"Big Boy" Football not for everybody
In December, 2014, my column was devoted to the concept of certain college football teams moving their NCAA classification from Division IAA to Division I. The reasons that these schools make this move is based on a false premise that by playing the "Big Boys" it will bring them prestige, thereby attracting more students from more locations in the country. This is not a totally incorrect theory because the names of these former IAA teams will be in the news more. This could possibly attract some students from Idaho, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas. There is also the potential for higher revenue through attendance, sale of merchandise, etc. However there is no prestige in having your team listed in the paper on Sunday with a 66-0 loss. No matter what classification a team plays in, it must have a winning program in order to attract positive attention. This is true in high school, college and professional football. There is no prestige attracted to the present Cleveland Browns of the NFL, UAB, or Selma High School. How long has it been since you have read about how well these three teams are doing. UAB suspended their football program two years ago because of the financial burden. Students, alumni, and "fans" went ballistic and ran the president off who made this decision. In addition, alumni, business leaders and Birmingham residents who have more money than they know what to do with, pledged seventeen million dollars to re-start the football program. The new administration at UAB is now saddled with the same problem they had when football was terminated. They only draw around 13,000 to 16,000 fans to home games that are played in Legion Field, the "Old Gray Lady", which was formerly called the "Football Capitol of the South" when Auburn and Alabama played their big games there. High schools in the Birmingham area draw better than UAB. No one can pay for a D-I football program with those numbers. The seventeen million will be gone in five years. The pressure is on Coach Bill Clark to not only win big, but to put fannies in seats in order for UAB to keep his paycheck coming. UAB will be playing D-I football again in 2017. Good Luck!
It has been heartbreaking to me to watch some of the teams in the south who have moved up to Division I football over the last decade. Teams like Troy, UAB, South Alabama and Georgia State were motivated by the promise of more money in the coffers due to expanded crowds, fan bases and possible TV money. They were also pushed by overzealous alumni of colleges who were stuck in what they considered the oblivion of Division I-AA or Division II. There may have been other considerations, but this was the impetus that had the alumni licking their chops at the prospect of playing teams like Alabama and Auburn. Georgia for instance beat Troy 66-0 in 2014 in Athens, Georgia. What amount of money could be enjoyed by the university at the expense of an embarrassment like that. It is a given that Troy beat Mississippi State during a down year and also beat Missouri during a down year for the Tigers from Columbia. The Missouri game was the first big conference team to come to Troy. The game was won on a fumble recovery for a touchdown and other mistakes by Missouri. It was at this game that I thought Troy may be able to compete with the "big boys".
Games like the Missouri win, the Mississippi State win, the Oklahoma State win have been few and far between. Troy even persuaded Duke to come to Troy. Duke is not considered a powerhouse in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The score was Duke 34, Troy 17. Well, that was a close game to the Troy faithful, continuing to perpetuate the myth that Troy can eventually play with the Alabamas, the Auburns, the Georgias. Coach Larry Blakeney retired from Troy with the most wins by a college coach in the State of Alabama, even eclipsing his own college coach, Ralph "Shug" Jordan who won 176 games at Auburn. Larry coached, promoted, worked as hard as he could during his tenure at Troy. It must be pointed out however that many of those wins came in Division II and Division I-AA where Troy won national championships. Coach Neal Brown will find the going just as tough as Coach Blakeney did.
Just picking on Troy and UAB is not my intention. It is simply the football programs that I am most familiar with who are in this twilight zone between Division I and Division I-AA.
University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) has been in this quagmire for thirty years or more. They even beat LSU in Baton Rouge when Nick Saban was the LSU coach. Everybody got excited. What have they done since. Their record is worse than Troy's. The University of Alabama System has carried the load of UAB football from its inception. Although UAB plays Troy each year, the attendance is not what one would expect of two D-I teams. UAB plays in Conference USA along with Southern Mississippi, a team we will discuss later. Troy plays in the Sun Belt Conference where they have to travel as far as Moscow, Idaho to play a conference team.
There are two other teams in the Sun Belt Conference that are in the "twilight zone" mentioned above. That is Georgia State in Atlanta and South Alabama in Mobile. South Alabama is having moderate success in that they are breaking even on the field, but not in the finance department.
Southern Mississippi has been in Division I for as long as I can remember. I first saw them play when the Golden Eagles beat a good Alabama team in Cramton Bowl in 1953. That has been the highlight of the not so storied history of Southern Mississippi football. With the advent of the great programs at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, Southern Miss has been relegated to "baby brother". They are out funded, out recruited and out coached. They can no longer be relevant in the State of Mississippi. The pool of football players is just not good enough to divide three ways any longer.
Now, we have discussed the difficult situation with five schools that are already in Division I. Would these universities consider going down one classification in order to compete on the field and compete at the financial office? Probably not, but the following is a scenario that could work if phased in over a period of three years.
Troy, UAB, South Alabama, Georgia State and Southern Mississippi could begin the process of forming a new conference of Division I-AA schools - Deep South Conference (DSC), Southern Affordable Conference (SAC), Southeastern Logical Conference (SLC). The name is irrelevant. The concept is relevant!
Schools that are playing at the Division I-AA level now who should be added to this conference are Alabama State in Montgomery, Alabama A&M in Huntsville, Jacksonville State in Jacksonville and Samford in Birmingham. Three years is an ample time to make the move to this proposed conference. This makes nine teams.
There are three Division II teams that are playing above their classification for the most part that could easily make the transition to Division I-AA in three years. They are North Alabama in Florence, West Georgia in Carrollton, GA and Tuskegee. That would make twelve teams.
Division I teams would have to give up from 85 football scholarships down to 65. This sounds like a tremendous blow. But if you are not winning and making money, this would be a considerable savings in tuition room and board, and medical insurance not to mention the savings in cost of travel. No more Idaho's or New Mexico State's.
In addition to losing 20 scholarships, Division I-AA teams can only schedule eleven games because each team will be eligible for the I-AA National Championship Play-off, if they qualify. Therefore a nine game rotating schedule would allow each team to play nine conference games and two out of conference. This means you could schedule Michigan State as did Jacksonville State, travel to East Lansing, Michigan, get beat 45-7 and come home with a nice check. Or you could buy a win and schedule West Alabama, who I did not include in the proposed conference because their potential fan base is seriously limited. The twelve teams recommended in this scenario would never have to travel more than approximately 300 miles. In some cases only forty or fifty miles. The savings would be tremendous. Rivalries will be established thereby creating more interest in the game. If Tuskegee played in Troy, the whole town of Tuskegee would be there. The chance of winning will be much better and the attendance at a winning Division I-AA program will outdistance the attendance of presently losing Division I programs. Winning is contagious. So is losing!
It just hurts me to see players and coaches be embarrassed and sometimes injured, playing programs that are just one step ahead of them. I don't see Troy, UAB, Southern Mississippi, Georgia State, South Alabama ever reaching the goals that they set out to accomplish. There are just not enough good football players in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to support programs other than Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi, Georgia and Georgia Tech. Any other Division I program in these three states will always suffer no matter who the coach is or what the alumni base wants to accomplish.
Troy has a schedule in 2016 that is doable. However, they must go once again to Moscow, Idaho. They also go to San Marcus, Texas and Clemson, South Carolina. They play Clemson on September 10.
I'd rather be coaching Clemson!