By Dave Fairbank, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4637
5:57 PM EST, February 17, 2012
Last Saturday, Bobby Wilder and members of the Old Dominion football staff hosted approximately two dozen high school senior prospects who may not attend the school and won't receive a dime of athletic financial aid next year, even if they choose to come.
Likewise, in recent days at William and Mary, Tribe football staff members escorted a handful of senior prospects around campus, touring facilities and meeting with various athletic and academic officials. Those players, too, will receive no athletic aid their first year if they gain admittance and enroll.
Though National Signing Day was Feb. 1, recruiting at William and Mary and ODU, indeed at dozens of programs around the country, continues well beyond the day when hundreds of kids sign letters-of-intent awarding them scholarships for the coming year.
The Tribe and ODU supplement their scholarship classes with walk-ons. Both staffs spend the days and weeks after signing day in contact with kids in whom they're interested but did not offer scholarships.
"The lifeblood of our program," ODU assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Ron Whitcomb said of walk-ons.
"We recruit them just like we recruit the scholarship kids," W&M assistant and recruiting coordinator Trevor Andrews said. "We watch film on them, we discuss them as a staff, and what we try to do is piece together the rest of the class."
Football Championship Subdivision programs are allowed a maximum of 63 scholarships, 22 fewer than Bowl Subdivision programs such as Virginia and Virginia Tech. ODU and William and Mary are allowed 95-man rosters when preseason camp starts, and a few more when the fall semester begins.
FCS programs, unlike their FBS counterparts, are allowed to divide and award partial scholarships to players. Even with some scholarship money divided, FCS programs must fill their rosters with walk-ons.
"At the I-AA level," Andrews said, using the old term for FCS programs, "you're not taking a full class of 20-some scholarship kids, so you're not taking a kid at every position. We've got to address immediate needs with the scholarships, and that's what we do.
"We let them know that, hey, maybe we would have considered them for a scholarship (out of high school) in a previous year or in a future year. But position-wise, that isn't an immediate need for us at the moment. We can't address it with scholarships this year."
The message at both programs is the same: Everyone on the roster is part of the program, regardless of scholarship status; if walk-ons earn playing time, they will earn scholarship money.
Walk-ons pay their own way, either out-of-pocket or with non-athletic scholarship funds. Both William and Mary and ODU are public institutions. The cost for in-state students at W&M — typically tuition, room, board and fees — is more than $22,000 annually, for out-of-state students more than $44,000. At ODU, in-state costs are more than $16,000 per year, out-of-state in excess of $30,000 per year.
"First, financially it's got to work out for the family," Andrews said. "We want the kids that want us. We've got to like them and they've got to like us. Once that's established, those are the guys that we go after. We want the guys that want to be here and want that challenge. If we have to talk a kid into it, generally it doesn't work out. We want guys that get it, that understand. They want the William and Mary education, and they want the William and Mary football experience."
Under longtime coach Jimmye Laycock, William and Mary has a lengthy tradition of players who excelled after starting their careers as recruited walk-ons: All-America defensive end and NFL draft pick Adrian Tracy; Payton Award winner Lang Campbell; CAA Defensive Player of the Year Jason Miller; all-conference safety Sean McDermott, among others.
"I was well aware of that, and that was one of the things that attracted me to William and Mary," said former Tribe quarterback Mike Callahan, a walk-on to whom Laycock awarded scholarship money only during his fifth and final year. "I knew the whole Lang Campbell story."
Callahan, a Mountville, Pa., native, had scholarship offers to Monmouth, Stony Brook and Albany, but instead chose to walk on at William and Mary.
"I wanted that education and that level of football," he said.
At ODU, the legacy is much shorter, obviously, but still significant. Punter Jonathan Plisco (Woodside) became an All-American after being what Monarchs' coaches call a "preferred walk-on." Offensive lineman Robbie Duncan has started for two-plus years after walking on.
Both William and Mary and ODU recruited Plisco as a targeted walk-on. He was aware of the Tribe's tradition of successful walk-ons, but chose the Monarchs in part because of the opportunity to begin a tradition rather than continue one.
"The thing that really intrigued me about ODU," Plisco said, "is that I was in position to be that guy. Ten, 15 years down the road, when ODU recruits, I could possibly have been in that position. I wanted to be part of that. It was something fresh, something new. I could be practice fodder, but I knew what I was capable of and had to work for it. I thought ODU was the best fit for me. I could be in the history books, where William and Mary already had their established guys."
When ODU resuscitated its program after 40 years, the first team that reported to camp in August 2008 had 82 players. Because Wilder wanted to build the program gradually and not use all of the available scholarships, 59 players were preferred walk-ons.
In the past four years, the number of scholarship players has increased, but the walk-on component is no less important. Nineteen players on the present roster were preferred walk-ons; eight of the 36 players in the junior and senior classes began their careers as walk-ons.
"I always tell them, the way you prove yourself," Wilder said, "is you have a good reputation on campus, you do what you're supposed to do academically, and if you earn a starting spot, you'll earn scholarship money."
Two freshmen PWO's saw playing time last season as the Monarchs went 10-3 and advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs: Neal-Anthony Hale and James Faircloth.
"You might think that defies logic," Wilder said. "How are you having preferred walk-ons play when you have full scholarship kids you redshirted? It just goes to show you how inexact the recruiting process is. You can't necessarily measure a kid's skill level until you get them on campus and work with them. In the case of Hale and Faircloth, they got here and we said, wow, these guys are good players."
They also reinforce Wilder's tenet that the best available 11 play, and demonstrate that to current and future recruits — scholarship guys and walk-ons.
"The first thing I tell them when we start to recruit them as a preferred walk-on is, don't be mad at me," Wilder said, only partly in jest. "I'm the one who's trying to give you an opportunity right now, so don't come in here mad at me, or it's not going to work out.
"I say that because a lot of kids have a chip on their shoulder," he continued. "They feel like they were as good as their teammate who got a scholarship, or they were way better than that kid they played against who got a scholarship. Well, everybody didn't see it that way, so don't be mad at me, because I'm not the only one who didn't see it that way."
William and Mary aims to bring in a class of 25 players every year. The Tribe signed 13 scholarship players in its 2012 recruiting class, so it will have approximately a dozen walk-ons fill out the class.
Both programs have scouted most of their targeted walk-ons. ODU annually has a summer team camp that attracts dozens of high school teams. That camp exposes local players to ODU and its campus and facilities, while allowing the Monarchs' staff to begin to evaluate players. W&M holds camps for high school prospects, as well, mining many of its longtime connections both in and out of the area.
"We've known a lot of these kids since early in the scholarship process," Andrews said. Targeted walk-ons, he said, "are hearing from us. They're getting attention; maybe it's not quite the attention the scholarship kids are getting. They get more attention once the signing day comes and goes."
Walk-ons who succeed, who earn playing time and scholarship money often become the best ambassadors for their programs and schools. Callahan and Plisco, among others, have talked to other kids who were in their position about the challenges and rewards that come with walking on.
"It feels perfect," Plisco said. "When there's that situation that works out perfectly, that's what I have here. I'm on full scholarship. I love this area, I love my school. I was really lucky. I'm real happy that it worked out the way it did. I couldn't be any happier where I am."