Seidel: Fishing among sports helping revitalize Adrian – Detroit Free Press
The Adrian College bass fishing team, ranked No. 1 in the country for almost a month this fall, has a huge recruiting advantage with a full-time coach, two $40,000 Ranger boats, a pair of team trucks, a travel budget and several sponsors. The Bulldogs have qualified for nationals in â all right, just wait a second. Stop right there.
Is this for real? There is such a thing as college bass fishing?
And they actually recruit? Seriously?
Now, I know what you are thinking: This is crazy. This must be a joke. Why in the world does Adrian have a bass fishing team that is an honest-to-goodness, fully funded varsity sport?
It’s all part of a plan to save Adrian College.
It’s the same reason Adrian has added a women’s equestrian team and a women’s figure skating team and a synchronized skating team and a bowling team and a men’s wrestling team, which is back at Adrian after a 31-year absence and started competing this month.
In the last 11 years, Adrian has added 20 varsity sports to boost its enrollment and bring in more tuition money to save this small, liberal-arts college in southern Michigan.
“It’s played an absolutely essential role,” Adrian president Jeffrey Docking said. “We voice that openly. We don’t apologize for it. We feel it’s a great way to grow a small, private, liberal-arts college.”
If you build it …
Before we get to this fishing story, a quick history lesson:
Back in 2005, Adrian was in serious trouble. Enrollment had dropped to 840 students, and tuition income had slipped to $8.54 million. “We were hemorrhaging almost $1.5 million a year in operating budget alone,” Docking said. “I don’t know if I had a roof on campus that didn’t leak or didn’t have some other kind of problem.”
Docking was hired as the president in 2005, and he brought some crazy but creative ideas. Instead of making more cuts, Docking started adding sports teams left and right, and he pumped money into the athletic facilities.
For starters, you just have to take one look at Adrian’s baseball field. Artificial turf. Amazing setting. For a small school, it’s simply beautiful.
And the athletes started showing up.
After building a 500-seat ice rink on campus, which was funded by donors, Adrian has added six hockey teams âfour men’s teams and two women’s teams at different levels. “That’s 150 students,” athletic director Mike Duffy said.
The model started working â if you add a sport, the athletes will come â and Adrian’s enrollment started to soar.
So they kept adding sports.
What about lacrosse? Sure thing. They started it up, and now there are 20-25 athletes on both the men’s and women’s teams.
What about a women’s acrobatics and tumbling team? Well, why not? There are 14 on the current roster.
What about women’s wrestling? Sure, if you can find the wrestlers, and six are on the roster right now.
Before you knew it, Adrian had more than doubled its number of varsity sports, going from 18 to 38, and its enrollment followed suit, climbing to 1,650 students, including 700 freshmen who arrived this fall, the second-largest class in school history.
“It’s really changed the face of Adrian,” Docking said. “It’s allowed us to have the financial flexibility to hire many more professors. It’s allowed us to essentially build a science building and to renovate every academic space on campus.”
Parents might be shocked by the $48,000 sticker price. But most students end up paying considerably less after academic scholarships and financial aid.
Now, more than half of the students at Adrian are athletes. Applications are soaring and Docking is planning to cap the enrollment at 2,000 because the college is running out of dorm rooms and cafeteria space. “Yeah, it’s a unique business model but it’s worked very well,” Docking said. “And, frankly, we hope others will copy it.”
Little fish in big pond
Hey, what about a bass fishing team?
Hmm. Do they really bass fish in college? For real?
“What do you think, Mike?” Docking asked his athletic director.
“Look, I’m an outdoors guy,” Duffy said. “I hunt and fish. This is right up my alley. This is cool. I’ll look into it.”
Bass fishing is not an NCAA sport, but more than 300 schools compete in tournaments around the country. Most schools consider it a club sport, and most teams receive little financial support, if any. But Adrian flipped the script and went all-in, making it a fully funded varsity sport, just like football or basketball, with a head coach and a travel budget and started recruiting.
Adrian started competing last year and has enjoyed remarkable success in the Association of Collegiate Anglers.
This fall, after the first five tournaments of the season, Adrian climbed into first place in Cabela’s School of the Year rankings. Some of the other schools in the top 10, at that time, included Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. The ranking was based off the points accrued at tournaments, most of which are held in the south.
The Bulldogs held that top ranking for almost a month, but they haven’t competed in any tournaments since September and have slipped to No. 13 out of 321 schools.
“Some of the rankings are skewed to southern schools,” coach Seth Borton said. “They have longer tournament seasons. They can fish and accrue points when we can’t. It makes it tough for a northern school.”
Texas A&M is currently in first.
“No worries,” Borton said. “We will make it up in the spring.”
The Bulldogs have qualified two boats for the Fishing League Worldwide College National Championships, March 17-19 on Lake Keowee in Seneca, S.C.
“I don’t think it has hit the team on how big this has gotten, so quickly,” said Nick Marsh, a sophomore from Walled Lake Central, who has qualified for nationals.
‘The Duke of bass fishing’
Now, Adrian got lucky.
The school hired the perfect coach in Borton, a guy who grew up near Adrian and had more than 10 years of professional tournament experience. Borton had all kinds of contacts in the fishing industry and landed sponsors like Ranger boats and Mercury motors and Rapala lures.
“We couldn’t have picked or scripted this any better,” Duffy said. “Coach Borton is very good. He sells himself well; he sells the school well. And he tells the kid, ‘Look, you are coming here for an education, but along the way, we are going to fish.’ “
Borton is a tireless promoter and recruiter. “We are going to be the Duke of bass fishing,” Borton said. “I have not found one other team in the country that has two boats, two trucks and a full-time coach.”
One of his top recruits was Marsh, who had some success in tournaments while in high school.
“At first, it was kind of like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Marsh said. “What is he talking about? I knew bass fishing was a thing, but in my head, it was southern schools. He explained it all to me, and I said, ‘It’s kind of crazy.’ “
Marsh planned to go to Michigan State but decided to go to Adrian to fish. “I was still kind of skeptical,” Marsh said. “No one else was doing this. My high school is bigger than this college. There is no reason for me to come here other than fishing.”
That No. 1 ranking did wonders for Adrian, as the school gained all kinds of publicity. And now, potential recruits are contacting Borton from all over the country.
But there are lots of talented anglers right here in Michigan.
“If you look at Michigan and the variety of the bodies of water we have, we have some unbelievably skilled youth when it comes to competitive fishing,” Borton said.
What do the other teams think?
“I think it’s awesome that Adrian has done what they have done,” said Michael Kennings, a member of the MSU bass fishing team, which is a club sport and doesn’t have a coach. “At MSU we pay out of pocket, so we are limited by our own bank accounts. It’s expensive to travel more than a couple times a year to tournaments. Not to mention most boats are owned by our parents, so availability isn’t always there.”
The club teams have to spend time fund-raising and, in many cases, coach themselves. The Spartans are currently ranked 21st in the country.
“Adrian’s situation is very rare,” said Ross Parsons, a member of MSU’s team. “Adrian’s ability to recruit anglers is a huge advantage, because all of their individuals are serious competitors while maybe 30% of our members have the same aspirations, experiences and goals.”
Adrian isn’t done. More sports could be on the way.
Adrian is seriously considering adding a crew team. “We think crew is a neat sport,” Docking said. “Last summer, I read ‘The Boys in the Boat,’ and it got me charged up to start crew.”
Adrian is also thinking about starting a sailing team, a rifle team and a triathlon team.
The school will consider any sport, if it brings in students and the finances make sense.
“It’s part of our model,” Docking said. “Can we bring them in as bass fishermen or baseball players or hockey players, and four years later, graduate them as business leaders or educators or chemists or biologists?”
Bring them in as athletes. Send them out as graduates.
That sounds like what college sports is supposed to be about.
And it’s working at Adrian.
Reelin’ ’em in
Adrian College, a private, liberal arts school founded in 1859, has added 20 sports over the past 11 years in an attempt to increase enrollment. The school has 38 varsity sports (and counting), some common, some unusual. It now has 1,650 undergraduates, including a freshman class of 700, the second-largest in school history.
Hockey (four teams, three levels)
Indoor track and field
Outdoor track and field
Acrobatics and tumbling
Hockey (two teams, two levels)
Indoor track and field
Outdoor track and field