Provided by John E. Phillips
As Mossy Oak’s commitment to collegiate bass fishing has grown, the company has sponsored the University of Montevallo’s Outdoor Scholars Program in Montevallo, Alabama, which includes a group of 50-plus scholarship athletes who have risen to the first-place position in the Bass Pro Shop School of the Year competition presented by Abu Garcia for 2021. The theme that runs through Mossy Oak is “live your best life outdoors.” Following that mantra, since the 2019-2020 collegiate bass-fishing season, Mossy Oak has sponsored the University of Montevallo’s bass-fishing team as it grows and develops, while offering college scholarships to young people with an interest in the outdoors.
On the drive to become the number-one collegiate fishing team in the nation, Montevallo has become back-to-back champions of the Southeastern Conference on the FLW/MLF circuit in 2019 and 2020. They’ll compete as the team to beat throughout the rest of their spring tournament schedule, which will be over at the end of May. Mossy Oak wanted to know how this college fishing team, headed by Outdoor Scholars Program’s Director, William Crawford, moved to the top ranks of the collegiate fishing circuit and now has 50 scholarship athletes.
The University of Montevallo’s Drive to Become the Best Collegiate Fishing Team in the Nation
How did the Montevallo collegiate bass-fishing team win this number-one ranking nationally?
William Crawford: We had some really good finishes when competing throughout the fall of 2020. In total, we won three tournaments and were ranked in the top-10 teams in every tournament except one this past fishing season.
How long has the University of Montevallo had a bass-fishing team?
Crawford: The team was created in 2005 by a young fisherman, Clent Davis, who today fishes professionally on the Bassmaster Elite Series. In the beginning, the bass-fishing team was strictly a club team with only a handful of anglers. These were the infant stages of collegiate fishing, so there were only about 10 young men in the program. They thought that, if competitive bass-fishing was going to be a sport offered to college students, then the University of Montevallo needed to have a collegiate fishing team. From that point on, our team has grown tremendously. We currently have 50 young men on the bass-fishing team that are scholarship athletes.
When the University of Montevallo first started offering fishing scholarships, there were only five or six other colleges or universities doing the same. We began giving scholarships in 2015, and today, there are roughly 30 colleges and universities offering scholarships to high school bass fishermen. Over time, high school bass-fishing teams have become a feeder system for college fishing programs. From there, the students begin careers in the outdoor industry that includes, but is not limited to, becoming a professional bass fisherman. Obviously the collegiate fishing program is growing at a rapid pace today. Actually it may be one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports in the world. Right now, there are more than 400 colleges and universities with teams competing on three different tournament circuits, but there’s still only a small percentage of these schools offering scholarships.
Montevallo is awarding scholarships for young people who are interested in the outdoors and possibly may be searching for a career in that same field. For what other sports does Montevallo offer outdoor scholarships?
Crawford: We also offer scholarships for students who want to join our archery team.
What’s required for a student to get an outdoor scholarship to the University of Montevallo?
Crawford: Students can go to our website and fill out an application at outdoorscholars.montevallo.edu. In that application, we ask the high school students to write an essay that discusses their favorite outdoor experience.
You couldn’t have put together the number-one team in that nation for the Bass Pro Shop School of the Year without finding and recruiting top-notch high school bass fishermen. How have you done that?
Crawford: What we’ve tried to do for the past few years is identify the best high school anglers in the nation to give the team some diversity in skill sets and knowledge. We’ve found that by recruiting nationally, we get a much more well-rounded team of collegiate bass fishermen. Identifying these top-tier high school anglers requires a lot of research and recruiting over the phone. Although we’re not quite as sophisticated as college football recruiters are, we’re starting to move in that direction. The first thing we want to know is not only how much knowledge they have about bass fishing but also their tournament background in bass fishing.
What traits are you looking for when you start recruiting a high school bass angler to move up to the level of collegiate bass fishing?
Crawford: I’m searching for a person who’s highly driven to be the best person that he or she can be in the sport of bass fishing. One of the reasons we try to recruit former high school athletes is because they already know the time commitment they have to make to go to college, make good grades and travel all across the nation to compete in fishing. The young people on our bass-fishing team have to be well-disciplined to do well in college, and at the same time, serve as strong competitors on the collegiate bass-fishing circuits. Really and truly, this discipline is the same kind that’s required for a professional bass fisherman to compete and win the professional tournaments at the highest level.
With that being said, not only do we recruit athletes who are high school bass fishermen, but we also recruit football players, baseball players and wrestlers. No matter what type of athlete a student is, if he/she knows what it takes to be a winner, we realize they can be successful on our fishing team. Many people don’t know that someone may play a sport in high school who really have a passion to be a tournament bass fisherman. I actually have a recruit that we’re working with who lives in California. Even though he was a baseball player, he decided to come to Montevallo and compete on our fishing team. There were a couple of schools that offered him scholarships in college baseball, but his passion always has been bass fishing. So, rather than accepting one of those scholarships, he decided to come to the University of Montevallo and compete on our fishing team. As in most other college-level sports, once a student is granted a scholarship for our bass-fishing team, they basically train all year long in preparation for the season.
Support for Montevallo’s Bass Fishing Team
You’ve mentioned earlier that you recruit high school bass-fishing athletes from all over the nation. How many states are you recruiting in right now?
William Crawford: Currently, we have students from 11-different states on our fishing team, and with the recruiting we’re doing this year, I believe we’ll have students from as many as 15 different states competing in our collegiate bass-fishing program.
Why do you have 50 scholarship athletes on your bass-fishing team? That seems to be an enormous amount of tournament anglers for one school to have.
Crawford: To reach the highest level of collegiate bass fishing, our athletes fish three different circuits. As I’ve mentioned earlier, we’re the number one Bass Pro Shop School of the Year, but we also fish the Collegiate Bassmaster Elite Series and the Collegiate Major League Fishing Circuit.
How many competitors do you send to each tournament to be represented on all three collegiate bass-fishing circuits?
Crawford: The number varies. We’ve had as many as 24 team members at one tournament. We try to send six to eight boats to each tournament with two anglers in each boat. We make the decision of how many anglers we’ll send based on location, what’s at stake, how big the tournament is, and what our student athletes’ schedules are. We have a large contingency of bass fishermen competing in each tournament, and many times, we’ll have two tournaments going on at the same time, or the tournaments may only be 2-3 days apart.
When your team goes on the road to fish a tournament, there’s a huge expense that comes along with it because these anglers have to pay for rooms, meals and gas, not only for their vehicles, but also their boats. How do you afford to send out as many teams and as many anglers as you do from September 1 until the end of June each year?
Crawford: Well, we’re very fortunate to have a president like Dr. John Stewart at Montevallo. Since he’s an outdoorsman, he understands the importance and the growth of tournament bass fishing. He’s noticed the positive impact that the team has had on our school, so our program now receives funding directly from the university. Other than that, we also host fundraising events and have sponsors like Mossy Oak who help offset some expenses of the team.
If you have three different tournaments going on at the same time, how does that work logistically?
Crawford: At this writing, I’m in Oklahoma with one of our teams at the MLF Championship, and this Friday, there’s a collegiate Bass Elite Series tournament on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina. So, I travel with members of our team when my schedule allows. We have very responsible tournament bass fishermen. I think remembering here that most of the students on the Montevallo Bass Fishing Team have been fishing and going to tournaments for four years before they come to college is very important. They know what to do when they get on the road and realize they’re representatives and spokesmen for the University of Montevallo - just like any other athlete on a college team. And even though my staff and I don’t make every game (fishing tournament), we make sure to stay in touch with the players and keep up with how the tournament is going. When the members of a team graduate from college, most of them have been fishing competitively and going to tournaments for about 8 years. Many of them plan to step into roles as professional bass fishermen or as employees of an outdoor company.
Attracting Sponsors and Outdoor Careers
How does the University of Montevallo teach the students how to work with sponsors?
William Crawford: I’m glad you asked that question. Many of the high school bass fishermen we recruit already have their own personal sponsors before they join our team. I’m constantly telling each one of them, “You may not win every tournament you fish in, and you may not do well in every tournament you compete in, but you’re representatives of the University of Montevallo.” We’ve created an atmosphere of highly competitive bass anglers here who know how to represent their school and their sponsors. Since Montevallo has been in the top tier of college fishing programs, you’ll get the attention of potential sponsors for you and your university.
So, our team members are gaining sponsors, while they’re here at Montevallo. If they do leave college and start fishing major tournaments, more than likely, those sponsors will continue to sponsor them all the way up until they become professional bass fishermen and beyond Also, if our students are hoping to land jobs in the fishing industry, the reputations they build while on Montevallo’s bass-fishing team will cause companies to see and know who they are, how they handle themselves, and how they relate to the public. By the time they graduate, they’re halfway through the door of opportunity of landing a job in the fishing industry and/or the outdoor industry.
Besides working with your bass team to help them refine their skills in competition bass fishing, what else are you teaching them?
Crawford: In our overall curriculum, we teach our bass-fishing team and our other outdoor athletes how to work with sponsors, what sponsors expect of them, how sponsors can help them, how they can help their sponsors, and more importantly, how to become a professional. I try to be available to all the young people in our Outdoor Scholars program to teach them whatever they need to know to secure a career in the outdoor industry - whether they want to become a wildlife biologist, a tournament bass fisherman, a professional archer or a manufacturer’s rep for outdoor equipment. Like any other college class, there are many students who come to me and ask questions about not only how they can be better at their sports, but also be a better candidate for any job for which they want to apply. Of course, some of our young people are somewhat more business-minded and seasoned than others because of what they’ve learned on strong high school competitive events.
Montevallo’s Outdoor Scholars Program Offers Opportunities for Young People to Live Their Best Lives Outdoors
What are some of the courses that the fishermen on Montevallo’s collegiate bass-fishing team are taking as well as courses that other students may take at school that are a part of the Outdoor Scholars Program?
William Crawford: One class that’s really been popular with all of our students is sports marketing. This course has been tailor-made for students who are interested in working in some part of the outdoor industry. After finding out that many of our students have been taking business courses, we’ve decided to offer a class that merges the two ideas together. It’s designed to teach our students about the outdoor industry, how this industry works, and what manufacturers and companies are looking for in future employees. The vast majority of our students are majoring in some form of marketing, and we also have students majoring in video and TV production because they want to do social marketing, become content creators or possibly work with an outdoor television production company.
We’ve discussed your bass-fishing team and talked about a few other courses of study that are involved in the Outdoor Scholars Program. Are there other sports or activities that this program encompasses?
Crawford: These courses cover the majority of the interest areas that we provide for our students. However, we recently had a student in our program who pursued a biology major in hopes of landing a job with either a state or a national fisheries division. We’ve had several other students who were extremely interested and took courses that were related to the sciences like wildlife management, forestry and other outdoor-related vocations.
So far, what’s been the result of the students and the athletes who compete on the collegiate bass-fishing circuits after college?
Crawford: We have quite a few students who are fishing the Bassmaster Opens Tournament Series, and we have one senior student on our team right now who’s been competing in the MLF Toyota Series as a co-angler. He’s learning from each and every pro he gets in the boat with, and by the time he’s a professional bass fisherman, he’ll really know how to fish, compete and operate in the world of the pros. Our Montevallo Outdoor Scholars Program is still in its infancy. It’s grown, changed and increased so rapidly that we’re just now beginning to see our students move into positions in not only the fishing industry, but also the hunting and marketing industries.
How Outdoor Companies Are Supporting Students in Outdoor
How much support has the outdoor industry given to not only Montevallo’s Outdoor Scholars Program, but also to outdoor programs at other colleges and universities?
William Crawford: Some of the outdoor companies we work with have realized the importance of looking at colleges and universities that have outdoor programs as a feeder system for their future employees, spokespeople and social-media influencers. We’ve had great support from companies such as PRADCO, Mossy Oak, and Alabama Power.
PRADCO has been a tremendous help to the hunting side of our program, not only financially, but also with the donations of tree stands, trail cameras and other outdoor gear. Mossy Oak and Alabama Power also have stepped up to the plate to help us with our fishing-team program. From time to time, we do conservation projects with Alabama Power’s Environmental Impact Division and stress to our student athletes how important it is that we give back and help the sponsors who help our Outdoor Scholars Program. One of our graduates, Howard O’Neal, owns a company called the Management Advantage that puts out a lot of information on how to manage hunting properties and maintain habitats for wildlife.
Mossy Oak and Drake Waterfowl have been extremely helpful on the fishing side of our program. These companies are helping our students do what they want to do, which is to earn a living in the outdoors. They’ve been able to help us keep these students in the outdoors, while they’re attending college. But there’s still room for growth as far as needing companies with helping programs throughout the country who are working with young people who hope to find jobs and careers in the outdoor industry. One of the objectives of our program is to be a funnel to employment for our students into the outdoor industry. Our program gives students the information and the know-how to hit the ground running when they start a career or take a job working in the outdoors. With the help of companies willing to provide products for these programs, they are helping us achieve the dream of having a workforce waiting to fill any need in the outdoor industry that can benefit both our students and the companies for which they work.
What’s in the future for the Montevallo Collegiate Bass Fishing Team and Montevallo’s Outdoors Scholars program?
Crawford: We want to continue to create that number-one ranking among the colleges and universities that participate in collegiate bass fishing. There are numbers of great schools across the country that have really good bass-fishing teams, and the events are becoming more and more competitive each year. So, our team has to work harder every year to try and stay in that number-one position. On our side, we have to work harder to find and recruit some of the best high-school bass fishermen in the nation. Montevallo wants new students to be a part of a growing national elite fishing team, and we want to keep Montevallo’s name and our fishermen in the national limelight. Not only that, but we also want parents and students to think of the University of Montevallo as home to the number-one collegiate bass-fishing team and Outdoor Scholars Program in the nation.
What do you think is the maximum number of outdoor scholarships the University of Montevallo will one day be able to offer?
Crawford: Right now, we’re giving 85 scholarships out to the people in our program. However, we’re starting to lose students who are graduating, so we have to work really hard to find students who will qualify. I think that right now, our program will probably top out by offering 95-100 scholarships to high school students who really want to be a part of our team and be leaders in the outdoors.
If you’d like to have more info about Montevallo’s Outdoor Scholars Program, the scholarships it offers or its collegiate bass-fishing team, you can go to outdoorscholars.montevallo.edu, or to Montevallo’s social-media platforms on Instagram and Facebook at Montevallo’s Outdoor Scholars Program and The University of Montevallo’s Fishing Team.