Since 1973, the Roman numeral I has been used to distinguish big-time college athletics from those considered to be at a lesser level.
Nevertheless, Franklin College and other Division III institutions remain attractive to male and female student-athletes for reasons ranging from academics to playing time to proximity.
The largest of the NCAA’s three divisions, Division III is the only one not permitted to offer athletics scholarships.
The lack of funding to prospective athletes and their families would seem a noticeable recruiting disadvantage. Division I and Division II and NAIA programs are allowed to do so, albeit with specified parameters.
But Division III’s and the athletics programs they offer are their own entity.
Academics come first. Period.
“We have a really unified look on our campus. These kids do not come to Franklin College because of sports. They come here for a quality education with the chance to continue their athletic careers,” said Kerry Prather, the school’s longtime athletics director and men’s basketball coach. “Fortunately, we have an outstanding product to sell.
“What attracts a lot of people to Franklin College is our ability to keep those things in balance.”
Division III is a throwback to an era when billion-dollar television contracts and the practice of schools hopping from one major conference to another in pursuit of increased revenue ceased
Simplification, in other words, sells.
“The most challenging part is selling the college and what you have to offer. Division III is really a good place to go because you choose it for all the right reasons — coaches, academics, love of the game,” third-year Grizzlies softball coach Butch Zike said. “It makes it easier that they want to be there, but the demands they have on their time because of academics makes it tougher.”
“The best part about playing D-III is that the game is still pure,” added former Franklin College wide receiver Kyle Linville, now playing professional football in Germany. “There’s less money involved, so everyone plays for the love of the game, not for the benefits.
“This creates a more fun, family-like atmosphere.”
A graduate of Speedway High School, Linville was recruited to play football at the Division I and Division II levels, as well as the NAIA.
In the end, Franklin College made the most sense.
“I decided to come to Franklin for a number of reasons. I had a chance to play right away, have known coach (Mike) Leonard my whole life and wanted a good private-college educational experience,” Linville said. “And it was close enough to Speedway that my family could still come to my games.”
Familiarity a bonus
Every Division III student-athlete is on his or her campus of choice for a reason. Perhaps multiple reasons.
Grizzlies softball player Anne Schwomeyer graduated from Greenwood Community High School in 2012 and began her college experience at Millikan University, a Division III school in Decatur, Ill.
The combination of academics (Schwomeyer is a business major) and living three hours from home enticed her to transfer to Franklin College.
She is a sophomore catcher who has taken part in 25 of the Grizzlies’ 30 games this season.
“I’m commuting from home this year, but I’m actually going to live on campus next year,” Schwomeyer said. “I didn’t feel like (Millikan) was a good fit for me. It was so far away, and academically they didn’t have the classes I wanted to take.
“Now, everything that I need is right here.”
Every one of Franklin College’s nine men’s teams had at least one athlete from a Johnson County high school during the 2013-14 school year. The same is true with eight of the 10 women’s sports the Grizzlies offer.
“I’m glad I chose this route,” said senior Jonny West, the quarterback who wound up erasing numerous single-season and career passing records as a member of the Grizzlies’ football program. “From an outsiders’ perspective it’s difficult to grasp how good the football is being played.
“There’s less of a difference (between Division III and Division II) than people think.”
Therein lies one of the great unknowns of Division III athletics: the fine line separating the product from the so-called big time.
Mixing academics with sports
A filtering system of sorts has been known to exist within Division III athletics.
Freshmen often find juggling their studies with sports to be too much. It’s therefore not uncommon for an athletics program’s freshman class to be reduced by the time those students are juniors or seniors.
Zike’s roster includes 17 freshmen. He estimates 10 to 12 will still be with his program by the spring of 2017.
“If all 17 kids are still there, it’s a great thing because it means they’ve had a great college experience,” said Zike, a former longtime athletics director at Whiteland Community High School. “There are many D-III programs that are freshmen- and sophomore-heavy. The retention rate is not as good.”
Honing one’s time-management skills is imperative. Some student-athletes have had such abilities dating back to their high school years; others learn on the fly.
“It is a little different coming from high school,” Linville said. “There is definitely not much room for laziness, especially if you have a more difficult major.
“Football season is a bit crazy at the D-III level. Coaches are a little more flexible around your exam and project schedule.”
“I think it helps because you don’t have as much leisure time to waste,” he said. “That makes you more productive, especially when it comes to academics. Coming in as an 18-year-old, you definitely go through a maturation process.
“It’s the first time you’re on you’re own.”
Zike works softball practice times around his players’ class schedules. He suggests to team members to try to be done by 2 p.m. but understands late-afternoon academic requirements are sometimes unavoidable.
“It is difficult, but you have to learn time management,” Schwomeyer said. “When I make my class schedule, I make sure I’m going to be done by a certain time. Coach Zike has told us if we have a problem to come to him, and he’ll try to help us the best he can.”
Division III institutions vary in size. In Franklin’s case, approximately 1,050 students coupled with an academic staff about 90 strong makes for 12-to-1 the average student-instructor ratio.
“You’re not just a number here. You can get the professor’s attention, and you can get the professor’s help,” Schwomeyer said. “I like that you can get the help you need when you need it. You don’t have to fight over the professor with 500 other people.”
Franklin College baseball coach and assistant athletics director Lance Marshall serves as the school’s liaison between admissions and the athletics department. Now in his 17th season as Franklin’s coach, Marshall works to gauge one’s academic performance and athletic potential.
“Initially, it’s academics that match our institution. We want to make sure they’re prepared for success,” he said. “In our program, we start off with a pretty significant pool and work our way through the pool. The important thing for us is to try to get the right student-athlete for us as a baseball program and school.”
Zike recruits throughout the calendar year but primarily during the summer months when many softball prospects are members of travel teams.
“There is no talking to them off-campus until July 1, but we do go watch them before that,” said Zike, who’ll make no such trip without being decked out in Franklin College gear. “We’re letting them know we’re there. That we’re interested.
“All kids think they’re Division-I athletes. You have to wait until some of them have had their bubble burst, and then they might be easier to recruit.”
No Franklin College coach understands the process better than Prather, who has served as the men’s basketball coach since 1983.
“There are upsides and downsides. The biggest challenge is you have to throw an enormously large net to get the kind of athletes you want,” Prather said. “The kind of student you want. Since you don’t have an athletic scholarship we won’t know until well down the road if this is feasible or not. All that said, we don’t go through the agony of, ‘Are we using this athletic scholarship wisely?’ We make a mistake and we still have a good student and a good kid. A D-I makes a mistake, and they’re out scholarship money.
“The other thing that is unique about Division III is the potential to develop. We look for those late bloomers and those ‘tweeners.’ In my sport that’s the 6-5 center or 5-8 or 5-9 guard. The kid who might be a half-step slow. The biggest question is how committed are they to getting better?”
Leonard’s football program included on its 2013 roster five players who played at Johnson County high schools. Add nearby programs such as Roncalli, Southport, Martinsville, Plainfield and Perry Meridian and the number of local recruits increases drastically.
About to enter his 12th season with the Grizzlies, Leonard as a Division III coach must go through the annual practice of wait-and-see. Is Recruit A going to sign Division I? Will Recruit B wind up at a Division II or NAIA program?
“The biggest challenge is patience with a sense of letting the whole recruiting process unfold from Division I to Division II to NAIA to Division III,” Leonard said. “At this stage if we were to start recruiting juniors, most of the young men have their sights on something a little bigger. That’s natural for competitors to compete at the highest level someone thinks they can.
“When we start recruiting, it’s basically right after our season is over and after the high school football season is over. Everybody who is in business, you have to have passion for your product. Our product is good. It’s very good. But not everyone knows about it, so you need ambassadors, and the best ones are our graduates.”
The timing of football season makes it so Leonard is not on the road at times he should be breaking down film of that week’s opponent.
“Everyone thinks Division III recruiting is so hard. During the season not only are D-I coaches coaching their guys, they’re keeping in touch with their recruits. I love just being able to coach football during the season,” Leonard said. “With recruiting, people will buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. My job is to be a good first contact, so when we do get them on campus, they can see it.
“Then it’s a matter of whether the recruit feels it’s a good fit for him.”