Football Recruiting: Is it Time to Start Cutting Scholarships?

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In an era when hundreds of men’s teams in smaller sports like wrestling and swimming have been cut around the country, do Division I-A football teams really need 85 scholarships? This vexing question surfaced during the Title IX hearings conducted by the Bush administration’s Commission on Opportunity in Athletics.

Since 1997, the Scripps Howard News Service has conducted three studies examining the participation rates and playing time for major college programs. The results were startling.

While no one can say with any certainty what might happen if college football scholarships were reduced, one fact is indisputable: Division I-A colleges don’t use anywhere near 85 players in their games.

In 2001, an average of just 55 players appeared in each game for 30 Division I-A teams. Similar figures were recorded in 1999 and 1997. Just 39 players received significant playing time (defined as at least five minutes or ten plays per game for the five teams that tracked this data).

With 85 scholarships, a Division I-A football team can offer free rides to the first-, second-, and third-string players at every offensive and defensive—position – including punters and placekickers—and still have 13 scholarships left over. Yet most college football coaches insist that the game would suffer if scholarships were cut.

When questioned about these numbers last year, University of Minnesota coach Glen Mason contended that college football needs 85 scholarships due to the brutal nature of the sport.

“At times you get dangerously thin,” said Mason, who until recently served as the president of the American Football Coaches Association. “So all of a sudden, an injury here or there—some years you never can predict it, all of a sudden you’re down to one guy playing a position.” “If we cut 15 total scholarships, you save $150,000. What are you going to do with $150,000? Is it going to be enough money to save wrestling or add a women’s sport? No.” Mason’s comments mirror remarks made by other coaches when football scholarships were reduced in the past.

When scholarships were cut from 105 to 95 in 1978, former USC coach John McKay reputedly said, “Mark this day on your calendar. This day is the ruin of college football. It will only go downhill from here.”

Scholarships were reduced from 95 to 85 between 1992 and 1994. In 1993, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said, “They’re just going to water it down until it can’t compete with the pros for the attention and dollars. They’re just going to produce an inferior product.”

But the college game has never been healthier by most measures. And some former college coaches and players think the game would survive another round of scholarship reductions.

“They could probably get away with 75–80 (scholarships),” said Steve Spurrier, former University of Florida coach and now coach of the Washington Redskins. “Seventy-five, I think would be a minimum. There are so many players on football scholarships at every college that never play. They’re just sort of there helping practice out and so forth.”

When Washington Redskin wide receiver Rod Gardner was still at Clemson University in 2000, he thought scholarships could be cut. “There are a lot of players that don’t play who are on scholarship,” he said then. “They just sit on the sideline chilling. You might play 17 on offense and 17 on defense, so you can maintain with a good 50 or 60 easily. Coaches want as many scholarships as they can so they can get as many good players as they can.”

Spurrier’s and Gardner’s comments echoed remarks from Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, who wants scholarships cut even further. “To say that you can’t cut down to 55 or 60 scholarships and keep football as strong as it is today is absurd,” she said.

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