s 2014 recruiting class included just one native West Virginian, Morgantown High lineman Amani Brown, and the Mountaineers already have a commitment from Morgantown’s Stone Wolfley for their 2015 recruiting class, their only such commitment from an in-state player.
If WVU gains the authority to grant cost of attendance money to even its non-scholarship players, it is not difficult to speculate that representation from that core area will only increase as student-athletes opt to stay closer to home.
Morgantown football coach John Bowers has produced more than a dozen Division I prospects since taking over the Mohigans program in 2002. He said that while WVU will be a natural target destination for many in-state players under such a new template, there is plenty left to consider for each player.
“You also have to factor in playing time. Obviously, that would be the first thing that comes to mind,” Bowers said. “A guy might be able to get on the field or start as a sophomore at a lot of D-II schools and maybe not until they’re a junior or senior at WVU, if then. There’s a lot of decisions to be made before picking a school.”
Like Mays, Bowers said that financial incentives also play a significant role in where a player decides to go to school.
“The greatest thing I can do as a high school teacher and coach is to prepare kids for college and help them gain the skills necessary to get through,” Bowers said. “If furthering the financial incentive to go to a school like WVU is going to get more kids in schools and stay in school, then I can definitely see it as a benefit.”
Bowers also saw the possibility for prospects in his own region to stay close to home if given the opportunity.
“That may creep into the kids’ minds,” he said. “I can see where that could happen, definitely.”
The potential for this phenomenon leads to a possible domino effect. WVU and its peers would not simply open the flood gates into their programs. A Football Bowl Subdivision program can carry no more than 105 players total, with 85 on scholarship. If a greater percentage of players from North Central West Virginia accept offers as invited walk-ons, fewer such positions would be open to players from elsewhere. To counteract this possibility, the selection process for invited walk-on offers could presumably become more competitive from WVU’s standpoint.
A Twitter survey conducted Sunday presented the question to high school players of what was preferable: to have all expenses paid as a walk-on at WVU or to accept a scholarship to play at a Division II school. The responses showed the allure WVU has with prep athletes in the Mountain State.
“I would take the preferred walk on,” Buckhannon-Upshur senior quarterback Dillon Gaudet wrote. “Would love the atmosphere of Morgantown and the fans.”
Huntington coach Billy Seals also responded with an opinion that echoed the concerns of his peers.
“As a coach I would go where I could play and get the opportunity to get on the field,” Seals wrote. “Hard to get kids to understand that.”
Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT.