Those Predicting The Demise of FCS Ought to Read Their History Books

Marshall/Southern Illinois Football

By Chuck Burton
Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Two years ago, the “end of days” was predicted in regards to one very big and very powerful FBS conference. 

 

The Big XII had just lost Nebraska and Texas A&M, and the conference was predicted by many so-called smart people to go the same way as the carrier pigeon and the dodo bird into extinction.

 

Two years later, many so-called smart people, including some people whose jobs are to cover the subdivision for a living, are saying that it’s the end of FCS football as we know it, simply because a few schools have chosen to eschew championships for lower-tier bowls.

 

Here’s a news flash – that’s not happening.

 

Many, many people have predicted the end of the FCS in the past, claiming that bowls are the only way to balance the books, or that the big-money BCS or big conference schools are scheming to destroy the subdivision. 

 

It would be foolish to think that nothing is happening in the upper echelons of the FBS.  But then, as now, the would-be Nostradami are wrong.

 

I-AA, or Football Championship Subdivision, has been around since 1977.

 

In its 36 years of existence, entire conferences, and many teams, have chosen to play in bowl games instead of playoffs.

 

And pretty much every time change has happened, the collapse of the subdivision has been predicted.

 

Exhibit 1: when Boise State’s leadership voted in 1994 for explore a move to I-A football, an article by the Spokesman-Review in 1994 boomed that “uncertainty within the Big Sky Conference at some institutions as to their commitment to football is also an ominous sign as to the future level of football in the Big Sky, and what that might do to the financial potential to the sport at Boise State.”

 

Why can’t a school just go to the FBS and leave their former conference, and subdivision, out of the conversation? 

 

While Boise State’s story of blue turf and their surprise of the college football world with their stunning victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, they are seen, despite their balooning athletics spending and more questionable bottom line than some might believe, as one of the great success stories.

 

At the same time Boise State left the Big Sky, so did Idaho – whose time in FBS could not have been more different. 

 

Doubts about Idaho’s ability to remain in FBS have abounded since they moved to the WAC along with Boise State to play for bowls, but in 2004 those doubts were voiced by an economics researcher, who doubted that the Vandals could survive in I-A.

 

In 2004, they only survived through a $5 million subsidy from the state of Idaho – while the president and boosters argued at that time that a move to the WAC would be the solution to all their financial problems.

 

Of course, the WAC would not be the solution to the Vandals’ woes.  Less than ten years later, the WAC announced that they would stop sponsoring football, and Idaho was essentially forced to return to the Big Sky in all sports but football, and the Vandals are clinging to dear life in FBS by joining a football conference who have the majority of its members two time zones away, the Sun Belt.

 

How did the Big Sky manage during Idaho’s absence?  Quite well, thank you.

 

After the Broncos and Vandals announced their departure, they replaced the departed schools with a pair of Division II schools transitioning to Division I, Sacramento State and Portland State.

 

It wasn’t easy, and they didn’t replace two national I-AA powerhouses with teams with the same level of on-the-field success, but the Big Sky did survive the loss of the two large programs from Idaho.

 

Sacramento State has struggled mightily at times in the Big Sky, but has shown promise last year, remaining squarely in the playoff hunt until the last week of the season.

 

When Division II Portland State entered the Big Sky, the Vikings were coached then by Tim Walsh, who took over for the legendary “Pokey” Allen after he left to become the head man at none other than Boise State.

 

The colorful “Pokey” Allen was hired by the Broncos after Portland State humiliated the Broncos in Boise 52-26 – on the blue turf and everything.  He would get the Broncos’ first-ever win at the FBS level, and came one win away from winning a I-AA national championship in 1994 but would be defeated 24-14 by Youngstown State – led by a young head coach named Jim Tressel.

 

Today, Walsh is the head man at Cal Poly – who was invited to be a member of the Big Sky Conference in football last season, and rewarded their membership last season by qualifying as an at-large bid to the FCS Playoffs.

 

Currently, the Big Sky is the largest conference in all of FCS.  It boasts two of the most financially successful and recognizable programs in the subdivision in Montana and Montana State, and at 11 members is a strong, vibrant conference at the FCS level.

 

Despite the fact that the Big Sky has thrived since Boise State and Idaho’s departure, it’s not like commissioner Doug Fullerton rests easy on that fact.

 

“The Big Sky understands our position of leadership in the FCS,” he said in a statement, “but we have never been caught unaware [of change]. It’s been very difficult to maintain our membership, even though throughout history many of the schools who have moved up spend more money and have less success.

 

“I think there are some tremendous issues now facing FCS, but we will be prepared for whatever structure we face in the future in Division I football.’’

 

While something big seems to be in the works in the upper reaches of FBS, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Big Sky will be prepared for whatever is thrown its way.  It’s in their DNA.

 

*****

 

Even as Texas State was starting to finally complete for Southland Conference Championships and participate in the FCS playoffs, they had always had their eyes on playing in bowls.

 

As far back as 2000, the Bobcats were paving the way to a potential move to FBS, scheduling Carr Associates to perform a feasibility study for Texas State to field an FBS football team.

 

Perhaps looking up at the biggest revenue-generating athletics department in the world, the University of Texas and its $163 million empire of an athletics department, the Bobcats, perhaps, wanted just a little part of that money and fan interest, and undertook an incremental plan to move to bowl football, making their intentions known at every step.

 

For a decade, Texas State got buy-in from donors, students and trustees, until finally, in 2012, the Bobcats announced that they were going to be leaving the Southland Conference to join the WAC.

 

While fans and athletics department people were thrilled, they didn’t realize, however, that the WAC didn’t have much longer to live.

“The addition of these three schools clearly sends a message that the WAC and its member schools are prepared to move forward to build a new WAC,” former MAC and WAC commissioner Karl Benson said at that time, mere months before leaving the job of commissioner of that conference and resurfacing as the commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference.

 

“I think the remaining members of the WAC looked at the state of Texas and said, ‘That’s a recruiting base for all of us. It doesn’t hurt us to go there and play and be involved with those teams,’” Texas State athletic director Larry Teis said at that time. “I think the state of Texas had some lure to the overall decision.”

 

The lure of Texas, obviously, wasn’t enough to save the WAC.

 

A year and a half after Texas State’s announcement that they were moving, the WAC stopped sponsoring football, with the Bobcats, and every other school that sponsored a team in FBS, scrambling to find a spot in the only available conference that would take them, the Sun Belt.

 

While Texas State scraped with danger as the WAC disbanded, there was some good news for the Bobcats in regards to their pursuit of bowls.   Last season, Texas State broke a record with over $1.4 million in ticket sales for football.

 

That sounds like good news – that is, until you look a lot closer at the numbers.

 

Almost half of all the ticket revenue came from Texas Tech playing a road game in San Marcos, netting $668,000 in a one-off “favor” from the Red Raiders, ballooning the ticket revenue numbers for 2012.

 

As a result, it would take a miracle for Texas State’s 2013 home slate, which includes Prairie View, Wyoming, Louisiana-Monroe, Georgia State, South Alabama and Western Kentucky, to come anywhere near the ballpark of the 2012 numbers.

 

Furthermore, it’s not like the 2012 numbers were an unqualified success, either.

“A lot of the non-BCS schools struggle with attendance,” associate athletic director Don Coryell said recently. “We’ve struggled a little bit, especially with our student numbers. That’s been the biggest surprise. After the [Texas] Tech game when we had over 8,000 students, I thought that would equate to much larger student crowds for us, and it hasn’t. Are we happy that we are averaging over 15,000 and maybe doing better than some schools? Sure. Would we rather be averaging over 20,000? No doubt about it. We are going to get there. It’s a process.”

 

That’s not all.

 

“One of the biggest challenges we face is that we must continue our growth at a record-setting pace,” Rick Poulter, assistant athletics director of sports information at Texas State, told the University Star. “This past season saw the Athletics Department generate record-setting ticket sales and alumni support. However, this is just a first step of a process in our transition. Now, we need to continue improving both on and off the field as we move towards establishing ourselves as a strong FBS program.”

 

Can Texas State grow at a record-setting pace in 2013, even without a Texas A&M or Texas Tech visiting San Marcos?  Can they do this with a home schedule that includes three recent FCS moveups almost in their same situation, Georgia State, Western Kentucky and South Alabama, and an FCS game against Prairie View A&M? 

 

It remains to be seen.

 

Meanwhile, Southland commissioner Tom Burnett has never had any doubt that the Southland would manage just fine without the Bobcats.

 

“The Southland Conference wishes Texas State and UTSA well with their new membership in the Western Athletic Conference,” Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett said in a statement when the Bobcats announced their departure. “Texas State has been a valued member, and has contributed and benefitted from their Southland membership.

 

“The Southland Conference … is already planning for the future and will take the necessary steps in due course to ensure that conference members will continue to have opportunities for competitive success while fostering an environment that encourages academic achievement by student-athletes.”

 

As Texas State left in football, Central Arkansas joined.

 

In September 2005, Central Arkansas, a member of the Division II Gulf South Conference, announced its intention to join the I-AA Southland Conference.

 

As Texas State announced their departure, Central Arkansas entered their second year of transition to Division I and announced their first Southland conference schedule.

 

Accompanying their transition was a refurbishment of 8,000 seat Estes stadium, along with an alternating purple-and-grey stripe pattern that makes the Bears one of three Division I programs with non-traditional stadium turf – following Boise State’s lead.

 

Along with the story of their turf and their transition came football success.

 

In their first two years of eligibility for the playoffs, 2011 and 2012, the Bears qualified both times, the first time as an at-large bid and the second time as Southland co-champions by beating FCS national runner-up Sam Houston State 24-20 during the regular season in front of a sellout crowd in Estes stadium.

 

Texas State qualified twice for the FCS playoffs in their 24 year history in the Southland.  Central Arkansas equalled the feat the first two years they were eligible, and seem to have a very promising future ahead in FCS.

 

Additionally, Sam Houston State has made the FCS national championship game in nearby Frisco, Texas the last two years.  Competitively, the Southland hasn’t skipped a beat since Texas State left.

 

The Bearkats and Bears illustrate perfectly the FCS strategy that Southland commissioner Tom Burnett, Jr. has when it comes to the conference.

 

“I think FCS football has fared very well, no matter how many of its former programs have transitioned to FBS,” he told me last year.  “And no other league has seen more of its members transition to FBS than the Southland since the 1980’s, but we have done very well for ourselves.  Where Louisiana Tech, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe once had significant competitive success as members of this conference, those members have been adequately replaced by other very successful programs.   From a national perspective, other than an isolated program or two, I don’t know of many FCS-to-FBS transitioning teams that have lit the college football world on fire.

 

“There will always be FCS programs enamored with and interested in transition to FBS.  We all have our aspirations, personally or perhaps in business, and it’s difficult to begrudge anyone their dreams and goals in the effort to improve their lot in life.  Isn’t that the American Dream?  There’s also a long line of mid- to low-FBS programs looking to move to the next level, and a list of Division II teams looking for their Division I opportunity.  There’s always someone else waiting to move, and that will probably always be the case.”

 

As schools like Texas State left, the end of the Southland was predicted by some.  Yet as the Texas State’s leave, schools like Central Arkansas rise to take their place, as Houston Baptist and Abeline Christian, the Southland’s newest members in the years to come, will be doing as well.

 

Change has always accompanied the Southland, and certainly Tom Burnett and the presidents of the Southland Conference schools aren’t sitting around while the turmoil of the FBS swirls around them.  But the Southland will do fine whatever the landscape is in collegiate athletics because they’ve always looked ahead.

 

*****

 

Many people predicted the end of the SoCon once Marshall, a pigskin “superpower” in the 1990s in I-AA, explored a move to the I-A in football.

 

Fans of the two-time I-AA national champions in 1996 wondered “what’s next?” as they looked at a chance to play for bowls, seemingly having done all there is to do at the I-AA level.

 

Enter the MAC, only a few years removed from trying to demote one of its members to FCS in order to remain as an FBS conference (Eastern Michigan).  In desperate need of some new blood with rabid fans, they welcomed Marshall with open arms. 

 

They needed Marshall, and their fans, to stay alive in FBS as a conference.

 

More than a decade later, after the press conferences announcing the moves to Bowl Subdivision and the dreams of Marshall competing for big bowls, the idea of the Thundering Herd being called a college football “powerhouse” seem well behind them.

 

In 2003, Marshall had a slew of financial problems stemming from their days in the MAC, which spurred a desire for athletic director Bob Marcum and president Michael Perry to recommend a move to Conference USA.

 

“He told of how the MAC had the stigma of being a mid-major,” the 2003 release said, “and that Conference USA has moved up to the level of major conference in the last few years.

 

He further stated that financially Marshall had lots to gain from the move.

 

Marcum went as far to give figures as to give comparisons in revenue differences in the conferences. After Marshall’s expenses in the MAC, the university netted a $32,500 gain per year. The next figure he showed was a prognostication of revenue guaranteed as part of the C-USA package. Marshall would net $730,408 if allowed to move to Conference USA.

 

“Marcum was very direct not to hide anything to the Board,” it continued, “as he showed that Marshall’s costs would increase by $600,000 per year. This left $100,000 per year before additional revenues which were not included in the guaranteed figures. These additional revenues include bowl games, an additional amount of money from a TV deal if Marshall makes the C-USA championship game, extra travel stipends given by the NCAA and a projected increase in ticket sales to all sports.”

 

Calling the move “nothing to lose and lots to [potentially] gain, Marshall made the move in time for the 2005 season.

 

Yet little changed for Marshall except for the conference logos on the athletics website.

 

Still calling them a “college football mid-major”, the Huntington Gazette reported in 2009 that revenue had “dipped drastically as fans grew weary with the results on the field.” 

 

This has continued recently, too, the Gazette reported that more than half, or $12.8 million of the Thundering Herd’s $24 million athletics budget in 2010, “was in subsidies from either student fees or directly or indirectly from institutional monies that are ultimately made up in part by taxpayer dollars, according to the center.”

 

Entering 2013, Marshall athletics will combine the challenges of its athletic department competing in the far-flung Conference USA, but also a looming budget crisis, where funding for the university will be cut by 9%.

 

While there’s no word of cutting the athletics subsidy yet, you have to wonder whether that might be a future target of West Virginia lawmakers.

 

And it’s even more open to question as to whether Conference USA can still be considered a “major conference” as Marshall’s athletic director famously opined.  Only four of their conference mates remain from the “mid-major” days of Conference USA just a few sort years ago.  Two are from the Deep South – Southern Miss and UAB.  The other two are from Texas: Rice and UTEP.  The rest of their new conference will consist of former Sun Belt and WAC schools.

 

Meanwhile, when the Thundering Herd left – you guessed it – folks predicted the end of the SoCon. 

 

Did the SoCon recover from the loss of Marshall?  Did they rebound with national championship teams?  Oh, yes they did.  And how.

 

Two years after Marshall’s move, the ensuing champion, Georgia Southern, was in the national championship game, losing to upstart UMass. 

 

The following two years, they won the national championship – banners No. 5 and No. 6 for the Eagles, adding to the three I-AA national championships earned by legendary coach Erk Russell’s teams in 1985, 1986 and 1989, and the 1990 flag earned by Tim Stowers’ team.

 

In the 2000s, Appalachian State would make history by winning three championships, in 2005, 2006, and 2007, the SoCon won five national championships in the last sixteen years, and two of the highest-rated TV playoff games of the last three years involved both Appalachian State (vs. Montana, 2009 semifinals) and Georgia Southern (vs. Old Dominion, 2012).

 

And competitively, it sure seems like the SoCon survived just fine, adding perennial playoff qualifier Wofford to replace the Thundering Herd and never looking back. 

 

In the last six years, the Terriers have qualified for the playoffs five times.  Jerry Richardson, a Wofford alum, has conducted Panther summer training camps at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg and has been a great benefactor to the college over the years, bringning the Terriers from Division II to a perennial SoCon powerhouse.

 

If Wofford is any guide, there’s no question that the SoCon will find new schools to replace Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, who following Marshall into “mid-major” FBS football. 

 

After all, throughout their history the SoCon has lost such insignificant schools such as Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia, and they’ve – somehow – found a way to survive the last, oh, eighty years.

 

“I think there will always be a place for FCS football for Division I programs that determine they simply cannot enter the money pit that is the lower half of the FBS,” SoCon commissioner John Iamarino told me.  “The rewards of occasionally going to a second tier bowl game and playing on Wednesday nights to get on national TV will not be the kind of payout they’re seeking for the millions they’ll need to spend.”

 

Yet like Doug Fullerton, Iamarino acknowleges that there is plenty of work ahead, and that the collegiate athletics landscape is changing.

 

“For the Southern Conference, the opportunity to play Division I football in a cost-containment mode is important for our members, and the chance to compete for a national championship through a true playoff system is particularly appealing,” he said.  “Our task now is to build a conference that consistently places multiple teams in the playoffs and competes for national championships, and that’s what we’re focused on as we consider our membership options.”

 

If the story of the rise of Appalachian State, the re-emergence of Georgia Southern, and the rise of Wofford is any guide, the SoCon will survive quite nicely with the loss of the Mountaineers and the Eagles.  As they always have.

 

*****

 

From the very beginning there have been schools who want to compete for championships, and competing in a cost-containment way, instead of chasing bowl money and Tuesday night football.

 

Those that decide, eventually, that they would rather not compete in cost-containment ball, as is their wont, decide to compete in the FBS. 

 

They find a conference that sponsors FBS football, and find a way to get an invite.  They leave their conference, and move on.

 

And then other schools, from Division II and below, take their place in the conferences at the FCS level. Those Division II schools find a conference that sponsors FCS football, and find a way to get an invite.  They leave their conference, and move on.

 

It’s how the system has always worked.

 

When an Idaho leaves for the WAC, a Portland State takes its place.  When a Marshall leaves, a Wofford takes its place.  When a Texas State leaves for the Sun Belt, a Central Arkansas takes its place.

 

If the Missouri Valley or CAA were to lose a school tomorrow, another school will rise take its place. As an Old Dominion leaves the CAA, a Stony Brook takes their place.  As a Western Kentucky leaves the Missouri Valley football conference, a North Dakota State takes their place.

 

It’s as it’s always been.  It’s a part of the FCS universe.

 

FCS has always seen change, and has lived through every change that has resulted in naysayers predicting the end of days for the subdivision. 

 

The Football Championship Subdivision will live though turmoil blowing through all of Division I football, too, and they will emerge stronger than ever from this maelstrom.

 

The FCS will survive because they whole idea is to be cost-containment football with a true representative playoff with all its members who choose to participate.

 

It’s hard to say that lower-level FBS football, with none of the revenue but all of the costs of high revenue football, will be able to say the same when the maelstrom ends.

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