A few quick thoughts about college football titles, including The Citadel’s national championship in 1871

Recently, Auburn made some waves in the world of college football by announcing that it was considering the recognition of seven more national championships for its football program:

“If other schools are using these same polls to declare a national championship, we should at least consider it,” Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs said. “I don’t think there’s a better time for the Auburn family to consider it than right here at the end of the BCS era.

“As we transition into another playoff format for the national champion, I just think we need to look hard at it.”

The 1910, 1913, 1914, 1958, 1983, 1993 and 2004 teams are all under consideration. Each finished undefeated or won the conference championship, or both. All were recognized as national champions by at least one national selector, which are used by other schools to recognize National Championships.

Now, Auburn wouldn’t be the first school to claim additional titles from the distant past. Far from it.

The leader in retroactive championships is Princeton, which has claimed 28 football titles, including the first in 1869. Many of those retro-crowns were awarded to Princeton by Parke Davis, a prominent college football researcher in the early part of the 20th century.

As it happens, Davis was a former player at Princeton. He was a member of the 1889 squad that he would later anoint as national champions (Davis did that in 1932).

Davis was also at one time the head football coach at Lafayette. In 1896, he led the Leopards to an undefeated season, with one tie. That tie came against Princeton. Both teams finished without a loss, and Davis awarded each a share of the 1896 crown, thirty-six years after the fact.

This kerfuffle about championships reminded me again how The Citadel has always been low-key about its own national football championship, which came in 1871. What is unusual about The Citadel’s national crown is that it is essentially undisputed.

While up to five schools have claimed championships for certain seasons, no other school to my knowledge has attempted to claim the 1871 title.

This is probably due to the painstaking research and mathematical calculations that were made by the determining selector for that season (for the uninitiated, “selector” refers to the pollsters/analysts determining the champion). The Citadel was awarded the 1871 national championship by the TSA Matrix Ratings System.

It is hard to argue that the military college doesn’t deserve at least a share of the title. No points were scored against The Citadel on the gridiron during the entire 1871 season, a rare accomplishment in college football. The fact no other school has even tried to shoehorn its way into the 1871 championship discussion speaks volumes about the validity of The Citadel’s claim.

The TSA Matrix Ratings System, showing an admirable attention to detail, actually determined a top 5 for the 1871 campaign. The Citadel was followed in the algorithm by 2nd-ranked Princeton; 3rd-ranked Rutgers; 4th-ranked Columbia; and 5th-ranked Stevens Tech.

(For those not familiar with Stevens Tech, it is a school located in Hoboken, New Jersey that currently competes at the NCAA Division III level in athletics, though it no longer fields a varsity football squad. It is thus no longer near the forefront of national championship discussion, as it was throughout most of the 1870s. The school’s teams are known as the Ducks, and its mascot is Attila the Duck.)

The Citadel is the only southern school to have established a claim for a national football crown in the 19th century. The next earliest title claim for a school south of the Mason-Dixon line is that of LSU, for the 1908 championship. The Citadel also has the earliest claim for a national title by a military college. Army did not enter the championship picture until 1914, while Navy’s sole claim to a crown came in 1926.

It is a little disappointing that The Citadel’s on-campus bookstore doesn’t sell national championship memorabilia for the 1871 season. I would love to have a ’71 championship mug, for example.

I think a handsome profit could be made for going “retro” with some offerings, not just for the 1871 title, but for things like The Citadel’s trip to the College World Series in 1990. You can’t tell me people wouldn’t buy t-shirts commemorating the Bulldogs’ run to Omaha.

It’s not like the folks running the bookstore haven’t been willing to experiment. After all, they sold this holiday sweatshirt last year: Link

Here are a couple of mock-ups of potential t-shirts or sweatshirts that could be sold on campus or online. These are simplistic, but they certainly deliver the message: Link and Link

Circling back to titles that are actually controversial in nature:

With college football moving to a playoff at the FBS level, there will be a dramatic reduction in disputes surrounding the “true” major-college national champion. For those who believe in decisiveness and closure, this is a good thing. However, there is surely something lost in the transition.

The unknown provides a certain romance. There is something charming about the notion that almost any school with an argument, no matter how dubious or whimsical, can make a claim to being the best in a given year.

Besides, a few extra banners never hurt anybody…

Big Dance victory droughts: BCS schools that haven’t celebrated an NCAA tournament win in quite a while

Update: the 2014 edition

This post was partly inspired by a recent recap of a Frank Martin press conference. Now, Frank Martin pressers are often required viewing, because the South Carolina coach doesn’t mince words. What struck me, though, was this note:

Martin said he realized this year marks the 40th anniversary of USC’s last NCAA tournament victory.

You read that correctly. South Carolina hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973. That’s a long drought for a team in a major conference (even if the Gamecocks weren’t in a BCS league for part of that time).

It got me thinking…what other schools currently in BCS leagues haven’t won a game in the Big Dance in a while? Not just get a bid, mind you, but actually advance in the tournament with a victory?

After looking up some records, I was mildly surprised to discover that 13 current BCS schools have gone at least ten years without such a win. Some have gone a lot longer than that — and two of them have never won an NCAA tournament game.

That group of 13 does not include South Carolina’s fellow Palmetto State school, Clemson, although the Tigers actually haven’t advanced past the round of 64 since 1997. However, two years ago Clemson won a play-in game against UAB, which counts (more or less).

Let’s take a look at our sad list of 13, then. None of these schools has won a tournament game since 2003:

– Northwestern (no tournament appearances): Famously, NU is the only BCS school to have never played in the NCAA tournament (despite hosting the very first NCAA title game in 1939). You can read about Northwestern and all the other schools that have never made the Big Dance here: Link

– Nebraska (no NCAA victories): Here is the only other BCS school to have never won an NCAA tournament game, although the Cornhuskers have at least played in the event. Nebraska is 0-for-6, including three losses as the higher-seeded team. The Cornhuskers last made the NCAAs in 1998.

– South Carolina (last won an NCAA game in 1973): As mentioned above, the Gamecocks haven’t advanced in the NCAAs for four decades. South Carolina’s last victory was actually in a regional consolation game. Since then, the Gamecocks have suffered some particularly excruciating losses, including losing in the first round in consecutive years as a 2 and 3 seed, respectively. South Carolina’s NCAA tourney losing streak began in 1974 with a loss to Furman. Ouch.

– Oregon State (last won an NCAA game in 1982): The Beavers haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 1991, the longest such drought for a BCS school outside of Northwestern, and haven’t won a game in the tourney since 1982, when it lost in the Elite Eight to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. Oregon State has two final fours in its history; it’s odd the Beavers haven’t been able to put things together for so long.

– Rutgers (last won an NCAA game in 1983): Of course, the Scarlet Knights haven’t always been a major-conference program, but at any rate the last time RU won a tourney game was in 1983 (as a member of the Atlantic 10). In 1976, Rutgers made the Final Four as a member of the long-gone ECAC Metro conference. The Scarlet Knights were undefeated that year until losing to Michigan in the national semis.

– TCU (last won an NCAA game in 1987): Here is another school that hasn’t been in a major conference throughout its history. However, since the Southwest Conference dissolved, the Horned Frogs have only participated in one NCAA tournament (1997, as a member of the WAC). TCU’s last victory in the Big Dance came in 1987, as an SWC team.

– Providence (last won an NCAA game in 1997): The Friars have advanced to two Final Fours and came very close to notching a third trip in 1997, when Pete Gillen’s squad lost in overtime to eventual national champion Arizona in the Elite Eight. Providence has yet to win a game in the NCAAs since then, however, and hasn’t played in the tournament at all since 2004.

– St. John’s (last won an NCAA game in 2000): SJU has only played in two NCAA tournaments since 2000, a major disappointment for a school with a hoops tradition as rich as St. John’s. The Red Storm has never won the NCAA title, but the program does have two Final Four trips and four Elite Eight appearances, including one as recently as 1999.

– Iowa (last won an NCAA game in 2001): Like St. John’s, Iowa is another school with a history of playing quality basketball. The Hawkeyes played in the 1956 NCAA title game, one of three Final Four appearances for Iowa. Since the 2001 season, however, it has only qualified for two NCAA tournaments.

– Penn State (last won an NCAA game in 2001): The Nittany Lions got to the Sweet 16 in 2001, upsetting North Carolina in the second round before losing to Temple. Since then, Penn State has only made one NCAA tournament (in 2011).

– Mississippi (last won an NCAA game in 2001): Mississippi got to the Sweet 16 in 2001, and returned to the NCAAs in 2002 (losing in the first round that year). That 2002 appearance is the Rebels’ most recent in the event. Mississippi has only played in six NCAA tournaments, and is probably most remembered for being on the wrong side of Bryce Drew and “Pacer” back in 1998.

– Georgia (last won an NCAA game in 2002): UGA has only made two NCAAs since 2002. Georgia had never played in the NCAA tournament before 1983. That year, though, the Bulldogs (led by Vern Fleming) made it all the way to the Final Four before losing to Jim Valvano’s destined North Carolina State squad. Georgia has only managed to get to the Sweet 16 once since that year.

– Auburn (last won an NCAA game in 2003): The Tigers advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2003, losing by one point in the regional semifinals to Carmelo Anthony and eventual national champ Syracuse. That was the last time Auburn made the Big Dance. Oddly, the Tigers have a winning record in NCAA tournament play (12-8), despite never advancing to the Final Four (one Elite Eight appearance).

When Auburn gets to the tournament, it’s a solid bet to win a game or two; the one time AU didn’t win its first-round tourney game, a loss to Richmond, its star was one Charles Barkley. The problem is that the Tigers don’t get there that often — which is something that can be said for several of the schools on this list.

Will any of these schools break through and win a game this year? Well, first they have to make the tournament, and there is a good chance not one of them will get a bid. Iowa and St. John’s are bubble teams (arguably on the wrong side of the bubble), while the others would have to win their respective conference tourneys to get there.

In other words, there is a good chance all of them will remain on this list next year.

Football, Game 2: The Citadel vs. Arizona

Gametime:  10 pm ET, September 11.

Telecast:  KWBA, local channel 58 in Tucson, and on Fox College Sports Pacific (FCS-Pacific), joined in progress; announcers are Dave Sitton, John Fina, and sideline reporter Glenn Howell

There won’t be many schools this season who will face in consecutive weeks opponents as different as Chowan and Arizona.  Chowan is a small Division II school in North Carolina.  Arizona is a large Division I (FBS) school, the flagship university of a populous western state.  Chowan has about 1,100 undergraduate students. Arizona has 30,000.  Indeed, Arizona has more undergraduate and graduate students than The Citadel has living alumni.

The difference is reflected in the football teams as well, of course, and thus The Citadel’s football team has its work cut out for it this week as it ventures to Tucson, the longest trip in program history.  Since The Citadel has never played Arizona (or any Pac-10 school) before, let’s take a brief look at the history of the University of Arizona’s football team.

The Wildcats (originally just known as the “Varsity”) started playing football in 1899, 14 years after the school’s founding.  Keep in mind that Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912 (it was the 48th and last of the contiguous states).  It had been a recognized U.S. territory since 1862.

The first official coach of the football team was “Pop” McKale, for whom the McKale Center (UA’s basketball arena) is named.  McHale also coached the basketball team for a time and was the school’s longtime director of athletics.

McHale was also a central figure in the story of Arizona’s great tradition, its motto “Bear Down”.  In 1926, Arizona quarterback and student body president John “Button” Salmon was critically injured in a car accident after the first game of that season. McHale regularly visited Salmon in the hospital until Salmon’s death on October 18.

During the coach’s final visit, Salmon told McHale to “tell them…tell the team to bear down.”  McHale reportedly told the team just that, repeating Salmon’s words during a game against New Mexico State which the Wildcats managed to win, 7-0.  It’s a tale not unlike Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech for Notre Dame.

Ever since, “Bear Down” has been the official slogan for all of the university’s athletic teams.

Salmon is one of two players to have his jersey retired at Arizona.  The other, running back Art Luppino, led the nation in rushing twice in 1954 and 1955.

Arizona first joined a conference in 1931, becoming a charter member of the Border Conference, and remaining in that league until it disbanded in 1961.  Other schools in the league included Texas Tech, UTEP, New Mexico, New Mexico State, and Arizona State.  They were joined at various times by Hardin-Simmons, Northern Arizona, and West Texas A&M.  The Wildcats won three league titles while in the Border Conference and played in one bowl game during that time, losing the 1949 Salad Bowl (yes, Salad Bowl) to Drake (yes, Drake).

Arizona then became a founding member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). That league was basically a merger of the Border and Skyline Conferences, except not every school in those leagues was invited (New Mexico State, for example).  Also in the original WAC:  Arizona State, BYU, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.  Arizona won two league titles in the WAC and played in one bowl game, the 1968 Sun Bowl (losing to Auburn).

Arizona and Arizona State gradually outgrew the WAC, mostly because the state of Arizona was outgrowing (by percentage) most of the other states in and around the mountain time zone.  The development of air conditioning helped produce a population boom in the state, and the increase in population/resources trickled down to the state universities.  The two schools joined the Pac-8 (renamed the Pac-10) in 1978, and have remained in that conference since then.

The hallmark of the program in that time, much to the frustration of  Arizona’s fans, has been its inability to make a trip to the Rose Bowl.  Its rival, Arizona State, has been to the big game twice (winning once), but the Wildcats have never been.  Arizona has come close on two occasions, both times under the direction of Dick Tomey.

In 1993, Arizona shared the Pac-10 title with UCLA and Southern California, but lost a tiebreaker to UCLA for the Rose Bowl berth.  This is the only time the Wildcats have claimed even a piece of the Pac-10 crown.  Arizona had lost earlier in the season to UCLA, but as late as November 14 still had a shot at Pasadena after a UCLA loss. However, the Wildcats blew a 20-point lead and lost to California, 24-20, eliminating them from Rose Bowl consideration.

The Wildcats did rebound from that disappointment, beating their rivals in Tempe and then dominating Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish the season 10-2, with the bowl game arguably being the pinnacle of Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” defense, which was the national identity of the program in the mid-1990s (and personified by Tedy Bruschi).

The Fiesta Bowl victory was a major reason why Sports Illustrated ranked Arizona No. 1 in its 1994 preseason issue, but after starting the campaign 4-0 the Wildcats were upset at home by Colorado State.  Arizona also suffered road losses to Oregon and Southern California and finished with a Freedom Bowl loss to Utah and a disappointing 8-4 season.

In 1998, Arizona finished 12-1, losing only to UCLA (albeit at home by four touchdowns).  However, the Wildcats were looking good for a Rose Bowl appearance anyway, as the Bruins completed their Pac-10 schedule undefeated and were poised to play for the mythical national title at the Fiesta Bowl.  That would have sent Arizona to the Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately for Arizona (and the Bruins, as it turned out), UCLA had to play a December game originally delayed by a hurricane against the Hurricanes — and lost to Miami, 49-45.  That result meant the Bruins took the berth in the Rose and the Wildcats had to settle for the Holiday Bowl (which they won, beating Nebraska).

When I was looking at Arizona’s football history, and wondering what was preventing Arizona, a big school in a BCS conference with success in a lot of sports other than football, from grabbing the brass ring, one thing stood out.  It must have stood out to Joe Tessitore and Rod Gilmore too, because while calling the Wildcats’ 41-2 dismantling of Toledo last Friday on ESPN, they mentioned (and marvelled at) the following factoid:

Arizona hasn’t had a quarterback drafted by the NFL since 1985.

Think about that.  There can’t be that many BCS programs who have gone that long between QB draft picks.  In fact, that QB (10th-round pick John Conner, who did not throw a pass in the NFL) is the only quarterback out of Arizona drafted since 1972 (when another Wildcat signal-caller who never played in the league, Brian Linstrom, was selected in the 16th round).  It’s not like Arizona’s been running the wishbone all this time, either.

Arizona’s football program has had three different quarterbacks make a total of 29 starts in the NFL, none since 1974.  So in all the time UA has been in the Pac-10, it’s never developed an NFL quarterback.

It’s hard to win big games, or even get to big games, without a pro-caliber quarterback.  Since 1975, only one Arizona alum has thrown a TD pass in the NFL — a punter, Josh Miller, who did it for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2003 (an 81-yard pass play, incidentally).  Here is a little chart comparing alums from Arizona, The Citadel, and a mystery school:

TD passes thrown in the NFL since 1975

Arizona — 1

The Citadel — 1

Mystery School — 0

If you’re wondering, the graduate of The Citadel with a touchdown pass is Stump Mitchell.  Now, that mystery school that hasn’t had a grad with a TD toss in the NFL in the last 35 years?  Well, it’s a school that has quite a bit in common with Arizona on the athletics front.  It’s a “basketball school” that has won multiple titles in other sports, but hasn’t been able to parlay its success in those sports into a nationally prominent football program.

Like Arizona, a good argument can be made that the reason for that has a lot to do with never having an “NFL ready” quarterback.  What school is that?  Why, it’s the BCS school The Citadel played last season.

North Carolina.

I wrote about UNC’s football history in my preview of The Citadel’s game against the Heels last year.  At the time, I noted that the overall QB rating for players from The Citadel to have thrown a pass in the NFL (which would be just two, Mitchell and Paul Maguire) was exactly 100 points better than their UNC counterparts (119.6-19.6). Arizona is a little better than North Carolina in this respect (47.7), but again the mighty Bulldogs prevail.

What will this mean on Saturday?  Not much, since it’s probable the Wildcats have finally found themselves an NFL prospect at QB in Nick Foles.  Foles is a native of Austin (went to the same high school as Drew Brees) who began his collegiate career at Michigan State before transferring to Arizona after one season.

He has NFL size (6’5″, 245 lbs.) and a good arm.  Last season he completed 63% of his passes for 19 TDs (9 interceptions).  His yards per attempt was not that high (just over 6 yards), but he was only sacked 13 times all season (so not a lot of negative plays).  His three 300-yard games included a 4-TD effort against league champion Oregon.

Foles isn’t the only impressive skill-position player on the Wildcat offense.  Nic Grigsby, when healthy, is an outstanding running back.  Grigsby averaged over seven yards per carry last season.  His problem was a bad shoulder that cost him three games and limited him in several others.  He appears to be healthy now.  Then there is Juron Criner, a rangy 6’4″ wideout who hauled in nine touchdowns last season.

Criner had a ridiculous game against Toledo on Friday, catching eleven passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.  Forty-five of those reception yards came on a one-handed, falling-down circus catch in the third quarter.  His TD grab was almost as good.

Arizona had to replace seven defensive starters from last season, but you would have never known it against Toledo, which did not score on the Wildcat defense (the Rockets’ only two points came on a safety called for offensive holding in the end zone).

Arizona is as good a bet as any team to make a run at the Pac-10 title.  Oregon, the defending champ (and coming off a 72-0 demolition of hapless New Mexico), probably has to be the favorite, but if the Ducks slip it’s possible the Wildcats could be the team to make the move to the top and claim the school’s first Rose Bowl trip.

Arizona was picked in the middle of the conference pack in most preseason polls, likely thanks to getting manhandled 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl by a certain Mr. Suh and Nebraska.  Its most recent impression among those who vote in pre-season polls was not a good one.  Otherwise, I think a team with the talent (particularly on offense) that Arizona has might have been nationally ranked to start the season.

Arizona’s coach is Mike Stoops, also known as “Bob Stoops’ brother”.  He has very slowly built the program since arriving in 2004 (wins per year:  3, 3, 6, 5, 8, 8).  Some Arizona supporters have become a bit impatient.  He needs to have a good year this year.  He’s probably going to have one, so I wouldn’t assign him “hot seat” status, but if the Wildcats were to tank this season, I think he would be out the door.

It could be a long night for The Citadel.  In fact, it would be surprising if it weren’t.  The problem is that the defense is going to have some matchup problems (particularly with Criner), and will not be likely to get much help from the offense.

Last season against BCS foe North Carolina the defense got no help from the offense either, but the UNC offense wasn’t dynamic enough to take full advantage of its field position and time of possession.  As a result, the Bulldogs lost, but only by a 40-6 score.  Arizona may not have as good a defense as UNC did, but The Citadel’s offense will be worse (as it is still in its embryonic stage in the triple option) and the Wildcat offense is considerably more talented than the Heels’ O was.

I wrote about some on-field things that concerned me in my review of the Chowan game.  I am hoping that the blocking improves, that the quarterbacks get more comfortable taking the snap and making the proper reads, and that the defense does a better job in assignments and tackling.   Against Arizona, I don’t really expect to see much visible progress from the offense, although I am willing to be pleasantly surprised.

I do think that the one player who might not be physically out of place in the game for The Citadel’s offense is Domonic Jones.  I could see him making a play or two.  First, of course, the QB has to get him the ball, or at least give him a chance to get the ball.

On the other hand, I do expect the defense, even against a squad as talented as the Wildcats, to avoid multiple mental errors and not miss tackles.  That should happen. If it doesn’t, things could get ugly.

I’ll be watching anyway…

Thoughts on The Citadel and transfers

When I write about The Citadel and transfers, I want to first distinguish between basic types.  One of them is the three-year transfer.  It’s a little bit unusual, but not rare, for someone to spend his or her freshman year at another school, and then transfer into The Citadel.

Now, the “system” at The Citadel is designed for a four-year student.  In other words, the typical member of the corps of cadets spends four years at the school, and those four years have very specific benchmarks.  However, it is possible (and not particularly difficult) for a student to transfer in and spend three years in the corps, and have essentially the same experience as a four-year student.  Basically, the sophomore/junior years are combined.

I don’t know anyone associated with The Citadel who has a problem with a three-year transfer athlete representing the school.  I certainly don’t.  It doesn’t happen often, to be sure.  Recently Kenny Manigault, who played high school basketball in the Charleston area for Pinewood Prep, announced he was transferring from Wichita State to The Citadel. Manigault will have three years of athletic eligibility, and will presumably be spending (at least) three years in the corps of cadets.

Another athlete who will be transferring in to The Citadel is Blane Woodfin, who originally committed to Air Force, but was not admitted to the AFA (reportedly because of a physical problem).  Woodfin attended Montana State last year but did not play football, and will thus apparently have four years of athletic eligibility remaining at The Citadel, not three.

These are not transfers likely to cause any cantankerous old alum heartburn, even though Manigault called Chuck Driesell “real laid back”, which is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone call Driesell laid back.  The Citadel as an institution, as Manigault and Woodfin will soon learn (if they don’t know already), is certainly not laid back…

However, there is another type of transfer that has been popping up more and more at The Citadel in recent years, the “fifth-year” transfer.

This started in football, where a player can transfer from an FBS school to an FCS school and play immediately.  The “trailblazer” in this category for The Citadel was Jeff Klein, a quarterback who transferred from Auburn and played one year for The Citadel (2002).

He was followed the next season by former Clemson QB Willie Simmons and ex-Duke defensive back Anthony Roberts.  Those three players played for The Citadel under former coach (and alum) Ellis Johnson.  In recent years, Kevin Higgins has had two fifth-year transfers — his son, wideout Tim Higgins (who originally played for Florida), and tight end B.J. Phillips (North Carolina).

All of these guys graduated from their original schools and played one year as graduate students for The Citadel, except for Phillips (who had two years of athletic eligibility in football remaining after graduating from UNC).

As students in The Citadel Graduate College, none of these players were members of the corps of cadets (indeed, it’s possible none of them even attended classes with cadets, as graduate classes at The Citadel are held at night).

Reports vary on how seriously these graduate student athletes attempted to bond with their teammates, tried to understand/appreciate what cadets go through, etc.  My general impression, which could be wrong, is that Simmons and the younger Higgins made an effort to try and “jell” with the team and school; Klein, not so much.  Phillips, of course, still has one year left on the football team.

These one-year-only players were not a factor in basketball at The Citadel because there was no lower classification within Division I for them to transfer to without penalty (in other words, no FBS/FCS distinction).  At least, they weren’t a factor until last year, when Joe Wolfinger transferred to The Citadel after graduating from Washington.

Wolfinger had his degree and one year of athletic eligibility in basketball remaining, and he used that year to play basketball at The Citadel, thanks to a technicality.  As this article explained:

Wolfinger will be a fifth-year senior next season and is apparently eligible to play immediately at The Citadel because he has graduated from UW and will enter a Master’s program at The Citadel that is not offered at Washington.

Wolfinger is gone, and so is Ed Conroy, but Chuck Driesell has decided to bring in his own tall transfer for this upcoming season:

Mike Dejworek, a 6-11 center from Belmont University, will play one season for the Bulldogs as a graduate student, new coach Chuck Driesell confirmed…

…Dejworek, a native of Ulm, Germany, sat out last season with a shoulder injury after playing three years for Belmont. In 2008-09, he played in 24 games and started one for a 20-13 Belmont team, averaging 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds. He was a reserve on a Belmont team that made the NCAA tournament his sophomore season.

I presume that, like Wolfinger, Dejworek will be enterering a Master’s degree program at The Citadel that is not offered by Belmont.

There are plenty of alums who are less than crazy about athletes competing on varsity teams without ever being part of the corps of cadets.  Ken Burger, then the sports editor of The Post and Courier, wrote about this as far back as 2003:

…the school’s old guard is very vocal about this troublesome trend. They say these young men never spent a single day at The Citadel and don’t deserve the privilege of wearing the school’s uniform. Even its football uniform…

…Over the next three months we will find out how this experiment works out for [Ellis] Johnson’s program and The Citadel. And, there will be plenty of people watching and judging from the sidelines…

…While it’s easy to say the old school should stick to the old ways, there’s another side of this controversy that can’t be ignored.

The Citadel’s military counterpart, VMI, recently left the SoCon and downgraded to the Big South Conference because the Keydets could no longer compete…

Ah, yes, the old “we just can’t compete” crutch.  Poor, pitiful puppies; how can our coaches ever win?

First, the obvious.  Charlie Taaffe won a Southern Conference title in football without any non-cadet help.  He beat South Carolina and Arkansas and Army and Navy, and all of his players were in the corps of cadets.

Brief tangent:  Just for clarification, Taaffe did occasionally have some fifth-year guys who had already graduated and had an extra year of eligibility remaining after redshirting, but all of them had spent four years in the corps.  That is a completely different situation than the fifth-year ‘program’ I’m discussing in this post, of course.

Eddie Teague won a SoCon title back in the day, too, with members of the corps of cadets.  It’s not easy (after all, The Citadel has just those two league titles in football), but it can be done.

Meanwhile, the fifth-year recruits have not exactly led to dramatic success on the gridiron.  Klein set lots of passing records in 2002, but the team went 3-9.  With Simmons at quarterback (and Roberts in the defensive backfield)  in 2003, the Bulldogs improved to 6-6.  Tim Higgins’ one season at The Citadel came in 2007, the only season since 1997 in which the Bulldogs have finished with a winning record (7-4).

In hoops, Wolfinger did not prove to be a difference-maker last year, as The Citadel went 16-16, a season that followed a 20-13 campaign.  Wolfinger got progressively less playing time as the year went on, as he turned out not to be a particularly good fit for The Citadel’s style of play.

There is another aspect to this, the “recruited over” concern.  If you are a promising high school football player and you are considering The Citadel, should you be worried about the possibility that down the road, when it’s finally time for you to become a regular, the coach will suddenly bring in some graduate student to take your position?  Being recruited over is something normally associated with players at big-time college basketball programs, not The Citadel.

Those are the on-field results and issues.   What about the off-the-field repercussions?

— The essence of The Citadel, the part that differentiates it from other schools, is the corps of cadets.  Our athletic teams are supposed to represent the students at the military college.  What statement is the school making when it elects to offer opportunities to varsity athletes who have never been a part of the military environment?

— For that matter, the athletic teams represent the alumni as well.  Am I supposed to identify with varsity athletes who did not go through the same experiences that I did?

— If I have misgivings as an alumnus about identifying with these athletes, just imagine how the current members of the corps of cadets must feel.

— There is also the public perception.  Many outsiders are impressed that The Citadel can compete at all with the inherent disadvantages of being a military school.  When you bring in players from outside that environment, do you know what the general public calls them?  Ringers. (So do some alums.)

At that point The Citadel becomes “just another school” in the minds of some people.  Is that something that the powers-that-be at The Citadel want?

I might add that the perception issue is magnified when the player plays a high-profile position (like quarterback) in football.  In basketball, there aren’t that many players, so almost any player is highly visible.

Having said all that, I don’t blame any of the individual coaches for bringing in graduate students.  Coaches are trying to win.  Winning is not easy to do at The Citadel, so it’s not surprising that coaches try to work the system as much as possible.

Coaches also tend to have a narrower focus; it’s hard to expect Chuck Driesell, for example, to consider how a graduate student playing basketball may affect the school, in terms of the big picture.   Driesell is just trying to find a big man who can rebound.

The administration has the responsibility of telling the coaches to focus solely on recruiting players who will be part of the corps of cadets.  It appears that, for whatever reason(s), the current administration does not share the concerns that have been expressed by some alums.

Maybe the thinking from General Rosa and company is that one or two exceptions don’t really matter.  I don’t know.  It’s also possible that the school wants to have occasional graduate student varsity athletes, in an effort to promote the Graduate College.

I tend to doubt that having an occasional hoopster or football player in the graduate school is going to raise the profile of the CGC, although I couldn’t blame the school for trying every avenue to promote it.  The CGC is an opportunity for The Citadel to make money, which the school needs to do.

Over the past few years, the military college has gradually become simply a state school, as opposed to a state-supported school.  That’s because the State of South Carolina continues to cut back on funding for higher education (in general, the state legislature believes higher education should end after the third grade).

[Sorry for the political jibe, but honestly, our state’s lack of commitment to education is embarrassing.]

In closing, one thing I want to emphasize is that I don’t have anything against the players who enter the school as graduate students.  They are taking advantage of a great opportunity, as well they should.  I wish them well, and I hope they are successful in class and on the field of play.  I will be rooting for them, as I do anyone who represents my alma mater.

I just wish the administration would revisit the current policy.  I strongly believe that varsity athletes at The Citadel should all come from the corps of cadets.  I know my opinion doesn’t really matter, but I also know that I’m not the only person who feels this way about transfers and varsity athletics.

Yes, I’m ready for football season…

Random bubble thoughts and theories, 3/8

I’m going to wait a few days before writing a post-mortem on The Citadel’s hoops season.  It was a little bit of an odd year.  Part of me is disappointed in the overall record (16-16, 9-9), but another part of me remembers that in the last two years the Bulldogs have won 24 SoCon games.  In the six previous years, The Citadel had won 15.  Total.

The past brings perspective.

Sometimes the past also helps when trying to evaluate bubble teams and seeding scenarios.  The membership of the selection committee has changed over time, of course, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look back and see what the committee did when presented with certain situations.

— Let’s face it, the Pac-10 is wretched this season.  California won the outright Pac-10 title.  Is that good enough to guarantee the Bears an at-large bid if they don’t win the Pac-10 tourney?

History says yes.  Exhibit A:  Air Force, 2004.  That season the Falcons were 22-5 during the regular season and won the Mountain West, but did almost nothing outside the league, managing to beat no one of consequence and losing games to UT-Pan American and Belmont.  However, Air Force was 12-2 in league play and won the MWC outright by two games.

Air Force lost in the quarterfinals of the MWC tournament to Colorado State (by 12 points).  Despite that, the Falcons still made the NCAAs.  When asked about it, selection committee chairman Bob Bowlsby noted AFA’s less-than-stellar profile, but pointed out that the Falcons had been the regular-season champion of a top-10 league — and that achievement, in the opinion of the committee, merited Air Force’s inclusion.

I can’t say I disagree with that argument.  (It’s certainly a better line of reasoning than the one Bowlsby’s successor as committee chair, Craig Littlepage, gave for the committee’s absurd decision to put Air Force in the field two years later.  I still have no idea how that was justified.)

If winning a top-10 league is good enough, then Cal is safe.  Admittedly, it’s not quite the same situation; Air Force won the MWC in 2004 by two games, while Cal edged Arizona State by just one game in the standings.  Also, 12-2 is better than 13-5.  Still, it’s a factor, as is the fact we’re talking about the Pac-10, and not one of the “mid-major” leagues (even if it isn’t as good as some of those leagues this season).  Cal better not lose in the Pac-10 quarterfinals, though.

Incidentally, the same argument would presumably work in the favor of Utah State.

— Could last-second seeding adjustments actually happen?

This season there will be four conference title games played on Selection Sunday.  The SEC, ACC, and Atlantic 10 title games will all tip at 1 pm ET, while the Big 10 final will start at 3:30 pm ET.

Let’s say that Duke and Ohio State are both in their respective conference finals. Would the committee wait until the end of the Big 10 game to finalize the seeding?

Someone asked Joe Lunardi about this in an ESPN “chat session” :

A lot of experts think that Ohio State has the best shot this side of Durham to collect the final 1-seed if they win the Big Ten tournament. Isn’t there a good chance though that they could get screwed by the schedule. The Big Ten final doesn’t start until 3:30 on Sunday and the ACC championship is at at 1:00 on Sunday. I know that the brackets take a long time to put together and the top seeds are placed first. If Duke lost in the Final and Ohio State won, is it possible that their fates would already be set before those games finish?

Joe Lunardi:  It has happened this way in the past…More recently, however, the Committee has built multiple brackets accounting for the various Sunday scenarios. I would be disappointed in this group if they bailed on the process and didn’t finish the job (and I do not expect they will).

Lunardi may be right, but I think most of those “various Sunday scenarios” have revolved around teams playing on Sunday who were “auto bid or bust” types — like Mississippi State last season, or Georgia the year before that.  I’m less than sure the committee is going to wait until the last moment (or prepare alternative brackets) for a question of one seeding line.  Besides, should one game really be the difference between a team getting a 1 or a 2?  What about the previous 30+ games?

This reminds me that in the past, there were occasionally conference tournaments still going on when the selections were announced.  The Big West did this several times (this was back when UNLV was in the league).  It invariably led to scenarios where the committee would have either/or bracket lines where a team would be in the field, unless the Big West had a surprise champ (in other words, if  Vegas didn’t win).

This finally ended after the committee basically decided to hose any at-large hopeful out of the Big West until it quit playing its tourney so late.  I recall Long Beach State being a bubble team that found out at halftime of the conference final that it had to win, or else.

Another league that at one time played its final after the pairings was the SWAC.  Now, with the SWAC there wasn’t any at-large issues; it was just a question of what team would advance.  However, it did pose a problem for the committee when trying to seed.  These days the SWAC is an easy 16 (if not play-in game) pick, but back then it wasn’t always the case.

One year the committee puzzled just about everyone by deciding the winner of the SWAC title game would get a 13 seed.  Nobody could believe the SWAC got so high a seed, especially because no one knew yet which team would be the league representative.

As it happened, Southern won the tournament final (televised immediately after the selection show), and the lucky 4 seed it drew as an opponent was ACC tournament champ Georgia Tech.  Well, maybe not so lucky.  Ben Jobe’s Jaguars shocked Bobby Cremins’ Yellow Jackets in the first round, 93-78.

— This season, there seem to be several “as long as they don’t lose to a really bad team, they should be okay” situations.  It’s all right if Virginia Tech loses to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament, but if Miami upsets the Demon Deacons and then beats the Hokies, VT is in trouble.  Washington might get an at-large bid if it loses to Cal in the Pac-10 final, but can’t afford to lose to another school — and it also would hurt the Huskies if their semifinal opponent wasn’t Arizona State.

As mentioned earlier, Cal can’t afford to lose in the Pac-10 quarters.  Utah State needs to avoid losing until it plays Nevada in the WAC final, because Nevada is hosting the event, and a loss then would be more acceptable.  However, Utah State couldn’t afford to lose to another school in the final, because then it would be a neutral-site loss.  Also in the same position, perhaps, is UTEP, which could face host Tulsa in the C-USA semifinals.

Conversely, Mississippi needs to beat Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinals — but it does the Rebels no good at all if the Vols are upset by LSU in the first round.  If that happened, then Mississippi would have to beat LSU and (presumably) Kentucky to get the needed big-win bounce.  Mississippi State is expected to play Florida in a “play-out” game in the SEC quarters, but if Auburn upends the Gators, then Mississippi State would have to beat the Tigers and Vanderbilt (if form holds) to reach the final — and it still would not have a strong enough at-large case.

Then there is Illinois, which is a good example of a team that would probably be better off not playing a game at all.  As it is, the Illini play Wisconsin for the second time in a week in the Big 10 quarterfinals — and for Illinois, it’s probably a win-you’re-in, lose-you’re-out situation.

— Memphis is starting to show up on some bubble watches.  I’m trying to figure out how a team that has not won a game this season against a prospective tournament team (unless Oakland wins the Summit League tourney) is a viable at-large candidate.

— If the tournament would have been expanded to 96 teams for this season, we would be discussing the bubble candidacies of North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, and St. John’s.  There is a good chance all four would have made the field of 96.

Expansion is such a dumb idea, it’s inevitable that it will happen…

Football, Game 10: The Citadel vs. UT-Chattanooga

Note:  it can be difficult to figure out what to call the athletic teams of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  Recently the school began using a ‘C’ mark, for “Chattanooga”.  The university’s teams have variously been referred to over the years as “UT-Chattanooga”, “Tennessee-Chattanooga”, “UTC”, and “Chattanooga”.

The nickname/mascot history is even more tangled.  A “moccasin” used to be a snake, then a shoe, then a cartoon Cherokee Indian called ‘Chief Moccanooga’, and now a mockingbird train conductor (and “moccasin” has morphed into “moc”, for mockingbird).

There is an explanatory page on the school’s website.  The page includes a quotation from Jimmy Fallon.  As you may have guessed, the quote is not very funny.

In the post that follows, I will call the school either “UT-Chattanooga”, or “UTC”, because that’s what I’ve always called it, and I see no particular reason to change.

Around this time last year The Citadel played UT-Chattanooga in Charleston.  It was Homecoming for the Bulldogs, and everyone expected a big win, since the Mocs were 1-9 (and would eventually finish 1-11).  At that time I wrote about how UTC had collapsed as a program after consistently challenging for league honors in its first 10-15 years in the Southern Conference.

Well, The Citadel did win that day, but barely, letting a team playing out the string with a lame-duck coach hang around and nearly steal the victory.  The Bulldogs survived thanks to Andre Roberts’ last-minute punt return TD, but despite winning the game, it was almost as poor a showing as The Citadel had for this year’s Homecoming.

UT-Chattanooga replaced Rodney Allison with Russ Huesman, who basically has the ideal background for a UTC head coach.  Huesman played high school football at famed Moeller High School in Cincinnati for Gerry Faust, who was destined to become a much-maligned coach for Notre Dame (albeit one who never lost to Navy).  Huesman then played college football for the Mocs, with his first two years under Joe Morrison and his last two under Bill “Brother” Oliver.

Huesman was a longtime assistant at William & Mary, where he coached the secondary (Huesman was a DB himself at UTC) and was later the defensive coordinator.  Players he coached while with the Tribe include longtime NFL interception magnet Darren Sharper, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.  That’s not a bad list of guys to have as references.

He then moved to Memphis for several seasons, including a stretch as recruiting coordinator for the Tigers, before spending five seasons as the defensive coordinator for Richmond, the defending FCS champions.

That’s a nice resume for any prospective head coach at the FCS level; being an alum is an even bigger bonus.  Huesman seems to have given the program some much-needed enthusiasm.  Home attendance has increased significantly, with three of the ten biggest crowds in Finley Stadium history so far this season.  There was even a bonfire on Wednesday night.

Another thing Huesman did was bring in a transfer from Tennessee to play quarterback.  B.J. Coleman has had a solid season for the Mocs, nothing flashy stats-wise but generally getting the job done.

Coleman has thrown fourteen touchdowns against six interceptions, although he did throw three picks last week against Appalachian State.  Five of his six interceptions for the season, in fact, have come in the last three games.  Coleman is a sophomore who will have two more years of eligibility after this season.

The Vols transfer has spread the ball around, although his favorite target is definitely Blue Cooper, who has 68 receptions and could conceivably make the All-SoCon squad ahead of Andre Roberts (Elon’s Terrell Hudgins is a lock for the other first-team spot at wide receiver).

UTC suffered a blow when running back Bryan Fitzgerald was injured and lost for the season.  Freshman Chris Awuah is the leading rusher for the Mocs, but he is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.  UTC is last in the league in rushing offense.

UTC has respectable, if not eye-popping, defensive statistics across the board, generally ranking in the upper half of the SoCon in most categories for conference-only games.  The Mocs have struggled, however, in defending 3rd-down conversions; the Mocs D is 7th in the league (The Citadel is 8th in the league, ahead of only Furman).  Another sore spot for the defense is red zone conversion rate; UTC is last in the SoCon, and has allowed 17 touchdowns in 25 opponents’ possessions inside the 20.

The Mocs are tied for the lead in interceptions in conference play with eight; free safety Jordan Tippet has five of his own.

One defensive stat that is very impressive for UTC:  sacks.  The Mocs have 24 sacks on the season; their 16 sacks in league play in second-best in the conference.  The primary sack-master is right defensive end Josh Beard, who has 10.5 of them so far this year.  His partner in crime on the other side of the line, freshman DE Joshua Williams, has 6.

Despite the mediocre 3rd-down defense numbers and lack of a rushing game, UTC leads the league in time of possession.  The Mocs don’t hurt themselves with penalties (second in the SoCon).  UTC is next-to-last in net punting, but features an outstanding placekicker in Craig Camay, who is 13-16 converting field goals this year, with a long of 52.  Camay is also a weapon for onside kicks; the Mocs have recovered four of five onside kick attempts in league action.

A few other odds and ends:

— I was surprised to find out that The Citadel is UT-Chattanooga’s most common opponent.  Saturday’s game will be the 43rd meeting between the two schools.  The school in second place on the Mocs most-played list?  Tennessee, which has faced UTC on 41 occasions.  The Vols are 37-2-2 in those games.

— UTC is 5-4, but if it has dreams of a winning season, it probably needs to beat The Citadel.  Next week, the Mocs play Alabama.  Yikes.

Tangent:  what is with the SEC and these late-season matchups against FCS schools?  Last week, there were four such games:  Tennessee Tech-Georgia, Furman-Auburn, Northern Arizona-Mississippi, and Eastern Kentucky-Kentucky.

Last year, of course, The Citadel closed out its season by playing Florida.  Why aren’t these games being played in the first couple of weeks of the season? I hope all of them were Homecoming games.

— UTC’s game notes reference The Citadel’s football stadium (on the same page) as “Haggod Stadium” , “Johnson Hagood Stadium”, and “Sansom Field”.

— The Citadel has never won four straight games against UT-Chattanooga.  The Bulldogs currently enjoy a three-game winning streak versus the Mocs.

It’s hard to say what The Citadel’s chances on Saturday are, since it’s hard to determine which Bulldog team will show up — the one that played Appalachian State and Furman, or the one that played Elon, Western Carolina, and Wofford?

It will be interesting to see who starts at quarterback.  If I had to guess (and it’s only a guess), I would say that Miguel Starks, even if just “85%”, will get the nod.  Just the thought of a gimpy Bart Blanchard sitting in the pocket as the two sack-happy UTC defensive ends converge on him is cringe-inducing…

I certainly hope that the Bulldogs are more competitive than they were last week.  This is a big game for UTC, which has a chance for a winning season.  Given that the Mocs won a total of six games in the previous three years, that would be a major accomplishment.  UT-Chattanooga will be ready to play on Saturday.  The Bulldogs better be ready as well.

Thinking big can be small-minded

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.