Published September 8, 2011
A few weeks ago, a committee at Appalachian State recommended that the perennial FCS football power make the jump to FBS.
A committee spokesman said the move isn’t imminent but wanted the school to make its intentions known before “what appears to be another seismic shift” in NCAA conference affiliations.
The Mountaineers, who won three straight FCS titles from 2005-07, made the announcement a year after 2009 FCS national champion Villanova started work on an “in-depth evaluation” of an offer to join the Big East in football. (The school already competes in the Big East in other sports). And that came around the same time FCS member UMass announced it will join the Mid-American Conference starting in 2012.
So, naturally, this gets people wondering: What about Youngstown State?
As most fans know, YSU tried to join the Mid-American Conference in the 1990s — they missed by a couple votes, and many at YSU believe it was Kent and Akron that kept them out — and instead joined the Horizon League starting in the fall of 2001.
At the time, there wasn’t much difference, budget-wise, between YSU and the MAC schools. But over the last decade, that gap has grown considerably, with MAC schools spending an average of $21.6 million on athletics, compared to $10.3 million for Horizon League schools.
YSU has the third-biggest budget in the Horizon League at $11.8 but the Penguins are one of just three schools with football and the only one with scholarship football, which is a big reason why they struggle to compete in most sports.
Considering YSU’s budget woes — the faculty is working without a contract and nearly went on strike before the school year started — there’s a 1 percent chance the Penguins would jump to the FBS.
But when you’re in a football league with teams like South Dakota State and Illinois State, it’s natural to dream about playing Akron, Kent and Toledo. Heck, in the spring, there were rumors the Colonial Athletic Association (home to Villanova and Delaware, among others) wanted to add YSU. I’ve been told repeatedly that the Penguins have no plans to change anything.
That said, a 1 percent chance isn’t the same as 0 percent.
So, what would need to happen for something to change?
Here are my five thoughts:
1. First, the only way YSU would make the jump is if the MAC wanted the Penguins to join.
Right now, that’s unlikely.
The MAC added Temple and UMass in recent years mainly because it gave them access to big, untapped markets. YSU doesn’t offer that, since the Youngstown market pales in comparison to, say, Philadelphia and the MAC already has six schools in Ohio. Plus, Kent and Akron don’t want to cede the recruiting advantage they have over YSU in the talent-rich Mahoning Valley.
Geographically, YSU is a good fit for the MAC. Financially, it’s not — for either party. And no other FBS conference makes sense for YSU, either.
2. The only way the MAC would want YSU to join is if (to borrow Appy State’s term) there’s a “seismic shift” in conference membership.
There is a nationwide standoff right now when it comes to conference affiliations, with the Big 12 ready to implode.
If the dominoes fell in an unexpected way and a couple MAC members got poached by bigger conferences (something that seems unlikely), the league might be forced to look at YSU.
Otherwise, it won’t.
3. If that day ever happened, YSU wouldn’t need to do much to make the jump outside of spending a little (OK, a lot) more money.
Here are the requirements for FBS schools:
- Schools must compete in at least 16 varsity sports, including football. At least eight must be women’s sports.
(YSU offers 18, including 10 women’s sports.)
- Schools must schedule at least 60 percent of its games against FBS schools, with five of those at home. If it uses 90 percent of your football scholarships, it can count one FCS opponent toward the 60 percent and one of those home games can be a neutral site.
(YSU would easily meet this requirement if it joined the MAC.)
- Schools must average at least 15,000 fans a game at least once every two seasons. The NCAA used to require teams to have a stadium capacity of at least 30,000 but scrapped the rule in 2004.
(YSU drew 15,110 per game last year and has averaged at least 14,000 every year since 1996. Stambaugh Stadium has a capacity of 20,630.If the Penguins were playing MAC schools, they would easily top the 15,000 figure, at least at first.)
- Schools must grant at least 50 percent of the NCAA’s maximum number of allowable scholarships. Or it can offer at least 25 men’s and 25 women’s scholarships in sports besides football and basketball.
(YSU already does this since it competes in Division I in all sports but football. FBS schools are required to offer more financial aid and YSU would have to invest more money in scholarships, particularly in football, but the Penguins aren’t that far off now.)
4. Most former FCS teams struggle with the jump.
For every Boise State, there are teams like Western Kentucky, Buffalo and Arkansas State that became afterthoughts at the FBS level.
Even Marshall (which made the jump around the same time YSU was trying to get into the MAC) has leveled off after a strong start.
At the FBS level, the Penguins would be a very small fish in a very big pond. Is it worth it to trade a chance at a national championship for a trip to Detroit for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl?
That’s something YSU would have to decide.
5. The main reason for the speculation is this: YSU is stuck with less-than-ideal conference options.
The Horizon League has proven to be a bad fit, mainly because YSU has to commit most of its financial resources to football, and the other schools don’t.
And in addition to having a clunky name, I bet most YSU fans can’t name all the teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and, worse, the Penguins don’t really have a true rival in the league. (UNI probably comes closest but YSU hasn’t beaten the Panthers enough to make it a rivalry.)
Thing is, the Penguins don’t really have a better option, geographically, competitively or financially. And with YSU struggling to secure a new labor deal with the faculty, the school would have a hard time selling anyone on the need to pour more money into athletics.
Bottom line? YSU is doing the best it can with the options it has.
And until a better option comes along, expect things to remain just as they are.