Recruiting – Men’s track and field scholarships

Alan Versaw, girls coach at The Classical Academy, and Colorado editor of, have collaborated on a series of posts dedicated to the college recruiting process, with this being the last installment of the series. Alan’s comments are below, then my comments follow and are in italics.

As we move from women’s scholarships to men’s, it bears repeating that these are two completely different worlds. A large number of young women can transition directly from high school cross country/track and field into the college arena with an athletic scholarship in hand. Very few young men get that opportunity.

Collegiate track and field programs invite a lot of walk-ons. At many programs, being an invited walk-on is really rather prestigious. If you were good enough in high school to be an invited walk-on at a Wisconsin, a Colorado, or an Oregon, you were a very good high school athlete. And, those invited walk-ons who produce often are elevated in subsequent years to the status of scholarship athlete.

College track and field programs are very much about recruiting top-tier male athletes; there simply isn’t much money in the pot to do it with. Adding to the scarcity of scholarships is the fact that many of the available track and field scholarships are awarded to international athletes (more so than with women, though the phenomenon is certainly not rare with women).

Top-tier programs recruit top-tier athletes. While it’s fair to say that many top-tier state schools look within their own borders for recruits, their eyes are constantly roaming beyond the borders of their own states as well. It’s not the same for all state schools, but a look at the current rosters of some state schools will show you how different it can be.

Take, for example, a look at the men’s rosters of Adams State College and Western State College, two Division II powerhouses within the state of Colorado. You will find that Western State brings in a higher percentage of in-state athletes than Adams State does. While the rosters may not necessarily reflect the actual allocation of scholarships, this example should serve to illustrate the point that it’s not a given that any two given state schools will recruit with equal urgency from inside their own borders.

Schools that aren’t as elite as Adams State and Western State generally tend to recruit more extensively within their own states. Frequently, local athletes will enter these programs with smaller track and field scholarship awards. The combined forces of high out-of-state tuition and the lack of a program that, in and of itself, will draw athletes from afar tend to force these schools to concentrate their scholarship awards on more local athletes.

So, who gets the 12.6 scholarships per team that the NCAA allows men’s programs?

About the simplest possible answer to that question is that those scholarships go to young men who are deemed capable of scoring at the school’s conference meet. Sometimes those individuals are incoming freshmen. Sometimes they are juniors and seniors who’ve demonstrated a year or two of success within the program.

I’ll let Jay comment further on this topic, but it’s my observation that a higher percentage of men’s scholarships than women’s are awarded to athletes already in the program who entered the program as walk-ons. They are awarded to those who have made substantial contributions as freshmen and sophomores.

So, if you’re a high school senior male looking for some sort of barometer of how scholarship-worthy you are, go to the cross country/track and field web sites for the schools you are interested in attending. Find the conference meet results and ask yourself, “What is the likelihood that a college coach would look at me and say that I could score points in the conference meet one or two or, maybe, three years down the road?”

To be sure, very few current high school athletes have posted the kind of marks in high school that would place in a college conference meet, especially a Division I conference meet. There is a lot of athletic maturity that takes place between age 17 and age 20. College coaches, however, are fully aware of that maturity factor and are generally pretty sharp at identifying those who can make the cut.

It is entirely possible that the top performer in the state in a particular year and event won’t get a Division I scholarship offer. That would rarely, if ever, be true of athletes from Texas and California, but it could easily be true of athletes from any of several smaller states.

Athletes like Mason Finley (a Divison I All-American in the shot put and discus at Kansas as a true freshman in 2010) are no-brainers. Hand the young man the biggest scholarship you can offer. Most top-tier high school athletes, however, don’t begin the scratch the surface of the kind of potential that Mason Finley demonstrated in high school.

Another important difference between men’s and women’s scholarships is that men are more likely than women to choose a college or university based on its recent history in cross country or track and field. That tends to drive up the standards necessary for getting a scholarship at the top cross country/track and field programs. More so than women, men tend to disdain being part of a program that is moribund in the lower echelons of their conference.

That’s not to say that available scholarships at lower-tier programs don’t get awarded. It simply says that the top-tier programs definitely get the first pick of the athletes. And so the top schools tend to stay on top. There are very few overnight reversals in the fortunes of men’s cross country or track and field programs.


Great information, as always, from Coach Versaw.

I think the thing young men, their families and coaches need to keep in mind is that if you start to compare the scholarship landscape for young men to the same landscape for young women, you will be quite frustrated, quite quickly. Girls who run 5:00 will have more offers than boys who run 4:12, yet most coaches – high school and collegiate – would say that 4:12 is a better mark. But the simple reality of 18.0 scholarships for women’s track and field and 12.6 scholarships for men’s track and field at the DI level means that the 4:12 will not only get fewer offers, but he’ll get fewer sizable offers.

So this is where the walk-on opportunity at a successful program comes into play. Many DI programs would like to have a 4:12 male runner–it’s just that they want him to walk on.

Why? It could be that the school is as national power in cross country and an incoming mark of 4:12 puts him at the end of male distance runner depth chart. Or, it could be that a program is putting the majority of their money in sprints and hurdles, leaving just 2.0 or 3.0 for men’s distance. In that scenario the scholarships are likely spent on current student athletes and while the 4:12 runner may have the opportunity to earn a scholarship after he’s walked on in that program; he won’t be getting any money coming out of high school.

And this brings me back to the 5:00 girl. Often the 4:12 runner is being offered a small scholarship by school he’s somewhat interested in, yet there is a good chance that same school need female distance runners and is offering the 5:00 a large scholarship. I don’t blame the young man, his parents and his coaches for being frustrated, but I suggest that young men and their supporters do their best just to focus on his options at his performance level.

Let’s talk about most likely scenario that boys will find themselves in. They will have a continuum of schools that they are interested in, at one end there will be one or two schools being their “perfect fits,” places they would go tomorrow.

Next on the continuum are a couple schools they are interested it, but with reservation.

At the end of the continuum, a couple schools are on the list, yet the negatives of these schools outweigh the positives.

The problem with this continuum for a state class male track and field athlete is that some schools are offering sizable scholarships, yet those schools are at the end of the continuum that the young man isn’t interested in.

The flip side is that this young man may want to go to THE state university in their state, but they definitely won’t get a scholarship and may not even be able to walk on at this time. In the middle we would hope there are a couple of good options – decent scholarship offesr at a school that the young many would be excited to attend and proud to be alumni of in decades to come.

In my years as a DI recruiting coordinator I can say that 90% of the men we recruited had a continuum of schools and the harsh reality was that the schools they wanted to attend the most were the schools that were offering them the least. And at this point the most important information is not the scholarship, but what the family can afford. Only with that information can anyone intelligently weigh the various options on the continuum.

Okay, let’s finish with some “here’s what the person on the other end of the line is thinking.”

I’ll share with you what my approach to recruiting men during my time at the University of Colorado as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. I’ll preface this by saying that the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis would be worth your time reading if you’re the parent or coach of a young man who will have scholarship offers as the book is, at it’s core, about how a market properly or improperly values athletic performance. The book’s about baseball but to me it’s the best way to share with someone what it’s like to recruit with a limited resources, i.e. 12.6 scholarship.

As I write this I can think of a 4:12 miler (which may have been a little more prestigious in 2002 than now) that we offered 20%, yet another DI school in a major conference offered the young man a full ride. The coaches at the other school were thinking soundly, yet so were we.

The young man came to CU, but as an out-of-state student that meant he paid roughly $30,000 a year, or $120,000 over his four year education. I had done my job because getting a 4:12 miler on 20% was simply a good deal. When it came to male distance runners, I viewed my job as getting the best class each year on the least amount of money.

But what about the family? Was it a good deal for them? I don’t know, but I assume it was because they chose to do it. What I don’t know is if the family ever had courage to sit down and say, “We can afford _____” or “We cannot afford ______.” I know that many families don’t do this and that student knows the various scholarship offers but not what the family can and cannot afford.

Not only is this important for the families but it’s important for ALL of the schools involved. If the family can’t afford the 20% from the big DI school yet the family takes two months to finally tell the school, it hurts the next family in line for the DI school’s 20%. It also hurts the program that family eventually says yes to because that program had to keep other families waiting in limbo, because they knew that family really wanted to make the DI 20% offer work.

And I’m not talking about the scenario where a coach says, “You’ve thrown the discus 170 ft. and that’s 20% right now, but if you throw over 180 ft. will give you 40%.” I’m talking about a situation where an offer is made January 1st by a school and they want to know two weeks prior to the signing date what you’re going to do. That offer isn’t changin,g and in a couple of nights a family should be able to figure out whether they can afford that education with a 20% scholarship.

Maybe I’m being unrealistic in my hope for this process, but if every family would tell the schools they can’t afford “No” as soon as possible, all of the other families in this process can move forward faster. Or, to put it another way, earlier in this series Alan referred to coaches stringing families along and I think it’s just as often one or two families not wanting to say no to the child they love, hoping the scholarship offer will change.

Like I’ve said before, please take this information with a grain of salt and if you have questions I’m happy to answer them in the comments.

Share this post:
Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+1Print this pageEmail this to someone
  • pjm

    Jay, Alan – this is good stuff. I've had some secondhand experience with the scholarship market and have found that parental misunderstanding is one of the biggest hurdles. Sometimes they really want to be able to say, “my child got an athletic scholarship at X” even if that scholarship is tiny, and that blinds them to the real arithmetic of the situation. Other times they miss out on the point you made, Jay, about how your 20% offer was sound thinking; put another way, the issue is that the level of the scholarship isn't about how good the athlete is, but about how much the program is willing to spend to get them, and the athlete's perceived ability is just one factor in that formula.

  • jer

    I think it would be great (both for athletes and schools) to make a little manual discussing numerous issues relating to the recruiting process. I think many times athletes and their families are left to figure it out for themselves, even though there are lessons that may not be learned until several years have passed. Clearly, there is a large variation as to how “athlete centered” different programs are; some just want what is best for the program. But, coaches who are also great people should also consider what is best for the athlete. I remember reading that Coach Bowerman told a good athlete considering the University of Oregon that he though the athlete should go to Stanford instead due to better opportunities in preparing for the athlete's want of going to med school in the future.

  • JAS

    Great article Coach Versaw, excellent insights. I went through the very same process just a few months ago. I was offered 60% at my first choice school, I saw the scholarship but was blissfully unaware of my family's overall financial situation…my parents wanted me too attend so badly that it took weeks for us to decide that I still couldn't attend.

  • CoachJay

    This post talks about having to prioritize what you want in the recruiting process –