Column: The Three Tiers of NAIA Football Players

by coach___cooper

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Wilson athletics

Let’s get it out of the way: this is a very touchy subject.

Your feelings may get hurt, but this article could be used for self-reflection. If you’re not in the tier you thought you’d be, take this as a challenge to better yourself.

I write this as an independent media member covering NAIA football, but I lived this grind at Faulkner from 2010 to 2014. If you played in the NAIA, you are are in a unique brotherhood of college football.

All three tiers listed here are part of that brotherhood. I have made great friends for life in all three tiers.

Tier One: The Division I Transfer

During my time at Faulkner, my institution was very proud of the Division I transfers it would get from other schools. At one time, the program took a picture of all the FBS/FCS transfers, listing their previous logos beside them and boasting about it.

At the time, the coaching staff wanted everyone on that roster to have a D-I mindset, which isn’t a bad thing. D-I transfers can be a cornerstone for NAIA schools – if done correctly. Most of the guys I met in this tier were amazing people. My away game roommate was a great guy.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. There were others who had a superiority complex, and thought their teammates were beneath them. These people were cancerous to the roster. If an FBS/FCS player ends up at your school, there’s a reason, and it may not be a good one.

When done correctly, NAIA teams should take a limited number of D-I transfers. A D-I transfer typically takes up a larger slice of a team’s scholarship pie. When done incorrectly, NAIA teams take more than needed, and it hurts their ability to build quality depth.

Late in games, and late in seasons, teams that center around these transfers usually show signs of dead legs and end up fading down the stretch. While it is a Division II team, Terry Bowden’s North Alabama team loaded up on D-I transfers from the Southeast from 2009 to 2011 and did well during the regular season.

But when Bowden’s squad made it to the playoffs, depth played a factor. The Lions’ scholarship pool was dedicated to the top tier and they didn’t have room for second-tier players.

NAIA programs should not rely too heavily on Tier One guys. Take the ones with integrity who’ll be a bonus to your team.

Tier Two: Tweeners

This is the golden tier for NAIA teams and could decide your team’s fate. Most tweeners are absolute ballers and hard-nosed kids. They’re just undersized.

Some of these kids have preferred walk-on spots from bigger schools. Every coach loves them, but heart/physicality can only take you so far. These are the “glue guys” that help you win championships.

Most of the scholarship pool should go here. Teams’ depth will come from this tier and they can vet the kids they want. Granted, there are bad apples here, but most teams scout for this tier of player.

This tier is also home to some of the kids that claim “I would’ve went D-I if I didn’t sprain my ankle.”

Tier Three: Admission Kids

If you find yourself here, take it as a challenge. This tier is usually for the kids that were below-average in football, and the college or university is boosting enrollment numbers (profit). The Tier Three player is usually given a scholarship for $1,000 or less and a shot on the team. With the expense of the average NAIA school, this is major profit.

If you’re here, you need to make sure you have a plan to pay that tuition, and don’t get stuck in debt. Accept the challenge to ball out both on the field and in the classroom, and earn more scholarship money. This however, is not the easiest route.

A lot of these kids make up the NAIA junior varsity squads. There have been many success stories with these players turning into contributors for their team. If you’re in this tier, grind it out and be that success.

Some NAIA Personalities

  • The “I should’ve went D-I, but suffered an injury.”
  • The “My family works here, so I get my tuition free.”
  • The “I’m a member of the denomination my school represents.”
  • The “I’m always sick and have to miss mat drills.”
  • The “My daddy paid for this truck and is easily paying for my tuition.”
  • The “I’m a great teammate, hang with the boys and will be there for you.”

If there are any more, leave them in the comments!

Bottom Line

I loved my time in the NAIA and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I loved teammates from each tier. Every tier has a role.

Use this as a self-reflection and improve your craft no matter what. There are so many professional leagues now and they leave no stone unturned. Also, network with every tier you come across.

You never know when it might help you. Conversely, you might be a help for a teammate down the road.

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1 comment

davidcun47 December 9, 2021 - 2:18 pm

Very good article with some excellent points. The three tiers are pretty accurate and you are right about just how crucial the second tier players are.

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