Bringing in junior-college transfers can come with a considerable amount of risk for any college football program.
That risk, however, is diminished somewhat at Kansas University because of the way KU coach Charlie Weis and Paul Buskirk, the school’s associate athletic director for student support, work together from the time a prospect sets foot on campus to enrollment and the beginning of classes.
Buskirk said he asks for and receives one-on-one meetings of 30-45 minutes with each junior college prospect that takes an official visit to KU’s campus. During the sit-downs, Buskirk not only outlines the academic model and resources available at KU — a key element in the recruiting process for many athletes — but also gets a better feel for the prospects as students. Such limited sessions may not seem like enough time to make a definitive read, but, as Buskirk pointed out, the meetings are better than nothing and can be quite revealing.
“A lot of times, the coaching staff will make early decisions on these guys,” Buskirk said. “If I indicate that the numbers for an individual student just are not good, then I’ve seen (the coaches) walk away. We have the complete backing of Coach Weis in anything we do, and I appreciate that they ask for guidance.”
The up-front emphasis on academics is just another layer of transparency and accountability that Weis has made a staple of his program and, according to Buskirk, makes a world of difference in keeping the academic concerns of the transfer students to a minimum.
“I can’t applaud Coach Weis and his staff enough for their help in this process,” said Buskirk, who works closely with what he refers to as “an entire academic village.”
“It would be night and day to just be handed a list and told, ‘Here, good luck.’ I’ve been there, done that and it’s unmanageable, unruly and it doesn’t work,” Buskirk said.
Last week, 10 junior-college players made official their commitments to KU by signing national letters of intent on the first day of the mid-year transfer signing period. The haul became national news, included ESPN’s No. 1 ranked juco player, defensive tackle Marquel Combs, and was celebrated for the impact these new players could have on the struggling program. While the juco-heavy class triggered concern from fans and provided ammunition for foes, those within the KU program never worried because of the early emphasis on academics.
“Each one of these 10 transfer students can and will be successful here if they choose to,” Buskirk said. “I don’t have any doubts about the academic abilities of any one of these 10. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it.”
By the time national signing day rolls around in February and Weis completes his second recruiting class at Kansas, the Jayhawks are likely to have as many as 19 or 20 junior-college transfers. That’s a high number by any standard and as large a class as KU ever has had. It’s also further proof that Weis’ talk about modeling KU’s turnaround after Bill Snyder’s at Kansas State is not something he’s hiding from.
Weis, who serves as the direct liaison between the athletes and their advisers, also refuses to hide the importance of academics. During his first semester in charge, Weis spearheaded a major improvement in the team’s grade-point average — from 2.46 to 3.0 team-wide — and he’s not about to stop there.
“If he doesn’t believe that they’re here to be serious about everything, including school, then he’s not taking them,” Buskirk said of potential recruits.
Added Weis about the academic prowess of the 10 players he signed a week ago: “Obviously, they did a lot of work to put themselves in a position where they can graduate now instead of graduating in May. This is not the easiest task. In most of their cases, (they) get it done in a year-and-a-half and that’s taking heavy, heavy loads of classes. ... This is not a simple process.”
Junior-college recruiting at Kansas has not been limited to football. Even KU men’s basketball coach Bill Self has gone the juco route at times, but there are a number of factors that make such a plan of action far less common.
“Football’s different than basketball,” Self said. “There are more good football players playing juco ball than basketball.”
The reason? The emergence of prep schools, which essentially serve as a fifth year of high school for student-athletes who struggle with eligibility and are drawn to the growing hoops reputations at many institutions.
“If you don’t qualify, would you rather go juco and lose two years of eligibility or go to prep school and lose none?” asked Self, noting that many prep schools don’t even offer football.
Like Weis, Self has complete faith in KU’s academic resources. That’s why he rarely hesitates when the need to mine junior-college talent arises.
“We have taken multiple transfers at KU that really needed to get busy for two years to graduate and they’ve done it,” Self said. “With the support we have here, kids are gonna graduate if they get after it.”
Are there concerns that go beyond football when signing so many junior-college players? Sure. And Buskirk addressed those, too.
“The rulebook gets a great deal more thick, the details are massive and there’s no room for mistakes,” he said.
Beyond that, many junior-college athletes already have developed an academic routine that can be difficult to tweak and simply will not cut it at Kansas.
“Many people look at junior-college transfers and think half-empty glass and I understand that,” Buskirk said. “But I feel like I have a very good handle on where these young men have been. They’re aware of how we do things, and that’s a tremendous head start. Other coaches at other times have not given the same type of support early on in the recruiting process and I cannot tell you how much a difference that makes. It’s huge. Absolutely huge.”