June 10, 2024 • Athletic AdministrationCoachingTennis

Insights into coaching at all three NCAA divisions

We all know how dissimilar all the collegiate levels are from one another. The athletic department budgets of NCAA Division I schools are significantly larger, and facilities are more impressive. This disparity is well documented, but what about the non-core sports, specifically about coaching?

I have long contended that coaches at the lower collegiate divisions often expend just as much time and energy as their upper-class counterparts. And perhaps somewhat surprisingly, many of these coaches emanate from non-core sports such as tennis, volleyball, swimming, track, and golf. Even when the positions are of a part-time nature, I have seen coaches give enormous commitments to their respective schools.

ncaaAs a former coach of non-core sports teams at the NCAA Divison I and III levels, plus having consulted and worked with scores of coaches, I bring a unique outlook to this topic. Additionally, having been a Division I athlete gives me further clarity from a player’s perspective.

What I have seen firsthand is how coaches do an excellent job of adapting to whatever circumstances they find themselves in. Even when coaches are faced with limited resources, they find a way to get the job done. However, there are significant contrasts among the three divisions which affect how coaches operate.

One critical area of collegiate athletics where the differences are accentuated is recruiting. Division I and II universities offer athletic scholarships, while Division III schools do not. Coaches at larger schools can target their prospects earlier and have the funds to locate the best student-athletes suitable for their respective programs. At smaller institutions, where budgets are more limited, coaches often have to find cost-efficient ways to recruit.

Especially at the smaller Division III schools with non-core sports, coaches need to sometimes go back to the bare basics when recruiting players. One example is finding qualified student-athletes within the school. This can be accomplished by sending out mass emails to students, placing signs in strategic locations, attending student orientation sessions, and placing notices in the school newspaper.

With non-core sports, coaches generally realize that their teams are not on the same echelon as football, basketball, and baseball. Coaches often have to work with their teams’ being less of a priority within the athletic department. In the Division III classification, where there are fewer teams at a school, the lack of enthusiasm toward non-core sports can be especially frustrating for coaches.

I was fortunate that during my coaching career, I had a few athletic directors who were avid tennis fans, and very supportive of my teams. Terry Small was one athletic director, who always cared about not only our program but every team in the sports department. Another leader, the late Dr. Harold Merritt, came to a number of our matches. A common question he would ask me was, “What is the best we can do for your team?” Unfortunately, this type of support is not the case for many non-core sports programs.  

A key to coaching at any of the three NCAA divisions is knowing the type of athlete you are working with. The student-athlete on a Division I golf team, for example, will be different than one from Division III. At the top level, he likely will be on scholarship, with an impressive resume. The individual also might have aspirations of a golf career after college. 

On the other hand, an athlete on a Division III non-core sports team, even though an accomplished competitor, likely plays the sport for enjoyment, with goals considerably more modest. These student-athletes, often have to fit the team into their busy work, or extracurricular activities.

When coaching my Division III team, I operated far differently than when I was at Division I. Practices were shorter, and I usually worked around the players’ availability. I remember telling the players that even though attendance at practices was important, the actual matches against other schools were the main priority.

I also worked more on a player’s fundamentals when coaching Division III teams, as opposed to the upper levels. Their skills were not as refined, therefore more teaching was required.

As unlikely as it seems, there are also numerous similarities in coaching at the separate divisions. One area of commonality is that the competitive fire is in all athletes regardless of level. It is always more pleasurable to coach an athlete when they are passionate about an activity.

When I was coaching at a Division III school, and looking to hire an assistant, the athletic director searching would ask the applicants, “How important is winning to you?” The only acceptable reply according to him was that “winning was of the utmost importance.” Coaches always need to be aware that results matter, regardless of the level.

Another similarity is there are many aspects of the daily job that are comparable, except at the higher levels, everything is intensified. This pertains to practices, matches, time commitments, travel, and other facets of the program. Plus, players in the three divisions are all student-athletes, with academics at the forefront.

» ALSO SEE: Q&A.D. with MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl

NCAA Division II programs are sometimes thought of as being in the middle of the other two levels with their operating guidelines. Coaches often like the balance that Division II athletics offers compared to the other two divisions. There is the benefit of having scholarships to offer, without the added pressure of being at the top echelon. 

At each collegiate division, the coach has to be aware of NCAA rules about recruiting, practices, and academic eligibility. These directives vary depending on the division, as well as the sport. For example, non-core sports will have parameters specific to them, as opposed to football programs. 

Therefore, while coaching at the three division ranks might seem miles apart, there are certainly enough commonalities also. And the bond that ties these coaches together is the passion they have for their respective teams, whatever that level might be.