Nielsen, staff work to maximize limited aid for student athletes

Doug Brown

For coaches, it could be their biggest headache. For the athletic department, it costs millions of dollars every year. For many athletes, it could be the difference between years of debt and a free college education.

Scholarship management is one of the most vital issues in college sports, for all involved. But not all of Kent State’s 323 scholarship athletes operate under the same rules.

Unlike football, where up to 85 athletes are allowed a full-ride, sports like baseball must figure out how to divide up a limited number of scholarships throughout the team.

“Any college baseball coach will tell you it’s probably their biggest challenge,” said Scott Stricklin, Kent State baseball coach. “Just trying to distribute scholarships among players.”

Baseball, like 10 other sports at Kent State, is an equivalency sport, meaning the NCAA has put a cap on the amount of total financial aid for their players. Every year, the head coaches must decide where to distribute their allotted amount; not enough is available for everybody to have a full ride.

“Compare it to the salary cap of the NFL or NBA,” said Stricklin. “That’s what it is, and you have to stay under it.”

Football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s gymnastics, and women’s volleyball are different.

They are Kent State’s only head-count sports. There is a limit to the number of athletes that can receive any scholarship, but everybody within the limit earns a full scholarship. Dividing scholarships is not an option; any player above the limit is a walk-on.

Modern athletic aid rules began in 1973 when the NCAA voted to limit the number of scholarships to 105.

In years prior, when there was no limit to the amount of players schools could put on scholarship, larger schools would stockpile players hoping to both help their team and decrease their opponent’s talent pool.

Joel Nielsen, Kent State athletic director, cited Bud Wilkinson, the legendary Oklahoma football coach, as an example of why limits were put in place. Wilkinson coached the Sooners from 1947 to 1963, winning three national championships, with win streaks of 31 and 47 games, the latter an NCAA record.

“He had no limit on scholarships so he would give it to like 200 players,” said Nielsen, “He was doing that because he didn’t want the 102nd best player to go to Nebraska and beat his team.”

In 1982, the head count and equivalency classifications were created at the same time women’s sports were being incorporated into the NCAA. The most popular men’s sports, football and basketball, remained a head-count sport so the powerhouse teams couldn’t continue to stockpile their roster simply based on tradition.

“It would have to do with leveling the competitiveness as much as possible,” said Nielsen, “because if you had a half-ride offer from Texas versus a full-ride offer from TCU, you would probably go to Texas for half.”

For some, the theory that stricter scholarship limits is beneficial to smaller schools could be seen when it was proposed that women’s soccer go from 12 to 14 equivalent scholarships.

“There were some concerns when soccer a couple years ago raised their limit,” said Randale Richmond, Kent State’s director of compliance. “Some of the mid-majors thought they could suffer if that one person, maybe a significant player, could now get added to another team because a scholarship opened up.”

A full athletic grant-in-aide covers the cost of tuition ($9,346 for Ohio residents, $17,306 for out-of-state, according to the university’s website), room and board ($8,830), and textbooks ($1,380, according to a university-estimated average). Athletes living off campus get a refund check for the room and board costs. Athletes with partial scholarships get that fractional amount off from these costs.

Scholarships are one-year commitments and “the head coach has complete autonomy” of what each player gets every year, Nielsen said. They could give them more, give them less, or not renew the scholarship.

“I sit down every year with the girls and say if their scholarship is renewed,” said Kathleen Wiler, field hockey coach, who can dish out the equivalent of 12 scholarships throughout the 19-member roster this fall. “The main thing is that it’s an athletic scholarship that’s performance based. In the recruiting process, obviously character and their academic standing are all really important, but also their athletic ability.”

Nielsen said it is rare that scholarships are reduced beyond what the athlete might expect based on their performance. If an athlete came in with a 50 percent scholarship and didn’t contribute in his or her first three seasons, the athlete could expect his or her scholarship to be slashed, said Nielsen.

“Typically the student athlete sees that themselves,” he said. “They’ve been over-recruited, they didn’t improve, or maybe they weren’t putting in the time and effort to get better.”

How coaches divide scholarships is crucial to success. Offer a recruit too small of a portion, and they will go somewhere else. Offer a recruit too large of a portion, and you might have to cut someone else to make room.

It’s important not to offer more than absolutely needed for a prospect, said Nielsen, and said if a hypothetical baseball recruit was offered a 50 percent scholarship by other MAC schools, the Kent State coach shouldn’t offer drastically more.

Baseball is unique in that the number of players able to get a chunk of the 11.7 scholarships is limited to 27, and each of those players must receive at least a quarter of a scholarship.

“If we go in and offer the kid 80 percent, well, we probably didn’t have to offer him 80 percent,” the athletic director said, “so now what we’ve done is over-paid for that kid; the market was already set on that kid.”

The athletic department received $16.6 million, 80 percent of its budget, in subsidies from the university in 2009-2010 according to a USA Today database. More than $12 million of that was from Kent State students who paid $24.65 for every credit they took to the athletic department, according to a report from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The athletic department sent a $5.01 million check back to the university to pay for the tuition, room and board, and textbooks of its scholarship athletes. It cost over $3 million to fund male athletic scholarships and just over $2 million to fund female scholarships — a 60 percent to 40 percent advantage for men.

Grants from outside of the university to student athletes reduce the scholarship costs of the athletic department, said Richmond.

It costs the athletic department much more money to fund a scholarship athlete who is from outside of Ohio than inside. In 2009, the average cost for a full athletic scholarship for an Ohio resident was $18,366, while out-of-state scholarships were $26,058, according to data the from athletic department.

New football coach Darrell Hazell has something in his contract that no Kent State coach has received before, and is designed to save the department money.

“For each year in which at least 60 percent of football scholarship recipients are Ohio residents,” Hazell will receive a $5,000 bonus, according to his contract. Hazell has a $250,000 base contract with a possible $50,000 in bonuses for on and off field success.

“No one has had this before,” said Nielsen about the bonus. “I, and others, noticed that we weren’t as balanced as maybe we could be and should be when it comes to football.”

Nielsen guessed that the department was paying out-of-state tuition for about two-thirds of the scholarship football players.

“It’s cost-saving, no question,” said Nielsen about recruiting Ohio players. “You’re looking at 85 full-ride scholarships, so the more student-athletes we have in-state compared to out-of-state, obviously there is a direct cost-saving to the department.”

The scholarship system in place now might look drastically different in the near future, as criticism of NCAA regulations continues to mount and profitable BCS conference athletic departments continue to push for more benefits for their athletes.

One-year scholarships have been criticized by many as unfair from people who feel it gives the head coach too much power over the financial well-being of their athletes, who could lose their scholarship for nearly any reason. Many are calling for guaranteed multi-year scholarships.

Also on the table are scholarships that cover the “full cost of attendance”; an extra $5,000 per scholarship that would cover any additional expense while on-campus, according to calculations by the university.

At a meeting with 50 Div. I university presidents in August, those issues were discussed.

“Based on what came out of there, there’s going to be quite a bit of overhaul,” said Richmond.

Nielsen disagrees with multi-year scholarships because he said they would hurt the flexibility of coaches to determine who gets what every year. He disagrees with full cost of attendance scholarships because it could add an extra $1 million strain on the department: “It would be cost prohibitive.”

“I think you would be challenged to find any athletic director at our level that would be against those, philosophically,” Nielsen said. “But philosophically is different than realistically.”

Contact Doug Brown at [email protected].