Opportunities for Kansas high school football players have all but disappeared at the junior college level following a drastic rule change in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, an Eagle study in December revealed.
So where do the affected players end up playing college football?
A new study by The Eagle examining the three years before the Jayhawk rule change and the three years after shows that Kansas recruiting has nearly doubled at the Division II level in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association and ballooned 115 percent at the NAIA level, mostly in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference and Heart of America Athletic Conference.
When the Jayhawk Conference unanimously voted to eliminate out-of-state roster restrictions (previously capped at 20 players) in 2017, it created massive ripple effects throughout the state on how Kansas high school football players are recruited.
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According to signing day lists compiled by KPreps.com, 54 percent of Kansas high school players who signed to play college football from 2014 to 2016 signed with a Jayhawk team. In the three years since the rule change, from 2017 to 2019, the Jayhawk signed a total of 116 players, down from 469 in the previous three years, and 16 percent of the statewide talent pool.
The data backs up the gut feeling of Chet Kuplen, who founded the Sports In Kansas website and is regarded as a college football recruiter’s best friend when it comes to evaluating talent in Kansas.
“Everybody was warned that this could be bad, but I think it’s been even worse than anyone could have imagined,” Kuplen said. “It used to be almost a given a player would get an opportunity to play at the junior-college level, but now if they get any type of scholarship it’s a big-time deal. There are still 2019 kids out there who are player-of-the-year-type of kids that have next to nothing in offers.”
The Eagle study showed an 80 percent decline in Kansas kids on Jayhawk Conference rosters in just the second year following the rule change. After Kansas kids made up two-thirds of the conference for decades, there were more Georgia (114) and Florida (90) players in the Jayhawk this season and the Sunflower State (64) made up just 11 percent of the conference.
Kent Kessinger, who is in his 16th season as head coach at Ottawa, has certainly noticed a difference on the recruiting trail with Kansas players at the NAIA level. He’s a Kansas native, from Lindsborg, and has always made recruiting Kansas kids a priority, but competing against both Jayhawk and MIAA teams has been difficult.
In the new landscape created by the rule change with Butler being the only program in the eight-team conference to commit to recruiting in-state players, Ottawa and the rest of the KCAC have been beneficiaries.
In the three years before the Jayhawk rule change, KCAC teams signed a total of 77 Kansas players. In the three years since, that number has skyrocketed to 161. Ottawa began to see the benefits last season when it improved to 8-2 and finished No. 20 in the country.
“I thought we were still bringing in great Kansas kids before, but now the difference is we’re getting a lot more opportunities at more of them,” Kessinger said. “Kids we normally would be losing to the Jayhawk, now we’re able to get them to come visit our campus and sign with us. It’s certainly opened up a lot more doors. I’m not sure if it’s been a good thing for junior colleges, but it’s been a good thing for small colleges like us.”
A familiar refrain Kuplen has heard from Jayhawk coaches is that the rule change is better because now Kansas kids have to compete and earn their spot on a roster, as opposed in the former era when Jayhawk teams had to hand out scholarships left and right just to fill out a roster.
That sounds good in theory, Kuplen admits, but that’s not what has been reality.
On Monday’s National Signing Day, a total of 22 Kansas players inked with a Jayhawk team (17 of those with Butler).
“My argument to that is that you have to have the opportunity to compete first,” Kuplen said. “Outside of Butler and maybe Coffeyville, our kids don’t have the opportunity to compete for a spot. And I understand people that say, ‘Well, maybe Kansas needs to get better.’ That might be true, but they’re not even being given the opportunity to compete unless they want to walk on.”
While several of the Jayhawk coaches have expressed an unease about the polar shift, they argue that they are paid to win games with the best team possible.
“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.”
In that end, the rule change has made the Jayhawk Conference stronger as a whole.
“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.”
For the less privileged, a scholarship to a community college was the only route they could afford to continue their dream of playing football and to receive an education. Even for those who could go to college otherwise, a partial scholarship to an MIAA school now seems like a prize.
Since the junior-college opportunities have been vacated, Kuplen is seeing more players accept preferred walk-on spots at the Division I level, pay more in going to an MIAA or KCAC school or quit playing football.
“I’m obviously biased for Kansas kids, but I think community colleges should be trying to help out the communities in Kansas,” Kuplen said. “They should give kids an affordable option at college.”
Is there a compromise that could appease both the Kansas high school football coaches who want to see their players be given opportunities and the Jayhawk football coaches who are trying to win and field the best team possible?
After such a drastic change in policy, the pushback has been predictable. Could the Jayhawk switch to a 50-50 rule where half of the roster is in-state and the other half is out-of-state? That seems reasonable, Kuplen said, but things have deteriorated so quickly for Kansas high school players that anything would be better than the current model.
“I think even now if you flip-flopped the old rule where you take 20 Kansas kids and the rest are out-of-state, that would be okay,” Kuplen said. “That’s how bad it’s gotten.”