Treating walk-on athletes well is generally not associated with the duties of an athletic director, but for those who master their craft, it adds greatly to the success of the programs at their school.
This was prominently on display at the Clemson-University of South Carolina game as a captain for each made the football team as a walk-on. Standing at midfield for the coin toss was All-American tight end, Hayden Hurst, #81 for Carolina. For Clemson, it was #13, Hunter Renfrow, who caught the winning touchdown in the championship game last year against the Alabama defense of highly rated recruits.
There is a proud tradition of walk-ons succeeding in college, and then in the pros. Scottie Pippen, rated one of the best 50 players in NBA history for his teaming up with Michael Jordan on the championship Chicago Bulls squads, walked on at Central Arkansas State. Hollywood even recognizes the value of walk-ons with “Greater,” a movie released last year about Brandon Burlsworth who became an All-American offensive lineman and then pro football player for the Colts after walking on in college.
But it all starts with the athletic director.
A school should want players with star potential locked up with a scholarship, as this obviously reflects upon the scouting department. It is far better to secure future starters for their college career. But, as Warren Miller, the wealthiest man in town, stated in Richard Ford’s novel, The Great Fire, “You get rich off other people’s mistakes.”
This is where the athletic director steps by instituting programs that make up for the oversight in recruiting that results in walk-on later becoming team captains and all stars in the pros.
First, and most important, an AD must create a program at a school that encourages and values walk-ons for every team, not just revenue sports like football. Every walk-on who contributes is a bonus, which should be encouraged. This is done in many ways: allowing walk-ons the same treatment that is accorded to scholarship athletes whenever possible. When schools take trips over the summer, walk-ons are allowed, too. It is the same with gear and meal plans.
There are other critical steps.
In academics, working with walk-ons to maximize their experience can add millions in potential income if the athletes graduate. There is also a team network to plug into that is invaluable for business contacts and professional opportunities. When the walk-on progresses on the team, then convert them into a scholarship player is a huge reward.
The best organizations, especially in sports, have always recognized how to develop talent from all sources, not just the most obvious.
Both the Yankees and the Dodgers have farm systems that recruited foreign players long before it became fashionable. The Dallas Cowboys drafted Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach in the 7th round as he had a service commitment as a Naval Academy grad. The Cowboys also did well drafting Chad Henning from the Air Force Academy. All Star defensive back Cornell Green for Dallas played basketball in college. The best defensive player in the NFL, JJ Watts of Houston, was a walk-on at Wisconsin.
Much of the success of Wisconsin football, basketball, and other sports goes to Barry Alveraz and his cultivating walk-ons and others from the Badger state.
A recent article in Sports Illustrated detailed that when he was football coach at Wisconsin, Alverez resolved to“build a wall around this state.” According to the article, Wisconsin has prospered as they, “kept that barrier intact, building loyalty, cultivating walk-ons, piling up victories and indoctrinating two generations of natives in the Wisconsin Way.” This philosophy shows that walk-ons are valued and will be given the opportunity to play (and earn a scholarship).
For the athletic director and coaches, this results in overlooked players with star potential walking on for a D1 program, rather than going with the more safe rout of DII or DIII ball.
Like Alveraz, Dan Radakovich at Clemson and Ray Tanner at USC are both excellent athletic directors. The achievements of female and male athletes both academically and athletically is testament. Renfro and Hunter Hurst facing each other as captains more than made that point Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium.