Money, pageantry, community driving jump from FCS to FBS
College football sprang back to life last weekend with all its usual color and pageantry. The band dotted the "i" at Ohio State, grown men barked in the streets of Athens and Traveler the horse patrolled the sidelines at USC. Fans performed the Gator chomp at Florida, flashed the Hook 'em Horns sign at Texas and sang "Roll Out the Barrel" at Wisconsin. From coast to coast the air was full of the smoky aroma from tailgate grills and punctuated by shouts of "Roll Tide" and "Woo Pig Sooie."
Meanwhile in Mobile, Ala., approximately 17,000 people gathered to watch South Alabama play Texas-San Antonio, two football teams that didn't exist four years ago. The game took place far from the mad crowds typically associated with big-time college football. Yet with both programs formally making the move to the FBS level (formerly Division I-A), they're technically -- if not realistically -- on the same level as the Alabamas and Oklahomas of the college football world.
South Alabama and UTSA are not alone in this venture. Georgia State, Massachusetts and Texas State are also in the process of jumping into the FBS pool. Charlotte and Old Dominion plan to have FBS teams up and running by 2015 and recently accepted invitations to join Conference USA. Several other schools are seriously considering starting an FBS program.
On the surface this seems like an odd time to make such a move. There are strong indications that the seismic shifts that have rattled the sport in recent years will not stop until the top 70 or 80 programs break away from the rest of the landscape and form a new version of top-tier college football. If that happens, all the schools trying to break into the big time will find themselves rudely shoved back to the shallow end.
So why bother? Why, in this time of uncertainly, should a university make the extensive financial commitment necessary to support a major college football program? The reasons provided by the schools' athletic directors vary, but there is one common theme: They say having a football team improves the college experience for students and alums. They want their own color and pageantry to enjoy. And if a school is going to play football, it might as well try to play with the best, then worry about the future when it arrives.
"You can't predict what's going to happen, and you don't want that to freeze you into not having any initiative," UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey said. "We need to move forward and do the very best we can with the opportunities we have in front of us. Besides, going from having no football at all to maybe being relegated to a second tier is still a major step forward."
Here is a team-by-team look at the five schools currently making the move to the FBS level, and some of the reasons behind their decisions:
Located in downtown Atlanta, GSU began a football program in 2009 as part of an overall strategic plan to improve campus life at the urban university, athletic director Cheryl Levick said. Those improvements include the addition of 4,000 on-campus dorm rooms as well as a new student dining facility and recreation center.
"We wanted to add a more traditional college campus experience, to add some vibrancy to the campus life here, and that included football," Levick said.
The school certainly did not ease into the sport. Longtime college coach Bill Curry was hired to lead the new program (though he recently announced he is retiring after this season). Home games are played in the Georgia Dome, where the NFL's Atlanta Falcons play. GSU took on mighty Alabama in 2010, losing 63-7. And next year the Panthers are joining the Sun Belt Conference.
"We've been on a pretty sharp trajectory of growth," Levick said. "The reaction to football has been so positive. You can feel the vibrancy on campus right now. The students are wearing their blue and white. We had a huge pep rally before the first game. It's an exciting addition to Georgia State."
Most of the schools making the move to the FBS are located in the Southeast and in Texas, where college football rules. UMass, on the other hand, is trying to make the sport work in a region more concerned this time of year with the Red Sox and Patriots.
"It's not what it would be in SEC country to be sure," UMass AD John McCutcheon said of the local reaction to the program's move this year from the lower-level FCS. "But we still think there are opportunities here for us that are much greater than had we stayed where we were."
McCutcheon said this move has been discussed at UMass for more than two decades, "but for whatever reasons the moon and sun didn't align and it didn't happen." He said that changed recently when the school reached an agreement to play most of its home games at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, and join the Mid-American Conference as a football-only member. UMass will remain in the Atlantic 10 in all other sports.
"The opportunity to play at Gillette Stadium took away a huge (obstacle) in terms of building a new stadium, and the MAC provides a stable opportunity that didn't require us to move all our other sports out of the A-10," McCutcheon said.
"Then the last question was putting together the financial piece. And as we looked down the road, we saw that where we were (in the FCS) things were only going to get more expensive, and the income opportunities just aren't there at that level. It was just the right time for us to make a move we've wanted to make for quite some time."
As far as South Alabama AD Joel Erdmann is concerned, there was one obvious reason for the school to form a football program: It's located in the state of Alabama.
"For a university in Alabama to not have football is similar to a school in Indiana not having basketball or a school in Minnesota not having hockey," Erdmann said. "Culturally the game of football is so engrained into our society in the Deep South. It is a valued sport that communities throughout Alabama hold very near and dear to their hearts."
So dear, in fact, that Erdmann said the birth of the program began with a formal petition presented by the school's student body in 2007. A team was on the field in 2009, playing a seven-game season, and next year the Jaguars will join the Sun Belt.
Erdmann said he already has seen several benefits to South Alabama having a football program.
"Like it or not, the existence of football has changed how we're perceived by potential students and alumni," Erdmann said. "What is being purchased out there with our name and logo on it has grown significantly, and I don't think that could have happened without the emergence of football. At a football game, we have in essence 20,000 members of the South Alabama family in one place at one time with one unified cause. Nothing else can match that."
With 30,000 students at the only Division I institution in the seventh-largest city in America, Hickey said forming a football program at UTSA "was pretty much a no-brainer." Maybe so, but the school still thought about the issue for nearly 10 years before finally moving forward last year.
"We had a real need for our students to have some level of visibility in a different level of campus life, and there was an empty niche for college athletics in San Antonio," Hickey said. "We had worked on this a long time and when we laid it all down, everything just fit really well together. We had a tremendous amount of oversight about whether we should do this. We had an overview of our business plan to make sure it was really going to work."
So far it has worked on a quicker pace than expected. Led by former Miami Hurricanes coach Larry Coker, UTSA set a record last season for the largest average home attendance by a new football program with 35,521, including nearly 57,000 at the inaugural home game in the Alamodome. UTSA already is a member of the Western Athletic Conference this season and is moving to C-USA next year.
"We never dreamed that things would happen this quickly," Hickey said. "But with our market and with what our campus can offer academically, the potential here is pretty much unlimited. It has really opened up the doors for us and changed our persona to another level."
The goals are big for the program at Texas State, a 35,000-student university located between San Antonio and Austin that has been playing football on lower levels for more than 100 years. Athletic director Larry Teis said he wants the team to follow in the path set by Boise State and South Florida, two schools that moved into college football's top tier less than 20 years ago and are now national players in the sport.
"Those are the two you try to model yourself after," Teis said. "There are a lot of others who have moved up recently, and they're just kind of stagnant. The goal at Texas State is not to be stagnant. Our goal is to be Boise and South Florida.
"If you look at what we've done, we've probably put in the resources at the beginning -- the finances for scholarships, coaching staff, facilities -- better than anybody else has. I don't think we're starting behind the way some other schools have done to piecemeal things together to get to this point. I think we are going in with a solid base."
That base includes $70 million in renovations and expansion to the school's 30,000-seat on-campus stadium. And TSU certainly is off to an impressive start. Led by former Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione, the Bobcats stunned Houston last week, 30-13.
"Our goal is to become a national name," Teis said. "I think we've put the resources in place not just to make this work, but to make some noise for our university down the road."
That, of course, is the ultimate goal for all these new FBS programs: joining in on the joyful noise made every weekend during college football season.