Coaching Management, 13.4, April 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1304/bbcuts.htm
Many of the top-ranked NCAA Division II football programs have more in common than regular success on the field. They're often the teams that also offer the most scholarship money. An attempt to put some new names in the Top 20 by reducing the number of scholarships Division II teams can award was ultimately voted down at the NCAA Convention in January, but only after a lengthy debate. Yet despite the 'no' vote, the discussion over equity continues.
The proposal, co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, would have slashed the football scholarship limit from 36 to 24 full-time equivalencies. Supporters claimed that the impact would be limited for most Division II programs, since a majority currently offer 28 or fewer scholarships. But it was argued that the biggest spenders would be brought into closer competitive balance with everyone else.
"The trend in Division II has been that the teams that compete for and win national championships in football are the teams at or near the full 36 scholarship equivalencies," says Joel Smith, RMAC Commissioner. "As a result, a lot of programs start each season knowing they just won't be able to compete with the top teams."
Smith points to the experience of his conference's 2004 champion as an example. The Colorado School of Mines finished 8-0 in its conference during the regular season, then suffered a 70-35 defeat to powerhouse Pittsburg State in the playoffs. "You take that loss back to your campus after a year of great success, and it is harder to go to your alumni, faculty, and board of governors and say 'Football means something to us,'" he says. "It might even lead some schools to question why they're playing in the first place."
That issue, according to Smith, poses the most pressing long-term danger to the sport in Division II. With athletic budgets already tight, he worries that some schools will find it difficult to spend so much on football when teams that can offer more money perpetually dominate the game. "Without a more level playing field, there may well be some institutions that decide it's no longer worth the cost of the program," he says.
Those who favor scholarship reduction also argue that recently relaxed rules for calculating full-time equivalencies have allowed schools to offer more money than they could in the past. They claim the reduction would actually return those schools to their previous spending levels.
Those opposed to the cuts maintain that any reduction in scholarships would mean fewer opportunities for student-athletes, and therefore isn't worth whatever budget savings or heightened competitiveness it would generate. "You limit the chances for athletes to play college football if you take away scholarship money," says Chris Hatcher, Head Coach at Valdosta State University. "By cutting the number of scholarships, teams would lose depth because they couldn't go out and recruit as many players, and the overall quality of Division II football would definitely take a hit."
Valdosta State won the 2004 Division II championship offering the full complement of 36 scholarships, but Hatcher says he's faced many tough opponents who offer less. "Every division has some schools at the top, some at the bottom, and some in between. That's true even in Division I, where all the athletes are on scholarship," he says. "There will always be teams that have more success than others, but that's no reason to bring those teams down by taking opportunities away from athletes."
Hatcher sees the scholarship debate as only one facet of a larger issue facing the division. "I think we're really searching for our identity right now in Division II, because there are some schools that want to be Division II in some sports, like basketball, but don't want to offer a full complement of scholarships in football because it costs more money," he explains. "Schools decide for themselves the level they compete at, so why should we do something that would harm those who choose to offer the full complement of scholarships?"
While scholarship cuts are off the table for now, Division II likely hasn't heard the last of the subject. Smith says Proposal No. 28 succeeded in shining light on the problem of disparity in football, and the onus is now on the NCAA to search for other solutions. "I think it's healthy to have this discussion and to keep looking for creative ways to develop a well-balanced system where there's competition and parity," he says. "But if they can't come up with something, then when it's time to propose new legislation, we'll be back proposing more scholarship restrictions."