With millions of potentialdollars on the line from salaries and signing bonuses, college football players must decide between finishing their academic careers or pursuing the much more lucrative life of an NFL player.For players who are legitimate NFL prospects, it’s a real dilemma: Do they graduate – or even just finish their eligibility — or do they exit early and enter the NFL?
One wrong move both on and off the football field can cost these players top draft spots and even more in salaries and signing bonuses.
Since 2001, 13 Horned Frogs have been picked in one of the seven draft rounds, with six going in the 2001 draft. At least seven of those players finished out their academic careers. Two players played through their full eligibility but left for the draft before graduating, and at least five players are taking more credits or have been in contact with TCU to do so, according to Associate Athletics Director Jack Hesselbrock.
STAYING IN SCHOOL
Head football coach Gary Patterson said he attributes the importance placed on graduation and academic finalization to the kinds of players recruited out of high school.
“We recruit guys where education is important,” Patterson said. “We have a class that’s given in the spring where we’ve got agents, accountants and different people that tell them what real life is.”
Patterson also said a major lesson learned in the class is the low percentage of players going early into draft actually making it in the NFL and that personal growth is a must for a player attempting to do so.
“What they have to realize is you get a little bit older and mature and all those things add into when you’ll get your chance,” Patterson said.
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL
The NCAA has created scholarships that make it easier for those who did leave early to come back and become a college graduate, said Frank Windegger, former TCU athletics director.
“Whether they are successful or not in the NFL, there are scholarships from the NCAA that make it possible for non-graduate players to get a diploma,” Windegger said.
Hesselbrock said these scholarships came about in the 1980s when the NCAA decided to use TV and bowl game revenue to fund the scholarships.
Students within 30 hours of a degree could get the scholarship, which has funded hundreds of former collegiate athletes, Hesselbrock said.
MAKING THE DECISION
Aside from the educational pluses playing a senior year, NFL Draft advancement also plays a factor in a player’s decision to declare early or return.
“Players can now test the draft to see in which round they might go and then back out if they want to,” Windegger said. “Since each round constitutes a certain amount of money, this is important in the decision-making process of going into the draft or not.”
Patterson said many TCU players have taken this step in making decisions about the draft.
“You can get a predraft status and send it out to the NFL, and they’ll tell you what they think,” Patterson said. “Cory Rodgers did this last year and we’ve four or five juniors doing it this year.”
Hesselbrock said former and current players talked to Rodgers about whether to stay or go.
“They discussed the real business of professional football,” Hesselbrock said. “It’s a business. College is one of the last times you’re going to play, because you love it and that’s why a player might stay on for a senior year.”
FACTORS OF THE DECISION
Hesselbrock said there are many factors weighing on a player’s decision to enter the draft early or stay for a senior year.
“They worry about dropping in the draft evaluation or getting hurt,” Hesselbrock said. “They also look at family and financial obligations. And, if they are 21 years old and healthy, they’ll probably go in to help family.”
And with so many factors seemingly pushing players toward the NFL draft instead of finishing their academic career, Windegger said former TCU standout and San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson has become a shining example of a player assisted by his decision to return for a senior year and graduate before going into the NFL.
“Coming back for his senior year helped him,” Windegger said. “He got more exposure because he should have won the Heisman (award) that year. Against UTEP, He had over 400 yards, an all-time NCAA record.”
Patterson also said Tomlinson helped himself by returning for a senior year.
“I think [leaving early] would have hurt him,” Patterson said. “The longer you stay with a program the more scouts and the more people you have a reputation with.”
Patterson said having a well-established reputation leads to more trust for NFL teams in terms of a player’s maturity.
“They’re spending money on you,” Patterson said. “If they don’t know much about you and they don’t know what kind of work ethic you have, they might not pick you. A lot of guys mature much more during their senior year.”
Patterson said there is the possible detriment of injury or having a bad year associated with staying for a senior year.
“By returning, there’s a chance of not doing as well or getting hurt,” Patterson said. “But the key is it gives you an opportunity to better yourself and how people think of you.”
SHOULD THEY GO?
With so much money available in the NFL, Patterson said, if a player has the skills and can go in the first round, he should go early, but, if not, he should wait and try and improve in his fourth year.
Former USC Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart, 2005 Heisman Award winner, exemplifies the possible problems with deciding to return for a senior year after being touted as a No. 1 pick in the 2005 Draft to being a No. 10 pick in the 2006 Draft.
Patterson said Leinart’s senior season may have hurt him with the NFL teams in the draft, but, he said, his experience gained through the extra season may benefit him later in his career.
“Leinart has probably matured more, and he’s actually given himself a chance to the guy at Arizona,” Patterson said. “It allowed him to grow up. You can be the Heisman guy one year and not the Heisman guy the next. You have to learn to deal with the negative side and not always having things go your way.”
Although the Arizona Cardinals have not been successful thus far this season, Patterson said Leinart’s experience and growth has given him the maturity to grow into a better player as his NFL career progresses.
This decision to go before finishing college was also an issue for former TCU offensive tackle Michael Toudouze, who entered last year’s draft and went in the fifth round to the Indianapolis Colts. Toudouze was just six hours short of a degree in kinesiology.
“You only get one chance to go to the NFL, so you have to take it,” Toudouze said. “I can graduate whenever I want. I’ll finish it taking a couple hours here and then and it will be done.”
Former TCU wide receiver Cory Rodgers also decided to leave college for the NFL’s greener pastures but has met more adversity than success after being drafted in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers. After a preseason filled with dropped passes, Rodgers was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, where he now resides on the practice squad.
With a 16-2 record over the prior two seasons, senior quarterback Jeff Ballard, who said he has the NFL draft in the back of his mind, must decide whether to attempt the draft, a question assisted by the coaches.
“You can never make the decision for them,” Patterson said. “My job is to make them the best player they can be and to help them get an education. I point out the pros and cons.”
Hesselbrock said it is Patterson and his coaching staff’s relationship with the players that persuades players to stay on for their final season.
Windegger said the coaches provide the players with honest ideas about what they might be able to achieve within the NFL.
“Players discuss their options with their coaches,” Windegger said. “They talk about salaries signing bonuses and become somewhat of a father-figure for the players. In the end, it is the player’s decision, but the coaches and parents help in that decision.”
The NCAA may be doing its part in giving former college players a chance to achieve their degrees after the NFL, but Windegger said college players need to have more than just a dream of the NFL if they want to leave college early.
“Every high school player coming into college football dreams of getting into the NFL,” Windegger said. “Not all of them have the ability to succeed coming out of college early. It is only for those who have the dreams and the skills that become true NFL ability.