Varsity Kansas

The juco dream has suddenly disappeared for Kansas high school football players

The Doomsday scenario some Kansas high school football coaches feared has arrived.

When the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference unanimously voted to eliminate out-of-state roster restrictions for its football teams two years ago, many Kansas high school football coaches knew change was coming in how their athletes were recruited. Few realized how sudden and drastic it would be.

A study by The Eagle shows the total number of Kansas football players in the Jayhawk Conference has declined by 80 percent, from 318 in 2016 to 64 this season. Before the rule change, Kansas kids typically accounted for around 67 percent of the conference. Now, there are more players from Georgia (114) and Florida (90) and Kansas kids make up just 11 percent of the Jayhawk Conference.

The impact has also been felt in basketball, as Kansas participation in the last two years has declined by 53 percent in men’s basketball and 28 percent in women’s basketball.

“I hate to say that I saw this coming,” Wichita Northwest coach Steve Martin said. “That’s why I fought this so hard because I wanted to protect our kids. It’s too bad that not a lot of people rallied behind it and a lot of people didn’t step up when it was time to step up. Hopefully one of these days these community colleges will see how its affected our Kansas kids and their opportunities.”

The football teams in the Jayhawk Conference are deeper and more talented than ever before, but in the process they are leaving Kansas kids behind. Wednesday’s signing day is not expected to improve the situation, as only a handful of Kansas kids will ink their names to a Kansas community college.

It has created a dilemma for the decision-makers at the community colleges in Kansas, one that could have a long-term impact in the Wichita community. And the most scary part is there is no simple solution.

‘A lot of dreams are going by the wayside’

In theory, the rule changes — abolishing the out-of-state limits, upping the roster limit from 63 to 85, being able to offer a full-ride scholarship instead of a books-and-tuition scholarship — could have benefitted Kansas athletes.

It was assumed that Kansas community colleges would stop taking the lower-level players that they had to take in years past just to fill a roster. But a recent encounter Valley Center athletic director Caleb Smith had with a head coach in the Jayhawk Conference sheds light on the attitude Kansas community college coaches have toward recruiting in-state players of any level.

Smith was frustrated no community college coach had come to Valley Center to talk to senior running back Larry Wilson, who is undersized at 5-foot-8, 150 pounds but proved his talent this season and was the MVP of the AV-CTL Div. II. Smith texted a Jayhawk head coach asking if he could at least watch Wilson’s film.

The coach texted Smith back telling him he was too busy.

“Larry Wilson is a kid who could play for any junior college, in my opinion, and now these Kansas junior-college coaches don’t even have the time to watch his film,” Smith said. “Not even the best players, the all-state, MVP-type of kids can get the time of day from them. It really flipped an 180. Everything that Kansas high school coaches said was going to happen was happened.”

To be recruited by a Kansas community college now, they usually believe that player will be a Division I-caliber player within two seasons. That has benefited the select few Kansas kids who are recruited to Jayhawk teams and now receive full-ride scholarships.

That has already made a difference for borderline Division I players like Garden City’s Demarcus Elliott, who decided to pass up his only Division I offer from Kansas State to stay home because Garden City Community College was able to make a similar financial offer.

“And Demarcus earned that opportunity,” Garden City coach Jeffrey Sims said. “Now he can come play at Garden City and continue to work and develop and create more opportunities for himself. It’s really created better opportunities for Kansas players.”

While the rule changes may have created better opportunities for the upper-echelon, they have all but eliminated opportunities for the rest of Kansas kids.

Wichita Northwest has a combined 22-3 record and has played in the Class 6A semifinals and Class 5A championship game the last two seasons. According to coach Steve Martin, only one Kansas community college has come to Northwest and that was to recruit one player.

He counts at least a half-dozen seniors on his roster this year alone who have the talent to play at the next level and could benefit from playing at a community college. But with that option no longer available, some players face a stark reality if their family can’t afford to support them at a MIAA or NAIA school.

“What is happening all across the city is kids are just done playing football,” Martin said. “There’s not a lot of hope for them. A lot of our kids have used football as a means to get an education and they were told ever since they were little by everyone they can play football and get a scholarship. Now that dream has come to an end. A lot of dreams are going by the wayside now.”

What happens when those dreams die is what worries William Polite, who works as the director of equity and accountability in the Wichita Public School district. He was concerned the rule changes affected Wichita Public School students more than others, then he saw the numbers.

The seven Wichita public high schools has historically had at least 30 players on Jayhawk rosters. Just two years ago, there were 42 Wichita public-school kids in the conference. This past season there were just three Wichita public-school kids who played in the Jayhawk Conference.

“That was their chance to get out and now those chances are being cut out,” Polite said. “One of my biggest concerns is these kids who have played football all their lives and they don’t even get a chance to step foot on a college campus now, what happens to them? Especially the kids in poverty and football was their only way out.

“There are going to be a lot of long-term ramifications to this within the Wichita community. It’s scary to think about.”

‘It’s created a super conference’

On the football field this past fall, the Jayhawk Conference very well might have had its most competitive season from top to bottom.

Six of the eight schools were nationally-ranked with three teams climbing into the top-five at one point, while Garden City played for the NJCAA national championship. Half of the conference finished nationally-ranked and three programs played in bowl games.

“This is definitely the most talented roster we’ve ever had,” Hutchinson coach Rion Rhodes said. “We have more depth than we’ve ever had and that goes for everyone. I don’t even know how to compare it to anything, maybe the SEC West.”

The rosters even look more like the SEC West now. After the rule changes opened up the possibility to stockpile as much out-of-state talent as possible, Jayhawk coaches went south to fill their rosters and now players from Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana make up 47 percent of the conference’s talent pool.

Butler (34 of 84 players were from Kansas) was the only team in the conference that had a sizable chunk of its roster from Kansas. Coffeyville (16 of 83) was the only other program in the Jayhawk to have more than three Kansas players, while none of Highland’s 72 players were from Kansas.

“There’s a bunch of go-getters in this conference and they have the ability to pull guys from all over the country,” Butler coach Tim Shaffner said. “What this whole thing has done is it’s created a super conference.”

The Jayhawk Conference already owned a reputation as a top junior-college football conference in the country. But before the rule changes, programs in rural areas like Fort Scott, Independence, Garden City and Dodge City felt like they were at a competitive disadvantage due to their location up against conference blue-bloods like Butler and Hutchinson, which are both located close to a large metropolitan area in Wichita.

They felt like they could compete with their 20 out-of-state players, but they were falling behind in depth because they couldn’t fill their 43 Kansas-allotted slots. In fact, half of the conference was consistently failing to fill out their Kansas slots in the three years before the rule changes.

Dodge City could only recruit 25 Kansas kids for its 2015 roster and played with 18 less players for the entire season. Since the rule changes, Dodge City has been able to fill its roster with out-of-state players and has had rosters of 73 and 81 players the last two seasons.

“I definitely believe the parity has increased in the conference,” Shaffner said. “You look at the way Independence has risen. You can do that now and I think that’s why you haven’t seen a repeat conference champion since 2012. You can reload so much faster now. You’ve got to come strapped up ready to go from the moment the season starts in recruiting to stay competitive.”

It’s hard to fault the Jayhawk coaches. There is now no rule stating they have to prioritize a Kansas athlete over an out-of-state athlete; their objective is to build the best roster with the most talent in order to win games.

That has created a moral dilemma for at least Jayhawk Conference commissioner Carl Heinrich, one that many in power in the conference are also facing.

“Of course I want to see Kansas kids have the opportunity to play and their parents come watch their son play for a Kansas community college,” Heinrich said. “I would hope that our schools would be looking for the top-tier Kansas athletes, but you have to remember how good the quality of play in our conference has gotten. It takes a lot just to be able to play for one of our schools now.”

‘Why do we have to shut our kids out?’

Over time, the origin of the Jayhawk Conference’s out-of-state roster limitations in football faded from memories and it became known as a rule that made sure Kansas high school players were a priority.

But the rule, which began in 1962, was actually rooted in discrimination against African-Americans. Research done by former Garden City coach Jeffrey Sims, now at Missouri Southern, in 2016 revealed that there was a time when Jayhawk teams could be fined $25 for having more than two African-American players on its rosters.

“That doesn’t mean that was why we were applying the roster limitations in 2010, but I honestly don’t see how anyone could reasonably dispute the original motivation behind the roster limitations,” said Daniel Barwick, president of Independence Community College.

While the rule was later used to do good for Kansas kids, its regrettable history was enough to make the 19 presidents in the Jayhawk Conference to unanimously vote to abolish out-of-state restrictions. But the unintended consequence of that vote has been the vanishing opportunities for Kansas athletes in their conference.

“How do you figure out how to give opportunities to Kansas student-athletes, while at the same time making sure you’re selecting the best student-athletes on their ability to compete at an elite level?” posed Barwick. “Those are sometimes compatible. There’s nothing that says Kansas kids can’t be great football players. But the fact is our coaches want to field the most competitive team possible.”

Both sides of the argument can now see going from a 20-player limit to unlimited may have been too drastic of a change. Hutchinson coach Rion Rhodes went out of state for 81 of his 84 players this season, something he says he didn’t like doing but felt like he had to do to stay competitive within the conference.

“I definitely appreciate some things about the rule change, but overall I still don’t believe it’s the right thing for juco football in Kansas,” Rhodes said. “We’re Kansas community colleges. The four-year universities, those athletic departments are corporations. We’re funded by tax-payer money from our local counties. I just don’t think it’s right.”

So is there a compromise? Should the 85-man rosters be capped at 30, 40 or 50 out-of-state players?

The problem with that, Barwick points out, is that if out-of-state restrictions return for football and basketball, the proposal will have to answer why there have never been out-of-state restrictions for the other sports in the Jayhawk Conference.

Why isn’t there an uproar about only one-third of baseball players in the conference being from Kansas?

“There’s this temptation to think that there must be a simple answer to this and there just isn’t,” Barwick said. “Sometimes a simple answer can solve one problem, but then that creates other problems that need fixes. If anybody tells you that there is a simple fix to this, they’re probably not thinking carefully about it.”

There might not be a simple solution, but William Polite from the Wichita Public School district says there should be an urgency to find one because it is already beginning to have a socioeconomic impact for Wichita’s most vulnerable athletes.

“The Jayhawk Conference has always been one of the nation’s best junior-college conferences and it’s great that kids from all over the country are benefiting from that,” said Wichita Public Schools’ William Polite. “But why can’t our kids still benefit from it too? That’s the part that bothers me. Why do we have to shut our kids out? It’s a travesty and a tragedy in a lot of different ways.”

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