Whether fans have been following Jay Wright and Scotty Reynolds this year, or have been die-hard fans since the days of Rollie Massimino, Howard Porter, “Easy Ed” Pinckney and the “Four Corners” offense, chances are folks have heard of the Wildcats’ basketball program.
In the FCS football world, however, fans are wondering whether Villanova can do something no other school has done: win a national championship in men’s basketball and football in the same year.
For much of America, most folks view their March tournament brackets and see a bunch of schools they don’t usually see any other time of year. But many of them played, or currently play, football at the FCS level – and some have been very, very successful. This year’s crop features two of the three former FCS national champions, a bunch of schools with playoff history and the winner of the “Gridiron Classic” from the highest level of nonscholarship football.
Let’s take our annual look at the teams in the tournament, and their parallel football history.
(Much thanks to the folks at The Helmet Project and MG Helmets for the many helmets used in this piece, especially the historic ones.)
Basketball Conference: Atlantic Sun
Football Conference: Southern Conference (2003)
Basketball: No. 16 seed, to face No. 1 seed Kentucky
You might be forgiven of thinking as East Tennessee State as a basketball school, as it’s qualified for the NCAA tournament for the second straight year as a straight No. 16 seed in the big dance. What many people don’t know, however, is that it used to be a force in Division I football as well.
Bucs fans love their trips to the NCAA tournament, but many fans still haven’t forgiven former ETSU president Dr. Paul Stanton for discontinuing Bucs football in 2003. It’s hard to understate how football defined ETSU as an institution - with a program dating from 1922, with the Bucs’ intense rivalries in the SoCon in all sports with Appalachian State, UT Chattanooga and Davidson.
When Stanton discontinued football, ETSU had some good football teams, like Mike Cavan’s 1996 team. That Buccaneer squad ended up beating Villanova at home in the I-AA playoffs before falling to Montana in the quarterfinals. After dropping football, an indirect result of that decision was that the Bics ended up leaving the SoCon to play schools from Florida and Georgia in the Atlantic Sun conference in basketball and other sports. It was as if they betrayed their SoCon brothers and turned their backs on some great regional rivalries. Folks still talk about Buc quarterback Todd Wells and his single-game record for passing (377 yards) and all-purpose yards (443 yards) over hated rival Appalachian State in 1997.
Tensions still exist between the current ETSU administration and the ETSU football community, which has remained active in its desire to resurrect Buccaneer football. With allies such as Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith in its corner, a former Buc, it is better organized than some. There’s a lot of hope that when ETSU president Paul E. Stanton retires, Buc football will return in some form.
Football/Basketball Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC)
Basketball: No. 15 seed, to face No. 2 seed West Virginia
The big celebrity at the Baltimore, Md., campus these days has to be men’s basketball coach Todd Bozeman, who has his Bears in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. He continues to rehabilitate his reputation as a head basketball coach – in a past life, as head coach of Cal and a certain point guard named Jason Kidd, he left the Pac 10 program under swirling clouds of NCAA violations, paying a player’s family so it could see their son play, and an eight-year “death penalty” from coaching in the college ranks.
The Bear football program didn’t plumb the same depths as Todd Bozeman’s career, but Morgan State is still looking to win its first MEAC championship since 1979 and to make its first-ever FCS playoff game. Head coach Donald Hill-Eley has gotten closer – leading his Bears to a .500 record over the past three years – but hasn’t yet gotten over the hump to compete with last year’s champions, South Carolina State. Still, the Bears have accumulated outstanding talent in their ranks over the past few years: Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and Colts runningback Chad Simpson.
There is a lot of optimism with the Bear football program going into 2010. With 57 letterwinners returning and 17 returning starters – though starting runningback Devan James and quarterback Carlton Jackson graduate – there’s a lot of hope that Morgan State will continue to challenge for the MEAC title.
Football/Basketball Conference: Big Sky Conference
Basketball: No. 14 seed, to face No. 3 seed New Mexico
With Montana getting a shocking 66-65 victory over Weber State to get the Big Sky championship, the Grizzlies’ first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004 is featuring a lot of jokes involving “Dancing with Wolves,” because the New Mexico Lobo mascot is, indeed a wolf. But that’s not the only big denial that Montana has made to Weber State this year.
Most years, Montana is favored to win the Big Sky championship in football, where the Griz are a fixture in the FCS postseason. But Weber State, with superstar quarterback Cameron Higgins at the helm, was poised before the season to break Montana’s dominance at the top of the Big Sky. But just as in basketball, the Wildcats’ dreams of winning the Big Sky title went down in flames with a 31-10 defeat at the hands of runningback Chase Reynolds and the Griz.
For the second straight year, Montana was the runner-up at the FCS National Championship game. After a fantastic run through the playoffs – including an historic 47-7 point comeback to beat South Dakota State 61-48 in what could have been the most incredible playoff game in history – the road for the Griz ended again in Chattanooga with a hard-fought 23-21 defeat to Villanova. A few days after the game, Griz head coach Bobby Hauck left Missoula to take over at UNLV (who is also in the NCAA tournament this year), and Robin Pfulgrad, a member of Hauck’s staff as wide receivers coach, will take on the helm of the powerful Grizzly football program.
Football/Basketball Conference: Southern Conference
Basketball: No. 13 seed, to face No. 4 seed Wisconsin
Every year, there’s a “tournament darling” that all the pundits seem to pick as a team that can spring a possible upset. This year, it’s definitely Wofford: a first-time member in the NCAA tourney, with an impressive domination in the SoCon tournament and impressive nonconference wins over Georgia and South Carolina.
But most years, the “lovable” Terriers are known for something else: head coach Mike Ayers’ “dinosaur bone” offense and runs at FCS playoff bids. In 2003, Ayers went 12-2 – losing only to FBS Air Force during the regular season and falling only to national championship-bound Delaware in the playoff semifinals. In 2007 and 2008, Ayers’ team once again barked its way into the postseason with 8-3 and 9-2 records, respectively. The Terriers’ playoff victory in snowy Montana, 23-22 against the undefeated Grizzlies on a last-gasp touchdown run by Terrier fullback Michael Hobbs, remains a treasured memory for Wofford fans.
In 2009, an injury-plagued season made the Terriers fall to a deeply disappointing 3-8 record, only their second losing record in eight years. But all that means is that Ayers, and a returning corps of players that includes fullback Eric Breitenstein and linebacker Mike Niam, are eager to get through spring practice and get ready for the 2010 season.
Football/Basketball Conference: Ivy League
Basketball: No. 11 seed, to face No. 5 seed Temple
The Big Red, three-time Ivy League regular-season basketball champions, long for their football team to share the same sort of dominance in Ivy League football that they’ve enjoyed recently in basketball.
Under former head coach Jim Knowles – who was let go after the 2009 season after a 2-8 record – the Big Red had a reputation for starting fast, and then folding when the Ivy League title run came along. Last season was true to form for the Big Red: after jumping out to a 2-0 start with a 33-9 win over Bucknell and a 14-12 upset win over Yale in the Yale Bowl – their first win there since 1996 – they would lose their next eight games, giving up 30 points or more in five of those contests.
To turn things around, the Big Red turned to a guy without an Ivy League background: Kent Austin, former offensive coordinator at Ole Miss. He comes to Ithaca with a daunting task: to get Cornell to compete for an Ivy League football title, something it hasn’t won for more than 20 years. “I didn’t come here to lose,” he said in the news conference announcing his arrival. “And if I didn’t think we could win, I wouldn’t be here. I promise you that.”
Basketball Conference: Big East
Football Conference: None
Basketball: No. 6 seed, to face No. 11 seed Washington
Marquette was one of the schools of the football-crazed Midwest that started football in the late 1800s (1889) and continued to have a strong following in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Led by college football hall of fame coach Frank Murray for 17 of those years, he would lead the Golden Avalanche to more than 100 career victories and a trip to the Cotton Bowl in 1937.
In 1960, budget deficits caused Marquette’s president, the Rev. Edward J. O’Donnell, to choose to discontinue football at the university. In a precursor to violent riots in Milwaukee later in the decade, 3,000 students reportedly responded by walking out of classes and demanding their football team back. No dice; Marquette’s storied football program, like those of so many private, religious institutions, would be no more.
A few short years later, Marquette started up - not without resistance - a club team that continues playing to this day and have an active squad. At 36 years old, it is the oldest club football team in existence. Might it elect to start up Division I football once again, perhaps joining the Pioneer football league to play teams such as Drake and Butler in football? It wouldn’t be the first time a Big East team has hosted a nonscholarship football program at the Division I level: St. John’s (NY) did so in the 1990s as part of the now-defunct MAAC conference. Could the Golden Avalanche rise once again?
Football/Basketball Conference: Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC)
Basketball: No. 16 team
The Golden Lion basketball team is one of the most underreported stories of the entire tournament. Starting out at 0-11 – all on the road, traveling all over the Midwest, West and Deep South – few folks thought it would be in the NCAA tournament in March. But with an amazing run through the SWAC – and a 17-4 record after its brutal beginning – Arkansas-Pine Bluff ended up in its first NCAA tournament.
In the SWAC, the Golden Lions are hoping to emulate another SWAC conference mate: Prairie View A&M – and get to another place they’ve never been: outright SWAC champions. While UAPB has come close over the years – hitting the eight-win mark or better five times since 1990 – head coach Monte Coleman’s rebuilding effort in 2009 fell short of that benchmark last year with a 5-5 record.
With quarterback Josh Boudreaux returning in 2010, there’s excitement that the Golden Lion football team might be able to make a run at the “big dogs” of the Western Division of the SWAC like Prairie View, Grambling and Southern.
Basketball Conference: Big South Conference
Football Conference: None
Basketball: No. 16 team lost to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in play-in game
If you google the words “Winthrop football,” it doesn’t take long before you end up on a Web page on the Winthrop Athletics Web site which says “Is football in Winthrop’s future?” The Eagles have never sponsored football, but they hope to be sponsoring an FCS team in the near future if the Web site is to be believed.
“University President Anthony DiGiorgio said he created a task force last year to come up with those estimates, among other things, so he would have a detailed answer to a question he’s been hearing every autumn for some years: ‘What would it take for us to have football at Winthrop?’ the news release states boldly. The answer, it seems, is – for starters – a boatload of money: millions of dollars in coaching salaries, scholarship expenses (the Big South Football conference, after all, is a scholarship FCS football conference), and money for a new 8,000-seat stadium.
It’s clear from the release that the big numbers are not a way to stop debate about Winthrop starting a Division I football program: rather, it’s an honest, open talk about what it takes to start football at the FCS level – and if a donor or donors are willing to donate to make it happen, then it will indeed happen. And because it’s in the Big South – a growing conference, with an autobid in the FCS playoffs next year – it’s an interesting possibility to think about Winthrop football sooner rather than later.
Football/Basketball Conference: Northeast Conference (NEC)
Basketball: No. 15 seed, to face No. 2 Villanova
Many folks looking at their brackets might have known that the Colonials were playing in the Dance for the second consecutive year. But a lot don’t know that their football team’s head coach is someone who has coached in the NFL: Joe Walton, former head coach of the NFL’s New York Jets.
Unlike brutal Jets fans, who had all sorts of serenades for their head coach in the late 1980s (many unprintable), Walton is known in western Pennsylvania as being the father of the Colonials’ program and the only head coach it’s ever known. (The field is even named after him.)
While “Uncle Joe” will coach the Colonials as long as he’s able, recent history has shown Robert Morris to be hovering around .500 the last three years. It seems like the Colonials are slow starters: in 2008 and 2009, RMU is 1-7 in September but 5-1 in November . And starting in 2010, the winner of the NEC will get an autobid into the FCS playoffs - which has to have all Colonial football fans salivating. Can “Uncle Joe” and a young quarterback named Jeff Sinclair guide the Colonials to their first postseason – in football?
Football/Basketball Conference: Southland
Basketball: No. 14 seed, to face No. 3 Baylor
The alma mater of Dan Rather has been excited this offseason. No, not because the Bearkats have finally qualified for the NCAA tournament for the second time since 2003. It’s because the FCS National Championship game is going someplace new.
Starting in January, the FCS national championship game will be moved to Frisco, Texas – a neutral site for the championship game,since there is no FCS school in that part of the state. The closest FCS school to Frisco? Sam Houston State, a mere 3 ½-hour drive from the future home of the championship.
The Bearkats have had uneven success in the Southland through the years, but have made the FCS playoffs three times since 1990, twice falling on the road in frigid Montana in the quarterfinals. Sam Houston State also has made a name as a great home for transfer quarterbacks – first Dustin Long, who lead Sam Houston to the FCS semifinals in 2004, and Rhett Bomar, who didn’t get Sam back to the playoffs but did generate enough excitement to be drafted by the NFL’s new York Giants last year.
Going into the 2010 season, new head coach Willie Fritz (who replaces fired head coach, Todd Whitten after a disappointing 5-6 record) has – who else – two transfer quarterbacks to choose from to help the Bearkats reach the top of the Southland. Sam Houston fans will be wondering if Greg Sprowls (Clairmont CC, Calif.) or Bryan Randolph (Simi Valley CC, Calif.) will be the signal-caller in the fall of 2010.
Basketball Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC)
Football Conference: MAAC (2004)
Basketball: No. 13 seed, to face No. 4 Purdue
Once upon a time, the MAAC sponsored nonscholarship football at the Division I level, and the Saints fielded a team in that league. In the early to mid-1990s, the MAAC thrived as a nonscholarship league with nine members, including affiliate schools such as St. John’s (NY), Georgetown and Duquesne.
But MAAC nonscholarship football didn’t last. A combination of institutional indifference, a change in philosophy by one of their frequent scheduling partners (the Patriot League) and escalating costs caused Siena to cease football operations in 2004. “In light of the college’s strategic plan, enhancing the football program is not in line with the athletic department’s or the college’s strategic direction,” Siena athletic director John D’Argenio said in a statement at that time.
The MAAC seems extremely unlikely to sponsor football again in the near future – the league leadership seems to be focused on basketball and lacrosse almost exclusively these days. (Siena’s success in the NCAA tournament has certainly been a factor.) But you wonder whether a school such as Siena, or other former teams in the MAAC football league, might take on nonscholarship football again someday - or if MAAC schools, who want to play football once again, might want to leave the MAAC for a conference that gives more respect to the pigskin.
Basketball Conference: Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)
Football Conference: Independent
Basketball: No. 11 seed, to face No. 6 Notre Dame
When it comes to basketball, Old Dominion – which has a long, storied record in the annals of men’s and women’s college basketball – are a common sight. This past fall, however, Old Dominion students were treated to a fall sport that hadn’t been seen around those parts for more than 50 years.
In 2009, Old Dominion restarted a football program that had laid dormant for 69 years. The scene on campus had to be seen to be believed – sellout crowds, waiting lists for tickets and football mania sweeping the campus. With a schedule packed with easy opponents, the Monarchs – with a roster filled with freshmen and sophomores – cruised to a 9-2 record to make the return of football an amazing success by any definition.
For ODU football, what’s next? A full Division I schedule, for starters – and a smattering of powerful Colonial Athletic Association opponents, the division where the Monarchs are headed in 2011. Could ODU be thinking about another 9-2 record with a harder schedule and – dare to dream – an FCS playoff berth? After a fairy tale beginning to its resurrection of football, why not?
Basketball Conference: West Coast Conference
Football Conference: Independent (2003)
Basketball: No. 10 seed, to face No. 7 Richmond
These days, St. Mary’s is known for its basketball programs and its rivalry with teams like Gonzaga and Pepperdine in the West Coast Conference. In the 1930s, though, the Gaels were a national force that battled – and beat – powerful teams like USC and Cal Tech. St. Mary’s was a hot bowl commodity, beating Texas Tech in the 1939 Cotton Bowl.
In 1930, St. Mary's would travel to play a big-time East Coast football team: the Fordham Rams. The Rams had won or tied 16 straight games going into the game against the Gaels, and were undefeated. “Few thought that a tiny West Coast school could defeat a team like Fordham,” St. Mary’s Wikipedia page tells us, “ but nevertheless, Saint Mary's recovered from a 12-0 halftime deficit to win 20-12.”
Like many religious private schools, St Mary’s abandoned its football ambitions in 1950, only to restart it in 1967 at the club level. In 1993 – after a long, steady climb through Division III to Division II – the Gaels became a Division I school once again, this time playing nonscholarship football. But it wouldn’t last: 10 years later, citing Title IX concerns, St. Mary’s decided that a cross-country schedule and an independent schedule was too much for the school to continue supporting the sport.
Basketball Conference: Atlantic 10
Football Conference: Colonial Athletic Association
Basketball: No. 7 seed, to face No. 10 St. Mary’s (CA)
In the NCAA tournament, most folks inevitably look ahead to the second round to glance at interesting second-round matchups. For FCS fans, the highlight of the second round could well be the matchup between Richmond and Villanova – leaguemates in the powerful Colonial Athletic Association in football, and the last two FCS national champions.
It seems like just yesterday that having a great basketball team seemed like a threat to having a championship football team. In 2008, Richmond emphatically proved that theory to be as dead as the idea that the stock market would rise every single year. Behind rookie head football coach Mike London, the Spiders didn’t win the CAA title but did march through the FCS playoffs: ending with a dominating 24-7 triumph over Montana, and a coming-out party for Richmond defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, who terrorized Montana quarterback Cole Bergquist all game.
The year 2009 saw a heart-wrenching loss to Villanova during the regular season, a 21-20 loss that ended with a Richmond field goal sailing wide right, and a heart-wrenching last-gasp drive by Appalachian State to allow the Mountaineers to escape the last game in Richmond stadium with a 35-31 victory. After the season, Mike London left to coach at his alma mater – Virginia – as Latrell Scott was appointed to be the man to fill London’s big shoes.
Mike London never beat Villanova in his two years at Richmond. If the matchup comes to pass in the NCAA tournament, you have to believe he’ll be there to see whether the Spiders can squash Villanova’s national championship dreams – and maybe allow London to deliver a payback that he never was able to deliver as head football coach.
Basketball Conference: Big East
Football Conference: Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)
Basketball: No. 2 seed, to face No. 15 Robert Morris
This year, Villanova proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that when there’s a will to have a playoff-caliber football team and a national-championship team for men’s college basketball, there’s a way. Villanova has a lot of help, though: unlike many of the FCS teams in March Madness, the Wildcats have done so by also being a part of the most powerful basketball conference in Division I this year.
Last year wasn’t only a year of great expectations in basketball: it also was a season with great expectations in football, where head coach Andy Talley’s squad was one of the favorites in the powerful CAA to take the title and make a deep run in the FCS playoffs. It started off well with a first week upset of eventual MAC champion (and No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament) Temple in Week One, and got better with an 10-1 regular season record, CAA regular season championship and seed in the FCS playoffs.
The Wildcats’ stomp through the playoffs was one to remember. After avenging their only regular-season loss to New Hampshire (it won 46-7), Villanova’s brutal defense, led by linebacker Terence Thomas, stifled William & Mary in a thrilling semifinal to squeak out a 14-13 victory and make its first-ever FCS championship game. Once in Chattanooga, wideout Matt Szczur would run roughshod over Montana for a 23-21 victory.
Could it be the year where Villanova pulls off the “double” - an NCAA national championship in basketball to go with its FCS national championship? (Right after getting the FCS National Championship trophy, Talley exclaimed, “Now it’s time for the basketball team to get one, too!”) Time will tell if the Main Line will rename its town “Titletown, USA,” but it has a fantastic chance to do so this year – if they can get by Richmond in Round 2.
Football/Basketball Conference: Patriot League
Basketball: No. 16 seed, to face No. 1 Kansas
Lehigh is probably best known for being a football school, with its historic rivalry against Lafayette standing at 145 games – the most-played football rivalry on the planet. While it limped to an uncharacteristic 4-7 season, the 145th meeting between the two schools gave Lehigh something big – very big – to smile about in the offseason. In only the second overtime game in the rivalry’s history, linebacker Al Pierce’s interception of Lafayette quarterback Rob Curley would preserve the Mountain Hawks’ 27-21 victory and ruin the Leopards’ shot at a co-Patriot League championship and at-large bid to the FCS playoffs. More importantly, though, it gave Lehigh two straight wins over its hated rivals.
In basketball, Lehigh and Lafayette haven’t really had the same type of rivalry that they’ve had in football – it always seemed like when one team was up, the other was down. That all changed, however, last week when Lehigh and Lafayette faced off for the first time in the Patriot League Championship final in men’s basketball.
In a hard-fought emotional game, Lehigh would win, 74-59. With Lehigh pulling away in the last minute, a cry would come out of the student section: “Just like football!” While Lehigh is a basketball town – up until Thursday, anyway – Lehigh is still defined by their rivalry in football with Lafayette, and that rivalry had an important part to play in Lehigh’s basketball victory, too.
Basketball Conference: Missouri Valley Conference
Football Conference: Missouri Valley Football Conference
Basketball: No. 9 seed, to face No. 8 UNLV
If there was ever a poster child for mid-major basketball and FCS football excellence, Northern Iowa would have to be it. Playing in the brutal Missouri Valley conference in basketball and football, the Panthers prove that you can have full-scholarship football and Top 25 basketball - all under the umbrella of the same conference. No nonscholarship football or rent-a-conferences in basketball here: the Panthers, indeed, can do it all.
The only thing UNI needs, though, is post-season success. If there’s a word that epitomizes the Panthers’ athletic teams in both sports, it’s “almost.” In basketball, they’ve “almost” won a tournament game several times. In football in 2008, they fell-from-ahead to Richmond in the FCS semifinals in their home stadium. In 2009, all they needed to do to make the FCS playoffs as an at-large team was to beat Illinois State on the road – and they failed.
Going into 2010, UNI certainly will be one of the favorites to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference and return to the promised FCS playoff land once again. But will it really be a championship for head coach Mark Farley, linebacker L.J. Fort and the Panthers – or another season of “almost”?
Basketball Conference: Big East
Football Conference: Patriot League
Basketball: No. 3 seed, to face No. 14 Ohio
In basketball, Georgetown almost seems like it was the exact right school in the exact right place at the exact right time. As a result of its affiliation with the Big East, head coach John Thompson, and its men’s basketball national championships at the dawn of the time when the NCAA tournament was going from the “sport to fill the gap between football season and baseball season” to a billion-dollar phenomenon.
Before basketball, though, Georgetown was better known as being a big-time football school. With a program that started in the late 1800s, Georgetown had an active football program that was a big player in the early days of football (its big rivals before the formation of the NCAA was the D.C. Athletic Club) and continued into the 1930s and 1940s with big-time football and bowl appearances. (The term “Hoya Saxa,” where Georgetown got the name for its sports teams, has its roots in football.) In 1950, however, Georgetown abandoned football, citing costs like so many private, religious schools at that time.
Some folks giddy with Big East success forget that Georgetown has a Division I football team in 2010, too. While the Hoyas play in the Patriot League, they have struggled mightily, never enjoying a winning record since they joined the league in 2001. Yet Patriot League watchers keep an eye on the Hoyas: with more energy and resources devoted to football, they could very well be a sleeping giant in the league.
Basketball Conference: America East Conference
Football Conference: None
Basketball: No. 16 seed, to face No. 1 Syracuse
Vermont is one of two states — Alaska is the other — that does not have a single state university playing Division I football. The Catamounts used to play small college football in the Yankee Conference, but disbanded their program in 1974. But thanks to the efforts of determined students, a club team called the Vermont Catamounts is playing football at the University of Vermont.
“The resurrection of Vermont football is a modern-day club sports tale because it used the Internet — a Web site, Facebook, e-mail — and because it revolved around the irrepressible force of one committed individual,” an article from the Rutland Herald reported a few years ago. It seemed doomed to failure at first: the university was not thrilled at having football return in any form to the campus, and there seemed like a lot of obstacles. “I remember somebody asked me if we had any football equipment left,” Corran, a former football player and coach, said. “And I said: ‘Not anything you’d want. They don’t use single-bar face masks anymore.’ ”
But thanks to the e-mails, Facebook, and heart of Robert Corran, Vermont Catamount football finally came to be at the club football level. Playing Dartmouth’s JV team and Maine’s club football team, there’s real pigskin being played in the Northeast. Might it ever result in a Division I team? Unlikely for now; but don’t tell that to the fans of the Catamounts.
Football/Basketball Conference: Sun Belt
Basketball: No. 15 seed, to face No. 2 seed Kansas State
While it’s NCAA tournament history has been short and brief – it’s playing in only its third tourney - North Texas has a long, storied history of small-college football, starting in 1913 playing in the Lone Star Conference.
The Mean Green would have history at the FCS level as well, playing in the Missouri Valley Conference in the 1950s and in the Southland Conference in the 1980s when they were a part of I-AA football in its early days. The Mean Green had success in the Southland – winning at-large bids to the FCS playoffs in 1987 and 1988, and winning Southland championships (for playoff autobids) in 1983 and 1994. But winning FCS playoff games eluded North Texas: head coaches Matt Simon and Corky Nelson were 0-4 all time in the postseason.
In the early 1990s, Southland Conference members Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas stated their desire to jump to I-A to “save their programs,” jacking up athletics fees for incoming students to do so. How’s it working out for the Mean Green, now in the Sun Belt Conference? The Mean Green football team is 10-59 in the last five years. Perhaps that’s why North Texas won’t schedule FCS teams to fill out its schedule; they’re afraid they’ll lose to teams like Central Arkansas or Sam Houston State.
Basketball Conference: Summit League
Football Conference: None
Basketball: No. 14 seed, to face No. 3 Pittsburgh
Oakland University does not have a football program. If a vociferous student group has its way, however, Oakland University will someday be able to boast a football program it can call its own.
In 2007, the student congress approached the university administration with its desire to start a Division I football team at the Rochester, Mich., school. In the minutes of their discussion with the university brass, the athletic director, the decision was passed and was called a “great idea” to look into the feasibility of football. If they were to start a program, Oakland would fit extremely well either as a nonscholarship football team in the Pioneer Football League or in the powerful Missouri Valley Football Conference as a scholarship team.
With no official word or movement since 2007, students have gone viral with their effort to start football at Oakland. T-shirts, sold at the university bookstore, say Oakland is “undefeated in football since 1957.” (The university has never had a football team; 1957 was the founding year of the school.) Two Facebook groups – one called “Will Oakland ever have a football program?” – have popped up. Will Oakland go through with starting football? FCS would provide a welcoming – and logical – home for Golden Grizzlies football.
Football/Basketball Conference: Ohio Valley Conference (OVC)
Basketball: No. 13 seed, to face No. 4 Vanderbilt
Murray State is one of those teams that has developed its athletic reputation around being a Cinderella in the NCAA tournament. In 1988, No. 16 seed Murray State took No. 1 seed Michigan State to overtime 75-71 – the closest game ever in the 16 vs. 1 matchup. It also has won in the first round before, beating North Carolina State in 1988.
The Racers also have had a long and storied football history as well. They played their first football game in 1924 and have had good OVC rivalries with Eastern Kentucky – and, until they exited the OVC for FBS football in the Sun Belt, Western Kentucky. They’ve even appeared in a bowl game: the 1949 Tangerine Bowl, where they played Sul Ross State University to a 21-21 tie.
The glory days of the OVC – when Murray State came oh-so-close to knocking off Eastern Kentucky in their dominating early years in I-AA – seem pretty far away now, however, to Racer fans. Coach Matt Griffin hasn’t enjoyed a winning record with the Racers in four years at the helm – and was dumped at the end of last season. Former Georgia Southern head coach Chris Hatcher – himself fresh out of a job with the Eagles – quickly went to Murray to attempt to have the Racers revisit their more glorious past.
Basketball Conference: West Coast Conference
Football Conference: None
Basketball: No. 8 seed, to face No. 9 Florida State
The Zags, more than any other school, are identified with the mid-major label in basketball - a school without a football team, but a threat to win the NCAA tournament every year. But few people realize that Gonzaga in its early years used to play some of the best football teams in the country and produced two NFL hall-of-famers: Green Bay Packer quarterback Tony Canadeo and head coach Ray Flaherty.
Only three years after Washington was added as the 48th state (in 1889), Gonzaga fielded its first football team. After playing regional rivals for the most part from 1892-98 and 1908-19, the Bulldogs brought Notre Dame great Gus Dorais in to become head coach. It was then that Gonzaga got the nickname “Bulldogs” as the local paper praised it for its “Bulldog-like tenacity." They would play West Virginia in a bowl game, as well as Texas Tech - and also regional powers St. Mary’s (CA) (who later played at the I-AA level and disbanded football in 2004), and Santa Clara (who also played at the I-AA level and disbanded their program in 1993). They’d also face current Big Sky members Montana and Eastern Washington.
Like many religious universities, Gonzaga disbanded its football program after World War II, and even the stadium it had built for football was gradually torn down by 1949. Today, Zag students ask the question: Why shouldn’t they have a football team, too? Could it happen? If you can learn anything from the experiences of this year’s NCAA tournament teams, it’s that: when there’s a will for Division I football, there’s a way.
Basketball Conference: Atlantic 10
Football Conference: None
Basketball: No. 4 seed, beat No. 13 seed Portland State, beat No. 12 seed Wisconsin, lost to No. 1 seed Pitt
At the turn of the 20th century, Xavier (then an all-male institution) was a natural for football as a Jesuit school with nearby rivals in Dayton (who play football in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League) and the University of Cincinnati. Playing their first season in 1901, in the 1930s they counted other Jesuit schools as their equals, such as powerful Georgetown and Fordham. Unlike many Jesuit schools after World War II who folded their programs amidst financial pressures, the Musketeers flourished, playing big-time football programs like Kentucky and Arizona State. They also were pioneers in integrating football, by fielding great African-American players such as linebacker Dennis Davis back when segregation was still the norm down South.
But ultimately the financial drain of having a big-time football program was too much to bear for tiny Xavier. In 1973, Xavier’s board of trustees elected to discontinue football for cost reasons. But the existence of a club team in 2009 gives hope to some that Xavier might once again host a Division I nonscholarship team playing in the Pioneer Football League - and then the “Governor’s Cup,” which once was the season-ending game versus Xavier and Dayton, could be played once again - but this time as a PFL league matchup.
Basketball Conference: Horizon League
Football Conference: Pioneer Football League (PFL)
Basketball: No. 9 seed, lost to No. 8 seed LSU
Butler basketball is well known in the mid-major basketball circuit as a team that plays hard-nosed defense that’s worthy of the tenacity of a Bulldog, its mascot. But many folks don’t realize that Butler also plays football of the nonscholarship variety in the same league as Dayton, Davidson and Morehead State. Last year, behind the passing of quarterback Matt Kobli (2,518 yards passing, 27 touchdowns), 11-1 Butler had a winning record for the second time since 1997 – and played in the postseason.
Butler started its football program in 1887, according to Butler’s football media guide, beating Purdue three straight times in 1887, 1889 and 1890. Through the 20th century Butler was a fixture in the small college ranks, eventually settling into Division II in 1973 and competing in the Division II playoffs during that time. But in 1993, Butler (along with Dayton, Drake and others) was required to upgrade its football program to the level at which it competed in other sports, Division I. At that time, Butler chose to join the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.
Butler’s road in nonscholarship football has been rocky, with more losses than wins since it joined the PFL. But the Bulldogs built off a successful 2008 and won the PFL championship over Dayton and Jacksonville. After a 28-23 victory over Central Connecticut State in the “Gridiron Classic,” Butler’s ascent to the top of Division I non-schholarship football was complete. The only question: Can it do it again?