By David Coulson
College Sporting News
It seems like such an easy formula for cash-strapped athletic programs.
Move your football program from the Football Championship Subdivision to the greener pastures of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Awaiting you are bigger game guarantees, the potential of bowl revenue and, hopefully, more prestige for your program.
There is also the belief that you will be able to attract better scholarship athletes into your program as the FBS opens more doors for coaches to connect with potential recruits.
And who knows? Maybe you will be invited to be a part of the Bowl Championship Series down the road?
Everyone wants to be the next Boise State.
Many schools have taken the plunge from what was once called I-AA football to the I-A ranks in the past and a change in nomenclature a few years ago has done nothing to slow down the tide of universities dreaming of playing "big-time" college football.
With a four-year moratorium for subdivision movement coming to an end this year, several prominent and not-so-prominent schools at the FCS level have studied the landscape to see if the time is right to take the plunge to FBS.
THE MINUTEMEN MAKE THEIR MOVE
Massachusetts announced in April that it was accepting an offer to move its football program from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Mid-American Conference in 2012.
The Minutemen, who won the FCS title in 1998 and also made championship-game appearances in 1978 (the first year of I-AA football) and 2006, had longed for such a move since the 1990s.
The tipping point for UMass was an offer from the Kraft family (owners of the NFL's New England Patriots) to play home games at posh Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA. (some 90 minutes away from the Amherst-based campus of UMass), while renovations are made on McGuirk Stadium.
The Minutemen will start their final season of FCS play against Holy Cross on Thursday.
Villanova, the 2009 FCS champion, was approached by the Big East Conference last September with a lucrative offer to move its football program up to a league that hosts the rest of the Wildcats' sparkling athletic program, including its nationally-prominent men's basketball team.
But that proposal has met with a lack of support from professors and administrators alike and the lack of a facility option that meets Big East standards has caused the issue to be tabled for the time being.
Villanova and the Big East appeared ready to ink a football deal earlier this year when three Big East members — reportedly Pittsburgh, Rutgers and West Virginia — balked at the pending agreement and left the Wildcats hanging.
A regular-season-ending game against Delaware in Chester, PA. — the site of the Philadelphia Union's Major League Soccer stadium — maybe provide a dress rehearsal for Villanova's potential as a Big East football member in 2012, or the future.
Villanova can also show off its potential for the Big East by putting fans in the stands for Thursday's season opener against former Big East football member Temple at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
ASU LOOKS AT THE BIG TIME
No FCS program has generated more interest in the past decade than Appalachian State, with its three consecutive national championships from 2005-07, a signature win over Michigan and a record-tying, six straight Southern Conference titles.
That and unprecedented demand for tickets at freshly renovated Kidd Brewer Stadium have left administrators and alumni drooling over what the Mountaineer program could potentially accomplish at the FBS level.
But economic concerns, state budget issues in North Carolina and — perhaps the biggest hurdle — the lack of an official invite from a FBS conference have, at least temporarily, stymied a potential move for ASU.
An 11-member committee studying the feasibility study said in May that it was delaying an expected recommendation to Appalachian State chancellor Dr. Kenneth Peacock.
“Chancellor Peacock’s ultimate recommendation to the Board of Trustees needs serious reflection and discussion that cannot occur while he and the other UNC leaders are focused primarily on advocating in Raleigh for state support of higher education,” ASU athletic director Charlie Cobb said. “Over the next several months, his focus and the focus of our other university leaders will be — and should be — on the state budget.”
The ASU football committee finally got around to make its recommendation last week and, to no one's surprise, suggested that it was time for the Mountaineers to move forward to the seemingly greener pastures of FBS.
“The analysis of the facts is very clear that FBS is the right place for Appalachian athletics from an across-the-board institutional standpoint," committee co-chairperson G.A. Sywassink said. "A move to FBS mirrors Appalachian’s strategic vision as a nationally prominent institution and would enhance the University’s academic mission."
But the Mountaineers will not be going anywhere until an FBS conference makes a membership offer to Appalachian State.
“A move to FBS is not imminent," said Sywassink. "It is essential that we find a conference fit that creates rivalries and makes financial sense. However, with what appears to be another seismic shift in the Division I landscape on the horizon, the committee concluded that it is crucial to make our future intentions known at this time.”
It will be business as usual when Appalachian State opens the season Saturday afternoon at Virginia Tech.
"This recommendation does not change our focus as players and coaches one bit — it remains fully on preparing to play Virginia Tech on Sept. 3 and going on to compete for a seventh-straight Southern Conference championship," veteran coach Jerry Moore said.
Just a day after the committee recommendation was released by ASU, the Mountaineers announced that they had signed a deal to return to Michigan for their season opener in 2014 — a game that could mark Appalachian State's first contest as an FBS squad.
Crucial to a move by Appalachian State would be getting an offer from a conference that generates enough television revenue to offset the steep costs that competing at the FBS level requires.
Schools must fund 22 extra scholarships to go from the FCS limit of 63 to the FBS maximum of 85. An additional 22 scholarships must be funneled into women's athletics to keep programs in compliance with governmental Title IX provisions, though some schools drop other men's programs to compensate.
Most schools must also work on bringing facilities up to FBS standards, if they haven't already and overall budgets must increase by as much as $5 to $10 million, or even more.
MONTANA'S LOGICAL APPROACH
Another successful FCS program, Montana, did receive an invitation to join the tottering Western Athletic Conference last year after the WAC lost three of its top programs, Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada, to the rival Mountain West Conference.
But the Grizzlies, winners of FCS titles in 1995 and 2001 and seven-time finalists during an unprecedented 17-year playoff run from 1993-2009, shocked many by deciding to remain at the FCS level.
Montana Athletic Director Jim O'Day had a simple, but practical answer to why his school made its surprising decision.
"When we looked at everything, the numbers just didn't add up," O'Day said after budget analysis showed that Montana would need an additional $5 million in the next five years to balance the books.
Montana is just trying to keep its financial head above water at this point, one of the reasons that the Grizzlies will travel to Tennessee and receive a rich guarantee for their season opener on Saturday evening.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN DECIDES TO STAY PUT
Six-time FCS champion Georgia Southern released a study on the pluses and minuses of moving in 2009, but has also decided to stay where it is for now.
For now, Georgia Southern will stay in the Southern Conference with schools like Appalachian State. Georgia Southern begins its season with a SoCon game against Samford on Saturday night.
If the numbers don't add up for one of the preeminent programs in FCS, how can they work for a school not at Montana's, or Georgia Southern's level?
LISTENING TO THE SIREN'S SONG
But that didn't stop a school like Texas State, without Montana's, or Appalachian State's resume, from accepting a WAC offer to move its program up in 2012.
The siren song of "big-time" college football and the potential of an occasional game against Texas or Texas A&M was enough to push Texas State — with just one playoff berth in FCS — to take the FBS plunge.
The WAC also received a special dispensation from the NCAA to invite another Southland Conference member, Texas-San Antonio, even though the UTSA football program is just beginning play this season under former Miami coach Larry Coker.
Southland commissioner Tom Burnett, who saw his league lose Texas State and UTSA to FBS, is one of many leaders in favor of toughening standards for joining FBS.
"My hesitation comes in that the minimums for FBS membership are not exactly at a significant threshold and many FCS institutions clearly easily surpass these low margins, especially the 15,000 attendance requirement," Burnett said.
Both Texas State and UTSA will compete as FCS independents in 2011. Texas State heads to the WAC in 2012 and UTSA will follow suit in 2013.
There is a false sense that moving to FBS will give a school more influence in the issues that dominate the NCAA landscape.
"If some FBS institutions are allowed to do just the minimum, and can actually meet attendance standards by buying the tickets after the season ends, that only fuels the desire of some successful FCS programs to believe they can also be in the same room with Alabama, Penn State and Florida," Burnett added. "Well, believe me, they can’t be in that room, don’t belong in that room, and further, the NCAA should not be allowing it."
FCS LEADERS EXAMINED THE ISSUE
The day of the FCS national championship game in January, a distinguished group of subdivision administrators, conference commissioners, NCAA personnel, television executives and media members met at an FCS summit to discuss the issues facing cost-containment football.
At an afternoon session, longtime Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton — one of the most innovative players in the FCS ranks — made a startling comment about the struggles of teams that move to FBS without adequate funding.
"Schools that start in the lowest quadrant (of athletic spending), stay in the lowest quadrant," Fullerton stated.
Fullerton has the numbers to back up his eye-opening statement.
Just nine of the approximately 40 schools in the lowest quadrant of spending have even reached bowl games, Fullerton pointed out and many of those that have lost money going to bowls.
"It's institutional ego," said Fullerton. "Moving up is not the automatic thing to do."
Fullerton said he would like to see more schools have Montana's attitude.
"We need to see institutions say 'We're going to do something special and stay at FCS.'"
Fullerton is one of many leaders who is a proponent of toughing FBS admission standards.
"Quite frankly, there are more people who should move down than move up."
In the arms race that is the BCS and FBS, you better come prepared and history proves that few schools are ready for the challenge.
FINDING INCENTIVES FOR FCS PROGRAMS
Longtime NCAA administrator Dennis Poppe said at the summit that the NCAA and its member institutions need to do a better job of "developing incentives for teams to stay at the FCS level."
"Outside of Boise State and Marshall, most of the teams have not been successful at all," said Poppe.
For every Boise State, a former Big Sky member and the 1980 FCS champion, there is a Louisiana-Monroe, a school that has won only a handful of games each season since winning the 1987 FCS title and departing the Southland Conference for the fledgling FBS Sun Belt.
"The record of competitive non-success of so many former FCS programs that have made the move proves this and is quite unfortunate," said Burnett. "There should be a much more significant line drawn between the subdivisions that currently doesn’t exist."
EXAMINING THE FACTS
For every Connecticut, there are hordes of schools like Western Kentucky, a program that hit rock bottom at FBS after winning the 2002 FCS crown and making the FBS move in 2007.
UConn is a prime example of what can go wrong, even if a program experiences success on the field. The Huskies won the Big East title last year and were invited to one of the shining jewels of the BCS, the Fiesta Bowl.
But the euphoria of that success quickly sunk into the reality that UConn lost over $1.6 million for its BCS bowl experience.
Perhaps the school that Appalachian State most mirrors is it one-time Southern Conference rival Marshall.
After rebuilding their program following a tragic 1970 plane crash that wiped out nearly the entire team, the Thundering Herd made six FCS championship-game appearances between 1987 and 1996 and won national titles in 1992 and 1996.
The 1996 Marshall squad went 15-0 and is ranked as the greatest FCS team of all-time by many experts.
Featuring players such as receiver Randy Moss and quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, all Heisman Trophy candidates, the Thundering Herd made an immediate splash at the FBS level, winning multiple Mid-American titles and earning invites to seven bowl games in eight years between 1997-2004.
But when coach Bob Pruett suddenly retired while under NCAA scrutiny after the 2004 campaign, Marshall's football program hit the skids. The Herd has had just one winning season and one bowl appearance (after a 6-6 regular-season record in 2009) since.
Marshall is one of many schools that have sacrificed the rest of its athletic program for success in football.
The once proud Marshall basketball program has finally made a couple of NIT appearances in the past two seasons after taking years to get back on track and the rest of the Thundering Herd athletic program has stumbled in consistent mediocrity.
"A lot of people in Huntington (W.V.) wonder now if Marshall should have ever moved up," Huntington Herald-Dispatch sports editor Rick McCann said a couple of years ago.
Appalachian State's overall athletic program has long been superior to Marshall's, but the additional costs of jumping into the FBS arena and the Herd's recent struggles should give the Mountaineers cause for alarm.
While the road for teams moving up is precarious, one thing is certain — many institutions will continue to be tempted by the seeming gleaming, but hard-to-obtain riches of FBS.