gymnast since the first grade, Jason
Lindberg had just one goal in his athletic life: to compete
for the gymnastics team at the University of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma did not offer him a gymnastics scholarship when
Lindberg was a high school senior in Tulsa last spring, but he
chose to enroll there anyway.
Lindberg figured he would be a freshman walk-on in
gymnastics. Celebrated in the movie "Rudy," walk-ons are
plucky, unrecruited undergraduates who walk on to practice and
make a team filled with elite scholarship athletes. They have
long held an almost mythic status in college sports, embodying
dreamers and underdogs everywhere.
But Lindberg's arrival on the Oklahoma campus was less
storybook. No male walk-ons would be permitted in gymnastics,
he was told.
At many colleges nationwide, it has become commonplace in
recent years to turn away walk-ons in men's sports like
soccer, baseball, tennis, gymnastics, and track and field. As
another school year began in the past few weeks, the doors at
athletic departments were slamming shut to thousands of men
seeking a tryout.
"It's like they're taking away whatever hopes and dreams
you might have, which is pretty hard to take," said Lindberg,
who is 19. "Because you get into sports believing you'll
always at least get the chance to prove yourself."
Male walk-ons have essentially become an unwanted luxury.
Most colleges work hard to maintain a roughly equal number of
male and female participants — whether on scholarship or not —
in athletics. They do so to comply with Title IX, the law
prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded
But their pursuit of that goal is entangled by budget
limitations and the addition of thousands of new teams for
women over the past decade. This delicate balancing act is
disrupted each year when three to four times more men than
women arrive unsolicited for the first week of practices,
dozens of coaches and administrators said in interviews.
Athletic department administrators have generally responded
to the disparity by telling coaches of women's teams to keep
as many walk-ons as they can, even encouraging them to scour
campuses for more candidates to fill their rosters. The
coaches of many men's teams, meanwhile, have been assigned a
reduced, fixed roster limit, a number that is quickly filled
by established recruits. Often, there is no room for
At some of the bigger college athletic programs, like
Michigan, Ohio State and Texas A&M, where television
revenue from big-time sports makes expansive team rosters
affordable for both men and women, there are still male
walk-ons in certain sports, especially football. But the
opposite is true for the coaches of smaller, nonrevenue sports
and at hundreds of colleges whose athletic departments are not
among the top 50 moneymakers.
At Oklahoma, for example, the men's gymnastics coach, Mark
Williams, is permitted a roster of no more than 14. Twelve
gymnasts are needed to field a team in a meet. "We used to
have 24 or 25 guys," said Williams, whose team won the
national championship last season.
Warren Mandrell, the men's track and cross-country coach at
Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said he turned away about 30
students each year.
"I sent one away about four minutes ago," Mandrell said
last week. "We used to have 75 or 80 kids out for track and
field. Not anymore. My roster limit is 43."
Larry Cochell, the baseball coach at Oklahoma, had a
one-day tryout for walk-ons during the first week of classes.
Twenty-five students brought gloves and bats to practice.
Asked how many had made the team, Cochell, whose roster is
fixed at 32, answered, "None."
The Miami of Ohio baseball coach, Tracy Smith, did not have
a walk-on make his team for the past six seasons. Last week,
during a tryout for 20 students, Smith was surprised to find a
prospect, a diamond in the rough.
"But what that kid did was next to impossible, " said
Smith, who turned away the rest of those who tried out and
will have to cut nine players to reach his roster limit of
At the College of William and Mary, the director of track,
Dan Stimson, used to send an invitation to try out to every
freshman who listed high school track and field on his
Stimson stopped that practice years ago. Last year, he cut
12 men from his team.
Al Albert, the men's soccer coach at William and Mary for
the past 32 years, recalled when he had a junior varsity team
— something now almost nonexistent at most colleges. Albert
said he had excluded 15 to 20 students from his 25-man roster
in each of the last seven years.
"How many freshmen, myself included, from years ago would
have never learned and benefited from a college sports
experience if not given the chance to walk on?" Albert said.
"You never know what kind of important life lessons —
goal-setting, handling adversity, learning teamwork or testing
yourself and your limits — might be acquired as part of a
college sport. It's a shame when we can't cultivate that for
A Grasp Impedes a Reach
John McDonnell has won 36 national titles as the coach of
cross-country and track and field at the University of
Arkansas. That record may be why he is among the minority of
coaches allowed to welcome all comers to his program.
"What they are doing with walk-ons elsewhere is
deplorable," McDonnell said. "A student should never be told,
`You can't try.' We are supposed to build leaders and instead
we're saying, `Don't reach for something.' We have an obesity
problem, and we're telling college kids to go back to the
dorm, sit on the couch and watch sports on television."
Others involved in college athletics, notably the dozens of
female administrators who have ascended to positions of
leadership, concede that the landscape has changed, but they
see the picture differently.
Restricting some men's teams, even as women's teams are
assigned minimums that are usually 5 to 10 players higher than
the maximums on similar men's teams, is a reasonable policy
called roster management, they say. It has been necessary,
they contend, because colleges have chosen to add thousands of
women's teams to abide by Title IX. At the same time,
especially in the past decade, many athletic budgets have been
Something has had to give: why not the walk-on who may
never actually play in a game?
"I hated the movie `Rudy,' " said Marilyn McNeil, athletic
director of Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J.,
referring to the film about perhaps the most famous walk-on of
all, Rudy Ruettiger of Notre Dame. Ruettiger endured years as
a scrub on the practice squad until, as a senior concluding
his career, he was allowed into a game for one play, and he
sacked the quarterback.
"If you're not going to get your uniform dirty during
games, you shouldn't be on the team," said McNeil, who is also
the chairwoman of the National Collegiate Athletic
Association's committee on women's athletics. "I believe there
is still an opportunity for a walk-on to bloom on our teams,
but there has to be a cutoff date for those who just want to
hang around. We can't afford it. It's time to tell these
students: `You've got other talents. Go write about sports at
the school newspaper, join the debate team, or maybe you've
got a nice voice and belong on the stage.'
"Some guys just like to be part of the group. Then 10 years
later they will talk about being on their college team, when
the fact is they never played."
McNeil and others say there are major differences in how
men and women approach being walk-ons, and that complicates
the roster management issue. Most administrators say it is
generally harder to keep female walk-ons on a team once they
realize they will play little or not at all in the games. But
it is common for men, administrators say, to remain on a team
even if they do not dress for the games. Together, this helps
create the roster imbalance most colleges are trying to
"For men, there is a social validation tied to being part
of a college team," said Cheryl Marra, the associate athletic
director at the University of Wisconsin. "If you're wearing a
Rose Bowl ring, it will elicit a response. It is an
accomplishment that is understood and respected by people
across the desk in a job interview. It doesn't matter if you
were player No. 120 on the team and never touched the football
in that Rose Bowl. Being part of a championship women's
gymnastics team probably doesn't have the same value. At least
Marra, who has helped create and oversee an intensive
program of roster management at Wisconsin since the college
was targeted for potential Title IX violations several years
ago, has observed other gender differences in her 23 years in
"First of all, the disparity in ability between a
scholarship player and a walk-on is usually much greater on
the women's side than the men's side," Marra said. "So women
walk-ons are not usually comfortable. Plus, I see more unrest
on women's teams if a sector of the group isn't involved or
kept a regular part of the drills. Men don't react that way.
They just want into the drill to prove themselves. Women will
say: `Look, I see the picture pretty clearly here. I'm not
playing. I don't need this.' "
Achieving a Balance
That has not stopped Wisconsin and many other colleges from
adopting strategies to involve more women in intercollegiate
sports. They have established new sports, like rowing, that
are by design inclusive to a large number of athletes and not
structured to focus on a starting lineup of only 5 or 10
players. At Wisconsin this year, there are 170 women on two
rowing teams, a roster number that for Title IX purposes
balances the football, baseball and men's basketball teams
combined. At Wisconsin, the women's rowing coaches work the
rooms used for freshman orientation and registration with
sign-up sheets in hand, lobbying for tryouts.
At U.C.L.A., the recruiting of female walk-ons in search of
perfect roster management was so successful, administrators
had to use some reins. "You would go by the pool and hear
someone say, `There's too many people in my lane during
practice,' " Betsy Stephenson, the associate athletic
director, said. "And the coaches were just worn out with such
large numbers to oversee."
U.C.L.A. recently made adjustments and now fills most of
its male and female rosters with scholarship athletes and with
athletes who represent another new and increasingly common
category in college athletics — a recruited walk-on. Recruited
walk-ons are high school athletes who are told they will not
receive a scholarship but will be accepted on the team. Some
colleges even guarantee their recruited walk-ons a spot on the
team roster in writing.
"We can recruit walk-ons that probably would be scholarship
athletes at 80 percent of the other schools in the nation,"
The recruited walk-ons are more bad news for true walk-ons,
another blow to the notion that any student can tap the coach
on the shoulder and ask for a tryout. "That kind of
opportunity doesn't exist anymore," said Albert, William and
Mary's soccer coach. "It's a vanishing concept."
Many coaches of men's teams lament the lost opportunities
and are critical of roster-management policies. But Marra, the
associate athletic director at Wisconsin, said she reminded
her men's coaches that the alternative was to drop a men's
sport or two.
"That's the reality, because the participation numbers for
men and women have to be addressed," Marra said. "It's
financial and it's Title IX. We can't be all things to
everybody. Things change."
"Rudy" she noted, was set in the early 1970's. "Some things
aren't the way they used to be," Marra said.
Perseverance Finds Success
But there are always exceptions, and they are frequently on
the football team, where the lore of the walk-on remains
strongest. College football rosters have traditionally been
very deep. The average number for all N.C.A.A. football teams
last season was 94 players. With 60 to 85 players on
scholarship — and with recruited walk-ons — there is not a lot
of opportunity. But with perseverance, at certain colleges,
there are holes to permit the stray walk-on to slip
Drew Hill, a sprinter hoping to make the track team as a
walk-on at William and Mary, was one of the runners cut last
"I felt cheated," Hill said. "I'm on academic scholarship.
Even the coach said the most I was costing the college was two
track shoes a year."
Feeling a void, Hill decided to try out for the football
team this year. He made the team, and while Hill has yet to
play in a game, he is on the roster of 91 players.
"I wanted to end my athletic career on my terms, not
someone else's terms," Hill said. "If I never get into a game,
it won't be a failure. I wanted to try. Well, I wanted to try