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Football enlivens Georgia campuses
State schools kick off programs to attract students, build brands
“Saturday afternoons will never be the same again in Waleska,” J. Thomas Isherwood, president of Reinhardt University, said with a laugh.
His school plans to build a small stadium on its campus and, come autumn 2013, join the nationwide proliferation of college football teams.
Eleven colleges and universities, including Georgia State, fielded NCAA or NAIA teams for the first time in the past two years, and seven more will do so this fall, according to figures compiled by the National Football Foundation. And the trend shows no sign of abating, with at least 16 additional schools, including four in Georgia, preparing to launch programs in the next few years.
“It’s really amazing,” former Georgia football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley said of the trend. “I think the reason for it, despite the cost, is that [football] brings some vibrancy to the campus and is highly beneficial to the culture and the brand of a university.”
Dooley is consulting with Kennesaw State, one of the four Georgia universities with plans — tentative in Kennesaw’s case — to add football in the next few years. The others, which already have hired coaches for their start-up teams, are Reinhardt, Mercer and Point University.
Founded in 1937 as Atlanta Christian College, the school of about 1,150 students made several major decisions this year: changing names; moving its main campus to West Point, effective next year; and adding football.
“We’ll have to get rid of the T-shirts that say, ‘Undefeated [in football] since 1937,’” said Dean Collins, Point’s president.
Point will begin NAIA play next year after fielding a club team this fall. Reinhardt and Mercer are scheduled to begin play in 2013 — Reinhardt at the NAIA level and Mercer at the NCAA FCS (formerly Division I-AA) level. Kennesaw is aiming for 2014 or 2015.
Popular in the South
Not surprisingly, the addition of teams is most common in the football-crazed South. But the trend stretches across the country, from Pacific University in Oregon to Castleton State College in Vermont.
Many schools that have flocked to football recently are small private institutions that plan to play the game far removed from the big-dollar, high-stakes, arms-race mentality of the sport’s superpowers. But others have somewhat larger ambitions, such as: Texas-San Antonio, which will begin play as an FCS team this fall and transition to the FBS (formerly Division I-A) next year, and North Carolina-Charlotte, which plans to start FCS play in 2013 in a new $40 million, 15,000-seat stadium complex that will be expandable to 40,000 seats.
While schools have differing aspirations for their fledgling programs, the reasons for starting a team seem consistent.
Officials at Kennesaw, Mercer, Reinhardt and Point echoed Dooley’s view that football enhances university life. They said football gives students a reason to remain on campus, and alumni a reason to return to campus, on fall weekends. They agreed the sport’s pageantry, passion and popularity can help attract or retain students.
“The bottom line is, we didn’t [add football] with any grand visions of eventually having a 75,000-seat stadium and lining up against Georgia,” Mercer athletic director Jim Cole said. “We did it from the standpoint of a quality-of-campus-life issue.”
“There is no question,” Collins said, “that young people are looking for the complete college experience, whether they go to a major public university or a smaller private college.”
Said Kennesaw State athletic director Vaughn Williams: “Football has a place in the mission of this university. We believe it is going to bring people on this campus. It is going to give us exposure that we probably don’t have right now.”
Another oft-cited consideration is that football will bring in male students, a minority on most campuses.
“We wanted a way to attract good male student-athletes who want to compete for the right reasons,” Cole said.
Finding players is the least of anyone’s concern.
“We found there are many students who played high school football effectively and were looking to continue playing and wanted more opportunities than seemed to be available in this academic marketplace,” Reinhardt’s Isherwood said. “That kind of demand is out there, far exceeding the ability of Division I schools to respond to it.”
While few, if any, of the new programs expect to ever generate the profits of the FBS powers — profits that fund non-revenue sports — they have adopted various strategies to guard against the teams becoming financial drains.
Mercer, resurrecting a program that it disbanded after the 1941 season, will play in the Pioneer Football League, one of three Division I leagues (the Ivy and Patriot are the others) that play non-scholarship football. Not having to fund scholarships, and recruiting tuition-paying students to play on the team, transforms football’s financial equation.
“Once we get everything up and running,” Cole said, “we picture the program sustaining itself with the revenue generated.”
Mercer is analyzing two Macon sites for a stadium and will be guided in the scope of its construction plans by fundraising results.
“Our immediate goal is building a field house and a field,” Cole said. “Once that is complete, we’ll analyze our fundraising again and see what we can tackle as far as capacity of stadium.”
Reinhardt will build a 1,000-seat stadium with funds that have been allocated by the school’s board, Isherwood said. Point will play at a city facility in Valley, Ala., near West Point, and expects the program to be “cash positive in the first year,” Collins said.
As NAIA members, Reinhardt and Point will give some football scholarships, which generally won’t cover the full cost of attendance.
At Kennesaw State, the plan is to play initially in the school’s’ 8,300-seat soccer stadium. Even so, $8 million to $12 million will need to be raised for, among other things, a football headquarters. To offset football’s ongoing costs, KSU students last year voted in favor of a possible $100-per-semester increase in athletics fees.
Starting a program is a daunting task, as Mercer’s recently hired coach, Bobby Lamb, is finding.
“When you start a program, you think about a lot of things at night,” said Lamb, formerly the coach at Furman. “You wake up and you think, ‘I’ve got to order shoestrings, too.’ You start with helmets and shoulder pads and get all the way down to shoestrings.”
Mercer and the other Georgia institutions in the process of adding football follow in the recent tracks of Shorter (which started a team in 2005), LaGrange (2006) and Georgia State (2010).
“The more the merrier in the state of Georgia,” Lamb said.
By Tim Tucker, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution