Wesleyan's Geoff Wheeler on D-III appeal: A healthy balance for elite players

NCAA Division I teams provide athletic scholarships. Division III teams can’t.

Division I soccer teams train with coaches in the offseason. Division III teams don’t.

Some players -- and their parents -- think that means D-III is inferior to D-I. Geoff Wheeler differs.

He coaches Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The Cardinals compete in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. The 11 schools are some of the most elite liberal arts schools in the country. Athletically, it’s not the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East or Pac-12.

But, Wheeler says, neither are most D-1 conferences. His D-III league and others are filled with high quality players who at one point said they’d only play D-I soccer. The result is excellent soccer, intense competition -- but less of the year-round pressure found in D-I programs.

There are twice as many D-III men’s teams (415) as D-I (205). (There are also 214 D-II squads. Those programs can offer athletic scholarships; eligibility requirements in areas like age are less stringent than D-I.)

Wheeler’s recruiting pitch goes like this: “We provide a platform for student-athletes to excel in many areas. Athletics is just one. It’s a place to be exposed to and discover a variety of passions. You can compete for a national championship -- and also sing in the choir.”

Very few D-III soccer players will make a living from soccer after graduation. But that’s true of most D-I players too. That may not be a message some recruits like to hear, but it’s reality.

So, Wheeler says, instead of missing classes for flights to faraway games, NESCAC student-athletes travel a couple of hours by bus. They leave after Friday classes, and return Saturday night. “If a kid gets out of class at 4 p.m. and is at the field at 4:15 for a 4:30 game, that’s OK,” Wheeler says. “You’re a student first.”

That school/sports balance appeals, he says, to a students (and parents) who understand that, ultimately, “education is the most important thing. It’s a healthier balance maybe even than a club environment, where you drive two hours to practice two or three times a week.”

Division III has no official offseason. At Wesleyan, players lead the winter and spring programs -- a valuable lesson in leadership, Wheeler notes. Students use spring semester -- with its truncated, 15-session season -- to study abroad.

Still, despite the stereotype that, Wheeler admits, D-I soccer is “bigger, faster, stronger,” the true difference is “speed of decision-making.” In many other areas, including technical and athletic ability, he sees little difference.

Though Division III schools are located primarily in the East, Wheeler cites top quality programs across the country, from Trinity in Texas and Colorado College, to Claremont McKenna in California.

Yet even D-III schools are not immune to the pressures of college soccer. Wheeler is concerned about “the breakneck pace” of recruiting.

“It’s unhealthy,” he says -- at every level. “There’s pressure to watch matches every weekend. There’s the proliferation of ID clinics, even during the fall season.” The pressure comes from “administrators, peers, and yourself.”

He would rather spend time “developing and nurturing” the players he already has. Other sports have dead periods. The pandemic showed soccer coaches, he says, “the value of spending time with family. We talk a lot about the mental health of student-athletes. We need to talk about the mental health of coaches, too.”

In years past, Wheeler says, D-III coaches did not get fired for losing. That’s no longer the case.

But he remains a proud advocate for D-III. He cites coaches like Mike Russo of Williams, Dave Saward of Middlebury and George Purgavie of Bates, who nurtured the NESCAC game.

“I feel a responsibility to keep nurturing it,” Wheeler says. “If players don’t enjoy what they’re doing, the chance for success goes down tremendously. D-III soccer allows kids to enjoy it.”

18 comments about "Wesleyan's Geoff Wheeler on D-III appeal: A healthy balance for elite players".
  1. Kent James, October 17, 2021 at 10:19 p.m.

    When I played college soccer (1979-1984) I didn't know the difference between DI and DIII (and had never heard of DII or NAIA).  I went to Duke as an unrecruited freshman; played JV in the fall (there were probably 100 people who tried out for the JV, most of whom were strong HS players), and was invited to play with the team in the Spring season.  This was John Rennie's first year there, and he had brought in a talented recruiting class (I think they started 5 or 6 freshman). I realized that if I worked really hard, I might be able to make the team, but I would probably never be an integral player (he brought in players from the England U21 national team, and I was a all-state player from KY).  The quality of soccer was high, and I greatly enjoyed playing there.  

    I transferred to D-III Swarthmore (and had to sit out a year because I went from DI to DIII, though Swarthmore did not recruit me).  Because I was ineligible to play, I practiced with the JV there and played on the JV coach's Portuguese Club team, which played in the highest league in Phila (I few players were former pros, and I think they got paid to play for the team I was on).  There were usually two languages spoken on the field, and I spoke neither one.  But I absolutely loved it.  It was my first experience with soccer culture. 

    I ended up taking 2 spring semesters off so I could use my extra year of eligibility, and eventually became one of the team captains.  I loved playing there.  We also always had 2-3 D-I schools on our schedule, and were always competitive with them (though we probably lost 2 out of 3, they were always tight).  At the time, I think the biggest difference was the D-I teams had a depth we didn't have.  I think D-I teams stopped playing D-III teams because there were only downsides for the D-I teams (since they were supposed to win).  

    Playing college soccer cemented my love for the game, and got me involved for the next 35 years as a player, coach, referee and administrator.  Participating in athletics is a great way to balance a difficult academic load (I was always more focused in season, and didn't waste time because I knew I didn't have time to waste, so it helped me academically).  I think Wheeler's approach is spot on.  

  2. Kevin Sims replied, October 19, 2021 at 1:24 p.m.


  3. Matt Cardillo replied, October 19, 2021 at 6:39 p.m.

    agree. bingo. From 82--86 i played at Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport. At that time we playe D1..smalled D1 in the country. My first year was the first year the school offered scholarships.... My freshman year, we started 10 freshman. Had a blast. Played some big D1 one schools and some amazing d2 and d3 schools. 

    You're correct, depth was the biggest difference between the small schools and the bigger D1s.

    ps. Some the hold-overs from the "club team" played on the sanctioned team. Not that talented but amazing team mates...even the ones who wore headbands and concert t-shirts to practice.

  4. R2 Dad, October 18, 2021 at 2:29 a.m.

    So much college soccer (D1or D3) is poor and not worth the investment over college club soccer. How can this country invest so much time and money at the college level and have so little to show for it compared to other western countries? 

  5. humble 1 replied, October 18, 2021 at 10:55 a.m.

    The mission of college soccer is not to produce players for the national team or make the country a better soccer nation, it is to provide a platform for athletes that play soccer to also acheive higher education. The organization that is responsible for the performance of the national teams is US Soccer.  College soccer is one of if not the largest amatuer soccer league in the world for adults, it benenfits many.  It is something we should be proud of and thankful for.  Players come from all over the world to play in this league and they love it.  We don't need to tear things down to become a better soccer nation, we need to build things up. Cheers! 

  6. frank schoon replied, October 18, 2021 at 3:01 p.m.

    At UT Knoxville we had club soccer for men.....It didn't bother me wheter it's NCAA, D1, D3,club or pickup.  I enjoy soccer no matter what the level for I try to perform the best I can, and away games to me are like home games for I try to put on a show

    As a matter of fact ,I had more fun playing club ball with good players than when I played for NCAA at MD.

  7. R2 Dad replied, October 18, 2021 at 4:09 p.m.

    Humble, this is a good article on a worthy individual trying to make a difference in D3, so I'm thankful we get these types of stories here and I don't want to detract from Dan's column. However, I don't understand what you mean by 'build things up'. The systems we have in place in this country do not produce the number and quality of players comensurate with our size and wealth--this is a long-established fact. Players are suceeding despite the systems. Doing more of the same won't improve things; the case can be made that we're now on the downward side of that growth curve in USSF registrations and we are seeing peak soccer in this country now. The hole in the system is U8-U12, where we rely on skilled players & their families to figure out a path through the overlapping  leagues put in place to make money not develop players. That is definitely broken and needs to be blown up. The people who don't see this and don't agree are part of the status quo. I am not, and am not afraid to point this out. By the time kids get to college it's too late. USSF isn't going to fix this. MLS/academy system isn't going to fix this. Club soccer has been unable to fix this. How can it possibly be improved? I'm refereeing matches where parents are screaming the same nonsense I heard in the 70's. It's like ingnorant-but-well-meaning parents are breeding exponentially beyond the sports abillity to educate them.

  8. Randy Vogt, October 18, 2021 at 6:19 a.m.

    When I became a college ref in 1986, there was little difference between the divisions and I was paid the same for every game. Around the turn of the millennium, the differences between divisions became more obvious with different assignors and different referee fees. Officials now have a person to accompany them to and from the field for D1. Some D3 programs such as those mentioned above are very good yet some still have trouble fielding 11 players. Look at the scores and you would see that nearly all D1 games are competitive, D2 and especially D3 much less so.

  9. Kent James replied, October 21, 2021 at 12:22 a.m.

    You are right about the lack of consistency in the smaller schools.  When I started reffing college games in the early 1990s, especially on the women's side, there were some teams who had players on the field that weren't even athletes, much less soccer players.  But that improved greatly over the next 20 years.  But there were always outliers; I reffed one game between two D-II women's teams. One was excellent, the other barely had enough to field a team, and a lot of the players were much heavier than soccer players normally are.  They explained that the school had to field a soccer team in order to stay in the conference for other sports, so they about half the team was made up of softball players. It was obviously not a game worth playing...

    But generally college soccer built up facilities, gave coaches full-time jobs, and provided an outlet for players to play after HS, so even if the play was not perfect (and I think it has greatly improved over time), it played a crucial role in building the sport (especially in the dark days after the NASL collapsed).  

  10. Philip Carragher replied, October 21, 2021 at 9:14 a.m.

    Randy, why do refs have someone to accompany them to/from their vehicles for D1? Refs are at risk?

  11. Kent James replied, October 21, 2021 at 1:50 p.m.

    Phillip, your speculation is correct.  Fans sometimes express their displeasure at the refereeing crew in ways that might threaten their safety.  There are usually more fans at the D1 level (closer to a pro game set-up).

  12. humble 1, October 18, 2021 at 11:13 a.m.

    Great article.  Thank you.  Enjoy the look into D3 and hearing Coach Wheeler's approach.  I am just learning the college soccer platform as I have a young recruit.  I have been watching D3 and 2 and 1 and NAIA.  At top levels of each of the leagues, you can find quality and nice games to watch.  What is shocking is the quality of facilities around the country at all levels.  What is also shocking is the amount of turf pitches, this I do not like, but faced with soccer on turf or no soccer at all - choose turf.  From what I've learned, a good player who is also a good student has a lot of choices.  What keeps Men's soccer unique in quality up and down the divisions is that at D1 they only have 9.9 scholarships at any one time for all their players.  D2 has 9.  D3 has zero, but they can often give more, because of academic scholarships.  What is a shocker to many is that NAIA can give more than D1 - they can give 12 scholarhips. This is the real reason behind the uniformity.  If you want an interesting current story, look no further than the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, that was D3 last year and jumped to D1 this year.  They are struggling, but will get it done.  Their facilities were already better than many D1 schools, their academics is are very good.  Because of the situation which was caused by their dominance in Men's Football, they were forced to move without really planning so their roster is mostly players they recruited for D3.  They have yet, to win but have not been blown out and are in every game.  C'mon you Tommies!  Carry on!  

  13. Tim Lenahan, October 18, 2021 at 12:29 p.m.

    ... and just a subtle reminder that the only college player to ever play in and win the UEFA Champions League played Division III Soccer.   ;-)

  14. Eric Meixner replied, October 19, 2021 at 10:03 a.m.

    Thanks for sharing.  Was lucky to have had the opportunity to play against Santiago that year.  In the same period, the NJAC also had Petter Villegas (Kean), Nansha Kalonji (Ramapo) and Jeff Moore (Stockton).  All played in MLS with the Metrostars/Red Bulls.  There may be couple of others I missed. D3 National Championships for Rowan (90), Kean (92), TCNJ (96) and Stockton (01).  The NJAC was a beast, with some really great coaches and players.

  15. Ben Myers, October 18, 2021 at 1:41 p.m.

    Far too many parents, dazzled by the prospect of a soccer scholarship, invest oodles of money in club youth soccer for their kids, only to come to the reaiization that Div 1 and Div 2 soccer scholarships are skimpy, by design and by the NCAA, which does little or nothing to limit scholarships for college American football teams.

    There are two serious issues here:
    1. Educate parents early about college finances and soccer, so they keep their eyes open.
    2. Maybe the NCAA loosens up on the number of Div 1 and Div 2 scholarships?

    In the past years, I have had the good fortune to coach young men who went on to play Div 3 soccer, mostly NESCAC, enjoyed it greatly and were approached by lower level pro teams, today's USL.  They all decided to follow non-sports careers. There is much to be said for higher level Div 3 soccer, but you gotta have the grades in high school, or don't even think about it.

  16. beautiful game, October 18, 2021 at 1:58 p.m.

    Terrific article with added spice from humble 1.

  17. Philip Carragher, October 18, 2021 at 3:40 p.m.

    I highly recommend the D3 sports experience for student-athletes. I had 3 kids who were college student-athletes and it was great for each one of them. They got great educations, got to study overseas, have remained close with their teammates, and employers love them. They’re active, healthy adults and the soccer player has used his participation on the company's soccer team to effortlessly network within his company as well as other competitors within his industry (entertainment) that may try to hire him away not only for his excellent contributions to their work but also for his dominance in the soccer league. (Everyone loves to win.) These schools my kids attended were expensive and we were lucky enough to afford them, but for anyone concerned about costs, if you have need these better D3 schools can usually provide assistance but make sure the grades and test scores are strong. My soccer son transferred from a D1 soccer program for a better college experience: although the soccer was a bit better at the D1 level, he never could have studied overseas (Spain!) and found the soccer players at the D3 school to be more engaged academically.

  18. Fajkus Rules, October 19, 2021 at 12:01 p.m.

    If we didn't have Title 9 and the neandrathal thinking pervading most college governing bodies and the athletic administrations, then we would have the two revenue sports acting as close to professional as you want to let them, and then all the rest of sports would played based on demand from the students, and the quality of play and/or possibility of playing at a level beyond college.  It's super stupid that a top college club team is prevented from playing a similar quality varsity team simply because the university administation won't santion that sport as a "varsity" sport due to govt. interference.

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