- Taylor Wilson
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There are schools of fish, schools of thought, and now there are schools for anglers.
It's official, Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn., has became the first school to offer bass anglers scholarships for being on the fishing team.
In the United States, there are now an estimated 220 colleges that have competitive bass fishing teams, but Bethel is the first to cast the lure of money/scholarship ($1,000 to $4,000 per student angler) to prospective students.
Officials at the small university in northwestern Tennessee saw a bass fishing team as a recruiting tool. (Bethel recently formed a trap shooting team, too.)
The coach of the Bethel bass team, Garry Mason, said the school's athletic director Glen Hayes first approached him about forming a bass team in July 2009.
"During that time, we talked about putting together a team with scholarship funding, having a head coach and developing a budget the team could utilize," said Mason, who is also executive director of Northwest Tennessee Tourism and founder of the Legends of the Outdoors National Hall of Fame.
"I thought it was a great opportunity to become involved in something new that would help a great university as well as give back to young people to help teach others more about the outdoors.
"To my knowledge, no other schools offer students funding to go to school and bass fish. Our students receive a credit for being on the fishing team just as they would if they played any other sport here at Bethel," Mason said.
A longtime hunting and fishing guide, Mason says it is ironic that in becoming a coach, he has also become more of a student.
"Since I had never been to college or coached for a university, I was something like a freshman working to learn the ropes of being a college coach."
His initial focus was on recruiting, and he was able to catch the attention of three talented young anglers on his first few casts. He quickly acquired Jacob Hardy (Paris, Tenn.), Jake Lawrence (Union City, Tenn.) and Jason Arnold (McKenzie, Tenn.).
"With those young men in place, we set out to get as much publicity as possible for the new program, hoping it would help the idea grow here and elsewhere. Bethel has been featured in several regional and national publications in the past year because of the bass fishing program," Mason said.
Win or lose, he believes the addition of an angling team has been an immediate success bringing students to enroll that would not have attended otherwise.
"It's been exciting to help develop, and the staff at Bethel has been very supportive, making myself, my assistant coach Kenny Louden and the student anglers feel at home both on campus and off.
Mason notes recruiting bass anglers is unique, especially in comparison with recruiting those that participate in more traditional college sports.
"Normally, college coaches can go watch a high school athlete play and get a feel for their skill level, then talk with their parents and teachers. But with no high school angling teams in our area, I turned to friends in the outdoors industry who knew young anglers and fishing talent. I also relied on my three initial team members. I knew that they had friends that fished and loved fishing. Once the publicity began and word spread about the program, kids started getting in touch with me."
Bethel has signed 20 students for the 2010-11 year and two more for 2011-12. The students will come from Tennessee, Kentucky, California and Alabama.
The team considers Kentucky Lake as its home water. Their tournament schedule begins in mid-February and runs through June, typically fishing two tournaments a month.
"We compete against major colleges such as Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisville and other big-name schools. Bethel would never get a chance to compete on that level if it were not for the new program," Mason said.
"Of course, winning a national championship would be nice, too."
3hMichael C. Wright