It is a dream that players have had for the longest time. Play D1 basketball, compete in March Madness, and ideally win a national title. If not a title, maybe pull an upset or two. March Madness is the best sporting event in the world so who can blame players for wanting to strive to make this event.
I am guilty of this as well. Growing up in Kentucky I wanted to play for Coach K at Duke (before the Christian Laettner shot.) My father played a West Virginia, his brother played at Oklahoma, and his younger brother played at Kentucky. My two first cousins both played D1. One at Purdue and the other at Morehead State. Playing D1 seemed like a viable option for me as I had grown up around all my D1 talented family members. I was what one would call, D1 or BUST!
After a post grad year at a prep school I took the one D1 offer I had which was to the Air Force Academy. This is an engineering focused school where cadets live in dorms for their entire four years, wear a uniform, and have to follow an intense set of rules. This is all to prepare cadets for becoming Air Force officers. Serving as an active duty commissioned officer for five years after graduation, is how you pay off your $250,000 education. None of that sounded appealing to me. First, my mother was an English teacher, who nurtured my love of reading and writing. Secondly, I really didn’t like people telling me what to do. I didn’t mind coaches or people that I respected doing so, but it didn’t suit me well when a cadet, who was my same age, hazed me just because I was an athlete.
Giving five years of your life after the Academy to serve in the actual Air Force, was not a huge deal as this was a guaranteed job. After serving as an officer, one can eventually find a well-paying job in the real world. Yet 9/11 happened and in the summer of 2003 I was deployed to the Middle East. I had no idea that my mantra of “D1 or BUST” would land me in Iraq.
This is why I always challenge players and their families to look for the right fit. Would I have been better served at a D3 liberal arts college where I would have taken classes I enjoyed, not been yelled at, and had a better chance to play? Did I mention I never played one varsity minute at Air Force? I spent three years on the JV team because I just wasn’t good enough to make the varsity. I knew going in that it would be hard for me to make varsity, but I at least wanted the chance. I didn’t want to lay in bed as a 45-year-old wondering “What if I would have tried D1.” Maybe I could have been a March Madness hero.
If I would have gone to a D3 program I would have gotten more minutes and had a completely different experience. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my decision. I jumped out of a plane, led a survival team in the mountains, was commander of a basic training squadron, announced the 2000 NCAA boxing national championships, flew gliders, had a radio show, mingled w/ astronauts, generals and Tommy Lasorda. I also made the best friends anyone could ask for.
But in hindsight I wonder if this was the best fit. It was a brutal four years at the Academy. Not all of my teammates would put up with it, and a lot left. Which gets me back to the D1 dream. I know what it feels like to want this so bad and to work so hard. But know that when you finally arrive at D1 it might not be all you imagined. If you look at the Sagarin rankings here, go to the bottom and start working your way up. These are D1 schools that continually lose, have roster/coaching turnovers, poor fan support and zero tradition. Is playing in an empty gym for a coach on the hot seat sound like a fun D1 experience?
Next you are going to say that you want to walk on at a D1 program that does win and does have a storied tradition and fan support. Great! Do you know all the benefits and challenges of being a walk on? The benefits are obvious. You get to be on a D1 roster, travel, and get all the gear. You might even get a few minutes of scrub time if your team is up by more than 20 points in the last minute. The challenges are that you have to have the best grades on the team, can’t get in trouble, have to do all the work that the scholarship players do, learn the opposing team’s plays before each game, and get none of the glory. You might even be better than a player on scholarship, but that doesn’t mean anything. Basketball is not always fair. Plus, you or your parents will most likely be paying full tuition for the privilege.
Coach Alex Popp now at IMG was a walk on at Minnesota after doing a post grad year at Northfield Mount Herman. Coach Pete Hutchins now at Western Reserve Academy was a walk on at the University of New Hampshire. Both of these coaches left these D1 programs after one season, but they too have stated how challenging it is being a walk on.
Each player and their family need to make their own decision about choosing a college. Receiving a D1 scholarship is an excellent opportunity. So is finding the right fit. There is no exact science or prescription to making the right choice. Ask a lot of questions, do due diligence and follow your gut.