The 2016 FCS Playoffs — a review of the bracket

The Bracket

Links of interest:

The Citadel’s playoff path: a bye, then a familiar foe

– Lehigh football snubbed of home playoff game

New Hampshire makes field for 13th straight year

Albany left out of playoffs; coach calls exclusion “a sham”

Wofford earns playoff bid

Charleston Southern disappointed not to host playoff game

After being disappointed in the seeding, Sam Houston State coach: “It is what it is”

South Dakota State gets seed

Youngstown State in playoffs after a ten-year absence

“Samford shouldn’t even be in the tournament, let’s just get it straight”

North Carolina A&T makes playoff, but coach says “we’re still pretty down around here”

Chattanooga makes playoff field

Cal Poly gets bid, will host San Diego

Preview article on NCAA.com

First, let’s correct an error in that last article I linked above, the one posted on the NCAA’s own website:

Some other teams that will miss out on postseason action as a whole include Montana, Western Illinois and North Carolina Central, who all lost steam down the stretch and were defeated in Week 12.

North Carolina Central won on Week 12, defeating North Carolina A&T 42-21. The Eagles aren’t missing out on postseason action, either — North Carolina Central is going to the Celebration Bowl instead of the FCS playoffs, while the team that lost to the Eagles (North Carolina A&T) got a bid as an at-large team.

I also linked a “handicapping the field” article from the Bison Media Zone. Media members in North Dakota do not think Samford should have made the field.

Of course, being a resident of the Flickertail State isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to FCS expertise. In this particular preview, the writer referred to Charleston Southern as the “Mocs”.

I also think he has his guns pointed in the wrong direction when it comes to the exclusion of Albany. I tend to agree that Albany should have been in the tournament, but he failed to identify the most obvious beneficiary of the Great Danes’ absence — New Hampshire.

The two teams played in the same league (the CAA) and finished with the same overall record (7-4). Albany beat FBS Buffalo (admittedly, not the best FBS squad in world history). More to the point, the Great Danes won at New Hampshire.

The Wildcats also managed to lose to Ivy League cellar-dweller Dartmouth, and had no real standout victory. Albany’s worst loss was to Delaware, which strikes me as considerably more acceptable than losing to Dartmouth.

Albany head coach Greg Gattuso called the snub of his team “a sham” on Twitter. He had other comments:

I guess, if I had a question for the (selection) committee, it would be, what in (New Hampshire’s) body of work would be better than ours?

I just think the resume was better. Oh, by the way, we beat them head-to-head at their field. Remember us beating them at their field two weeks ago?

 

One criteria they might say is conference record. But to me, it’s a skewed point when (New Hampshire) didn’t play the second- and third-place teams. They didn’t play Richmond, they didn’t play Villanova. To me, conference schedule when you don’t play everybody should be thrown out (in picking the tournament).

I think Gattuso has a very legitimate argument.

New Hampshire had been in the playoffs in each of the previous 12 seasons; perhaps the committee just felt comfortable sticking them in the field. Maybe there is an unwritten rule that UNH has to be in the tournament.

Once New Hampshire was picked, the committee then got the chance to pair the Wildcats with Lehigh, and gave New Hampshire a home game in the first round. UNH’s average home attendance is 11,108, so it could be assumed its host bid (in terms of a cash guarantee) was quite good.

Albany’s average home attendance this season was 5,928. Could the committee have been thinking about the potential monetary difference if it came down to Lehigh-Albany or Lehigh-UNH? I’m sure the official answer is “No”, but cynics may have some doubts.

In related news, during an interview on a North Dakota radio show, selection committee chairman Brian Hutchinson referenced North Carolina A&T’s “bid offer” as a point in its favor.

I think he probably misspoke — after all, North Carolina A&T isn’t even hosting a first-round game — but what his comment really illustrates is that money is never far from the mind of the committee when selecting, bracketing, and seeding teams. That is unfortunate.

The committee apparently had no choice but to pair San Diego and Cal Poly against each other in the first round, despite the fact the two schools have already played this season. From the NCAA’s “Pre-Championship Manual“:

5. Regular season non-conference match-ups in the first round of the championship should be avoided, provided it does not create an additional flight(s).

6. Teams from the same conference will not be paired for first-round games (except for teams from the same conference that did not play against each other during the regular season; such teams may play each other in the first round);

7. Once the first-round pairings have been determined, there will be no adjustments to the bracket (e.g., a seeded team may play a conference opponent that advanced out of the first round).

If Cal Poly and USD had been in the same league, the rematch would have been avoided — but since they’re not, they had to be matched up, because not doing so would have created two extra flights.

That is because Poly and USD were less than 400 miles from each other, but more than 400 miles away from every other unseeded team. Here is the rule on busing/flights:

During the championship, institutions that are playing within 400 miles (one way) of their campus will be required to travel to that site via bus. Institutions traveling more than 400 miles (one way) to their game will be approved for air travel to that site.

I think it’s absurd that the “allow one more flight” stipulation only applies if teams are in the same conference, but that’s the rule, and the committee had no other option. The rule needs to be changed.

Of course, when it comes to bracketing, the committee tends to take the path of least resistance anyway. This is the second year in a row there has been a regular-season rematch in the first round.

Last year, the Patriot League champion (Colgate) played at New Hampshire, with the winner facing James Madison. Colgate and UNH had already met during the 2015 regular season.

Naturally, this year the Patriot League champion (Lehigh) will again play at New Hampshire, with the winner again facing James Madison…

The manual has this to say about awarding host sites:

3. If the minimum financial guarantees are met, the committee will award the playoff sites to the higher seeded teams.

4. When determining host institutions for playoff games when both teams are unseeded, criteria shall apply as follows: (1) quality of facility, (2) revenue potential plus estimated net receipts, (3) attendance history and potential, (4) team’s performance (i.e., conference place finish, head-to-head results and number of Division I opponents), and (5) student-athlete well-being (e.g., travel and missed class time).

This is not exactly breaking news, but it does explain one aspect of hosting that apparently bothered Charleston Southern coach Jamey Chadwell:

…Chadwell expressed disappointment about having to go on the road, but said getting a playoff opportunity was the ultimate goal.

“It’s disappointing. I don’t know all of the details, but you would think a conference champion would get more favor in the bidding process,” Chadwell said.

As it happens, conference champions don’t get more favor in the bidding process — unless they are matched up against teams in their own league in the first round (which would only occur if the two teams had not met during the regular season).

Charleston Southern hosted last year, but that was because it was a seed and met a minimum financial guarantee. This season, the Buccaneers were unseeded and paired with Wofford.

The decision to hold the game in Spartanburg probably came down to Wofford offering a better financial package, but Charleston Southern fans should be concerned about “quality of facility” being a more significant criterion for hosting than “revenue potential”.

Attendance history is also a factor. Below is the average home attendance for the 16 unseeded teams in the field:

  • North Carolina A&T: 14,472
  • Youngstown State: 14,353
  • New Hampshire: 11,108
  • Illinois State: 10,156
  • Chattanooga: 9,494
  • Central Arkansas: 8,767
  • Weber State: 8,734
  • Richmond: 8,700
  • Cal Poly: 8,413
  • Wofford: 7,625
  • Lehigh: 6,527
  • Villanova: 6,153
  • Samford: 5,897
  • Charleston Southern: 2,712
  • San Diego: 2,405
  • St. Francis (PA): 1,617

Attendance affects both a potential bid by a school, and the committee’s evaluation of its revenue potential.

Only two of the eight first-round matchups are hosted by teams that had lower average home attendance than their opponents. Richmond is hosting North Carolina A&T, and Central Arkansas is hosting Illinois State.

The second of those involves two schools with fairly close numbers in terms of attendance, but the other matchup has a much wider differential. Either North Carolina A&T wasn’t particularly interested in hosting, or Richmond put in a major league bid.

I’m disappointed that for the FCS playoffs, there is yet again a mini-South Carolina bracket in what is supposed to be a national tournament.

This is the second year in a row The Citadel and Charleston Southern have both been bracketed in this fashion, and it is a lame, lame move by Brian Hutchinson and his committee for the second year in a row.

Bulldogs quarterback Dominique Allen:

It’d be nice to face somebody else, somebody besides teams we play all the time.

Linebacker Tevin Floyd of The Citadel:

We have histories with both [Wofford and Charleston Southern], so I think we just wanted to experience something new.

Head coach Brent Thompson of The Citadel:

When it’s the playoffs, you look for some different opponents. You want to get some people to travel in and maybe work outside (the norm) a little bit. But it is what it is, and we have to win the state of South Carolina at this point.

Floyd also said he was happy to be playing at Johnson Hagood Stadium, and Allen referenced a “fun” matchup with either potential opponent, but the point is clear.

I also don’t understand why the committee couldn’t have swapped the Charleston Southern-Wofford pairing and the North Carolina A&T-Richmond pairing in order to avoid a potential second-round rematch.

In other words, the CSU-Wofford winner could have been matched up against North Dakota, while the survivor of N.C. A&T-Richmond played The Citadel (instead of the other way around, as the committee arranged things).

If the committee seeded all the teams, 1 through 24, it would be possible to have a balanced, fair tournament. Instead, bracketing decisions are made explicitly for geographic reasons, and they lead to inequities.

Weber State and Cal Poly both were 7-4 overall; Weber State was 6-2 in the Big Sky, while the Mustangs were 5-3. Now, due to unbalanced league schedules, Cal Poly played a slightly tougher slate than the Wildcats (and it also had a good non-conference win over South Dakota State). On the other hand, Weber State beat Cal Poly during the season.

You could argue that if every team in the tournament were seeded, Cal Poly might deserve a slightly higher seed than Weber State. If so, both teams would probably be seeded in the 17-20 range.

If that happened, each would play first-round road games against similarly-rated opponents. Instead, we have the current geographical setup and the “400 miles” bus/flight cutoff point.

Thus, Cal Poly plays a home game against San Diego of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, a team the Mustangs already defeated earlier this season 38-16. Meanwhile, Weber State travels almost 1,800 miles to play at Chattanooga, a solid SoCon squad that acquitted itself well last week against Alabama.

The decision to make Lehigh travel to New Hampshire also seems problematic to me; if anything, it should be the other way around. Again, however, cash is king in this tournament — though a few folks in Las Vegas are apparently putting their hard-earned money on Lehigh (which is a 4 1/2 point favorite despite having to go on the road).

Final “toughest schedule” numbers from the NCAA for Jacksonville State, James Madison, Sam Houston State, and The Citadel:

  • The Citadel: 19th
  • James Madison: 57th
  • Jacksonville State: 80th
  • Sam Houston State: 102nd

All four finished undefeated against non-FBS competition. SHSU, which was 11-0, did not play an FBS opponent, while the other three schools were all 10-1, with each losing to an FBS team from a power conference.

The committee decided to give Jacksonville State the highest seed out of this group. Did it help Jacksonville State that it made the finals last year? Probably. Did it help Jacksonville State that its director of athletics was on the committee? It couldn’t have hurt.

What it means is that if The Citadel is fortunate enough to advance to the quarterfinals, and its opponent is Jacksonville State, the Bulldogs will be the road team. It is not evident why that should be the case.

Another seeding oddity, in my opinion, was North Dakota being the #7 seed and South Dakota State being the #8. I’m not sure why the Jackrabbits would have been behind UND.

Because the committee seeded those teams in that way, SDSU has a potential rematch with North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. I don’t have a problem with regular-season rematches once teams advance to the quarterfinals, but it seems to me the committee had an easy opportunity to avoid that situation, and in a perfectly justifiable way.

Per at least one source that deals in such matters, here are the lines for the eight first-round games, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • Wofford is a 1.5-point favorite over Charleston Southern, over/under of 51.5
  • Chattanooga is a 15-point favorite over Weber State, over/under of 51.5
  • Lehigh is a 4.5-point favorite at New Hampshire, over/under of 63.5
  • Richmond is a 13-point favorite over North Carolina A&T, over/under of 53.5
  • Illinois State is a 1.5-point favorite at Central Arkansas, over/under of 49.5
  • Youngstown State is an 8.5-point favorite over Samford, over/under of 50.5
  • Cal Poly is a 12.5-point favorite over San Diego, over/under of 65.5
  • Villanova is a 14.5-point favorite over St. Francis (PA), over/under of 37.5

As you can see, there are two road favorites (Lehigh and Illinois State).

Massey Ratings predicted scores for this Saturday:

  • Wofford 26, Charleston Southern 24
  • Chattanooga 31, Weber State 19
  • Lehigh 33, New Hampshire 28
  • Richmond 36, North Carolina A&T 24
  • Central Arkansas 23, Illinois State 21
  • Youngstown State 28, Samford 20
  • Cal Poly 35, San Diego 29
  • Villanova 21, St. Francis (PA) 7

I’m not pleased with how the tournament was constructed. However, there is nothing that can be done about it, at least not for this season. All eyes will now be following the action on the gridiron.

If you’re in the field, you have a chance. That’s the bottom line.

A rancid PIG: the NCAA basketball tournament’s biggest flaw

Last week, Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports.com wrote an excellent column about the worst aspect of the NCAA Tournament, the play-in games. Oh, the NCAA doesn’t want you to call them the play-in games, but Doyel disposed of that nonsense with ease:

The NCAA prefers that we don’t call what happened Tuesday night a play-in game, and I prefer you don’t call me bald. It’s possible I am bald, but do me the courtesy of not noticing.

Even Albany’s coach and players have been calling this thing a play-in game since Sunday night, when they gathered to watch the selection show and watched their name come up for … this. The team wasn’t clapping or hooting. The team was stunned, and trying to recover.

Doyel writes about all of the many things that make PIGs so abominable, including this key point:

And understand this: Mount St. Mary’s got screwed out of the NCAA Tournament experience — the NCAA Tournament — it earned by winning the NEC tournament. Used to be, every school in America started the season with the same premise, and promise: Win your conference tournament, and you’re in The Dance. Even the smallest of the small schools were guaranteed a spot in the field if they won their league.

It should be noted that Albany, despite beating Mt. St. Mary’s in their play-in matchup, also missed out on an essential part of the tournament experience. Normally, it would have been part of the bracket discussion until Thursday or Friday, with its fans filling out their brackets with glee, and pundits weighing in on the Great Danes’ chances to pull off a miracle upset…but no, Albany didn’t get to enjoy any of that. Instead it was shunted off to Dayton for a game against another small school.

The ideal solution would be to eliminate the play-in games and revert back to the 64-team model for the tournament, but that’s not happening. Since there is no chance of the NCAA getting rid of the PIGs, then, the next-best thing to do would be to make all four of the games matchups between at-large teams. Right now, only two of them are.

I want to illustrate how unfair that really is by breaking down the teams (and leagues) that have participated in the last four NCAA tournaments (2011-14) into categories.

What follows is based on league affiliation beginning in 2014-15. In other words, Rutgers is considered a Big 10 member, and Louisville is representing the ACC. Tulsa is part of the AAC, as are Tulane and East Carolina. Davidson is in the Atlantic 10. Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky are part of C-USA, etc.

To further clarify, another example. Pacific is now a member of the WCC, but it earned a 2013 NCAA bid as a member of the Big West. For the purposes of this exercise, though, the Tigers are considered to be a WCC school that has been in the tournament at least once over the last four years (because that is in fact the case). There are several other schools that received bids in one league over the last four years before moving to another (like Butler and UTSA).

I decided to organize things that way to avoid mass confusion, though it is practically impossible to completely avoid confusion with all the recent conference realignment. If I made a mistake or two along the way, I apologize in advance.

Okay, now for some statistics:

The “power conferences”

There are 65 schools that play in the P5 leagues (ACC, Big 10, Big XII, SEC, Pac-12). Forty-eight of the 65 have made at least one appearance in the NCAA tournament over the past four years. That’s 74% of all power-conference schools.

Of the seventeen that haven’t, only six haven’t made the tourney over the past seven years: South Carolina (last made the NCAAs in 2004), Auburn (2003), TCU (1998), Rutgers (1991), Oregon State (1991), and Northwestern, well-known as the only power-conference school to have never made the NCAA tournament.

Multi-bid regulars

The next grouping is made up of leagues that almost always will have two or three teams (sometimes more) make the tournament. The four conferences in this category are the AAC, MWC, Big East, and Atlantic 10. Obviously, two of these leagues are basically new (the AAC and the nuBig East), but quite a few of the teams in those conferences have consistently received NCAA bids.

There are 46 schools in these four leagues, and 30 of them (65%) have participated in at least one NCAA tournament over the past four years.

The occasional at-large recipients

There are three leagues that in a given year might wind up with multiple bids, but also might not. They are the MVC, WCC, and C-USA.

Of the 34 schools that will be in those three conferences as of 2014-15, only twelve received an NCAA berth in the last four years. That’s 35% of the group.

For the record, those twelve schools: Wichita State, Indiana State, Gonzaga, BYU, St. Mary’s, Pacific, UAB, Middle Tennessee State, Southern Mississippi, UTSA, Old Dominion, and Western Kentucky.

AQ-only

In the remaining 20 conferences in Division I, 54 different schools (out of 205) have made the NCAAs over the past four seasons. That’s 26% of the schools (and doesn’t count poor NJIT, the lone independent).

All 54 of those schools appeared in the field as automatic qualifiers.

Note: there were a few at-large bids out of the 20 leagues over the last four years (including teams in the Sun Belt and the CAA), but none of the schools that got at-large bids in those conferences will still be in those leagues as of 2014-15.

When you see just how difficult it is for a school in a mid- or low-major conference to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, it further underlines just how ridiculous it is that at least four such schools every year are placed in a PIG. These schools all did what was necessary to make the NCAA tournament: win their respective leagues.

From the Albany Times-Union:

UAlbany shouldn’t have to beat Mount St. Mary’s for the chance to play No. 1 overall seed Florida on Thursday in Orlando. The Danes already earned that right.

“If you play well enough to win your league,” Danes guard Peter Hooley said, “you shouldn’t have to play a play-in game.”

Hooley is absolutely correct.

I am also a bit perplexed the folks at CBS headquarters haven’t suggested to the NCAA that having an all at-large “First Four” is preferable. I would presume having larger-conference schools face off against each other might provide slightly better ratings than TruTV got for Cal Poly-Texas Southern. Don’t they want more people to see those promos for Impractical Jokers?

Hmm, maybe they don’t…

My fear is that the NCAA is more likely to go the other way, and make all four PIGs auto-qualifier affairs (which might be okay with certain league commissioners). The play-in phenomenon is not limited to basketball, either; there is apparently now a movement to introduce it to college baseball, in what seems to be a transparent attempt to marginalize smaller conferences in that sport.

Sometimes I get the impression that the people who run the NCAA Tournament don’t understand what it is that’s great about the NCAA Tournament. Never do I feel that way more than when I see the PIG matchups.

I’m not the only person who feels that way, either.

If FBS schools no longer play FCS schools in football, what are the ramifications?

If you follow college football at all, you probably are familiar with last week’s story out of Wisconsin, where Barry Alvarez was quoted as saying that Big 10 schools would not schedule FCS opponents going forward:

“The nonconference schedule in our league is ridiculous,” Alvarez said on WIBA-AM. “It’s not very appealing…

“So we’ve made an agreement that our future games will all be Division I schools. It will not be FCS schools.”

A couple of quick points:

– Obviously, FCS schools are members of Division I. You would think the director of athletics at a D-1 institution would know that.

– Alvarez claimed that the Big 10’s non-conference schedule “is ridiculous”, yet he is the same AD who in recent years scheduled multiple FCS schools from all over the country, including The Citadel, Wofford, Northern Iowa, South Dakota, Austin Peay, and Cal Poly. The Badgers will play Tennessee Tech in 2013.

Alvarez’s comment drew a lot of attention, understandably so, although it is not a lock that the Big 10 will enforce such an edict. Northern Iowa’s AD was blunt:

I would tell you the loss of the Big Ten schools will be devastating, to UNI and to a lot of our peers. Not just because we wouldn’t play Iowa and have the guarantee, if you think this will stop at the Big Ten…I look at things happening in the equity leagues in fives, and so I have to believe this might lead to additional dominoes…It impacts our ability to generate money in football. It closes the ranks, it closes us out a little bit more.

Samford’s AD had a similar reaction:

If the SEC and ACC make the same decision, we’ve all got to sit back and reevaluate how we’re going to replace our money. If you eliminate those guarantee teams, it puts us in a tough situation at a private school where we don’t get any state funding.

Of course, not everyone is upset. Some in the media welcome the move, eager for what they perceive as “better” scheduling (though suggesting New Mexico State would be a significant improvement over a decent FCS squad strikes me as a bit puzzling). Most members of the college football press/blogosphere, however, understand the potential issues associated with such a decision and the nuances at play. Not all of them do, though — or if they do, they simply don’t care.

The best (worst?) example of this attitude is probably Yahoo! Sports columnist Frank Schwab, who couldn’t be more thrilled with the no-FCS proposal. After writing (in a headline) that “hopefully everyone follows [the Big 10’s] suit”, he added:

…hopefully other conferences (and by “other conferences” we mostly mean you, SEC) stop the practice of wasting a precious Saturday afternoon in the fall on FCS opponents. The FCS teams benefit with a large payday, and that’s great for the bean counters at those schools. It’s not good for anyone else.

It stinks for the season-ticket holders that have to pay for a sham of a game. It’s nothing worth watching on television. The FBS team has nothing to gain, because a win is expected but a loss goes down in infamy. And while the FCS team will get enough money to build a new weight room, the most common result is getting pounded by 40 or 50 points, which can’t be that enjoyable for those players.

Some Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents.

I thought Schwab’s overall tone was a bit much, to be honest. I sent him a tweet, trying to be as polite as possible:

You seem to have a very flippant attitude about the FCS.

His reply:

Oh, make no mistake, no “seem” about it

Okay, then…

My first thought when I read Schwab’s piece was that it was clearly the work of someone who does not understand FCS football, or who has no connection to it at all (Schwab is a Wisconsin alum). Saying that FCS players can’t enjoy the experience suggests he has never spoken to any of them about it. Most small-school players relish the challenge of “playing up”. In fact, such games are often a recruiting tool for FCS coaches. It’s not all about the money.

Earlier in this post I listed six FCS schools Wisconsin has played in recent years. Of those matchups, the Badgers had to hang on to beat Northern Iowa by five points, were tied at halftime with The Citadel, and frankly should have lost to Cal Poly (winning in OT after the Mustangs missed three extra points). I’m not really getting the “sham of a game” vibe with those contests. Now if you want to talk about the 2012 Big 10 championship game against Nebraska in those terms, go right ahead.

Schwab singles out the SEC as the worst “offender” when it comes to playing FCS schools. I think it is only fair to point out that Big 10 schools currently have a total of 37 FCS teams on their future schedules, while SEC schools have 32. (I’m sure the SEC will eventually add a few more.)

Oh, and to quickly dispose of one canard (which in fairness to Schwab, he does not suggest): some people occasionally claim that allegedly easy FCS matchups have given the SEC a leg up on winning BCS titles, because they play fewer quality non-conference opponents. You only have to look at the Big 10 to see that isn’t the case.

The SEC has played more FCS schools in the past than has the Big 10. However, despite that, Big 10 schools have actually lost more games to FCS opposition since 2005 than has the SEC. In fact, no BCS league has lost as many such games (six) or had as many different schools lose them (four) in that time period.

Not playing FCS schools won’t hide the Big 10’s real problem, which is illustrated to a degree by this article, written in August of 2012:

Iowa has four nonconference football dates. It has chosen to fill two of them this year with games against teams from the Mid-American Conference

The reason for this: The Hawkeyes wanted two games they would have very good chances to win.

That’s not exactly a revelation. But perhaps you aren’t aware of just how pronounced Iowa’s (and the Big Ten’s) dominance over MAC teams has been.

The columnist wrote that the MAC was “the Big 10’s football piñata”, which in years past it may have been. Unfortunately for the Big 10 (and to the undoubted surprise of the writer), it would lose three games to MAC schools in 2012, and that was just part of a trend — MAC teams have beaten Big 10 squads twelve times since 2008. (MACtion, indeed.)

As for the Hawkeyes and the “two games they would have very good chances to win”…Iowa lost one of them by one point, and won the other by one point.

The truth is the Big 10 just hasn’t been that good in football in recent years, which doesn’t have anything to do with playing FCS opposition. Dropping FCS schools from Big 10 schedules won’t change things, either. SEC schools aren’t winning all those BCS titles because they play FCS teams; they’re winning them because SEC schools have the best players and (in some cases) the best coaches.

So what happens if the Big 10 follows through and has its members drop all FCS opponents? What happens if other leagues do the same thing?

You’ve seen the quotes from ADs at schools that would be affected. Then there is this take from agent/event promoter Jason Belzer:

If other conferences follow the Big Ten’s lead and stop scheduling games against FCS opponents, the institutions that compete at that level will have two options: 1) look to make up the funds elsewhere, or 2) essentially be forced to stop competing at the same level as the larger institutions. Because it is  unrealistic to believe that any institution can begin to make up the difference in loss of football guarantee revenue by playing any number of additional such games in basketball, it is more likely that the second option will occur. With the loss of revenue, the gap between schools in BCS conferences and those who are not will continue to grow ever wider, leading to what may be the eventual breakup of the approximately 340 schools that compete at the NCAA Division I level.

How soon this may occur remains to be seen, but the the additional millions in revenue the new college football playoff will provide BCS conferences, coupled with their decision to eliminate the one source in which smaller schools could obtain a piece of those funds, will almost certainly accelerate the timetable for any such  fracturing.

I think that is a distinct possibility. I also think it may be the ultimate aim of the Big 10.

Not everyone agrees that the outlook is so dire, and at least one observer believes there are other ways for smaller schools to generate revenue:

FCS schools can take steps to enhance revenue streams outside of the on-field competitions with big schools. For example, very few schools FCS schools have media rights deals. Yet there are an increasing number of regional sports networks (RSNs) and national networks that are looking for programming. In fact, NBC Sports Network signed a media rights deal with the FCS Ivy League to “broadcast football, men’s basketball. and lacrosse.” FCS schools can and should continue to pursue these deals to be less dependent on paycheck changes…
…many institutions do not lobby at the federal or state level for their athletic programs or rely the schools’ lobbyists for their athletic programs. As schools like UNI receive more state funding, it is unclear how much of that funding will go to its athletic department. Therefore, FCS can and should make larger commitments to lobby on their athletic programs’ behalf, especially if paycheck games are eliminated.

That comes from a blog by a group (or maybe just one individual) called Block Six Analytics. I’ll be honest. I don’t buy either of those options.

I think many smaller institutions already lobby on varsity sports interests, and at any rate in most cases there would be a ceiling for actual results. To use The Citadel as an example, the school has in recent years begun to play Clemson and South Carolina in football on a more regular basis, as do several other FCS schools in the Palmetto State.

This outcome was basically due to a request by the state legislature to the two larger schools, neither of which had any real problem with it. However, The Citadel can’t play Clemson and/or South Carolina every year, since there are numerous other FCS programs in the state (Furman, Wofford, South Carolina State, Coastal Carolina, Presbyterian, and Charleston Southern).

The first point, that FCS schools should have media rights deals…um, it’s not like they haven’t tried. I’m sure the Southern Conference would like to have a profitable contract with CBS or ESPN or Al-Jazeera, but that’s not likely to happen. Even the mid-major conferences that do have deals (like the CAA has with NBC Sports) usually only get the benefit of exposure. That’s great, but it’s not a big cash situation.

I’m trying to imagine what reaction SoCon commissioner John Iamarino would have if he was told that he should go right out and find a big-money media rights deal for his league. Eye-rolling? Uncontrollable laughter?

Speaking of Iamarino, he had some comments on the FCS vs. FBS situation that were fairly ominous:

The only reason to have 63 scholarships is to be eligible to play FBS teams and count toward their bowl eligibility. If those games go away, the entire subdivision would have to look at if 63 is the right number. Could we save expenses by reducing the number of scholarships? It would seem to me that’s one thing that would have to be looked at.

I disagree with Iamarino that “the only reason” to have 63 scholarships is to play FBS schools (but I digress).

I’m guessing it hasn’t occurred to some of the more FBS-focused among the media that there could be a potential loss of football scholarships if the Big 10’s big idea comes to pass. No one thinks that would be good for the health of the sport. It would also be an sizable number of lost opportunities for potential students.

Iamarino doesn’t give a number, but I could see the FCS maximum dropping to around 50, based on scholarship costs and the lost income from not playing those games. That’s not much more than the D-2 maximum of 36.

This wouldn’t be the first time a Big 10 proposal had the potential to eliminate athletic scholarships at other schools, of course. As far back as 1948 the NCAA, then largely controlled by the Big 10, enacted the Sanity Code, an attempt to get rid of all athletic scholarships. It was a rule seen by many as benefiting the Big 10 at the expense of mostly southern schools.

Famously, the Sanity Code would not last long, and it is a pleasure to note that The Citadel was one of the “Seven Sinners” at the heart of its eventual destruction. I would hate to see the school have to reduce opportunities for prospective students after all these years.

Block Six Analytics did make one good point, which is that the FCS schools do have one other string in their collective bow, namely the NCAA basketball tournament:

One may argue that it is madness to have such a seemingly large organization completely dependent on one deal. However, this deal also means the NCAA will do everything in its power to ensure that there are enough Division I basketball programs to continue “March Madness” (also known as the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship). This requires that schools outside of the BCS have basketball programs that compete at the Division I level. In addition, this dynamic may allow smaller schools to actually ask for an increased amount of subsidies from the NCAA – especially given the elimination of paycheck games.

This may be the biggest obstacle to the Big 10 (and other power leagues) breaking away from the NCAA sooner rather than later. There is a lot of money in that tournament, and the event works in part because the country is enchanted with the “David vs. Goliath” component that is traditionally the major drawing card of the first two rounds. A basketball tournament only open to 65-75 larger schools wouldn’t be nearly as valuable (whether administrators at the BCS schools all understand this point is another issue).

Having said that, I have my doubts the smaller schools could extract a larger pound of flesh for their participation in the event.

A couple of other thoughts:

– If the Big 10 eliminates games against FCS schools, it will be harder for its member institutions to become bowl-eligible. This could be even more of a problem if the league moves to a 10-game conference schedule, which is reportedly under consideration.

If dropping FCS schools from FBS schedules was done across the board, there wouldn’t be enough eligible teams for all the existing bowl spots. Either the rules would have to be changed to allow 5-7 teams to play in bowls, or a bunch of bowl games would have to be cut.

– Frank Schwab wrote that a “Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents”. I believe all but one of the current Sun Belt schools were once FCS (I-AA) programs. It’s not that big a difference from playing these schools versus competing against a quality FCS squad.

In addition, if FBS-FCS matchups go by the wayside, then a bunch of FCS schools will likely move up to FBS — more than are already planning to do so.

It’s possible that Alvarez’s comments to a local radio station are just the rantings of one man. I hope so, but I’m not confident that is the case. I think this is probably going to happen (though perhaps not next year). It will have a limited impact unless leagues like the SEC and ACC do the same thing. Then it will become a problem.

When it comes to maintaining financially stable sports programs, smaller schools already have too many problems.

Schools that have never made the NCAA Tournament — the 2013 edition

Updated: The 2016 edition

Now updated: the 2015 edition

Previous entries on this subject:  The 2012 edition   The 2011 edition   The 2010 edition

We’ve survived the month of February, which means March Madness is right around the corner. Conference tourney time will be here before you know it. So will a longstanding tradition, that of watching as schools fail once again to reach their first NCAA tournament.

There are 30 schools that have been in Division I for at least a decade that haven’t yet made a trip to the Big Dance. Of course, it is perhaps not as crushing for fans of UC Riverside (D1 since 2002) to fail to reach the promised land as it is for supporters of Northwestern, or St. Francis-NY, or Maine, all of which have been wandering in the no-tourney wilderness for far too long.

Can any of those schools finally make their big debut? That’s the subject of this post. I’ll be honest, however — the answer is probably going to be no. I started posting about this in 2010. At that time, I highlighted the 20 schools that had waited the longest for their first NCAA bid. It’s now 2013, and 19 of those schools are still waiting. The twentieth, Centenary, has given up the ghost and is no longer in Division I.

This year I’m expanding the list of featured teams to 30 — in other words, the 30 schools that have the most years in Division I with no NCAA appearances. There are actually around 52 schools (give or take a transitional member or two) currently in D-1 that have never made the Big Dance, but I’m only highlighting those schools that have been in the division for more than 10 years without receiving a bid. For schools like Presbyterian or Kennesaw State, the angst level just isn’t high enough (yet).

Before I delve into the hopes and dreams of those 30 schools, though, I want to mention a few schools that have actually made the NCAA tourney, but haven’t been back in a long, long time. Their fans are suffering, too.

Last year, Harvard won the Ivy League for the first time in its history, and advanced to its first NCAA tournament since 1946. That ended the longest drought for a school that had previously appeared in the event at least once. It’s a distinction that now falls to fellow Ivy leaguer Dartmouth, which actually appeared in the title game twice during the 1940s but hasn’t been back to the tournament since 1959.

Dartmouth won’t be back this year either, and neither will fellow Ivy League schools Yale (no NCAAs since 1962), Columbia (1968), or Brown (1986). That’s what happens when a league is dominated for over 40 years by two teams (Penn and Princeton).

This is the 50th anniversary of Tennessee Tech’s second, and last, trip to the NCAAs. The Golden Eagles had the misfortune of opening up their 1963 tournament against eventual national champ Loyola of Chicago, losing 111-42. Ouch. Speaking of the Ramblers, they haven’t been back to the NCAAs themselves since 1985.

Other schools that have made at least one NCAA trip but haven’t been back since 1993 (or earlier) while continuously in D-1: Bowling Green (no appearances since 1968), Rice (1970), VMI (1977), Duquesne (1977), Furman (1980), Toledo (1980), Mercer (1985), Jacksonville (1986), Marshall (1987), Idaho State (1987), Marist (1987), Middle Tennessee State (1989), Oregon State (1990), Loyola Marymount (1990), Idaho (1990), Towson (1991), Northeastern (1991), St. Francis-PA (1991), Rutgers (1991), Howard (1992), Georgia Southern (1992), La Salle (1992), Campbell (1992), Fordham (1992), Coastal Carolina (1993), East Carolina (1993), and SMU (1993).

Note: Seattle (a finalist in 1958, but which last made the NCAAs in 1969) and Houston Baptist (made the tourney in 1984) both left D-1 and then later returned, so they haven’t been in the division for all the years after making their most recent NCAA tourney appearances.

Some of these teams have notable accomplishments in tournament play. Jacksonville played in the 1970 championship game. Loyola Marymount made the Elite 8 in 1990 in one of the more famous runs in the tournament’s history, but hasn’t been back since. Another school that made the Elite 8 in its most recent NCAA trip: VMI, a fact that might surprise some people.

All in all, it’s an interesting list. Of the teams on it, probably Middle Tennessee State and Mercer have the best chance of making it back to the Big Dance this season. MTSU is the only one of the teams listed with even a prayer of getting an at-large bid. Until recently, I didn’t think the Blue Raiders had a realistic shot at one, but now I think it’s possible.

Among schools in BCS conferences, Oregon State is currently suffering through the longest drought, not counting Northwestern. Speaking of the Wildcats, it’s time to talk about the schools that have never made the tournament. As always, we start with The Forgotten Five.

All records are through March 4

The NCAA Tournament began in 1939. In 1948, the NCAA reorganized itself, and established separate divisions (university and college) for its member institutions. Of the schools that since 1948 have continuously been in what we now call Division I, there are five which have never made the tournament field. All five of those schools theoretically could have been in the tournament beginning in 1939, so for them the wait is actually longer than their history as official members of Division I.

The five schools are known as the “Forgotten Five”. The class  of 1948 (or 1939, depending on how you look at it):

– Northwestern: NU actually hosted the very first NCAA championship game back in 1939. That year there was an eight-team tournament, and the concept of a “Final Four” had not yet taken hold. The first two rounds of the tournament were played in Philadelphia and San Francisco, with the final between Oregon and Ohio State taking place in Evanston.

This year, the Big 10 is generally considered to be the best hoops conference in the land, with as many as eight teams possibly making the NCAA tournament. Alas, Northwestern (13-16) is currently in 11th place in the league. Like every school on this list, the Wildcats’ only chance at an NCAA bid is to win the conference tournament.

– Army: It actually hasn’t been that bad a season on the hardwood for the Bulldogs of the Hudson. Army is 8-6 in Patriot League play (15-14 overall), but winning the conference tournament would likely require victories over both Lehigh and Bucknell. That would be a tall order.

– St. Francis-NY: Things are not looking good for the Terriers, as St. Francis (12-17) barely qualified for the NEC tournament, winning a de facto play-in game against Sacred Heart for the eighth and final spot in the league tourney.

St. Francis is actually the oldest collegiate basketball program in New York City, having fielded teams since 1896. Its most prominent hoops alum is probably the late James Luisi, a former NBA player better known for his work as an actor.

– William & Mary: While probably capable of pulling off an upset in the CAA tournament, it’s hard to see W&M running the table. The Tribe (13-16) is much improved from last season, but not quite ready yet to finally grab the brass ring. Jon Stewart will probably have to wait at least one more year to celebrate his alma mater’s initial appearance in the Big Dance.

– The Citadel: Ugh. This was supposed to be a year of improvement, after a freshman-laden team struggled mightily in 2011-12. Instead, the Bulldogs have struggled mightily in 2012-13 as well. The Citadel (8-21) has one of the Southern Conference’s best players in Mike Groselle, but that hasn’t been nearly enough for a program suffering through its third consecutive season of 20+ losses. My alma mater will not have its name called on Selection Sunday.

That’s the Forgotten Five. Next year, they are almost certainly still going to be the Forgotten Five. What about the other never-beens on our list?

Well, the odds aren’t too good for most of them.

– New Hampshire (began Division I play in 1962): The Wildcats finished the regular season in a tie for 7th place in the America East. At 9-19, UNH has actually lowered its alltime winning percentage this season, not an easy thing to do.

– Maine (also from the class of 1962): 11-18 overall, 6th-best in the America East. Maine may be good enough to win a game in the AE tournament, but that’s about it for the Black Bears. Time to focus on hockey.

– Denver (D-1 from 1948 to 1980, then back to the division in 1999): at 19-8 overall, and currently in second place in the WAC, the Pioneers have a decent chance to finally break through this year. Denver, which has won 15 of its last 16 games, runs a “Princeton-style” offense; the Pioneers are 346th out of 347 D-1 teams in pace of play. Interestingly, the team that is last nationally in that category is also on our list…and like Denver, has also had a fine season.

– UT-Pan American (class of 1969): UTPA has been gradually improving over the last couple of years, but the Broncs (15-15) will have to wait at least one more year for a shot at the NCAAs, as their conference (the Great West) doesn’t have an automatic bid. Next year, UTPA will join the WAC, which should be a boon for the program.

– Stetson (class of 1972): As I mentioned last year, the Hatters’ most famous hoops alum is Ted Cassidy, the actor who so memorably played Lurch on The Addams Family. Stetson (14-15) has had a bounce-back season of sorts in 2012-13, and could conceivably be a factor in what should be a competitive Atlantic Sun tournament.

– UC Irvine (class of 1978): This season, the Anteaters are a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big West, with Long Beach State favored to win the league’s automatic bid. However, I wouldn’t put it past UCI (17-13) to make some noise in the conference tournament, particularly with consensus Afro All-American Mike “The Beast” Wilder on the scene. Zot! Zot! Zot!

– Grambling State (class of 1978): Oh, mercy. Grambling is winless this year (0-27), and arguably one of the worst D-1 teams of the modern era (if not the worst), thanks to scholarship reductions caused by APR issues. GSU has not lost a game by fewer than 10 points. The Tigers will have one more chance to win a game this season, in the first round of the SWAC tournament.

– Maryland-Eastern Shore (D-1 in 1974-75, then back to the division for good in 1982): UMES lost its first 13 games this season and currently sports a 2-24 record.

UMES doesn’t have a football program any more (despite a gridiron alumni list that includes Art Shell, Emerson Boozer, Carl Hairston, Johnny Sample, and Clarence Clemons). Sometimes you have to wonder if the basketball program is worth having. This will be the 11th consecutive season the Hawks have lost 20 or more games.

– Youngstown State (D-1 in 1948, then returning to the division in 1982): The Penguins are a respectable 16-14, solidly in the middle of the Horizon League standings. Butler is no longer in the league, but Valparaiso and Detroit remain, and the combination of those two will make it difficult for YSU to win the league tournament.

– Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): B-C is 12-18 overall, 7-8 in the MEAC. As usual, the league tournament schedule is an enigma, but it likely won’t matter for the Wildcats this year. It’s hard to see Bethune-Cookman outlasting Norfolk State and North Carolina Central (among others) in the MEAC tourney.

Props to the MEAC, though, for getting Aretha Franklin as the star of its tournament kickoff concert.

– Western Illinois (class of 1982): Here is the other master of slowdown play. The Leathernecks average only 58.3 possessions per game, fewest in the country. WIU is 21-7 overall, tied for first in the Summit League, and one of four teams in that league expected to contend for the conference tourney title. Two years ago, Western Illinois was the only team to lose to Centenary; the Leathernecks have come a long way since then. Will this finally be the year?

– Chicago State (class of 1985): Chicago State is 8-20, and plays in the no-bid Great West. Like UTPA, though, Chicago State is moving to the WAC, so there is hope for a future bid. Not this year, though.

– Hartford (class of 1985): The Hawks are a very decent 17-12. Perhaps alum Dionne Warwick can get one of her psychic friends to tell us whether Hartford will win the America East tournament. If not, expect even more anguished tweeting from Charleston (SC) sportscaster Kevin Bilodeau, a notorious Hartford apologist.

– UMKC (class of 1988): The Kangaroos are 8-23 and will barely qualify for the Summit League tournament, much to the displeasure of noted alum Edie McClurg. Maybe things will be better once UMKC moves to its new conference, the WAC. If you’re keeping track, that makes three schools on this list moving to the WAC.

Give the WAC your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

– Buffalo (D-1 from 1974-77, then back to the division in 1992): After some excruciating close calls a few years back, the Bulls haven’t really been in serious contention in the MAC for the last two years. Buffalo is only 12-17 this season and clearly the road to the league title goes through Akron or Ohio U (though the Bulls just whipped the Zips).

– Sacramento State (class of 1992): It doesn’t look like this will be the year for the 13-13 Hornets. Tom Hanks’ alma mater has to compete against Big Sky heavyweights Montana and Weber State for the league’s automatic bid (and is in danger of not qualifying for the conference tournament). Incidentally, Sacramento State plays its home games at Colberg Court, which to my knowledge is the only D-1 gym named after a women’s volleyball coach.

– UT-Martin (class of 1993): In 2008-09, the Skyhawks won the regular-season OVC title, thanks in large part to Lester Hudson. However, UTM got beat in the tourney final by Morehead State and missed out on an NCAA tournament bid. Since then, UT-Martin has lost 20+ games in every season. At 9-20 so far this year, that trend will continue.

– Cal Poly (class of 1995): John Madden’s alma mater is 15-12 overall, 10-6 in the Big West, a slight improvement over last season. Like fellow never-been UCI, the Mustangs would have to get past Long Beach State (and Pacific) to win the league tourney.

– Jacksonville State (class of 1996): The Gamecocks are currently in fourth place in the OVC East, despite a solid 17-11 overall record. Even if they were 28-0, however, they wouldn’t be NCAA-bound, as Jacksonville State is banned from postseason play due to APR problems.

– Quinnipiac (class of 1999): The Bobcats’ biggest obstacle to garnering a first-ever NCAA bid has been Robert Morris, which beat Quinnipiac in the 2010 NEC title game (52-50) and in the 2009 and 2011 semifinals (the latter by a 64-62 score). This season, the Bobcats are 15-15 overall, and tied for fifth place in the NEC with an 11-7 league mark.

One of these years, Quinnipiac is going to win that league tourney. It will probably happen sooner rather than later.

– Elon (class of 2000): With an 20-10 record, Elon is enjoying its finest season since joining D-1. To throw a team party on Selection Sunday, however, Elon will have to get past Davidson and the College of Charleston in the SoCon tourney. It’s not completely out of the question.

– High Point (class of 2000): The Panthers finished first in the Big South North (heh) division with a 12-4 league record. High Point is 17-12 overall and is one of several schools capable of winning what should be a wild league tournament. Unfortunately, High Point’s chances were reduced considerably when leading scorer John Brown broke a bone in his foot.

High Point basketball has some interesting alums, including Tubby Smith, Gene Littles, and Joe Forte (the former ACC and NBA referee).

– Sacred Heart (class of 2000): The Pioneers finished the season 9-20 overall, with a 7-11 record in NEC play. Sacred Heart lost its last seven games, missing out on the NEC tournament.

Irrelevant factoid alert: despite having only around 4200 undergraduates, Sacred Heart has 31 varsity sports teams. The man who will soon be in charge of those teams: none other than Bobby Valentine.

– Stony Brook (class of 2000): After its baseball team went all the way to Omaha and the College World Series, it’s now the basketball team’s turn. The Seawolves (23-6) won the America East by three games and will be favored to win the league tournament.

– UC Riverside (class of 2002): At the beginning of this post, I wrote that it probably isn’t crushing for UCR fans that the Highlanders haven’t made the NCAAs yet, since they’ve only been in D-1 since 2002. That doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered, though. UCR is currently 6-23, in last place in the Big West, and barred from postseason play after not meeting APR requirements. Oh, and there was this game.

Well, that’s this year’s roll call. Thirty teams with a dream. Will any of those dreams come true this year? Normally, I would say no, because that’s usually the case — but this year, I’m betting at least one of these schools finally makes it. Denver, Western Illinois, and Stony Brook appear to be the top contenders.

I hope it happens. One of my favorite memories of “Championship Week” came in 2008, when American University finally qualified for the NCAA tournament. AU had been in D-1 since 1967. The head coach of the Eagles, Jeff Jones, cried in his chair on the bench after the game.

That is just another reason the committee shouldn’t expand the tournament (and why it should revert back to a 64-team field and get rid of the play-in games, which lessen the experience for automatic qualifiers). It’s an accomplishment to make the tournament. It means something. It should continue to mean something.

This year, at least, it will.

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.