Idaho Football: Aberration or Pioneer?


Idaho Football:  Aberration or Pioneer? 

In March, both Idaho and New Mexico State were informed by the Sun Belt Conference that after 2017 their services would no longer be needed.  In short, they were kicked out of the southeast-based football conference. 

Since then, New Mexico State has been quiet.  They will play the next two years as a Sun Belt member, so they won’t have difficulties scheduling opponents.  With eight conference games, it really isn’t a problem, and given their record of futility, the big boys will be more than willing to schedule them as homecoming fodder.

On the other hand, Idaho moved quickly and made a decision that had never happened before.  They voluntarily dropped from the FBS to the FCS.  For decades, institutions of higher learning did the opposite; they did everything in their power to move to the FBS (1-A) level.  Dreams of major bowl games, big-time guarantees by playing the Ohio States of the world were simply too enticing. Schools also counted on more donations from both alumni and the community by playing big-time college football. 

We have seen this many times.  Personally, I lived in the Buffalo area when the University at Buffalo went from Division III to Division II to Division 1-AA to their current standing as a member of the Mid-American Conference.  The administration saw the dollar signs and in fairness, playing Division I athletics has enhanced their profile.  Alumni donations did go up, seeing “Buffalo” on a crawl on a Saturday afternoon gave them pride—and incentive—to make a contribution. 

Many schools have the dream.  But, in reality, moving to the FBS is a difficult process and unfortunately, the NCAA got very loose and allowed just about anybody to move up.  When Buffalo played at the then 1-AA level, they were lucky to get 5,000 people for games against Hofstra, Rhode Island and Maine.  Now, at the FBS level, they draw the same crowds for games against Bowling Green, Toledo and Central Michigan.  They might announce a crowd of 18,000, but those include tickets distributed and in Western New York, it is not uncommon to get two free tickets to a Buffalo Bulls game when you buy $100 worth of groceries at your local Tops or Wegmans supermarkets.  Those people have no thoughts of attending, but they count as part of the announced attendance.

Massachusetts was allowed to move up despite not having a suitable stadium.  The on-campus stadium is too small and Gillette Stadium is miles away, a bus ride that students are uninterested in taking.  The Minutemen will play 2016 as an independent and there have been calls by the community, faculty and administrators to either drop back to FCS or drop football altogether.  UMass was a 1-AA/FCS football power.  They played in three 1-AA championship games, winning in 1998 and losing in 1978 (the first ever 1-AA title game) and 2006.  They were an eastern power, first in the Yankee Conference, then the Atlantic 10, as well as the Colonial Athletic Association.  Despite not being in a football hotbed—New England is not Florida or Texas—they found the right players and were very successful.  But they decided in 2013 that they had to elevate to the FBS level and since then, they have struggled mightily.  They played football in the Mid-American while their other sports toil in the Atlantic 10 and that proved to be the wrong recipe as the MAC gave them the boot.  They are now a football independent, a designation that only works for Notre Dame.

There is nothing wrong with having dreams.  At the FBS level, you are going to get more exposure, you’re going to get TV money and you’re going to get better players.  But you have to increase scholarships from 63 to 85 and it does cost more to operate a FBS program with travel, per-diems and more money for coaching salaries.  A FCS head coach might make $300,000 per year, whereas the defensive coordinator at Ohio State might make $2 million.  There is a reason why FCS head coaches leave for assistant coaching positions at FBS programs. 

In the FCS, those 63 scholarships can be cut up.  You might give one player a half-scholarship, another a quarter.  A FCS program might have 90 players on the team, but only “63 on scholarship.”  At the FBS level, all 85 players have full scholarships.  

The numbers are the numbers.  If you believe in FBS, you can make the numbers work for you; if you believe in FCS, you can make those numbers work too, but the NCAA has done a poor job of allowing FCS schools to make the move without really enforcing the requirements.  And, in recent years, even more FCS schools are eyeing the FBS.  Former FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern gave up FCS glory to play in the Sun Belt Conference.  Both have had immediate success, but in the Sun Belt, a 10-2 season doesn’t get you into a major bowl game.  It doesn’t get you into the College Football Playoff but it might get you more bodies in the seats, more donations and more national exposure.  There is a tradeoff. 

When I see schools like Charlotte, Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina move up and others like Liberty and Eastern Kentucky contemplating a move, it makes me cringe because I don’t see these schools as rising to prominence in the FBS.  Boise State is the standard-bearer of former FCS schools that moved up and made a national dent in the FBS.  As good as they’ve been, with two undefeated seasons and two BCS bowl wins, they have never played in a BCS Championship Game nor have they qualified for the College Football Playoff.  For Boise State, the move has been a good one, so why can’t Georgia Southern or Coastal Carolina think the same? 

I am an “FCS guy.”   I believe that less is more and that many of these fringe schools are better off at the lower level.  That said, try explaining the two levels of Division I football to a co-worker and casual sports fan.  When you tell them that Villanova can win the NCAA basketball title but can’t play in the Orange Bowl, it gets confusing and merits a long-winded answer.  That is one of the reasons why schools move up to the FBS level.  Confusion for the most part, is never a good thing, especially if you’re trying to fundraise. 

There are some at Buffalo and Massachusetts that think going back to FCS and spending more money on basketball might be a better solution, but those in charge disagree.  Recently faculty and some staff at Eastern Michigan suggested that the school drop football; others suggested a drop to Division II and joining the Horizon League for all other sports.  That calling shows just how complicated this can be.  For starters EMU can’t play Division II football and play Division I in other sports; that is no longer allowed.  They certainly could drop football and join the Horizon League as that league doesn’t sponsor the sport.  From my perspective, the best idea would be to drop to FCS for football, join the Missouri Valley Football Conference and play in the Horizon League for their other sports.  Any idea of leaving the Mid-American Conference was met with resistance by both the president and the athletic department.  So, for now, the Eastern Michigan Eagles will continue to wallow in obscurity at the FBS level.  They don’t win, they don’t draw and when it comes to recruiting FBS caliber players they get what Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and the other MAC schools don’t want.  If they played at the FCS level, they might be able to take those same players, play against the Indiana States and be successful.  Sadly, it is something that we likely won’t see. 

Is the decision by Idaho to drop to FCS an anomaly or a trend?  In fairness, it’s probably the former, but it did open up discussion at some schools that sponsor college football.  I would like to see the NCAA get involved and try to better legislate the FCS level of football.  Right now, the FBS is a separate entity.  It isn’t run by the NCAA, it’s run by a coalition and always has been.  If the NCAA had total control of the FBS there would be true playoffs, like there are at the football levels that the NCAA does run.  There are 24, 28 and 32 playoff teams at the FCS, Division II and Division III levels, and if the NCAA ran the FBS, there would likely be at least a 16-team playoff. 

As we know, at the FBS, there are two levels; the Power 5 schools and the Group of 5 schools, and no matter how good Western Michigan becomes, they will never be Michigan or Michigan State.  Ohio could go 11-1 for five years, but they will never be Ohio State.  If the NCAA was really innovative, they would unite the FCS schools and the Group of 5 schools and form one division with nearly 200 members.  Those schools would have to agree on the right number of scholarships—63, 85 or somewhere in between—and they could schedule FBS opponents like they do now.  At the end of their 11 game seasons, they could have a 32-team tournament.  That way, the players at Bowling Green can compete for a national championship just like those at North Dakota State have been doing and winning for five straight years. 

Eventually, there will be another major change for college football.  Football is the engine that drives college athletics and as the money continues to increase, changes are inevitable.  Idaho did something bold, but they did the right thing.  They will play at a level of football that they can have success at, and at the end of the day, that’s a good thing.  New Mexico State should follow suit so they too can have more success.  They could be the pioneers of this movement, call it “The Realistic Movement.” 

Let’s hope it catches on.