When can coaches offer athletic scholarships?

USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

No doubt you’ve heard of kids getting scholarship offers as early as eighth grade. It’s true, it happens. But unless your student-athlete is one of those rare prodigies, they will likely need to go through the regular recruiting process to receive an athletic scholarship. College coaches can extend your student-athlete an offer at any time, but there are some windows where it’s more likely to happen.

Coaches must follow strict contact rules

Student-athletes can reach out to college coaches without restriction, but, per NCAA recruiting rules, for most sports, coaches have to wait until June 15 or September 1 before the athlete’s junior year to reach out directly. In addition, the NCAA’s recruiting calendars outline four different periods within the year:

  • Evaluation Period: For certain DI sports, this is a period wherein college coaches can watch a student-athlete compete, but they cannot communicate with them directly.
  • Contact Period: Any and all communication is permitted. College coaches will come to the student-athlete’s school and potentially home to get to know them better.
  • Dead Period: College coaches may not talk to recruits or their parents in-person, but other forms of communication are allowed.
  • Quiet Period: During this time, coaches may not have face-to-face contact with student-athletes off-campus.

Insider Tip: Contact rules vary by NCAA division. The rules for DII and DIII, for example, are more relaxed than DI.

READ MORE: NCAA recruiting calendars: When does recruiting start?

When is your student-athlete most likely to receive an offer?

For most recruits, athletic scholarships will be offered in their junior year or early in their senior year. However, depending on the division level, an offer might come later. For example, DI-AA football programs extend offers early to get the top-level recruits committed. DI-A programs then try to get the best of those who don’t end up committing to DI-AA. DII and NAIA follow, and DII schools finish the process. (Although they cannot offer athletic scholarships, DIII coaches will suggest a student-athlete walk on.)

While each student-athlete’s recruiting journey will look different, here are some ways a coach might offer a scholarship:

  • On an official or unofficial visit: For all division levels, official visits can be made after the first day of your student-athlete’s senior year. It’s an official visit if the coach has explicitly invited you and covering the costs; otherwise, it is an unofficial visit, which can be taken at any time. Whether official or unofficial, you and your student-athlete will have a chance to speak directly with the coach. There’s no guarantee that a scholarship offer will come during the visit, but it’s a possibility.
  • Through a high school or club coach: Because of the NCAA recruiting rules, college coaches do not have direct access to student-athletes at all times. They can, however, speak to high school or club coaches—and often do. A college coach might tell a student-athlete’s high school coach that they have an offer for them, and the high school coach can either pass that along to the student or have the student call the college coach themselves (since they can at any time).
  • During a camp or tournament: This is not as common, but scholarship offers are sometimes extended during a college camp or tournament.

Insider Tip: College coaches usually give a short time frame for the student-athlete to either accept or turn down the scholarship offer. Depending on when the offer occurs and how many offers the student-athlete has or can expect to receive, you may want to ask for an extension so you can compare offers and select the one that’s the best fit.

Keep in mind: Verbal offers aren’t binding

Although it is unlikely that a coach will rescind an athletic scholarship offer, it’s crucial to know that a verbal commitment is not official until there’s a written offer. There are a few reasons why the offer might not actually materialize come senior year: your student-athlete could get injured, the coach could leave the program, your student-athlete could become ineligible or get in trouble, etc.

If your student-athlete has been given an offer from an NCAA DI or DII school, they should receive a National Letter of Intent (NAIA and NJCAA schools have their own version of the letter). In order to receive the scholarship, the student-athlete and parent or legal guardian must sign the NLI during the signing period, which varies by sport. The scholarship is now binding for one year at that college.

Insider Tip: National Signing Day is just the first day of the signing period; student-athletes do not have to sign on that exact day. View all signing dates here.

Final tips for success

Getting an athletic scholarship is almost never a passive process. Proactive student-athletes are much more likely to receive an offer than those sitting back and waiting for scholarships to roll in. Staying in contact with college coaches and letting them know you’re interested goes a long way in the recruiting process. Take advantage of the tools at your disposal: emailing and calling coaches of multiple programs, visiting schools, following up, etc. to set yourself apart from other recruits.

Insider Tip: If your student-athlete is a senior who hasn’t stepped into the recruiting game yet, it’s not too late. Learn more about how to get recruited as a senior.

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