Few will play on TV. Fewer still will have a shot at the pros. And none will receive tuition help for playing sports.

Those are just some of the unique challenges of NCAA Division III recruiting.

Glory is relative, athletic scholarships are forbidden, and pay to play is the name of the game.

So how do you attract talented athletes and build a successful program?

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“Most people who get comfortable with the process in Division III realize early on that it’s different than any kind of a scholarship setting,” said Franklin College men’s basketball coach Kerry Prather, who has been comfortable — and intimately familiar — with the process for two decades.

Prather, also Frankin’s athletics director, has navigated the Division III recruiting path since 1998, when the school joined the NCAA after leaving the scholarship-granting NAIA. He has served as men’s basketball coach since 1983 and is acutely aware of the differences.

He has also learned to adjust.

Cognizant that most recruits first seek scholarships and the opportunity to play at NCAA’s highest levels, he — like most Division III coaches — has to find athletes who are exceptions to those rules. In many cases, those athletes place a higher priority on education than athletics.

And in nearly all cases, those athletes will have to pay tuition to play.

Financial aid packages and academic scholarships are available, as they are to all students, but no one gets a free ride strictly for athletics.

“Myself, and most of our coaches who have kind of gotten successful at this, have zeroed in early on a certain type of student who’s a player, as opposed to a certain type of player,” Prather said. “There are an awful lot of players who really have no interest in, or a low priority on, the academic component of this.”

There are also many who regard Division III as too small a stage. And there are many others with false impressions about which stage they belong on.

Yet as difficult as those barriers are to break through, persuading athletes — talented athletes who can meaningfully contribute to your program — to pay for the opportunity to play is perhaps the biggest barrier of all.

Somehow, someway, Mike Leonard successfully breaks through each.

In his 13th season as Franklin’s football coach, Leonard in any given year has 130-plus players in the program. A record 149 are expected to report for the first day of practice on Aug. 15.

And the program isn’t just any program.

A national Division III power, the Grizzlies have won seven Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championships — including five straight — on Leonard’s watch. The Grizzlies have been to the Division III playoffs seven times and have been mainstays in the D3Football.com Top 25 poll.

For Leonard, recruiting isn’t so much a challenge as it is a joy.

“I love it. Like anything, sometimes you get into a routine. But to me the key to excitement is in the mundane,” he said. “When you’re helping a young man, or a young person and their family, because it’s a joint deal here, make a big decision that’s going to influence their future for a long, long time, it’s exciting.”

On average, 45 to 55 freshmen join the Grizzlies’ football program every year. Leonard forges a personal relationship with each. He does the same with countless other recruits who decide to play somewhere else.

Even when that happens, he seldom deletes their contact information from his cellphone.

“I always tell the young men that decide to go somewhere else the best of luck, wish them well and and congratulate them on their decision,” Leonard said. “And I tell them if something ever changes to contact me.”

In the scramble for athletes who have decided on Division III opportunities, the next challenge is to get them on campus for a visit.

Leonard insists Franklin’s biggest selling point is the campus. And best salesmen are players and former players.

“Our big draw is inviting people to campus and to our games. Instead of hearing from us coaches so much, we want them to hear from our players,” he said. “They’re the ones that really do the best job of selling the program, including our football graduates.

“We like to connect recruits with graduates who had a great experience here as much as we can.”

Prather, like many of Franklin’s coaches, does the same. The men’s and women’s basketball teams have won multiple conference championships and competed in national tournaments.

In the unique and highly competitive Division III recruiting environment, the key to sustained success isn’t casting a net for the elusive blue chip. Rather, it’s steadily reeling in not-quite-ready for prime time players whose time is still to come.

And who are willing to pay for the chance to play.

“We survive, by and large, on the athletic late-bloomers,” Prather said. “I always tell people this is the land of a couple of inches too small, a half-step too slow. But those kids blossom as they mature physically and continue to develop their skills.

“The trick to this is to see that potential, not just in terms of their skills, but in terms of how they approach the game.”

At a glance

ATHLETES FROM JOHNSON COUNTY HIGH SCHOOLS WHO PLAYED SPORTS AT FRANKLIN COLLEGE DURING THE 2014-15 SCHOOL YEAR

MEN’S SPORTS

Athlete;high school

Baseball

Mitch Caster;Greenwood

Tyler Ison;Whiteland

Cross-country

Max Bomber;Center Grove

Football

Ethan Bailey;Greenwood

Logan Battle;Center Grove

Samm Hayes;Center Grove

Kole Stogner;Greenwood

Dmitri Wilson;Center Grove

Soccer

Logan McNamee;Center Grove

Austin Storm;Center Grove

Swimming and diving

Seth Morin;Whiteland

Tennis

Alex Hammer;Greenwood

Ryan Hammer;Greenwood

Luke Snyder;Franklin

Track and field

Max Bomber;Center Grove

Adam Shepard;Franklin

Clay Warner;Franklin

WOMEN’S SPORTS

Athlete;High School

Basketball

Madi Kolthoff;Center Grove

Nichole Thompson;Greenwood

Cross-country

Anna Murdock;Indian Creek

Ashley Myers;Edinburgh

Casey Tranter;Franklin

Golf

Sarah Craven;Whiteland

Paige Lundy;Whiteland

Hannah White;Franklin

Lacrosse

Carley Campbell;Center Grove

Presleigh Hobbs;Center Grove

Soccer

Jessica Silver;Center Grove

Softball

Hanna Moore;Franklin

Madison Parker;Franklin

Grace Paszek;Franklin

Olivia Paszek;Franklin

JoJo Settles;Whiteland

Steph Smith;Greenwood

Katie Struewing;Greenwood

Tennis

Emily Leonard;Franklin

Emily Roberts;Edinburgh

Track and field

Erica Christy;Greenwood

Anna Murdock;Indian Creek

Ashley Myers;Edinburgh

Casey Tranter;Franklin

At a glance

MEN’S AND WOMEN’S VARSITY SPORTS OFFERED AT FRANKLIN COLLEGE

MEN’S

Baseball

Basketball

Cross-country

Football

Golf

Soccer

Swimming and diving

Tennis

Track and field

WOMEN’S

Basketball

Cross-country

Golf

Lacrosse

Soccer

Softball

Swimming and diving

Tennis

Track and field

Volleyball

Author photo
Rick Morwick is sports editor of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rmorwick@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.