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August 16, 2004

Very Small College Athletics: Greatest Weaknesses are the Greatest Strengths

An athletics administrator at a very small college speaks up for the little guys.

by Bjorn Hasseler

The challenges faced by very small college athletics programs are also—paradoxically—often their greatest strengths. Four areas in which this challenges / strengths paradox are manifested include perception, recruitment & retention, finances, and competitiveness.

What are “very small college athletic programs?” They are four-year colleges and universities that belong to neither the NCAA nor the NAIA, although many are members of the NCCAA, the NBCAA, or the USCAA. Sometimes these schools are referred to as Division IV. While inaccurate, it is significantly less awkward than “very small college athletic programs”. Generally these schools number less than one thousand full-time students. A large percentage are Bible colleges (for example, all of the NBCAA and NCCAA-II). I believe that most challenges and strengths are similar among all very small colleges.

The first challenge very small colleges face is perception. Some people don’t consider very small college athletics to be “real” college athletics. Virtually none of the student-athletes will go pro, and games are not televised. However, very small colleges are included in the same computer rankings as D1 programs (particularly Peter Wolfe’s and Kenneth Massey’s), and there are even a few daring small colleges that will play a D1 program during the season. And every once in a great while, a D1 player transfers in. Some students with athletic skill do not participate.

The rationale (for non-participation) that I hear most frequently is "I came to Bible college to prepare for ministry, not to play sports.” I suspect that other kinds of very small colleges hear variations on this theme. Our college’s response is threefold: First, we encourage the use of sports in ministry – one of WBC’s academic concentrations is actually Sports Ministry. Second, nearly all ministries involve some sort of teamwork. That is difficult to teach in the classroom, but readily teachable on the field or on the court. Third, athletics provides an opportunity to demonstrate Christ-like behavior to others.

The second challenge is recruitment and retention. In fall semester 2003, Washington Bible College (WBC) enrolled 338 students, with a full-time equivalency of 255. This FTE measurement is useful at the very small college level simply because that number is publicly available for all colleges. It is not, however, the actual number of students available to play: Although WBC has an FTE of 225 and 189 full-time students, there are only 150 potential student-athletes for our five teams. That presents quite a challenge.

However, the strength derived from that challenge is that 52 of those 150 actually did play during the fall 2003 semester. 35% athletic participation is actually quite good. So how do these skimpy numbers transfer onto the field? First—obviously--none of our teams have much of a bench. Most of our student-athletes have learned that “iron man” means you’re not getting a sub today and “man down” is all too self-explanatory. It may be hard to envision a corresponding strength to this, but we can tell a prospect, “You will see significant playing time as a freshman.” In fact, a freshman may see 30 minutes per basketball game or upwards of 60 minutes per soccer game. Four years means four years on the court or on the field.

Recruiting per se is nothing like recruiting at larger schools. NCCAA-II schools cannot give athletic scholarships. Very few students come to Bible college to play basketball. They may choose one over another because one has a basketball team and the other does not, but generally speaking, we recruit from within the pool of students already considering a Bible major. This means that the first qualification we look for is intended course of study, not athletic ability.

Retention is an issue, too. One-half of WBC’s student-athletes play for only one season. Another quarter play for only two seasons. Homework, jobs, evening classes, other extracurricular activities, and in our case, student ministries quickly fill up a student’s time. In theory, scheduling games Tuesday-Friday or Tuesday-Saturday provides time for student ministries. In practice it doesn’t always work. Every once in a while a student-athlete will approach a coach and say, “Coach, I can’t play this year. God is calling me to start a church this year.” Generally there is little that can be done at this point (I’ll spare you the usual discussion of determining God’s will in your life) although one quick-witted coach replied, “Okay. Can you start out by inviting the guys on the teams we play?” Another strength of being a very small college is that it is possible to find walk-ons. “Bring your roommate to practice” can bring in a couple student-athletes.

The third challenge that very small college athletic programs face is finances. “Expenses are only $100K more than revenues” does not sound all that bad at a D1 school. At a very small college what it means is total expenses are somewhat more than $100K, and total revenues from the athletic department are just about non-existent.

On the other hand, very small college athletics does not require all that much money. A varsity team can be fielded and play a full season schedule for $8000. That does not count the office or custodial staff, but it does include everything else. Our top five expenses are staff, student workers, officials, coaches, and meals. Next year three of our teams have equipment budgets of $13 each – the rulebook and the stat manual. However, the biggest challenge caused by finances is that our coaches do not work full time on campus. As well as limiting their availability, this directly affects recruitment and retention. It also means that everything gets centralized in the gym office, and the office staff wear several hats. The AD is also the trainer, and this past year coached a sport as well. The SID handles scheduling and budgeting. And as I write this, the AD is driving past my window on a tractor – evidently the soccer field needs to be cut.

The fourth challenge is perhaps the obvious one – being competitive. With student-athletes who didn’t come to college for the purpose of playing ball and a 50% or more turnover on each team each year on top of our small size, it is hard to win games. A D3 opponent is a “big game” for us. Depending on the sport, we may even play a D2 opponent. Yes, we do try to play most of our games against other very small colleges – but in our region, the other schools’ fulltime equivalencies are double and triple ours. There are very small colleges, and then there are very very small colleges. Let me be quick to add that the challenges we face are much less severe than those of colleges with fulltime equivalencies of 99 or even 59. Yes, they do field teams – and they play schools ten times their size more often than not. We’re only outsized three to one in most games – suddenly it doesn’t look quite so bad.

Bjorn Hasseler, is SID (and a lot more) at Washington Bible College in Lanham, Maryland. He is a graduate of Gettysburg College with B.A. in political science and Capital Bible Seminary with a Th. M. in systematic theology.

NOTE: Any and all views, thoughts, opinions and advocacies as stated in this commentary are those of the author, and not College Athletics Clips.