When the NCAA decided last week that athletes in spring sports will be given an extra season of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic, most lauded the move as a compassionate decision.
It was a rare moment when the public responded favorably to an organization that typically defends itself against vitriol. Coupled with the NCAA canceling its March Madness basketball tournament before most professional leagues halted play, and the masses largely agreed that president Mark Emmert had made the proper calls.
Adding an extra year of eligibility for athletes comes with ramifications, however. And because of that, many college golf coaches are conflicted.
The overwhelmingly positive part is that players who lost a chance to compete with their teammates for championships potentially get another shot to do so. Some senior seasons, which appeared to be ruined, will be reinstated. New memories can be created.
No matter how fair that may be, the consequences of that decision leave a new set of variables. A primary point of worry is that the NCAA has shifted a financial burden to each program, creating a tangle of scholarship and eligibility concerns.
“My initial reaction was a mixed reaction,” said Pat Goss, director of golf and player development at Northwestern University. “You’re obviously happy for those seniors to get a chance if it works out to come back and finish their college career. But there are going to be unintended consequences from this decision that are going to have effects on programs, recruiting and just about everything else.”
The situation Goss refers to has many tentacles.
Scholarship limit relief has been extended to all teams – Division I programs traditionally have been limited to four and a half at any one time, but now will be allowed to exceed that to account for incoming athletes and those who decide to stay an extra year. So there is a fear that comes with that concerning certain programs being able to retain more players on scholarship than others.
With a growing global financial crisis and the potential for college football, the mother of all revenue drivers, to be affected, it’s no guarantee that schools with tighter budgets will be able to offer typical scholarship numbers in the first place. The NCAA also has stated that schools have no obligation to reserve scholarships for returning seniors, adding to what can be a volatile conundrum.
Teams will be challenged to balance incoming freshmen arriving on campus this fall with keeping their contributing seniors, meaning the amount of players on each team likely will increase.
A USA Today report shows that giving college seniors an extra year of eligibility in all spring sports will cost each Power Five conference public school around $500,000 to $900,000. How schools are funded, how they manage their scholarships and what players on their teams currently have, will go a long way toward how competitive they can be.
“We’re going to create the highest level of inequity we’ve ever seen in college athletics,” Goss said. “You think about a team that had a high percentage of scholarship players graduating with a large amount of players, that means they brought in a large amount of players with a high percentage of scholarships (to replace them).
“You are going to have teams playing with more scholarships and more available players than a team who had one senior on a mid-level scholarship and was only bringing in one player on a mid-level scholarship.”
Teams will be challenged to balance incoming freshmen arriving on campus this fall with keeping their contributing seniors, meaning the amount of players on each team likely will increase. That could lead to difficult conversations about where to award scholarships and about which players will be asked to forgo their extra year of eligibility. A sophomore who hasn’t competed much may be asked to move right into his junior year of play so the program doesn’t eat its young – if every player was awarded the extra year, future recruiting classes could be extremely limited and scholarships may not be available for them.
Conrad Ray, the men’s head coach at Stanford University, said he wholeheartedly agrees with the decision to offer extra eligibility but understands the challenges that await. His Cardinal team currently has four seniors and all of them will be returning, but only one of them is on scholarship.
Ray contends that the most difficult part of the equation will be how four-year scholarships are awarded.
“If I have a freshman who is a really great player and he is on a four-year deal and he wants to play five years, suddenly as a coach you are trying to figure out whether that kid changes his academic program or if the scholarship stays the same and you divide it over five years,” Ray said. “The returning senior eligibility piece is pretty cut-and-dried to me. The stickier wicket is the underclassmen.”
“(The NCAA) is making decisions when we don’t really know what the future looks like, so that part of it is a little scary. There’s so many little intricacies that are going to come into play."
At the University of Florida, men’s coach JC Deacon isn’t overly worried about his own program for the short-term but does admit it will be tricky navigating eligibility questions in the future. The Gators have one senior, Blake Dyer, who had given everything to the program across five years and has decided not to come back no matter the circumstances.
“(The NCAA) is making decisions when we don’t really know what the future looks like, so that part of it is a little scary,” Deacon said. “There’s so many little intricacies that are going to come into play.
“When we sit down with guys to see if they want the additional year, there’s going to have to be a mutual understanding there. Can we fit them? We have a bigger team than we’ve ever had right now, so it’s going to be difficult.”
Deacon’s prediction is that, if college golf can return to normal next season, many seniors will be enticed by the potential of securing professional status through the PGA Tour University program. According to reports, the top five college seniors will be granted status on the Korn Ferry Tour while others will earn varying degrees of status on the Mackenzie Tour, PGA Tour Latinoamérica and PGA Tour China.
“That’s definitely going to affect a lot of people,” Deacon said. “It’s a huge carrot being dangled out there.”
A couple of hours south in Tampa, Steve Bradley is also preparing to manage his University of South Florida Bulls through the uncertainty of roster growth and scholarship decisions.
Unlike with Deacon’s team, Bradley has one senior who is likely to return to campus for a final year in an effort to gain experience and potentially gain status on a pro tour for 2021. As is the case at many schools, USF’s administration limits how many players can be on the team – that number is normally nine but there will be 10 players on the Bulls this fall.
“The expectation is that we will get back down to nine within the next year,” Bradley said. “We might need to make some tough decisions to get down to nine players. It’s going to be challenging for a lot of programs.
“If you had three seniors and two of them were starters and one wasn’t, you would want those two starters back, but do you want the other one? They may want to come back to improve their game, but the coach may not want them to.”
There are too many unknowns at the moment to make sweeping statements, but coaches will have a ton to sort through in the coming months.
How it all shakes out could leave an indelible impact on college golf for many years.