Kansas junior college football plays in the big time these days.
The Jayhawk Community College Conference made a key change to its player eligibility rules three years ago that drew blue-chip players in from out of state.
The level of play shot up almost overnight, transforming at least one team from a perennial doormat to a national contender.
As the stakes rose, so did the scrutiny. Netflix came to document players and coaches straining to make their way to powerhouse four-year schools — and to perhaps set up pro careers.
They also caught ambitious coaching at its worst.
The cameras captured one coach in southeast Kansas berating a player with language crude even by football standards. The same coach later texted a German player that he would be his “Hitler.” Then he allegedly pretended to be someone else representing a high-profile law firm in threats against the local newspaper.
He’s since quit and been charged with eight felonies.
“What a joke,” said Steve Martin, the football coach at Wichita Northwest High School. “That is a black eye on the coaching profession.”
In 2016, the Jayhawk Conference dropped one rule: a cap on out-of-state players for each team. Without the restriction, the game became more competitive. Players with the size, speed and skill to play in the NCAA’s Division I schools — but who'd maybe washed out for discipline reasons or who couldn’t cut it in class — came to Kansas community colleges from across the country. Netflix turned one team’s season into an underdog parable.
Yet the change also brought controversy. High schools complained that community college football was no longer about the community.
The coach at Independence Community College drew as much publicity for those texts and his criminal charges as his team’s wins. An investigation was opened into a New Jersey player’s death shortly after he joined the Garden City Community College team.
And even as the talent level shot up, game attendance dropped. It seems crowds tend to prefer watching local kids play. So the Jayhawk Conference is restoring a cap on out-of-state players — but one that still lets a team draw dozens of high-end recruits from beyond Kansas.
Before the change, teams were restricted to 20 out-of-state players. Coaches wanting the rule tossed away had two main arguments.
First, there weren’t enough Kansas players to make all the teams in the league competitive.
Second, the colleges near bigger population centers had an easier time recruiting that talent. Butler Community College had dominated the league for years and its location near Wichita got some of the credit.
The hope was an influx of out-of-state talent would overtake any of Butler’s advantage.
“I would refer to it as the beat-Butler rule,” said Dennis Higgins, an announcer who’s covered Butler football games since 2005.
Higgins disputed that Butler’s location gave it an unfair edge. He pointed to the success of Garden City Community College. Its team won a national championship in 2016 while the old cap was still in place.
“I always thought other schools and teams underestimated what went into the program at Butler,” Higgins said.
Still, coaches found recruiting out-of-state players easier. With the cap in place, coaches would have to take multiple trips to one small Kansas town to compete for one local athlete’s attention. Without the rule, coaches could have dozens of recruits to choose from after one flight to Florida.
After a fight that threatened to split the conference, the coaches pushing the rule change won out in 2016. The teams could now offer scholarships to 85 students — all of whom could come from outside Kansas.
Small colleges packed their rosters with talent from across the country. That turned around those colleges’ fortunes.
For years, Independence Community College’s team was known for little more than losing. Yet after the first season without the cap, the team was packed with out-of-state players. Those athletes led the team to win the conference that year and earn the school its first bowl win.
“The quality of the football in our conference has skyrocketed,” said Tim Schaffner, who coaches Butler Community College’s football team. “There’s bottom-half teams in our conference that would win other conferences.”
The rule change also drew in Netflix’s “Last Chance U” series. The first two years of the show followed Eastern Mississippi Community College, a football dynasty. Last year, the series was about Independence Community College. The cameras caught Independence’s 2017 season with its 9-2 record. The previous year the team was 5-4, which itself was a rare winning season at that point.
They also caught the negative side of the league.
Independence coach Jason Brown’s harsh treatment and his berating of athletes defined the show. The latest season, which premiered July 19, also covered Brown’s resignation.
In February, the Montgomery County Chronicle reported on text messages Brown had sent calling himself the “new Hitler” for a German player. Brown eventually announced in a tweet that he was stepping down. He blamed the newspaper for his departure.
Brown was recently charged with eight felonies, including blackmail and identity theft. He’s accused of sending a fake letter from a prominent law firm to the Montgomery County Chronicle and threatened to sue.
Independence Community College’s president Dan Barwick also resigned in June. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on issues between Barwick and faculty who accused him of placing football before academics.
Bad news in the Jayhawk Conference wasn’t restricted to Independence. The 2018 death of a player in Garden City after a football workout is under investigation by the school. The player’s mother has been highly critical of the team and how the school responded to her son’s death.
NCAA Division I schools and professional football programs have problems, too. But those teams also face much more scrutiny. Community college sports receive less attention. And both students and coaches hoping to make it to bigger leagues may take more risks, said one academic who studies sports.
“Not to steal a phrase, but it is ‘Last Chance U,’” said Rick Eckstein, a professor at Villanova University who researches sports. “If they can’t make it work at a junior college, then they’re never going to make it to the show.”
One of the main arguments for colleges to spend the resources and risk the controversies that can come with athletics is the chance to boost enrollment.
“Everyone wants to be associated with a winner,” said Jamel Donnor, an associate professor studying sports at the College of William and Mary. “The perception is that it’s a win-win for everyone.”
Garden City Community College did draw more students after its 2016 national championship win, but the rise wasn’t much different than the school’s usual ups and downs in enrollment. And Independence’s strong 2017 season wasn’t enough to halt years of student declines.
It could take years of consistent wins for colleges to see an enrollment bump. But athletics likely has a strong impact at four-year universities, where school pride is a more important selling point. Junior colleges traditionally attract students looking for a short stay and a cheaper path to a degree.
“I don’t think the typical student would say ‘I was not going to a community college but then I saw their football team and decided that’s really what I want to do,’” said David Berri, a sports economist with Southern Utah University.
One clear change that came with the flood of out-of-state players — fewer Kansans on the field. The conference went from 318 Kansas players in 2016 to 64 in 2018, according to the Wichita Eagle.
The conference says that could explain the drop in game day attendance. There may be a higher level of athleticism on the field, but there are fewer Kansas families driving to each game to cheer on their son.
To address that, the conference recently reinstated a lighter version of the out-of-state player cap. At least 30 spots per team will be open for Kansas players in 2021. And the league might consider further tightening the limit on out-of-state players in future seasons.
“We are community colleges,” said Jayhawk Conference Commissioner Carl Heinrich. “This kind of brings the community back to that name.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.