Georgia Southern University recently published a commissioned report entitled “Football Reclassification Analysis” (although dated June 12, 2009, it wasn’t released to the public until July 30). You can download the full report and appendices here. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the specific issue of reclassification from FCS to FBS, there is still a lot of interesting information in the report. (The report, incidentally, is 113 pages long.)
I’m going to make a few observations and comments based on some of the issues raised in this report and in other places, but first I’m going to give a brief history of Georgia Southern football, trying to show at least in part why reclassification is such a burning issue for that school. I’m also going to do some comparing and contrasting with other schools, including The Citadel, but also larger FBS institutions from the ACC and SEC.
Georgia Southern was a sleepy little teacher’s college for most of its history (the school was founded in 1907). Its football program had been established as a varsity sport in 1924, but was suspended during World War II. By the early 1980s, the school had increased in size and there was a groundswell of local and institutional support for reinstating football. To re-start the program, the school hired longtime Georgia assistant coach Erk Russell. He was, to say the least, a great hire.
Russell took the football program from club status to I-AA, fashioning an eight-year record of 83-22-1, with three national titles, the last of which came during his final season as coach, when the Eagles were 15-0. Those numbers, while very impressive, don’t begin to describe his impact on the school. Stories abound about him (how ‘Beautiful Eagle Creek’ became so beautiful is my personal favorite). He was already something of a legend before he even took the job, as this 1981 article from Sports Illustrated suggests. Tony Barnhart put it best when he wrote that “with the possible exception of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant in Tuscaloosa, no college campus in America still feels a stronger presence of one man than that of Erk Russell in Statesboro.”
Tangent: amazingly and unjustifiably, Russell is not in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was only a head coach for eight seasons, and that organization requires a minimum of ten years for eligibility. What makes his absence worse is that just this year, former Marshall coach Jim Donnan was inducted into the Hall.
Donnan only coached six seasons at Marshall (winning one title), but was also the head coach of Georgia for five years, and was thus deemed eligible to be enshrined as a member of the Hall’s “divisional” class, for non I-A schools. I’m not going to rip Donnan; he also was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in the late 1980s, and deserves credit for that, but he isn’t close to being in Russell’s league as a coach, either on or off the field. The Hall really needs to make an exception in Russell’s case, not as much for the benefit of his memory, but for its own relevance.
The program that Russell built had staying power, too, despite a revolving door of coaches since his retirement. GSU has won three additional titles post-Erk, including two under the leadership of the estimable Paul Johnson, the only one of the succeeding coaches to measure up to Russell in the eyes of the Eagle faithful.
Now, 20 years after Russell retired and almost 30 years after he christened a drainage ditch “Beautiful Eagle Creek”, which would become the symbol of the program’s rise, there is a significant group of fans/boosters at the school who want to leave FCS and go “bigtime”, with all the risks involved in that jump. It’s not like the pot of gold at the end of the FBS rainbow is full, either. Appendix 1 of the study is a report on reclassification published by the NCAA in 2007. Included in the report is the following paragraph summing up the benefit of “moving up the ladder” in college football:
Though [there is] evidence of some increase in enrollment diversity, it is far from overwhelming. We conclude that the primary benefit of reclassifying is an unquantifiable perceived increase in prestige.
There you have it. Prestige. Moving up is unlikely to provide a monetary benefit (it’s much, much more likely to result in just the opposite). Increased enrollment, or a change in the type of student enrolling, could result from the move, but there are many different (and better) ways to skin that cat, if you want to skin it. No, moving up to the FBS ranks is about something else, something almost primal.
I should add that while the push to move to FBS has come with more urgency from some quarters in recent years, the possibility was always in the back of the minds of at least a few individuals from the beginning of the program’s resurrection. Part 6 of the report, a study of facilities, references that the current football stadium (in use since the 1984 season) could eventually be enlarged to seat 75,000 spectators. That didn’t surprise me, because in 1993 a GSU administrator told me that Paulson Stadium had been designed with that potential level of expansion in mind.
However, the desire of a certain number of supporters to move the program to FBS status has grown in recent years, and it’s not too hard to figure out why. There are three schools in particular that Eagle fans would probably like the program to emulate — South Florida, Boise State, and Marshall.
The University of South Florida has only existed since 1956, and its football program didn’t start until 1997. In its first game, USF defeated Kentucky Wesleyan 80-3 before a home crowd of 49,212. I guess the folks in Tampa were really ready to watch some local college football. The following week USF played its first road game and suffered its first loss, falling 10-7 to none other than The Citadel. (The Bulldogs would lose to the Bulls in Tampa the next season, 45-6.) USF would spend four years at the I-AA level before moving up to I-A, joining Conference USA in 2003 and then the Big East in 2005. In eight years the program went from non-existent to membership in a BCS conference.
Boise State University was a junior college until 1968, with a very successful football program at that level. It joined the Big Sky Conference in 1970 and competed in that league until 1996, winning the I-AA national title in 1980. In 1996 the Broncos moved up to I-A and joined the Big West Conference. Since 2001, Boise State has been a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Of course, the Broncos are best known for their undefeated (13-0) 2006 season, which included a famous overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
In contrast to South Florida and Boise State, Marshall University has actually fielded football teams since the 19th century. In 1953, the school joined the Mid-American Conference (MAC), only to be later be suspended from that league in 1969 following allegations of 144 recruiting violations in football and basketball. Then, in 1970, tragedy struck in the form of an airplane crash that killed 75 people, including 45 football players and coaches.
The program began anew, struggling (understandably) even after joining the Southern Conference in 1976. However, Marshall football began a long stretch of on-field success in the mid-1980s, culminating in two I-AA national titles in the 1990s before moving back to I-A in 1997, where it continued to win consistently for some time (initially as a member of the MAC; it later joined Conference USA), participating in eight bowl games.
You can see why each of these schools might make Georgia Southern fans envious. South Florida didn’t even have a team until 1997, and it’s in a BCS league! Boise State moved to I-A in 1996, and it’s on TV all the time, playing home games on that crazy smurf turf, and played (and beat) Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl! Marshall was in the Southern Conference, just like Georgia Southern, and went big time and won! Given all that (plus the fact GSU is located in an area rich with football talent, unlike Boise State and Marshall), why can’t Georgia Southern be like those schools?
The short answer is that it can’t be like those schools because, well, it just isn’t quite enough like them — at least in some critical facets needed for success in moving up to I-A. Let’s look at some of the things discussed in the report:
— Student enrollment at Georgia Southern (undergraduate and graduate) is listed at 17,764. This would be on the lower end in the FBS ranks, although not overly so. In the Sun Belt Conference (the league the report uses most often for program comparisons), Georgia Southern’s enrollment would rank 7th out of 10 schools.
Around the region, the schools in the state of Florida lead the way in student enrollment. The University of Florida has 51,913 students. Central Florida has 50,254, while South Florida, Florida State, and Florida International all have 38,000+. No other school in the southeast has as many students.
— Georgia Southern’s alumni base would be a potential problem. While second in the Southern Conference, with an estimated 75,000 living alumni, GSU would rank at or near the bottom of almost every FBS conference in this aspect. This is important because alums are where most of your donors come from, and it is exacerbated in GSU’s case because of the school’s history of being primarily a teacher’s college until the last 25 years or so. Basically, a lot of those 75,000 alums don’t have that much money. Another thing Georgia Southern doesn’t have going for it in this regard is a law school or medical school that would presumably put out some well-heeled grads.
Maryland has an estimated 480,000 living alumni, easily the most among the schools in the conferences evaluated in the report. Florida, with 330,000, is second, ahead of Florida State (285,551). Three other schools (North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina) are in the 250,000-265,000 range, almost 50,000 ahead of the school with the next largest alumni base.
Tangent: in part to check the accuracy of the report, I asked The Citadel’s External Affairs Office for its best estimate of the military college’s number of living alumni. As of July 30, the number was 32,961. GSU’s report had The Citadel listed as having 32,000 living alums, good enough. The representative from External Affairs pointed out to me that “wiggle room” was needed with these types of estimates, since it is hard to keep track of all alumni, living and dead.
She was quite correct about that, as the latest edition of The Citadel’s Alumni News magazine demonstrated. Each edition lists the oldest living alums of the school, but the spring publication noted that the two oldest living alumni, as listed in the previous issue, were actually both deceased — one of them having died in 1988. The actual oldest living alumnus of The Citadel is a doctor in Augusta who reportedly still practices medicine at the age of 99, having delivered over 15,000 babies during his career. Yowza. Okay, back to football.
— Georgia Southern’s budget for athletics in FY2008 was just over $9 million, and was actually one of the smallest budgets in the Southern Conference. Furman had the largest budget in the league, at $15 million (just ahead of Appalachian State). The Citadel actually had a larger budget than GSU. Obviously a move to FBS would require a significant increase. According to the report, to achieve a budget that would be average in the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern would have to increase its budget by $5.1 million per year (56%). Those figures rise to an additional $15.2 million (167%) for an average C-USA budget.
There were seven schools in the SEC with FY2008 budgets in excess of $70 million, led by Florida ($106 million). No ACC school had an athletic budget that large; Duke (at just under $68 million) came closest. The only FBS school in the region with a smaller athletic budget than Georgia Southern is Louisiana-Monroe, a school with an identity crisis if there ever was one, having in recent times changed its school name (from Northeast Louisiana to Louisiana-Monroe) and nickname (from Indians to Warhawks). ULM, with an athletic budget of under $8 million, has never had a winning season at the FBS level since moving up in 1994, which made its 21-14 victory in 2007 over Alabama that much more embarassing for the Crimson Tide.
— To increase its budget, GSU is going to need to expand its base of athletic donors. We’ve already seen that’s a problem due in part to its relatively small alumni base. Georgia Southern had 2,110 members of its booster club, and raised around $1 million, in FY2008. How does that compare to other schools?
Well, on the bright side, GSU has more booster club members than any school in the Sun Belt. That doesn’t say much for the Sun Belt, though, because GSU would rank last in the ACC and SEC, and close to last in C-USA. There are two schools in the SoCon with more donors. Appalachian State is one of them, and the other is…The Citadel. As of 2008 there were approximately 3,000 members of The Citadel Brigadier Foundation. Wofford and Elon have almost as many boosters as GSU. If you combined the total number of living alumni from The Citadel, Wofford, and Elon, that number would still not equal the total living alumni from Georgia Southern. You see the problem.
The number of athletic donors by school varies widely across the region, even at the ACC/SEC level, in part because some schools require joining a booster club as a prerequisite to buying season tickets. That said, Clemson’s 23,000+ strong donor list is very impressive. North Carolina State (20,256) also has a sizeable booster club. On the SEC side of things, only the Mississippi schools and Vanderbilt have fewer than 10,000 booster club members. None of the non-BCS schools in the region can compare, with the exception of East Carolina (13,483). Florida Atlantic has 500 athletic donors.
— The report compared home attendance for the 2007 season, which I found puzzling (it should have been a five-year average or something of that nature). Also, I am referring to these figures as 2007 attendance numbers because that is what they are, not from 2008 as stated in the report. The review of attendance figures is one of the weakest sections in the document.
Based on these 2007 numbers, however, GSU would have work to do, ranking in the middle of a listing that includes Sun Belt schools and behind every institution in the ACC, SEC, and C-USA (even Duke and UAB). It’s actually worse than that, though.
From the report: “It is important to note that reported attendance is not paid attendance…average paid admission for Georgia Southern home football games was approximately 9,500…”
Um, wow. Students don’t have to pay to attend GSU football games, and so when you take them out of the mix, along with gameday personnel and comps, basically only half of the people at Paulson on a given Saturday actually paid to go to the game.
— The population base around Statesboro is not a natural for revenue generation, for several reasons. One is that there simply isn’t that big a base. GSU has fewer people living within a 50-mile radius of its campus than any school in the Southern Conference, and would rank near the bottom of most other leagues. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, though. Many of the SEC schools, for example, are located in less-dense population areas.
A bigger problem, however, is that GSU’s market is demonstrably younger than most areas. According to the report, the median age of the area around Georgia Southern is 31.7, which is the lowest such figure among every school surveyed for the report except UT-El Paso. The Citadel has the second-youngest demographic area in the SoCon, but that market’s median age is 36.5, markedly higher than GSU’s. This age differential has a lot to do with another comparison outlined in the report, Household Effective Buying Income. Georgia Southern’s market ranks last in the SoCon in HEBI (at $32,272), and would be near the bottom of FBS conferences in the region.
In looking at the figures for this category, I noticed that the schools in the regions with the highest median age (in other words, those that skewed older) were either located in Florida or were within 50 miles of at least part of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Marshall, and Clemson).
— The corporate base around Georgia Southern is also small, ranking last in the SoCon (488 corporations within a 50-mile radius). The Citadel, somewhat surprisingly, ranks next-to-last in the league (747) despite its Charleston location. GSU would rank near the bottom of FBS in this category. The lack of corporate entities hinders GSU’s (and The Citadel’s, for that matter) ability to sell advertising, sponsorships, PSLs and suites, naming rights, etc.
— Earlier I mentioned that Georgia Southern would have to increase its athletic budget if it moved to FBS. One of the considerations there is that to comply with Title IX, GSU would have to add women’s scholarships to match the extra 22 scholarships allocated to football (as FCS squads can only have 63 schollies, not the 85-scholarship limit of FBS schools). So whatever monies are spent for football essentially would have to be doubled for gender equity purposes (Georgia Southern is not in a position to cut another men’s sport). GSU would add a women’s golf team, and increase expenditures for women’s sports across the board (presumably including the women’s swim team, which just eyeballing the numbers appears woefully underfunded).
The report concluded that the minimum yearly operating costs for Georgia Southern to operate an FBS program would be a little over $14 million, about a 40% increase over the current budget, but that’s not even taking into account the necessary capital improvements that would have to be made. From the executive summary:
…a total capital expenditure of $84,374,391 is estimated, and, if all bonded, would represent an annual facilities cost of $5,484,154 plus $812,500 in additional annual maintenance costs.
That’s a whole lot of money that would need to be raised by a school with a relatively undersized booster club and a small alumni base, located in a region without a lot of people (and where the people that are there don’t have on average a great deal of disposable income), and with few corporations around to provide a quick influx of serious cash.
Let’s go back to South Florida, Boise State, and Marshall, and compare them to Georgia Southern.
— South Florida has a student enrollment of 42,785, and an alumni base of 180,000. Over 40,000 people showed up to watch the football team play its first game ever (its 2007 average attendance: 53,170). It doesn’t have that big a booster club (3,260 donors), but has a significant corporate base (3,896). USF could probably sell most of its sponsor packages even if it were limited to the local strip clubs in Tampa. The Bulls had an FY2008 athletic budget of over $32 million.
Georgia Southern shares a time zone with South Florida, but quite honestly there is little else the two schools have in common.
— Boise State is a school of a similar size to GSU, both in student enrollment (slightly larger) and alumni base (slightly smaller). Boise State’s athletic budget of $26.55 million (FY2009) dwarfs Georgia Southern’s; it spends about the same amount of money on its football program as GSU spends on its entire athletic budget. Boise has a huge advantage in its corporate base, with lots of tech, agricultural, mining, and timber companies (including Simplot, Micron, Boise Cascade, and Albertsons). This probably helps account for its ability to spend that kind of money for athletics and its ability to raise money for its athletic facilities. BSU has a waiting list for football season tickets and over 4,000 members in its booster club.
It’s hard to compare a school in a part of the country so different than that of GSU, but I think it would be safe to say that Boise State has had an advantage over Georgia Southern as far as having money to spend on its program is concerned (including key capital projects). BSU also had about a 20-year head start on GSU in terms of trying to move up to Division I-A. The Broncos also got a little lucky, in my opinion — particularly with the expansion, and then contraction, of the original WAC. The timing was just right for Boise State to move into the decimated WAC after the split.
The other thing going for Boise State is that, as far as FBS football is concerned, it’s the only game in town for miles around. There is no FBS school within 300 miles of Boise State (and there is no major professional sports franchise in the area, either). Boise, particularly with its corporate presence, is just large enough of a metro area to provide the resources needed for the school to successfully compete at the FBS level, especially given the lack of local (or even regional) competition. In contrast, there are numerous college football programs in a 300-mile radius around Georgia Southern, including Georgia, Georgia Tech, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Florida State, and Auburn, plus NFL franchises in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Jacksonville.
— Marshall’s student enrollment is a bit larger than Georgia Southern’s. Its football attendance is larger (the Thundering Herd averaged over 24,000 fans in 2007). Its population base is larger and notably older (by about eight years in median age). Marshall has an athletic budget of over $21 million. MU has 2,900 booster club members; in 2008, its booster club raised $1.65 million (as compared to GSU’s $950,000).
I’ll say this, too. Marshall had an enormous amount of success in the period in which it transitioned from I-AA to I-A, with multiple conference titles in both the Southern Conference and the MAC (although someone needs to tell the sports information department that the Thundering Herd did not win the SoCon in 1992, as stated in its media guide; Marshall won the national title that year, but The Citadel won the league crown).
My perception of Marshall is that at least at one time it had one of the more passionate fan bases around, one that “traveled well”, as the saying goes. I often wondered, though, how sustainable its success would be as it moved further up the football ladder. There are limitations to a football program from a non-flagship school based in Huntington, West Virginia. Since moving to C-USA, Marshall has endured four consecutive losing seasons, and perhaps more ominously has not had a winning record to date in conference play.
This recent lack of success may have been covered up just a bit by a movie, but the school administration has to be concerned. Marshall’s booster club donations dropped by 22% this past year. The economy undoubtedly played a large role in that, but once things start going downhill, it can be hard to stop the rush down the tubes. Marshall may have won a lot of games in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that won’t prevent it from ultimately becoming another who-cares FBS program with no notice on a national level if it doesn’t get back to winning, and soon.
When you digest all that information, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than Georgia Southern should stay right where it is, at the FCS level. I can understand why some GSU fans would be less than satisfied with the program’s current status, though. There are several things that feed this frustration:
— One factor is the “small time” perception of FCS football, exemplified by this rather silly piece of commentary by New York Daily News writer Filip Bondy, who is upset that his alma mater, Wisconsin, is playing Wofford this season. Bondy is apparently unaware that Wisconsin could have (and should have) lost last season to an FCS school (Cal Poly) and was tied at halftime two years ago with one of Wofford’s fellow SoCon brethren (The Citadel). It’s usually hard to take seriously a writer for a New York City tabloid when college football is the subject (or perhaps when anything is the subject), but that’s the kind of thing that’s out there. (Bondy also seems annoyed at having to pay $41 for a ticket, but that isn’t too surprising a price for a BCS home game. I tend to share his annoyance on that front, however. North Carolina is charging $50 for single-game tickets for contests against The Citadel and Georgia Southern this season.)
— Then there is the disparity in schools within the Southern Conference itself, a historic problem for a league that has always been a grab-bag of regional colleges and universities, some of which have very little in common with each other. If you are a Georgia Southern fan, it may be hard to get enthused about regularly playing small schools like The Citadel or Wofford as opposed to “like” institutions such as Appalachian State (or Marshall, back when it was still in the league). There is also the complaint (groundless, in my view) that the conference has drifted more into the small and/or private school arena, particularly with the recent admission of Samford (at the expense of, say, Coastal Carolina).
I can understand some of that angst. GSU fans want the conference to go in the direction that GSU wants to go. The thing is, though, that the reverse is also true. It can be very frustrating to be a supporter of a school like The Citadel and have to compete on a yearly basis in the conference with much larger schools with very different missions, and it has been that way for decades. This is a league that as recently as the 1960s still had schools like West Virginia and Virginia Tech as members. East Carolina was in the SoCon until 1976 (not to mention all the ACC/SEC schools that were in the league in the first half of the 20th century).
The Southern Conference was the ideal spot for Georgia Southern when it needed a place to land. The conference hasn’t really changed. Whether Georgia Southern’s priorities and expectations have changed or not is another matter.
— Another thing that may be causing frustration (or perhaps concern) is that in 2010 there will be another GSU playing FCS football, namely Georgia State, which has received a surprising amount of publicity for its entry into the football world (thanks to hiring Bill Curry, I believe). Again, you have the “prestige” issue in play. Georgia Southern fans want to be in the same galaxy with Georgia and Georgia Tech, not Georgia State.
What’s amazing (at least to me) is that Georgia State isn’t alone in starting a football program right now. It won’t even be the only new program in the Colonial Athletic Association, as Old Dominion will begin play this fall. Also soon to be lacing up the ol’ pigskin: South Alabama (which plans on playing in the Sun Belt as an FBS program), UT-San Antonio (which has hired Larry Coker and also plans to eventually play at the FBS level), and UNC Charlotte.
South Alabama has already lined up games against Tennessee, Mississippi State, North Carolina State, Kent State, and Navy, according to this article by ESPN writer Ivan Maisel.
Tangent: one part of the reclassification report I am dubious about is its estimate of how much money “guarantee” games would bring to the program. Page 5-44 of the report outlines potential guarantees ranging between $150,000 and $500,000, but as Maisel’s article notes, much larger sums of money are being thrown around for a lot of these types of games (Tennessee will pay South Alabama $850,000 to come to Knoxville in 2013). I think the report was a little too conservative in that section.
Given the current state of the economy, I was expecting less expansion of athletic programs and more news along the lines of Centenary dropping to Division III (the linked article comes complete with a couple of semi-nasty quotes from Tim Brando, of all people).
— You also have various conspiracy theories floating around that the current Georgia Southern administration adamantly opposes any move to FBS, and may even prefer to “dial down” athletics in general at the school. There are some particularly strident fans who suggest that the current administrators have been less than competent. These sentiments seep out in various ways, including message boards and, somewhat amusingly, Wikipedia. The current wiki entry for Paulson Stadium includes the following paragraph:
Constructed at a cost of $4.7 million, the stadium was designed with two expansion phases in mind. The first would increase the capacity to approximately 35,000, while the final phase would expand seating to 50,000. However, because of the lack of effort on the part of school leadership, neither of these additions have been implemented. Permanent light fixtures were added prior to the 1994 season.
Of course, the report commissioned by GSU isn’t for these types of fans, because they wouldn’t believe anything in it anyway unless it said “GSU MUST MOVE UP TO FBS NOW!!” on the cover page.
Incidentally, The Citadel also studied whether or not it should move up to the FBS level — in 1995. At that time, a new rule had been enacted by the NCAA that required major-college teams to win six games against I-A competition in order to qualify for a bowl bid. The rule meant that playing I-AA schools was counterproductive for the bigger schools. The Citadel lost potential guarantee games against LSU and Clemson as a result, games the military college needed to balance its budget.
However, the school didn’t really want to leave I-AA, and when the NCAA changed the bowl-qualification rules to allow one victory against a I-AA school to count towards six bowl-worthy wins, The Citadel elected to stay right where it was.
So, to sum up…Georgia Southern has a winning tradition and a loyal fanbase. That’s not enough to make a move to FBS, though. You need to have the right resources to build and maintain an FBS program (that’s a polite way of saying you need a lot of cash, both on hand and in the future). In 2009, Georgia Southern simply doesn’t have enough going for it to develop those resources, no matter how hard it squeezes the proverbial turnip. Maybe down the road it will have the ability to successfully move up to that level, but for right now its fans should enjoy what they already have.
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