In order to fill their rosters -- and to score tuition dollars -- many Division III colleges recruit high school players off the bench. (Ann Heisenfelt/AP)

In order to fill their rosters — and to score tuition dollars — many Division III colleges recruit high school players off the bench. (Ann Heisenfelt/AP)

The most athletic high school juniors are currently receiving piles of glossy brochures from eager universities hoping to add height or strength or agility to their athletic rosters. But what about the less tall, less strong, less agile — even less talented — athletes?

Bob Cook, who writes about youth sports for Forbes and is the father of one such athlete, joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: I don’t mean to make it sound like your son is not a good athlete. I’m sure he is. He’s worked hard, he’s improved in his two years playing high school football, but what exactly has he done to warrant being recruited by two different college football programs?

BC: Well, what’s he done is that he’s a good student who happens to really like playing football, and, for D-III schools, such as Augustana and Millikin [both in Illinois], who are the ones who have contacted him so far, that’s enough because a lot of Division III schools — they need to fill out their rosters in some way.

BL: Well, now wait—I need to hold it now. They’re filling out their rosters with a kid who’s played a total of four games and doesn’t usually get in until his team is up by 40 points?

BC: Yes, that is true. That’s why I was very surprised to see the offers. And my son was too. I wasn’t sure what he showed in those few minutes of action that was so intriguing. But as it turns out, a lot of Division III schools — these are usually small colleges; 3,000 students or less — they really rely on athletes to fill out not just sports rosters but the whole student roster. So, “Hey, we know a Division I or a Division II school isn’t coming after you but come to our school. You don’t have to watch football. You can be on the football team.”

BL: And you are a paying member of the football team — paying just like everybody who’s an enrolled student and isn’t on the football team.

Although Cook’s son only played during blowouts in a total of four high school games, he received recruiting letters from D-III colleges.
BC: That is correct. If you look at Division III rosters, I mean, generally the ones who play are ones who did start in high school and probably were pretty good but just were a little too small, a little too slow to make it at a higher level. But Augustana has a about 100 kids on the football team. There’s a good number that you can look at just by height and weight — or the fact that they have duplicate uniform numbers — who are there really because they really want to play football and their families are happy to pay [tuition and standard fees] for the experience.

BL: You spoke with Augustana’s [vice president] W. Kent Barnds, who admitted that athletes like your son are recruited because “a 17-year-old is likely to get more excited about [sports] than geology, or business, or education.” Were you surprised by Mr. Barnds’ candor?

BC: I was a little surprised by how open he was. In covering the subject before, I was familiar with the idea that schools that did not offer athletic scholarships did try to attract athletes with the promise of college play, but I was a little surprised at how upfront he was about it. You know what he said was that what Augustana does in particular is that they’ll reach out to 200, 300 high school coaches, and say, “Hey, is there anyone you know who” — and I’m paraphrasing, but basically — “is probably not necessarily going to play college football at a higher level, but would be a good academic fit for our school?”

My son’s coach apparently sent his name along, and I don’t know who else, and that’s how we got on the list. So as it turns out my son wants to be a teacher and a football coach and an athletic director, so there is something a little intriguing about this. I hate to say this but it might work at least to get us out for a visit.

BL: Have you found that there are a lot of other schools doing the same thing? I’m wondering if Millikin and Augustana are representative.

BC: They are representative. They’re the only two that have contacted my son specifically but they are representative. I mean, you figure a school that has, say, 1,000 students, if they have a football team and there’s 100 players on that football team, you have 10 percent of the enrollment. Really, without sports, their enrollment would take a major hit. I mean, that’s part of the attraction is that you can fully participate in campus life like you did in high school.

BL: I’m curious about whether football is unique in that respect. Are other kids getting letters saying, “Hey, we hear you own a tennis racket. You could play tennis here at Augustana?”

BC: It really cuts across all sports. One sport in particular that has grown at the Division III level over the past few years has been lacrosse because there are so many high school lacrosse programs starting. Football is unique in that you can get so many students. There are Division III schools that have started football programs in the past few years. … I’ve seen schools estimate that they’re bringing in in the millions – say $3 to $5 million in tuition revenue, extra tuition revenue — because they brought a football team in.

Now granted there’s costs associated with football. But still … my son never heard of Ausgustana before he got a letter from them and a lot of these Division III schools are in the same boat. So, you have to offer something that gets you to turn away from, say, a Big Ten school, and the opportunity to play sports – albeit on your parents’ dime – is one of those things that stands out.

BL: That qualification – on your parents’ dime – that’s a pretty big qualification.

BC: It is pretty huge. And while I said we will probably take a visit, if he’s going play at a Division III level, I want to know just what the experience is going to be like because I don’t want him to — and I don’t think he wants to — merely be cannon fodder for the sake of saying he’s on the football team. For the schools it’s a low-risk thing to do it. I mean, if you’re going to spend a few thousand sending out brochures and you get three or four kids coming in as a result then you’ve cleared a lot of money.