Small-college programs may reap benefits
OMAHA, Neb. -- Small-college football programs are prepared to capitalize on new Nebraska coach Bill Callahan's plan to cut the size of the Cornhuskers' roster.
But while Callahan will benefit from coaching what he calls a more "manageable" number of players, and smaller programs might benefit from an influx of players who otherwise would have gone to NU, some high school coaches are concerned about lost opportunities for their players.
Callahan hasn't said how many spots would he would eliminate from the 170-man roster, but he indicated the number of walk-ons would be scaled back.
There have been numerous success stories associated with the nationally acclaimed walk-on program that started in earnest under Bob Devaney in the 1960s. Six players have achieved All-America status after initially paying their way to school, and many have been key contributors.
A great many walk-ons see little or no playing time, however. Though they can come from anywhere, the majority are homegrown kids who grew up dreaming of playing for the Big Red and are willing to serve as practice meat in exchange for the chance to run through the Memorial Stadium tunnel.
Callahan, however, said he wants his staff to work only with players who have a realistic chance of being listed among the top three at their positions.
North Platte High coach Bob Zohner, who has coached in the state for 37 years, laments the likely passing of the walk-on tradition.
"It was advantageous for finding a sleeper now and then," Zohner said. "Lord knows there are a lot of kids who could have gone to play college football somewhere else and gotten their educations paid for, but instead they decided to pay their own way so they could go play for Nebraska."
Borderline Division I players are welcome with open arms at the state's smaller schools, Chadron State coach Brad Smith said.
He said as many as 15 of his prospective recruits each year are torn between choosing a partial scholarship from Chadron and walking on at Nebraska.
University of Nebraska at Kearney coach Darrell Morris and Wayne State College coach Scott Hoffman said the numbers are similar at their schools.
"We would offer half a scholarship to some young men and they would still walk-on at University of Nebraska and pay full toll," Smith said. "Some would make it, some of them wouldn't. The ones who would not make it seldom matriculated back to Chadron State. They stayed there (in Lincoln) and went to school."
Pat Behrns, the University of Nebraska at Omaha's coach, said he isn't sure how the reduction of would-be Nebraska walk-ons would affect the state's lower-division schools.
Behrns pointed out that there has been an insurgence of several Division I-AA recruiting in the state that traditionally have not tried to woo players in Nebraska. Among them are Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and North Dakota State.
With those schools entering the recruiting picture, Behrns said, the number of prospects available to Division II and NAIA schools might not change much.
Wayne State's Hoffman said the Huskers' leftovers will find places to play.
"There are some awful good players who are at Nebraska right now that would be excellent players at the Division II level," Hoffman said. "My guess is that if some of those kids get cut loose, UNO, Wayne, Kearney, Chadron and Northwest Missouri stand to benefit."
Zohner and other high school coaches said the walk-on program gives lots of players hope.
That hope, Zohner said, enhances the quality of football in the state. Previous Nebraska coaching staffs under Tom Osborne and Frank Solich touted the opportunities available through the walk-on program.
"They talked about it so much that the kids believed it," Zohner said.
There were four former walk-ons in the 2003 starting lineup. As recently as 2002, seven starters came to Nebraska as walk-ons.
That statistic is hard to ignore, Rushville coach Brent Ehlers said.
"If a kid has a legitimate chance of going down there and contributing on a D-I level, then the cutbacks are a bad thing," Ehlers said.
But Ehlers said he understands Callahan's logic for purging players.
"If Nebraska has 50 kids at one position standing around and they're all getting repetitions, then we're holding back from the ones who have the chance to contribute," Ehlers said.
Lyons-Decatur coach Kevin Anderson said he also can see both sides.
"It's a public institution and it's a chance for people to go out and be part of the team and have that experience," Anderson said. "The other side, when you're upward of 170 and 200, that's a big number, and the question becomes: Are you doing the whole team justice?"
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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