Future of college football’s lower tier uncertain as teams bolt

By Joe Scalzo


Hypothetical sit- uation. Imagine a rich (and eccentric) billionaire sidles up to you in a sports bar one night, lays down a stack of $100 bills and asks, “Are you a Youngstown State football fan?”

“Sure,” you say.

“That’s very good news,” he says, “because I’m going to change your life. There is $100,000 in that stack and it’s all yours if you can answer one question: Who lost to North Dakota State in this year’s FCS championship game?”

Could you answer it?

This has been a bad offseason for the Football Championship Subdivision, a clunkily-named collection of 127 teams struggling to remain relevant in a shifting college landscape.

The bad news started in mid-February, when Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said members of the Big Ten would no longer schedule FCS teams, a troubling (but so far unsubstantiated) development that could cost teams like YSU at least $500,000 a year, hurt recruiting and diminish the FCS’s national profile.

“That is extremely troubling,” said Patty Viverito, commissioner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, of which YSU is a member. “If what Barry says comes to fruition, and it leads other leagues to come to the same conclusion, then I’m beyond a little concerned. I’m really nervous.

“That is a very significant source of revenue and pride for our subdivision.”

The bad headlines continued last month when Appalachian State and Georgia Southern announced they would join the Sun Belt, becoming the latest FCS schools to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The move robs FCS football of its most decorated program (Georgia Southern has won six national titles, two more than second-place YSU) and its most famous (thanks to Appalachian State’s 2007 upset of Michigan).

The decision follows the recent departures of high-profile FCS teams such as UMass and Western Kentucky and could lead schools such as Liberty, James Madison, Villanova and Jacksonville State to make the jump, even though for every success story like Boise State, there are far more cautionary tales (like, well, UMass and Western Kentucky).

“I think Appalachian State moving up sends a message,” said Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen, whose school also has explored making the jump. “If the best among you are dissatisfied, is anyone asking why? Is it a matter of what they’re reaching for, or is it a matter of what they’re running away from?

“I tend to think it’s what they’re running away from.”

A day after the Appalachian State/Georgia Southern announcement, Craig Haley, who covers the FCS for The Sports Network, wrote an article headlined “End of the FCS as we know it is looming.”

His most damning line: “It seems the FCS level can only take so many more hits while it grasps for national relevance in college football.”

At this rate, FCS may soon stand for Frankly, Can’t Survive.

But is it that bad? And what can the FCS to do to change things?

YSU athletic director Ron Strollo was a senior tight end on Jim Tressel’s first national championship team, in 1991, before graduating with an accounting degree. He understands football and he understands money and he understands how each affects the other.

Strollo was YSU’s business manager in the late-1990s when the Penguins tried (and failed) to join the Mid-American Conference at the same time when FCS rivals such as Marshall and Buffalo moved up to the MAC.

“The separation [in budgets] back then might have been $1 million to $3 million,” Strollo said, comparing YSU’s budget to the MAC schools. “Now it’s probably closer to $10 million to $12 million.

“I think there’s a lot of schools out there throwing money at this thing and sometimes you lose brand-name teams but I think our division has shown we can replace those teams and move on.”

Viverito agrees, believing when a team like Marshall or Boise State leaves, a team like North Dakota State (which has won the last two national titles) steps in.

Still, she’s not naive. Conference realignment has left everyone nervous, since every shift (Nebraska to the Big Ten) causes more shifts (West Virginia and TCU to the Big 12), which causes more shifts (the Big East imploding, then resurrecting as a basketball conference), which all trickles down as raided conferences believe they need to grow or die.

“It is unnerving,” said Viverito, whose conference has added NDSU, South Dakota State and South Dakota in recent years after losing Western Kentucky to the Sun Belt. “There are a lot of things out of your control.”

Earlier this week, CBSSports.com reported that the so-called “Group of Five,” a collection of non-BCS conferences (MAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt, American Athletic Conference) have talked about capping per-conference revenues at $12 million per year in the playoff era. It could slow, if not end, realignment.

“If their money is capped, it discourages from them from cannibalizing each other or gobbling up the FCS,” she said. “So maybe there’s an end game in sight.”

One of the selling points of FCS football is its playoff system, a tournament that has expanded from 16 teams to 24 since 2010. It gives teams like YSU a chance to win a true national championship, something that would never happen in the FBS, even as it transitions to a four-team playoff.

“I just don’t see how anyone can look at our experience and look at their bad bowl system and see any contest there,” Viverito said. “People at Youngstown State know that. They’ve lived that. If the alternative were something comparable at the bottom half of the FBS, maybe [moving up] would make more sense, but they sell their souls to go to a bad bowl game on occasion.

“Why would you do that to go to the GoDaddy.com Bowl?”

Well, exposure, for one thing. This year’s FCS title game aired at 1 p.m. on ESPN2, while the GoDaddy.com Bowl (which pitted Kent State and Arkansas State) aired at 9 p.m. on ESPN.

Lower-level FBS teams also can command bigger paydays from BCS conference teams, rates that will only go up if the Big Ten opts to drop FCS teams.

The MAC also benefits from its willingness to play on any night of the week, getting its games on ESPN and in newspapers while the FCS struggles for attention, even in the playoffs.

“Even in our community, when we’re out of the playoffs, the newspaper runs scores but no stories on FCS games,” Dannen said. “We all want ESPN to do more but, frankly, the media covers what drives readership and viewership. And I don’t think they’re slighting us on purpose.”

Viverito said the FCS has talked with ESPN about “more and better ways to partner with us,” and there’s a chance FCS teams could open a week early to get more exposure.

Dannen would like to see the NCAA make a bigger commitment to FCS football, particularly financially. Right now, the NCAA keeps 85 percent of the revenue for a home playoff game, which means a team like Northern Iowa (which brings in about $150,000 for a home game) nets a fraction of what it would make for a regular Saturday game.

“And if you travel [for the game], you’re probably not making any money either,” he said. “I’m not saying you need an NCAA basketball tournament-type financial reward, but I’d like to see the NCAA do something to truly invest in FCS football.”

Dannen doesn’t necessarily want UNI to jump to the FBS — “Our fans would love for us to move up but in no way, shape or form does the financial argument make sense,” he said — but said the school’s boost from playing in the 2005 FBS final (which it lost to Appalachian State) can’t compare with its 2010 run to the Sweet Sixteen.

“The return was remarkably different,” he said. “And the reason is that is the national stage. We are not on the national football stage, even though it’s a big deal to our community.”

North Dakota State athletic director Gene Taylor oversees the Alabama of FCS football, which is all the more remarkable considering the Bison were playing Division II football less than a decade ago.

While he’s worried about the long-term effect of losing teams like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State — “If you keep losing membership, sometimes those victories become hollow victories” — he said the Bison are committed to staying at this level, even though NDSU’s location (the closest FBS program to Fargo is Minnesota, which is nearly four hours away) would give it a Boise State-like advantage over schools in more competitive markets.

“I still think it’s a fairly stable level of football,” Taylor said. “It’s a very competitive level of football and I think our playoff format is very strong.

“We can sell the idea that you can win a true championship here. If you go to the FBS level, you’ll never be part of a championship.”

That’s what drew YSU coach Eric Wolford, who spent his entire career coaching at the FBS level, including two years in the Big Ten and one in the SEC. He understands the lure of FBS football to recruits — it’s no coincidence his coaching staff is stocked with former FBS assistants — but he came to YSU because it gives him a chance to win a national championship.

“How many places in the country can you say that?” said Wolford, who coached in the Sun Belt with North Texas. “Unless you’re going to move up to one of the big power conferences, what are you playing for, other than maybe TV exposure?

“I think at times there’s probably some interest [in moving up] but the biggest question is whether you can do it economically. That’s a whole different ballgame. We enjoy playing where we’re at. We’ve got a good conference that’s well-respected and we embrace that.”

With the FBS level moving toward a separation of haves (SEC, Big Ten, ACC, etc.) and have-nots (the “Group of Five”) some believe the upper tier conferences will eventually break off, leaving the NCAA behind.

“I’ve heard those rumors, but I don’t necessarily believe that,” Strollo said. “I don’t think there will be a formal separation, but clearly, there’s more and more of a separation.”

That could lead the bottom half of the FBS to merge with the upper half of the FCS, something that would require several schools to swallow their pride in hopes of building a substantial second tier.

“I suspect somewhere down the line, there’s going to be a line drawn between the BCS conferences and the bottom half of the FBS and the top half of the FCS,” Viverito said. “It probably makes some sense competitively but I don’t know if it could get done politically.

“We’ve not proven to have much aptitude in doing what makes sense in college sports, so maybe I’m answering my own question.”

In 1836, just before the Battle of San Jacinto, a Texas general said something that could apply to the future of the FCS: “We view ourselves on the eve of battle. We are nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish. It is vain to look for present aid: none is at hand.”

That general’s name was Sam Houston. His army won, Texas earned its independence and in 1879, it named a college after him: Sam Houston State.

More than 130 years later, that school played back-to-back FCS championship games against North Dakota State, losing both times.

Whether you knew that is a $100,000 question.

As for the future of FCS football? Well, that’s a million-dollar one.

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