By Austin Cannon
Zac Rujawitz knew he would commit to play football for the Bulldogs on his drive home from campus back in January.
It was after his first and only visit to Drake, but the freshman linebacker from Edwardsville, Illinois, had seen and heard enough to make his decision.
“I just kind of came in here blind,” he said. “I’m glad I did because I had no expectations, but leaving here, I knew I was going to commit here just based on what all the players were telling me and then I just loved the coaches here.”
Rujawitz gave two primary reasons for choosing to play at Drake: a good education close to home and the program’s family atmosphere. Like the other 109 players on the Bulldogs’ roster, he will not receive an athletic scholarship to play football.
Drake is a charter member of the Pioneer Football League, a college-football anomaly if there ever was one. The PFL is a football-only, non-scholarship conference that began play in 1993.
If a program is caught providing improper benefits for its players — any financial aid not available to the student body at-large — it will face punishment from the PFL. Jacksonville was caught last season, resulting in the program’s ineligibility for the 2014 and ’15 league titles.
So why play football at Drake? Why commit copious amounts of time and energy — at no small risk of major injury — for no monetary compensation? Ivy League and Missouri Valley Football Conference schools were also recruiting Rujawitz. He and the majority of his teammates could’ve earned at least a partial scholarship at another program. So then why choose a PFL program?
One reason is simple enough: These guys love football and want to keep playing as long as they can. They aren’t using it as a way to afford school.
“When I walk out onto that field, I know every guy there is there because they are passionate, they’re motivated about it and they’re not being paid for it,” Drake head coach Rick Fox said. “They’re doing it for the same reason that when I drive home tonight and I pass a park and see a bunch of kids playing football and having a blast — it’s the same motivating factor.”
If passion is able to counter the financial burden, then what makes recruits pick Drake over the 10 other PFL schools? That question is perhaps more difficult to answer when you factor in Drake’s eyebrow-raising price tag. As it happens, though, there are still plenty of ways to sell Bulldog football.
Making the Grade
Attracting potential Bulldogs to the program first requires defining which players will be a good fit — both on the field and in the classroom. Playing in and winning football games are still important, but there’s more to it.
While it does draw the ire of NCAA critics everywhere, the term “student-athlete” has validity when it comes to the Bulldogs. Drake is a well-respected academic institution. Pair that with a full schedule of practices, meetings, traveling and games, an athlete has to be ready and willing to hit the books. So it makes sense that high-school grades are one of the first things Drake coaches evaluate in a recruit. It’s how they trim the pool of a couple thousand names.
“We say no to hundreds of recruits each year because we know academically they aren’t going to fit here at Drake,” Fox said. “Even if they could get in, chances are it might be tough for them to be successful here.”
The coaches not only have to sell the football team, they also have to promote the university itself – the other half of the student-athlete experience. When he meets with a prospective athlete, recruiting coordinator Brad Pole begins the conversation with academics. If a recruit hesitates or is uncertain about his role as a student, that might be the first warning sign that he might not be the right fit a Drake. To Pole, an ideal Drake recruit has to have goals off the field as well as on it.
“(If) they have an academic pursuit that’s in the forefront of their minds that’s saying, ‘That’s a big deal. That’s important to me,’” Pole said. “People might think that’s impossible. It really isn’t.”
Quarterback Andy Rice is the quintessential example. He valued the educational opportunity of a school ahead of playing football, trying to use his athletic ability to get into the best school he could.
Along with Drake, Rice was also sought by the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, a D-III football power with 34 conference championships. But they didn’t have enough on the academic side.
“It was funny,” Rice said. “I was talking to Whitewater about honors programs and getting a master’s and stuff and they’re just like, ‘What? No, no, we’ll help you with school, but, yeah, we’re here for the fall.’”
Unlike some top-tier FBS teams, professional football aspirations aren’t as prevalent within Drake Stadium. Sure, some players like Matt Acree and Brett Park end up playing professionally, but most of the Bulldogs will play their last football game in a Drake uniform. They have to prepare for their future in the classroom.
“Football is fun,” defensive end Mack Marrin said. “But I think the education part is more so important than the wins and losses.”
Pole lauds the Drake’s post-graduation placement rate. For the 2013-14 Drake graduates, 98.3 percent of the bachelor’s degree students found a job or entered graduate school. For graduate students, 99.1 percent found a job or more schooling.
“I can go after a young man who the job-placement, to him, is big,” Pole said. “He sees that as being a very deep-rooted goal.”
The coaches aren’t the only ones who promote the school. Before coming to Drake, sophomore defensive back Austin Dismond spoke to a couple of his older friends that also chose Drake.
“They were telling me, if you go to this school, you’re practically going to be set for life if you take it seriously,” he said. “Coaches aren’t going to let you fall behind, teammates aren’t going to let you fall behind. The professors really care.”
‘That’s a Drake guy’
After the recruit’s academic standing is sorted, the next step is selling the team. It’s helpful that Drake has been historically good, winning two of the last five titles in the Pioneer Football League.
“Every Saturday is a dogfight,” Pole said.
Even this year, a 5-6 showing with all six losses coming on the road, the Bulldogs still beat a pair of previously undefeated teams, including the league-champion Dayton Flyers on the regular season’s final Saturday. Had there not been an influx of injuries on the offensive line and at quarterback, the Bulldogs perhaps could’ve stolen a couple on the road.
While in high school, Rice was scheduled to see Valparaiso, another PFL team, after he visited Drake. He cancelled the visit, saying it was difficult to consider becoming a Crusader after they went through a winless season.
Triumph on the football field is important, and Drake’s coaches find ways to bring in talented players but — to echo kind-hearted parents everywhere — winning isn’t everything.
“For me, it was more than just being able to play for a good team,” Dismond said. “It was about having a group of people that you can confide in, that you can be with for four-plus years and not get tired of it because football’s not going to last forever.”
Linebacker John Hugunin had scholarship offers from Eastern Illinois and Illinois State, but he chose Drake after observing then-coach Chris Creighton’s passion and sincerity.
“I wanted to be a part of something where I could develop a relationship with a head coach, with a staff, with a team, and I felt that my best chance to do that was at Drake,” he said.
After one of the coaches has gone over both the academic and football sides of Drake’s program with a recruit it’s time to see if the recruit gives the right type of feedback, the kind that expresses more interest after what he’s heard. If he says the right thing, that he could see himself as a Drake Bulldog, he’ll be offered one of Drake’s 56 official visits.
“Every guy I talk to that shows me that one inclination of interest, that this is a place he’d like to be, that kind of guy that we look at and say, ‘That’s a Drake guy,’” Pole said. “I get pretty excited about (that).”
Paying the Price
Drake only has a limited amount of roster spots to offer each year, usually 24 to 30. Like all other college football coaches, the Drake staff has to be careful about whom they offer a spot to. A deciding factor might be Drake’s total cost, a price that will be higher than other schools nearly all of the time.
Pole doesn’t pull any punches tuition-wise. He makes it clear to each recruit what he and his family will have to pay to attend Drake. The high cost can help trim the recruiting pool even more because some families might not be able to pay. A football scholarship would obviously help lessen that cost, but players get aid in other ways.
“Once you really look at it, you get money,” Hugunin said. “You get aid, it’s just for other things, not athletic-related.”
Hugunin, Rice, Marrin, Dismond and Rujawitz all earned a merit-based Presidential Scholarship. The five of them make up a fraction of the approximate 95 percent of Drake students that receive financial aid.
According to Drake’s online cost calculator, a student with a 3.0 GPA and a score of 24 on the ACT will receive an estimated $10,000 scholarship. That’s enough to negate almost a fourth of Drake’s total annual cost of $43,292.
“I had good grades in high school and that definitely helped once I applied and got a scholarship here academically,” Rice said. “Without it, I don’t know if it would be possible to be here.”
Rice had to find other ways to pay for college, too. He worked during the offseason, either quitting his job or taking time off once spring practice arrived. This fall was the first time he worked during the season. He was only enrolled in one class, so working 12-17 hours a week at Business Solver in West Des Moines while in season was doable.
“I still feel extremely busy all the time,” Rice said.
The Presidential Scholarship wasn’t enough for Dismond, so he applied to the Crew Scholars program, a program for students of color that awards scholarships and grants that cover at least 50 percent of a student’s tuition. From the purely numerical aspect, the Crew scholarship equals a partial-ride football scholarship at another school.
“I had to go through the application just like the same as everyone else,” Dismond said. “I wasn’t guaranteed anything. Once I got that, that helped a lot. That’s probably a big reason why I’m here today.”
For Fox and the rest of the Bulldogs staff, it’s about convincing families to make the investment that four-plus years of Drake football and Drake itself will pay dividends for the recruit after he finishes school.
“We’ve got to find those kind of people that appreciate what Drake has to offer as well as having the ability to pay it,” Fox said. “But every one of them wants it to be cheaper than it is.”
Each year Drake will play at least one team during its nonconference schedule that gives its players scholarships. In 2015, the Bulldogs played North Dakota and South Dakota.
Marrin was actually recruited by UND. One of his friends from high school in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, Will Ratelle, plays there. Together, Marrin, a first-team All-PFL selection, and Ratelle, a first-team All-Big Sky linebacker, would’ve formed a fearsome duo for the Fighting Hawks’ defense. But Marrin chose Drake, citing the academics and the program’s togetherness.
Drake scared North Dakota, a team that beat an FBS opponent the week before, but couldn’t find those last three points and lost, 21-18. It was a look at what could’ve been for Marrin.
“Would’ve been definitely awesome to play with (Ratelle),” he said. “It was weird, definitely, but I didn’t think too much of it.”
Playing those scholarship teams provides extra motivation for some Drake players. It’s an opportunity to show they can play at the same level even though they might not have been considered for a scholarship at that school.
“I had some scholarship offers but nothing substantial,” Rice said. “I still think about that stuff. People saying, ‘You’re not good enough to play college football,’ all this stuff. Everyone on our team has a story like that, and I think that’s what makes us a little different.”
While Drake players willingly play for free, at least some of them believe all college athletes should receive compensation in the form of a scholarship. After all, these players commit so much energy to representing their university on the field when they have little to no professional aspirations. It’s an easy argument to consider.
“It’s just a different level,” Rujawitz said. “It’s nothing against a normal student, but being a student-athlete, you’re asked so much more out of your time, out of your life, and you have to make those sacrifices. Us willing to do that should be rewarded with some type of compensation.”
Still, not every Drake player feels the same way.
“I think that there’s a stigma that goes along with an athletic scholarship that says that you’ve earned it,” Hugunin said. “I don’t think that would be as special if everyone got one because obviously there are some football players that are better than others and I think that deserves to be recognized.”
For the time being, the question of football scholarships is resolved at Drake. Adding scholarships to the program would likely change the team dynamic, especially since the Bulldogs would need to change conferences.
Fox has coached non-scholarship athletes for his entire 27-year career, so he’s unsure if he would want to coach a scholarship program.
“I’m not saying I’d resign,” Fox said. “I’d have to really think hard through it because this is what I’ve done all my life, and I don’t have an employee-employer relationship with our players.”
He knows that outsiders might view his team as an oddity in today’s college football climate, but that’s what makes Drake distinct in his mind, the reality that his players choose to play for free when they could’ve gone somewhere else or done something else to make school easier or more affordable.
“I think it’s an amazing experience, to be able to play this level of football at a place like Drake with a group of guys who are doing it because they’re passionate about football,” Fox said. “They’re talented as athletes, but they’re also passionate about life and what they’re going to do in their lives.”