College football coaches get creative with walk-on rewards

FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2014, file photo, Kansas NCAA college football coach David Beaty points to the crowd during halftime of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida, in Lawrence, Kan. What can ultimately set schools apart are the small touches _ the way a coach rewards a walk-on, for instance. There’s a feeling of authenticity to those behind-the-scenes moments, almost as if social media can pull back the curtain on the inner-workings of a program. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) The camera panned through the crowd inside Kauffman Stadium on a warm, late summer night, jumping from kids to parents to grandparents, all of them wearing their blue and white Kansas City Royals gear.

When it stopped on a group of young men seated in the first row of Section 208, a message quickly flashed on the crown-shaped video board in centerfield – and their jaws immediately dropped.

”Congratulations,” it read, ”on your Kansas football scholarships.”

The stunned reactions of Mazin Aql, Beau Lawrence, Cole Moos and Reese Randall, and the celebration that ensued during the Jayhawks’ team-building trip to see the Royals , quickly went viral. Photos of the stunt were plastered on Twitter and Instagram, videos uploaded to YouTube, and by the time they had returned to campus in Lawrence, the heart-warming stunt had generated plenty of publicity for a slowly rebuilding program.

”I thought it was really cool, really unique,” Kansas coach David Beaty said, ”because those kids were surprised, and it wound up being something that kind of went a little viral, but it went in a good way.”

And in this era of college football, viral can be the best way to create some buzz.

Every school sends out recruiting materials to high-level prospects, and most have poured so much money into facilities that they’re on roughly even playing fields, so to speak. Players get the same swag, comparable help with academics and similar visibility regardless of where they go.

But what can ultimately set schools apart are the small touches – the way a coach rewards a walk-on, for instance. There’s a feeling of authenticity to those behind-the-scenes moments, almost as if social media can pull back the curtain on the inner-workings of a program.

”I’ll tell you, being a walk-on is hard,” Beaty said. ”Ninety-eight percent of them, they quit. And I tell them all the time, when I first get them here, `Listen, if you stay you’ll be on scholarship. But you got to stay. It’s got to be worth it, right?’ There’s a lot of cool things on that campus up there that they could be doing. And it’s hard. It’s a hard road. But if they stay, they will get on scholarship.”

Now, schools have awarded scholarships to walk-ons for years, a reward for their hard and often-thankless work in the classroom or at practice. But what is new is the creative way in which coaches have gone about it, and how those stunts have generated positive publicity for their programs:

– At Tennessee, walk-on tight end Eli Wolf was called to face his brother, starting tight end Ethan Wolf, in a one-on-one matchup where the goal is to see which player can push the other backward or to the ground. As the rest of the team circled them, coach Butch Jones stopped the drill – and gave Eli a scholarship .

”I was thinking of putting him on his butt. The last thing I was thinking about was getting put on scholarship,” he said. ”I was in the stars. It was a surreal moment. I can’t even explain it to you.”

– At Bowling Green, walk-on kicker Jake Suder was having a can’t-miss kind of day in practice, so coach Mike Jinks decided to ramp up the pressure. He challenged him to make a 53-yard field goal with a scholarship on the line, a spur-of-the-moment test that not even the other coaches knew would happen.

With his teammates forming a tunnel of intensity, Suder calmly knocked it through the uprights, and video of it was captured and uploaded to the Falcons’ recruiting Twitter page .

– At Minnesota, new coach P.J. Fleck has embraced the idea of creatively awarding scholarships, and the branding and publicity that comes with it. Two that have gone viral involve linebacker Blake Cashman, who had become a crucial player last season, and third-string kicker Justin Juenemann.

Cashman learned of his reward during a team-wide egg hunt through the practice facility. Players were duct-taped together and told to return to a meeting room when they had found their colorful, plastic egg. And inside each was a slip of paper announcing that Cashman had been put on scholarship.

Juenemann had been lauded for his work at a nearby children’s hospital, and one of the kids he had gotten to know well stopped by a team meeting one day. Fleck handed the kid a T-shirt cannon and told him to fire it at his mentor, and Juenemann snagged the shirt out of mid-air – unbeknownst to him, the message that he’d been put on scholarship was printed across the front.

”I think about it all the time just because people bring it up to me all the time,” Cashman said. ”It was a special deal. Not many coaches do that for their players, so it really shows where Coach Fleck’s heart is.”

– At East Carolina, coach Scott Montgomery actually informed defensive end Kianta Anderson’s mother that her son had earned a scholarship. Then, Montgomery had Tia Chapman call his son to relay the news .

”I worked hard to raise my kids,” Chapman said through tears. ”It means so much. I have so much pride.”

Most coaches insist the publicity is never the intention, simply a pleasant byproduct of doing the right thing for a walk-on that’s done all the right things. But when photos and videos go viral, often transcending sports, they cannot deny that it paints their programs in a positive light.

In that respect, everybody wins.

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