This Day In History: January 8

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On January 8, 1972, the NCAA grants freshmen eligibility in its two biggest team sports, basketball and football. An overwhelming majority of representatives at the annual NCAA convention vote for freshmen participation in basketball; a closer majority vote in favor of freshmen participation in football.

Before freshmen were eligible to play on varsity, they played on junior varsity teams, no matter how dominant they might be in their sport. The consensus for decades was that freshmen were not ready to compete at the varsity level, especially in football.

It was no coincidence that this vote came shortly after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary collegiate career and during Bill Walton’s equally impressive college tenure. The two UCLA stars were among the best college basketball players ever, yet both could not play during their freshman seasons at UCLA—1965-66 for Abdul-Jabbar and 1970-71 for Walton.

Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, famously led the freshmen UCLA team to an easy victory in an exhibition game against the two-time defending champion Bruins varsity team, 75-60. Walton won the John Naismith Award as college basketball’s top player in all three of his varsity-eligible seasons at UCLA.

College coaches and administrators were not universally pleased with the groundbreaking move.

When asked about the rule change, Rutgers football coach John Bateman told the media, “If freshmen can play, you don't have a very good program.” Chuck Neinas, commissioner of the Big Eight Conference (which eventually became the Big 12 Conference), said, “Our football coaches are unanimously against freshman on varsity teams."

Missouri athletic director Sparky Stalcup told the Kansas City Star that freshmen eligibility in basketball and football would be "a whole new ballgame."

"If the other major conferences do it, we'll have to." he said. "It's a recruiting gimmick."

The 1972 season was not the first that freshmen were eligible to play varsity basketball or football—freshmen were given varsity status during the Korean War from 1950-51. In 1970, freshmen were allowed to play varsity in sports other than football and basketball.