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Conference shuffle creating room for upstarts to make jump to FBS
Perennial FCS power Appalachian State is looking for an invite from an FBS conference. UNC Charlotte is building a football program but won’t play its first game until 2013. Georgia State has been playing football for only two years. Old Dominion has been playing football for only three years. Texas-San Antonio has been playing football for one year.
What do these fledgling programs have in common? They will all, after a very brief stay in college football’s Football Championship Subdivision jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Charlotte announced on May 5 that after playing the 2013 and 2014 seasons in the FCS, it will move into Conference USA in 2015.
Georgia State, which is 9-13 under Bill Curry, has accepted an invitation to leave the CAA and join the Sun Belt for the 2013 season.
Old Dominion, which has posted a record of 27-8 in its first three seasons of football, found the opportunity to go to Conference USA just too good to pass up. It, too, will leave the CAA and be eligible for the football championship in 2015.
UT-San Antonio, led by former Miami coach Larry Coker, played its first season in the Southland Conference in 2011. It will move to the WAC for 2012 and then to Conference USA in 2013.
We are used to watching the big boys jump around from conference to conference. But why are the little guys suddenly in such a rush to jump into the deep end of the pool without a whole lot of football experience?
Reason No. 1 is the fact that last September the NCAA lifted a four-year moratorium on schools jumping from FCS to FBS. Word on the street is that the moratorium will return, and this time it could last 10 years.
ODU athletics director Wood Selig said the possibility of another moratorium is why his school moved so quickly.
“For me personally, it [a possible moratorium] created a major sense of urgency,” Selig told David Teel of the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Va.
Reason No. 2 is the same for Old Dominion as it is for Alabama: money and prestige. There is simply more of both in the bottom half of the FBS than in the top half of the FCS.
“Our attitude was if we’re ever going to do this, we might as well do it now,” said Brad Lambert, the former Wake Forest and Georgia assistant who was hired to build the program at Charlotte. “This opportunity presented itself now and we know it may never come again. We are just getting started in our recruiting, so we can now go after a different caliber of athlete and in greater numbers. If we’re going to build, we might as well build towards this. College football is about the brand you put behind your brand.”
Curry remembers that just moments after he was introduced as Georgia State’s first head coach, a breathless fan approached him.
“He said, ‘Coach, what I want to know is when are we going Division I-A? When are we going to play the Dawgs?’ ” Curry said, referring to Georgia. “I thought that maybe eight years from now we might be doing this.”
But when the landscape shifts at the top of the football mountain, it creates opportunities below. When the Big East lost Pittsburgh (ACC), Syracuse (ACC), West Virginia (Big 12), and TCU (Big 12), it plucked Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF from Conference USA. That created openings for Charlotte, ODU and UT-San Antonio to step up in class.
When Conference USA took Florida International and North Texas from the Sun Belt, it created the opportunity for Georgia State, which is located in a recruiting hotbed, with the ninth largest TV market (Atlanta) and a student body of 32,000.
“You would like to make a logical progression to where you are first very competent on the field before making this kind of move,” Curry said. “But the reality is that the ground has shifted beneath our feet the past few years. You have to fish or cut bait. So you go ahead and make the move, set the bar way up there and try to fight your way to the top.”
UNC Charlotte was founded in 1946 and has just exploded along with the growth of the city. Charlotte is one of the banking centers of the world and its 13-county metropolitan area is home to about 2.4 million people. It also has the No. 25-rated TV market. It has the NFL (Panthers) and the NBA (Bobcats), but it did not have an FBS football team.
Before the announcement earlier this month, UNC Charlotte’s greatest claim to fame in athletics was a 1977 trip to the NCAA Final Four behind Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell. Today, it has an enrollment of 25,000.
“The minute we announced we were going to FBS, we started getting calls from kids who wanted to visit who are going to be Division I players,” Lambert said. “The fact is that your football program is perceived in a completely different way when you move up.”
Don’t believe it? Well, believe this: Just days after Old Dominion announced it was joining Conference USA, the school received more than $3 million in pledges to help make it happen.
Old Dominion, with a total of enrollment of about 25,000, is located in Norfolk, which is the No. 43 TV market in the country. The Tidewater section of Virginia is one of the most fertile recruiting territories in the country.
UT-San Antonio has more than 30,000 students and is located in a state that produces hundreds of blue-chip prospects each year. It is the No. 36 TV market in the country.
Notice a pattern here? These schools haven’t done a lot on the field, but they all have what the conferences are looking for in expansion: Student bodies of 20,000 or more, with top-50 TV markets that are in strong recruiting territories.
“There are certain things you have to have in place to give you a chance to be successful,” said Curry. “We have a great place to play (Georgia Dome). We have a huge alumni base who wants to be good in football. We have a large student body that supports us with their fees (Georgia State students voted for an increase in their fees in order to start the football program). We are surrounded by great players who would like to play close to home. If you have all that and the opportunity presents itself, you have to strongly consider moving.”
“There is separation occurring in college football and you want to be on the right side of that ledger,” said Karl Benson, who just took over as the commissioner of the Sun Belt. “There are a lot of emerging schools with great demographics that want to play football – and all sports – at the highest level.”
There are significant costs involved with such a move. The scholarship limit immediately jumps from 63 to 85. That’s the biggest cost. FCS schools must average 15,000 in home attendance for two years before joining the FBS, so some stadiums have to be enlarged. Travel budgets must be increased. Recruiting budgets must be bolstered.
But there are also more revenue streams in the FBS because the conference shares the money made from bowl games, TV packages and the NCAA basketball tournament.
Here, however, is the real reason these schools want to step up in class: Once a team leaves the FCS and becomes a member of the FBS, the cost of playing them goes up dramatically.
Example: Appalachian State, a perennial FCS power, has a contract to play at Georgia in 2013. For going to Athens, the Mountaineers will receive $450,000, which is about the average guarantee for an FCS school playing at a BCS school with a big stadium.
But if Appalachian State becomes an FBS member between now and when the game is played on Nov. 9, 2013, that guarantee jumps to $850,000, according to AD Charlie Cobb. Many FBS schools receive guarantees of more than $1 million to play BCS schools on the road.
“The fact is that the BCS brand and the FBS brand are the identity of college football right now,” Cobb said.
Cobb is the chairman of the NCAA’s FCS committee. He recently announced that the FCS playoffs, in an effort to expand the brand and get greater recognition, will expand from 20 to 24 teams in 2013.
“We have what America wants in the playoffs, but the reality is the lack of exposure [for FCS football] hurts,” he said.
Cobb makes no secret of the fact that he and the administration at Appalachian State want to move to FBS. The school has done all of the feasibility studies and it is ready to go if the invitation comes. With all of Appalachian State’s success on the field, however, they were passed over in favor of Charlotte, ODU, and UTSA by Conference USA.
Cobb’s alumni did not understand and were not happy. Appalachian State has been playing football since 1928. It won three straight FCS national championships from 2005-07. In 2007 it pulled off the biggest upset in school history and one of the biggest in college football history when it went to Michigan and won 34-32.
Appalachian State led the FCS in average attendance last season with 26,211 per game, which was 130 percent of the stadium’s capacity. If Appalachian State had been in Conference USA last season it would have ranked third in attendance. Its average attendance is higher than 40 of the current 120 FBS schools.
But the Mountaineers are still waiting for an invitation to the dance. Cobb recently wrote to his fan base, assuring them that talks with Conference USA are ongoing.
The 10-team Sun Belt will probably decide this week if it wants to go to 12, Benson said. If so, Appalachian State could be in their mix. Like a number of FCS athletics directors who want to move up in this window of opportunity, Cobb is starting to feel a sense of urgency.
“We’ve made ourselves relevant from a competitive standpoint,” he said, “but we haven’t done a good enough job of selling where we are in the market place.”
The Realignment Carousel
ACC Added: Syracuse (Big East), Pittsburgh (Big East) for 2013.
SEC Added: Missouri (Big 12), Texas A&M (Big 12) for 2012.
Big Ten: Added: Nebraska (Big 12) in 2011.
Big 12: Lost: Missouri (SEC), Texas A&M (SEC), Colorado (Pac-12), Nebraska (Big Ten) Added: West Virginia (Big East), TCU (Big East) for 2012.
Pac-12: Added: Utah (MWC), Colorado (Big 12) in 2011.
Big East: Lost: Pittsburgh (ACC), Syracuse (ACC), TCU (Big 12), West Virginia (Big 12) Added: Temple (MAC) for 2012, Boise State (MWC), San Diego State (MWC), Houston (CUSA), Memphis (CUSA), SMU (CUSA), UCF (CUSA) in 2013, Navy (Independent) in 2015.
Mountain West: Lost: Boise State (Big East), BYU (Independent), TCU (Big East, Big 12), Utah (Pac-12), San Diego State (Big East). Added: The MWC took five teams from the WAC. Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada, will join this season. San Jose State and Utah State will join in 2013.
Conference USA: Lost: Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF to Big East. Added: Florida International (Sun Belt), Louisiana Tech (WAC), North Texas (Sun Belt), and UT-San Antonio (FCS) will join in 2013. Old Dominion (FCS), and Charlotte (FCS) will join in 2015.
MAC: Lost: Temple (Big East) Added: UMass (FCS).
SUN BELT: Lost: FIU and North Texas to Conference USA. Added: South Alabama for 2012, Georgia State and Texas State for 2013.