The next time the Franklin & Marshall Diplomats take the mat, they will be competing in their 100th collegiate wrestling season. Although impressive, they are still maybe the 4th or 5th oldest program in the conference. This milestone season is not only special due to the triple-digit mark, but this is also the first season the team will be able to offer athletic scholarships to prospective student-athletes. After a recent NCAA legislation was passed that allows smaller (Division III) sized schools to allow athletic scholarships if competing at the D1 level, F&M will be able to join in on the fun. For some background, Division III schools cannot legally offer scholarships, per NCAA regulations. This is why the legislation is a big deal for a handful of schools that participate in higher divisions than what the school is designated in other sports. Franklin & Marshall College, located in the heart of Lancaster, PA only contains roughly 2,200 undergrad students – yet they wrestle at the Division 1 level against large schools that contain a small city’s population of student-athletes. For example, Arizona State’s undergrad enrollment is over 60,000, Penn State has around 40,000, etc. Sure, these are the extremes – but the point remains – not all Division I teams are equal.
To further that last point of “not all Division I teams are equal,” this is especially true in terms of athletic scholarship allotment. This topic can get confusing to the average fan. Some fans assume all teams have equal funding – causing an equal playing field. This is far from the truth. For wrestling, the maximum athletic scholarship one team can distribute amongst athletes is 9.9 full scholarships. I am not sure if it’s truly known how many teams have this maximum allotment. But, I know for a fact that a majority of teams are not fully funded with the 9.9. Many may have 5 scholarships to give and others may have closer to 9.9. It really depends on the athletic departments of each school. Just know, the range is from 0 athletic scholarships to 9.9. It’s also worth noting that Ivy League teams cannot offer athletic scholarships in any sport – but they do offer other types of aid to help offset the costs. That is another story for another time.
Now that the basic groundwork has been laid – back to the F&M team. Some may read “Franklin & Marshall can now receive scholarships” and interpret that as ‘Franklin & Marshall is now fully funded by the athletic department.” In the words of ESPN’s Lee Corso – “Not so fast my friend!” The reality is that the college, thanks to the NCAA, is now permitted to offer scholarships after 99 seasons. I talked to Assistant Coach Steve Borja to break it down a little further. “This first season we will be given a small set amount in scholarship money from the college. We will gradually increase the scholarship amount yearly for four years. Once we hit the four-year mark, the college will re-evaluate the situation and make more (financial) decisions from there.”
Let’s break this down using hypothetical, round numbers to make the math easy to understand. The annual total cost to attend Franklin & Marshall is in the ballpark of $85,000 a year. (Yes, that is not a typo.) If the university’s “small set amount” was, say, 10% of a full scholarship (again – just an example) - the coaches would be allowed to offer up to $8,500 in athletic aid for the first season. Of course, this can be divided up amongst multiple wrestlers, or the entire allotment can be offered to one wrestler. The following season that 10% of the $85K would double to $17,000. This amount, again, can go to the same individual, or be divided up. To compare this to the full 9.9 allotment to other schools, using F&M’s costs to attend, the staff would have nearly $842,000 per year to spread across the team every season. Simply take the $85K cost, multiply it by 9.9 full scholarships, and this is how you get $842,000. You can easily see the difference in what a .1 (1/10th) vs 9.9 athletic aid looks like in terms of dollars.
Will this small scholarship effort attract a bunch of blue-chip recruits? Absolutely not. The coaching staff is well aware of this. Head Coach, Mike Rogers, stated “Not every family is looking for a full ride. This small amount may help bring F&M into their budget. It sounds cliché, but every little bit helps.” Coach Rogers had a bigger-picture outlook as well. “If we can find a way to get one or two wrestlers to nationals, it will help our team get noticed more.”
Along the same lines, Coach Borja, parroted that statement “Some years, we are missing one key guy in the line-up. (Athletic) Scholarship aid can help us land that one guy to plug in a hole. Then, maybe this guy makes the NCAA tournament, and wins a few matches. Either way, it will help get exposure to our school.” Adding my two cents – I couldn’t agree more. Obviously, it’s hard to get noticed at NCAAs when no one is there to compete.
As if not allowing scholarships put The Diplomats at a disadvantage already, they do not get much help from the admissions side of the college – as is the case with many smaller, Division 3 schools. Firstly, the academic criteria to get accepted into school is unchanged for athletes and non-athletes. Meaning, athletes do not get “special accommodations” simply for being an athlete. We all know big-time sports schools accept student-athletes into school who may not exactly meet all the criteria, but are accepted anyway due to their athletic ability. Franklin & Marshall does not have the flexibility to the athletic teams. This lowers the recruiting pool for the staff, as the student-athletes they recruit must be able to get into school strictly based on academics alone. On the flip side, there is something special about knowing that all students were accepted with the same standards – athlete or not.
Another disadvantage to the F&M staff is the college’s financial aid offerings. All financial aid at the school is need-based. Essentially, this means the school bases your financial aid based on economic status at home only. This is atypical for schools, as many offer financial aid based on merit as well. Merit-based need is aid based on academic achievements – the better grades in high school, the more financial aid one can receive. As one can imagine, this may deter some students from even looking into a school like F&M if there are other viable options on the table that offer the same degree for a fraction of the cost.
As you may recall, in 2014, Franklin & Marshall made some national headlines when David Lehman pledged $5 Million to the program to endow it. This covered operating costs, coach salaries, and much more. It allowed the sport to operate as needed without needing assistance from the college. It keeps wrestling “off the college books” is how I describe it – maybe too harshly... The overall differences in each NCAA division greatly vary from one division to the next when discussing athletics. This is true for the funding aspects, scholarship offerings, size of the department, etc. To have a Division III school competing with “the big schools” in Division 1 is impressive. When they do it completely endowed, it shows the determination and fight of the staff. They motivate themselves to work a little harder, which relays down to the wrestlers.
With the college’s decision to finance athletic aid to student-athletes, this is a giant step for the program. Coach Rogers emphasized “The support from the school is a great sign for the future. They could have easily said ‘no’ and had us continue like we have been with no athletic aid.” He praised the college’s new Athletic Director, Lauren Packer Webster was previously at Edinboro, so she is an expert when it comes to small schools competing at the highest level. Edinboro is a school that is considered DII in all sports, but wrestling is DI. Her familiarity with how to navigate a small school to compete at the highest level is a huge plus for the Diplomats, and the EIWA, alike. Fortunately, I was able to meet her at EIWAs in 2022. She attended conferences rooting for her Diplomats. Weeks later, she went to NCAAs to watch F&M’s lone wrestler compete. Even though Wil Gil was 0-2 at the NCAAs that year, it was incredibly important to have the Athletic Director in attendance to see what the coaching staff and team strive for every year. To cap off a brief conversation about Webster, Coach Borja just said “She’s been awesome for us.”
Because of their size, fundraising is still at the top of the priority list for the coaching staff, and program, as a whole. This is in addition to the usual job of recruiting, watching film, running practice, etc. There is a bit of larger “CEO-role” as a coach in these circumstances, which is more prevalent across the country – both small and larger schools. The program’s goal is to endow a full scholarship, in hopes the school will be willing to match every scholarship they endow. This is a lofty goal set by the coaching staff. Even Coach Borja agrees it may be lofty. He said “This will be our next fundraising push. Now that scholarships are available to our athletes through the school, we believe the alumni will be more willing to help build that funding. It’s new and exciting for everyone”
Coach Rogers has similar thoughts when he said, “My hope is that this will give the alumni the desire to get behind a common goal. Dave Lehman’s $5 Million endowment was huge for us to help cover coaches’ salaries, travel and operating costs, gear and much more. Now, we can focus on further fundraising to endow scholarships to help bring in top-level student-athletes that we may not have had a chance to bring in before.”
This is not meant to be a pity-party for Franklin & Marshall, by any means. This was the agreement when I approached them about this article. It may come off as “making excuses” or “looking for pity.” But, I can assure you this is not the intention. The intention is to bring to light the reality of wrestling and, possibly, enlighten some of the fans who may not know about the disadvantages smaller schools have. Maybe, it will create more fans in the process. “We sometimes consider ourselves as a David vs. Goliath type of program. People love to root for that – the underdog,” Coach Rogers profoundly stated. He’s right – a school like this is such a huge disadvantage competing with the likes of fully-funded, large programs with gigantic alumni reach and support. Plus, with the rise of NIL deals replacing scholarships to pay for school, small schools are set back to a larger burden in this regard.
As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” This will be a slow and methodical plan over the next half-decade, or longer. As highlighted before, it is not cheap to run a wrestling program – especially one that is fully funded. The school is taking on a vital role in elevating the program to potentially bring it to the next level. They should be applauded for assisting in this next step. Who knows, maybe a scholarship to Franklin & Marshall changes a wrestler’s life forever. Maybe one wrestler can change the program forever. We don’t know until we try to take that first step. We’ve made the first step – and I am hoping that each step from here on out is a step in the right direction!