Road trips helping Nicholls State make ends meet

(STATS) - Nicholls has played at Oregon State, Oregon and Air Force in the past three seasons. While the Colonels have come back empty-handed in terms of victories, their pockets have been filled to help sustain their program.

This season's lengthy trek brings the Louisiana school back to Colorado, where it will face the Buffaloes on Saturday and become the only Southland Conference program to head out west in each of the last four years.

These long trips are necessary, athletic director Rob Bernardi said, because like many other states, Louisiana has cut its higher education funding. That gap - around 43 percent in Nicholls' case - has to be filled, so Bernardi and his staff have scoured the nation to find the most lucrative matchups they can.

Nicholls' visit to Boulder on Saturday will net approximately $300,000 after expenses. Combined with their trip to Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 12, the Colonels will have covered nearly 20 percent of the overall athletic budget and one-third of the football program's with those two games.

"I don't think we're alone in this. I look across the country and I think schools, even schools in our league that didn't traditionally play FBS schools are doing that as well," said Bernardi, whose team will play at Athens next season against Georgia.

The Colonels will net more money from that trip and their 2017 jaunt to Texas A&M because both are slated to involve bus rides as opposed to more expensive charter flights.

It's unclear how long, however, Bernardi and others will have the opportunity to schedule big-name schools for these "paydays."

Big Ten teams are set to stop playing FCS teams beginning in 2016, and it's unclear if other conferences will follow suit. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen indicated his school likely won't schedule those games after next season, and Houston, a member of the non-Power 5 American Athletic Conference, is expected to do likewise after its matchup with Southland opponent Lamar next September.

"I think there's some truth to the fact that the opportunities are becoming limited," Bernardi said.

He said Nicholls would adjust and find more receptive schools from conferences like the Sun Belt - where he once worked - the Mountain West or the Mid-American if more Power 5 conference members follow through on beefing up their schedules by playing each other.

Such games against non-Power 5 schools, though, likely won't fill the coffers as much. That means FCS teams may need to schedule more non-conference contests to make up the difference.

"Given the funding problems (in) this state, that's a potential problem ahead," Bernardi said.

While these trips are mostly for budgetary reasons, one side benefit has been a chance for the players - 95 of the 111 on the Colonels' roster hail from Louisiana - to see different parts of the country.

Preseason all-Southland running back and Baton Rouge native Mike Henry played in the Air Force and Oregon State games, seeing mountains for the first time and experiencing rare cooler summer temperatures.

"Overall, it was an awesome experience," he said. "They have awesome weather, awesome scenery. It was just a great experience."

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AROUND THE SOUTHLAND=

Ed Eagan needs one more reception Saturday against Central Arkansas to become Northwestern State's all-time leader ahead of Derrick Doyle (126). He's also 115 receiving yards shy of moving into the program's all-time top five. ... Abilene Christian won't have its No. 1 kicker for its meeting with Stephen F. Austin, and the Lumberjacks likely won't have theirs either. Abilene's Nik Grau is out for the season because of an ailing back that might require surgery, and SFA's Mason Juhl is reportedly dealing with a groin injury. ... Incarnate Word will face an FBS team for the first time with Saturday's visit to UTEP.

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