By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Central Arkansas almost lived the dream this past Saturday night.
Clint Conque's Bears had their FBS opposition on the ropes in Ruston, LA.
As Louisiana Tech, a member of the Western Athletic Conference of FBS, was deep in Central Arkansas territory in an attempt to break a 35-35 deadlock, senior safety Jerrel McKnight scooped up a fumble and took it to the house, giving the kids in white and purple a touchdown lead with just over two minutes to play.
It was a stirring sight for those who have followed FCS football for a long time. Central Arkansas, only recently having even become a full-fledged Division I program, giving Louisiana Tech, a team that once made the I-AA National Championship game (1984 in a 19-6 loss to Montana State), but now a part of a fringe FBS conference that may be in the process of falling apart, all they could handle.
SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE HISTORY LESSON
Central Arkansas' current conference, the Southland Conference, was originally the home of the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, once upon a time.
But the Bulldogs were never big fans of competing at what is now called the FCS level.
In 1982, all the members of the Southland Conference, including Louisiana Tech, were downgraded to I-AA, along with the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Southern Conference and the Ivy League, among others.
Why did this happen?
You could say that the forced reorganization happened due to new attendance limits, imposed by the NCAA (average minimum: 17,000 fans per home game) or stadium sizes (minimum capacity: 30,000 seats).
But in reality, it was about — what else? — money.
The College Football Association — which was an early version of what is now considered the BCS — ran afoul of the NCAA by negotiating their own TV deal for its members.
Oklahoma and Georgia wanted to televise a game in an era when the NCAA allowed for limited television appearances for each member institution. But instead of Oklahoma-Georgia, the NCAA offered a Southern Conference game between Appalachian State and The Citadel.
"The issue isn't whether Penn State's or Appalachian State's approach to football is better; there are arguments in favor of both," Sports Illustrated writer John Underwood said in 1981. "The issue is control. 'Too many of the matters that affect us are voted on by people who have no empathy for us,' says Joe Paterno, Penn State's football coach and athletic director. Indeed, as the workings of the NCAA stand now, Penn State and Appalachian State have the same voice, despite the great disparity in the size of their football programs, in how the sport is conducted at its topmost level and how the TV loot is divvied up."
Underwood continued, "The NCAA quickly quit harrumphing and threatening and got busy. On Sept. 2 [NCAA Executive Director Walter] Byers wrote to a select number of NCAA leaders. He urged the calling of a special convention and the necessity of a reorganization, and stated his belief that 'football television policies should be determined by the institutions who conduct intercollegiate football programs.' In other words, that Division I-A football schools alone should have the say on I-A football contracts—within the NCAA framework, of course."
This battle for control of the money pot ended with the NCAA forcibly downgrading many of its members.
For some schools, it was where most of them wanted to be anyway, but for teams like Louisiana Tech, it was seen as a demotion.
It's in this environment in the early 1980s, that Tech head coaches Billy Brewer and A.L. Williams took their Bulldog team and had several solid years, winning two Southland Conference titles and hosting three home playoff games.
Besides losing to Montana State for the 1984 national title, Louisiana Tech reached the I-AA semifinals in 1982, falling 17-0 to Delaware.
MOVING BACK TO FBS
But returning to FBS was never far from the Bulldogs' minds.
In six of its eight years at the I-AA level — four of which were spent transitioning to back I-A — Louisiana Tech played no fewer than two I-A schools a year.
In their final year, they scheduled six such games, prompting members of I-AA to vote a special provision that in order to be considered I-AA, a school could not schedule more than half their games outside the subdivision.
Sadly, though, Louisiana's return to I-A, now FBS, has been far from smooth.
After latching onto the Big West Football Conference in 1993, Louisiana Tech was thrust back into I-A independent in 1996 as the Big West began to phase out football (ultimately dropping the sport after the 2000 season).
After five more years toiling as an independent, in 2001 the WAC came calling, desperate to keep its conference together after many of its former members broke free to formed the Mountain West Conference, and TCU left to join Conference USA.
During that time, the Bulldogs have captured only one WAC title, and been invited to only three bowls.
The biggest bowl invite Tech received was the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, ID., in 2001, where it lost 49-24 to Clemson.
And joining the WAC has hardly been a guarantee for conference membership going forward for the Bulldogs.
Last year, Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawai'i — the WAC programs with the biggest success and biggest fan bases — announced their plans to leave the conference.
In a frantic effort to keep the conference alive, embattled WAC commissioner Karl Benson offered membership to two Southland schools — Texas State and Texas-San Antonio, which just re-started its program this year as a FCS Independent — and three basketball schools.
For the 2012-2013 season, this puts WAC membership at 10 members and 7 football members — including one school restarting a program, essentially, from scratch.
Almost 20 after leaving FCS, Louisiana Tech's future as a member of FBS is as uncertain as ever.
And like other former I-AA teams have found, even games against Central Arkansas still prove to be precarious for the Bulldogs.
BACK TO SATURDAY
With a minute to play, Louisiana Tech was facing the end of its season.
Sure, you could make the claim that a loss to Central Arkansas wouldn't be the end of the world — a nationally-ranked squad in FCS, a team that has been a great success story in its five years in the subdivision.
But deep down, the Bulldogs know.
A loss to an FCS school is a humiliation that is difficult to ever live down.
Ask anyone who played on Michigan when Appalachian State beat the Wolverines in the Big House.
But with freshman quarterback Nick Isham lining up with two minutes to play, every fan decked out in blue and red had to have their hearts in their throats.
On 3rd and 11, running back Ray Holley would take the ball on 3rd and 11 and barely get the first down.
On 2nd and 18, Isham, starting in his second collegiate game, would find wideout Quinton Patton for a 49-yard strike — putting the Bulldogs in the red zone, with a golden opportunity to tie the game.
And two plays later, Tech would do so, riding Holley again for a seven-yard touchdown run.
All of a sudden, Louisiana Tech's season didn't feel like it was coming to an end anymore.
And just like that, Central Arkansas' dream of pulling off the dream — beating an FBS team — was slipping away.
THE UCA STORY
In September 2005, Central Arkansas, a member of the Division II Gulf South Conference, announced its intention to join the I-AA Southland Conference.
In part, one reason why the Bears and the Southland were a good match was was to shore up their membership in basketball.
The addition of Central Arkansas, along with non-football playing Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, solidified the Southland hoops membership at 10 schools.
But one of the reasons why Central Arkansas was also a great match was the fact it had I-AA football — and would keep the football conference together, following the departure of Louisiana-Monroe to the Sun Belt Conference of FBS.
The Southland has had a variety of schools go through their conference as well.
Since the fateful 1981 meeting that forced the conference to play FCS football, five members aside from Louisina Tech (Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, North Texas, Texas State, and Texas-San Antonio) left the conference in order to pursue FBS football opportunities in other, non-BCS conferences.
Some, like Louisiana Tech, still schedule some of the same FCS teams, of course. But it's a different dynamic.
This past weekend, Louisiana Tech scheduled the Bears to play at its home stadium, giving the Bulldogs an extra home game. And Tech paid a "guarantee", or a cash payment, for the privilege to do so.
These so-called "guarantee games" are not just an important part for football programs (both the lower-level FBS school and the FCS teams) — they're a vital part of the funding of the schools' athletic departments, too.
"Guarantee games are important for the overall program," Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague said. "Certainly the financial piece is important. LA Tech paid us $275,000 this year, which is higher than their normal payout. They were in need of a game in the winter of this year which is a late date for scheduling and why they paid over market for the game."
Of that $275,000 UCA earned from Lousiana Tech from the game they played this weekend, about 25% goes back into the football program, with the rest of the money going into the general athletics budget — a source of revenue that was previously not available to the Bears.
The amont of money Central Arkansas will be getting from guarantee games will also be increasing, too.
For example, in 2014, the Bears will be getting $425,000 for the privilege of playing at Texas Tech — nearly four times what UCA made in its first-ever FBS guarantee game in 2007.
"I believe these games are very important for an obvious financial boost to all our programs, especially those that have been adversely affected by recent budget issues that are out of their control," Southland commissioner Tom Burnett said. "Further, even for those Southland programs not looking for budget relief, these games can financially assist with capital projects such as enhancements to competition venues or improvements to academic support facilities and other necessary equipment."
Patrially thanks to guarantee games, this April the Bears announced a breakthrough with the artificial turf in their 8,000 seat stadium, Estes Stadium.
UCA installed alternating purple and gray turf, continuing a trend started by a former I-AA championship winner, Boise State, with its signature blue "Smurf" turf, and the current FCS Champions, Eastern Washington, with "Blood Field", or like another CSN columnist named it last year "Tabasco Turf."
For Central Arkansas, times couldn't be better.
But more and more, some FCS schools are finding that this cash flow is something their athletic departments need to survive.
For example, Nicholls State which also competes in the Southland, made some news in August when it was revealed that they would be playing not only two FBS schools next year, but also South Alabama, who is currently competing in FCS, but will be in full transition to FBS next season.
"When I signed up for some of these games, I got a standing ovation from the other coaches in the other sports," Nicholls head football coach Charlie Stubbs told me. "Our guarantees don't just go to football here at Nicholls. They go to a whole lot of other sports, helping the whole athletic program."
"The guarantee games are extremely important to our program," Nicholls athletics director Robert Bernardini said, "and to a good many other programs both FCS and FBS. I have noticed more and more FCS schools playing multiple game guarantee games. In addition I have noticed schools like Montana playing guarantee games where in the past they did not."
He also didn't limit his talk of guarantee games to FCS schools, either.
"Guarantees are not limited to FCS institutions," Bernardini said. "In fact, I would suggest that the increase in such games is more prevalent among FBS schools than FCS schools. Go through the schedules of Sun Belt teams, MAC or WAC teams and you find a good number of guarantee games. It’s my belief that those numbers have increased over the years."
Indeed, Louisiana Tech this year alone has only five home games, and will travel to Ole Miss and Mississippi State in guarantee games later in the season.
While there's no data from Ruston as to the montary amounts of these particular guarantees, in 2001, Louisiana Tech's three beatings on the road at the hands of Auburn, Oklahoma State and Kansas State netted the Bulldogs $1.2 million in guarantee money.
Doing the math, it averaged out to about $400,000 per game in 2001 — or just a bit less than the amount Central Arkansas will be getting for their game in 2015.
This suggests that even when you take into account inflation, the gap in guarantees between what Louisiana Tech gets and what Central Arkansas gets doesn't seem to be all that much.
Especially when Louisiana Tech spends a significant chunk of that money to invite Central Arkansas to come to town.
Lower-end FBS schools like the Bulldogs schedule FCS games for the same reason Ole Miss and Mississippi State schedule Louisiana Tech — because they give their home fans an extra home game, and they feel like these games give them a good shot at victory.
But don't tell the Southland folks, though, that there's much of a difference between the teams still in the Southland and WAC and Sun Belt teams like Louisiana Tech that put them on the schedule.
"Why shouldn’t we expect to win many of these games?", Southland commissioner Tom Burnett said. "We find that Southland teams recruit the same players as some of the FBS teams in our region go after. Our programs have built an expectation for success and have developed an atmosphere for winning that may not be consistently realized at some FBS campuses."
There's no question that competing against FBS schools are a major source of excitement, and not just with the commissioner, either.
Players and coaches are very excited, too, about playing in these games — and that helps with recruiting players, too.
"All the kids that come here, I think, felt like they were going to play FBS football," Stubbs said. "Now, I'm giving them an opportunity to compete, ans see how they stack up against that kind of competition. We also want to give our kids a good experience. Also, I feel like it's an obligation to give these kids a good experience. Many of these kids are from South Louisiana, and haven't travelled around very much, so I think it's great for them to go out to Oregon State next year, and compete against a Pac-12 team."
Oregon State, Nicholls' opponent next year, knows something about losing to FCS competition, too: in Week One, the Beavers lost to Sacramento State, 29-28, in one of the more thrilling games of the week, with Sacramento State winning on a successful two-point conversion in overtime.
"We have FBS wins against Rice and Arkansas State in recent years," Bernardini added. "Also, we came within minutes of upsetting Indiana a few years ago, so over all our experience in guarantee games have been very positive both financially and competitively.
Playing against FBS teams are not all guarantees and roses.
Injuries in games like these are a concern for coaches, and sometimes the athletes are not ready for the different experience of playing an FBS school.
Scheduling too many of these games - most of the time, which result in losses - also can be an impediment to a school's chances at the postseason, too.
Next year, if Nicholls wants to make the playoffs, it will almost certainly have to sweep its Southland Conference slate, or beat at least one of the schools with more than 63 scholarships on its schedule.
But as Coach Stubbs explained, these games are good preparation for the rigors of what's truly important during the regular season - the Southland championship.
While the FBS games are good for the bottom line and fun for athletes, fans, and coaches, it's the Southland Championship that means the most in the end - and a chance at a national championship.
For Central Arkansas, the dream was fading fast.
Despite quarterback Nathan Dick's amazing rally from a two touchdown deficit on big plays - first, a 43 yard strike to wideout Dominique Croom, and on the next drive two dagger blows to wideout Jesse Grandy, coverering all 80 yards in two plays — made a potential blowout into a game that many around the country were tuning in on their computers, thanks to the magic of ESPN3's web broadcast, one wondered if the Bears would have enough left in the tank to win the game.
Dick, who would end an amazing day going 29-for-51 with 372 yards and four touchdowns and Grandy,with seven catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns, couldn't keep the magic going in overtime. In the extra session, the gassed Bears would go three-and-out — and have a 39-yard-field-goal-attempt blocked.
And it would take three rushes by Bulldog running back Lennon Creer to deliver the touchdown that would give Louisana Tech the win over Central Arkansas — and give the Bulldogs hope, too, that they can have a successful season.
Bears head coach Clint Conque didn't mince words after the game.
“I am extremely disappointed,” Conque said. “I told the team that we were going to come down here and win. I felt like we had opportunities. It’s a game we should have won, quite frankly. Call it some arrogance, but we should have won this football game, and I’m very disappointed.”
But it wasn't all bad news for the Bears, either.
They proved to the entire nation that they can go toe-to-toe with an FBS school.
They got paid to do it, helping finance the new, purple and gray turf they'll be playing on later this year.
And they showed a national audience on ESPN3 that maybe, just maybe, they'll be champions of the Southland and make some noise in the FCS postseason.