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Missouri State football tries to get the buzz back
Terry Allen knew that creating a buzz in the Missouri State football program – on the field and in the grandstands – would not be an overnight process.
After three seasons as Bears head coach, Allen remains in search of a breakthrough season on the field. But is winning enough to put fans in the seats, especially once basketballs start bouncing across campus?
“Winning is important,” Allen said. “We’re doing our best to achieve that. Winning is first and foremost.
“How do you create a buzz? Having success is a big part of it. But having consistent success is the biggest thing.”
The recently concluded spring practice left Allen feeling that a turnaround could be coming. He has built primarily with high school recruits who are maturing into upperclassmen.
“I’m excited about next fall,” Allen said.
Football has been stuck in neutral for years at MSU. The school has not been to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) playoffs since 1990 and has posted only three winning seasons since 1996.
Attendance at the 16,400-seat Plaster Sports Complex has averaged 10,100 per game over the past 10 years and 9,938 the past five. Last year’s team, which finished 4-7, averaged 10,045, but only 5,202 in two games after basketball practice began.
Some people have said the program, which was supplemented by $1.3 million in institutional funding in the 2007-08 fiscal year, should be dropped or downgraded to non-scholarship. MSU president Mike Nietzel said that will not happen under his watch.
“We play football at Missouri State, we’re going to continue to get better at it and it does need to be at the Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) level,” Nietzel said.
Nietzel agreed that there needs to be more of a buzz about the program. He said several factors, beyond the won-lost record, help create that.
Selling the product
Nietzel said strides have been made in marketing the program, but “there can be improvements there.”
It’s no coincidence, he said, that each of the five original finalists to replace the retiring Bill Rowe as director of athletics has at least some marketing in his background. Four remain in the running after Bob Arkeilpane of Cincinnati withdrew this week.
“We can do better on that score and it is important,” Nietzel said of selling football to the public.
Something as simple as selling tickets at outlets around the city during a game week, instead of only the basketball arena box office, could help.
Allen said in today’s college football world, the head coach has to market as well as draw up X’s and O’s. He’s a constant on the speaking circuit, appearing before just about any group that asks, and attempts to be visible in the community.
Nietzel said that’s one of the reasons Allen was hired.
“I think the community involvement of your coach, both outside the university and within, and the involvement of your players, is important,” Nietzel said. “Terry Allen is very strong on that score.
“He is extroverted, enthusiastic and relates well to people. That’s an important part of it, beyond getting the win-loss record better.”
Allen, in turn, encourages his players to be ambassadors for the program when they are in public. Junior quarterback Cody Kirby and junior running back Kingjack Washington are two of the most visible.
Washington said a day does not pass when he doesn’t attempt to sell the program to one of his fellow students.
“We’re always talking to students and encouraging them to support us,” he said. “We need them. It’s important to get as many fans to the stadium as we can get.
“Of course, we need to win. Fans don’t want to come to a game to see a team lose.”
Fighting the stigma
Football at the FCS level is not an easy sell. Teams are members of Division I, but unlike other D-I sports, football is split into the FCS and FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) classifications.
FCS teams never will play in bowl games or draw 70,000 fans. They do, however, have a playoff to determine a national champion.
Nietzel has seen it from both sides, having worked at the University of Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference for three decades prior to becoming MSU’s president in 2005.
“It is a tough market,” Nietzel said of FCS. “The football is really good quality, but because people perceive it as not being top-end, you have to work harder to get them there.
“The pageantry of having 70,000 is what draws some people to the games. We’re not going to have that. We do have a great band, Plaster Sports Complex has been improved and the environment is pretty pleasant. People can tailgate and enjoy it.
“But you’re simply not going to have that ‘oomph’ from having 60,000 or 70,000 people where you just want to be part of a throng.”
While MSU’s football attendance often gets criticized, Nietzel pointed out that it averages out as the most-attended sporting event in the Ozarks.
Among the 118 FCS schools, MSU was 34th in attendance average last season. It’s been as high as 11th, with a 12,950 average, in 1997.
Paying for it
Football is not a money-maker at any FCS school. But most consider the university funds used to support football as an investment in the university.
“The way I look at it, when I talk about football at this level, it means so much to our campus community,” said athletic director Mario Moccia of Southern Illinois, a fellow Missouri Valley Conference school. “It’s a destination point to gather in the fall. It gets people of all elements of the institution to come back and gather on Saturday afternoons.
“It’s true that few universities, if any, make money on football. But it has a value that you cannot measure.”
Nietzel said he considers athletics, football included, a component of the university that is deserving of financial support from the university.
“Just like saying we’re going to have a foreign language department, we’re going to have a band, we’re going to have an agriculture program … all of those programs, the university subsidizes, as well,” Nietzel said. “This university made a decision 30 years ago to be Division I and I think it was a good decision.
“I think football needs to be a part of that.”
To help offset the operating deficit, football plays one game each season against a regional Football Bowl Subdivision team. Last year’s trip to Oklahoma State netted $350,000 for the budget.
For its part, the football program saves money where it can. Most travel is by bus and, when air charters are required, it’s done the day of games.
Last season, for instance, for the game at South Dakota State, the team flew out of Springfield at 7 a.m. for Sioux Falls, S.D. Then came a one-hour bus ride to Brookings, S.D., for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
The program also goes into this offseason down one full-time assistant coach, as most openings for job vacancies at MSU are on hold.
What if they win?
The last time MSU made the football playoffs, in 1990, it played at home before a standing room-only crowd. Of course, the stadium had only 7,000 seats at that time and expanded its capacity to more-than-double the next year.
Unable to maintain the playoff-caliber success, there have been plenty of empty seats since.
Allen often wonders how full the stadium might be some future November if the Bears have a playoff team. That’s one of the reasons he was intrigued by the MSU job when it opened in late 2005.
“The potential is here for great things,” said Allen, who is 107-80 in 16 seasons as a head coach at UNI, Kansas and MSU. “But it does take consistent winning. When I played and then coached at Northern Iowa, it took until we started winning consistently before it took off.
“We’re headed in the right direction. We would like to have people who want to be at our games. If they don’t want to be there, fine. But, please, don’t cast a spell against this group that is trying to have success.”