Will other schools follow BYU football’s path to paying tuition for walk-ons?

The Cougars’ groundbreaking NIL deal garnered attention from around the nation this week.

You’ve heard the chant.

“Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!”

Daniel Eugene Ruettiger, better known as Rudy, had big dreams of playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but he was undersized. After trying out for the team as a walk-on, Ruettiger eventually found himself on the scout team and eventually saw his dream realized as then-coach Dan Devine put Ruettiger into the Georgia Tech game as a defensive end on Nov. 8, 1975.

Thanks to the 1993 film “Rudy”, Ruettiger’s journey from unrecruited walk-on to player is immortalized. But most walk-ons don’t get much attention at all.

BYU might have found a way to change all of that.

The Cougars ventured into uncharted territory this week, partnering with a Utah-based protein bar company to cover the cost of tuition for all 36 walk-ons on the BYU football team.

“It’s going to make things easier for them to attend school knowing that school’s going to be taken care of,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “... The more you start to research and talk to people that have been walk-ons, you start to find out that it’s a really hard life. I hope it attracts more people here and gives us more opportunities to get young men that we can develop.”

A surprise announcement at BYU

On Thursday, BYU Football announced a multi-year name, image and likeness (NIL) agreement with Built Brands. Cougar walk-ons will essentially become employees of the company and be compensated with the amount comparable to the costs of tuition for the academic year.

In a now-viral video, Nick Greer, co-founder of Built Brands, invites freshman Nick Billoups up to the front of the room during a BYU football team meeting to announce he was “employee No. 1″ and would have his tuition paid for.

Billoups, who initially walked on at Utah but transferred to BYU over the summer after not seeing any action last year, wasn’t personally paying for his tuition, the freshman said it still relieves some stress knowing his parents won’t have to pay for his classes.

Unlike most universities, BYU doesn’t charge out-of-state tuition. However, the school, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does have different tuition prices for those that are members of the Church and those who are not. As undergraduates, Church members pay $3,060 of tuition per semester. For non-members, that amount is doubled ($6,120).

As one of the few players who is not a member of the Church, Billoups said he is excited for his parents to spend the money they would be putting into his tuition to help pay for his younger brother, 13, who plays basketball.

After putting so much time and money into supporting Billoups’ athletic career, now they can focus on the younger sibling.

“I’m still going to ask them for some money and stuff,” Billoups said while smirking. “But it feels great. They’re paying for my tuition and apartment, so [now] I don’t have to ask them for everything. It feels great.”

How does BYU’s NIL deal work?

As part of the deal, BYU walk-on players will have to do additional social media and experience promotions but will provide additional social media and experience promotions for Built as part of their agreements.

Greer said the “devil’s in the details as far as what they can or cannot do,” though he didn’t give a specific number. But, for any athlete still wanting to make additional endorsement deals, they are able.

Greer said there are no exclusivity rules placed on the athletes.

As far as how the deal came about, Greer said the thought had started once they knew the NIL legislation was going to be passing.

“Built is not a me-too brand; Built doesn’t work upon a me-too foundation,” he said. “For us, it’s about ‘how do we do things differently?’ ... That’s when it came together. We started talking with the team, and others and players, and were able to enter into those types of agreements with them to go do something differently.”

(Jaren Wilkey | BYU) BYU football coach Kalani Sitake said he hopes the Cougars' new partnership will help walk-ons around the country.

With the first-of-its-kind NIL agreement, BYU is changing the landscape of college athletics. Initially thought of as a way for individual student-athletes to profit off NIL, BYU found a way to get the whole team to profit.

Players already on scholarship, should they choose to sign the agreement, will be able to receive $1,000 each for representing the company. The walk-ons’ compensation will be paid directly to the players, who can then spend that money in any way they choose, associate athletic director Gary Veron told ESPN.

Because the state of Utah doesn’t have NIL laws in place, BYU was able to come up with its own policy to make sure athletes weren’t being incentivized with money as recruiting inducements or as a “pay for play” — both of which are still NCAA policy violations.

BYU and Build Brands did have a previous sponsorship deal, which will continue, but there is no current issue with using a current business partnership to help facilitate deals for the school’s players or allowing them to sign deals with the company on their own.

Sitake said he can’t forecast what other programs will do after BYU’s groundbreaking deal, but he knew he wanted to get the walk-ons taken care of.

“I only control the ones on our program, but there’s a bunch of walk-ons out there in college football — and not just that sport, there’s walk-ons in every sport — that the program wouldn’t be able to survive without them,” Sitake said. “I think, if we’re going to do name, image and likeness for the stars and for the scholarship guys, then I think it’d be good to also remember the people that do a lot of bulk of the work, getting us ready for games and getting us ready for success.”

A blessing for walk-ons

For freshman Talmage Gunther, who was the second player called up by Greer, the announcement was a “blessing.”

Gunther went into Thursday’s team meeting a bit down and frustrated with the lack of reps he felt he was getting. As a wide receiver, in a position group that already features a lot of heavy favorites fighting for the starting position, Gunther felt lost.

“But then to have my name called at that time was so humbling,” Gunther said. “Maybe even though the reps that I was hoping for hadn’t been coming at that time, that all that I had been doing hadn’t gone unnoticed. It was really special to hear my name be called at that.”

(Jaren Wilkey | BYU) Wide receiver Talmage Gunther was one of 36 walk-ons to learn the cost of their tuition would be covered by Utah-based company Built Brands, part of a new name, image and likeness deal with the university. © BYU PHOTO 2021 All Rights Reserved photo@byu.edu (801)422-7322

After the team meeting, Gunther only had a few minutes to call his wife, who’s a student at Utah Valley University, to let her know of the news before practice was set to start. Most importantly, Gunther let his wife know she wouldn’t have to work in the fall and could instead stay home after classes to take care of their 1-year-old.

According to the NCAA, of more than 1 million high school football players, only 73,712 go on to play in the NCAA. Only about 2% of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college.

Gunther, a finance student, worked during the offseason with Rockworth Companies, a property management company in Holladay. His wife Brooke teaches swim classes over the summer out of her parents’ pool and works for Gatehouse, an interior design store, during the school year.

When the new NIL legislation passed on July 1, Gunther didn’t think he’d be among the BYU athletes to benefit from it. Although he’s been with the Cougars since 2019, Gunther isn’t a high-profile player.

But after the legislation was passed, Gunther said Sitake got the team together and told the group that BYU is also a brand — a brand that is more valuable than any individual brand.

“He kind of made a promise that he was going to take care of all of us, but he specifically singled out walk-ons and said ‘we’re going to take care of you,’” Gunther said. “I’ve just tried to keep doing the same thing that I’ve been doing, putting in the time on and off the field, and just trusting that Kalani would come through on that. And he delivered in every way.”