By JIM O’DAY
While not overly alarming just yet, the continued exodus of teams from the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision is concerning, and could eventually have a dramatic impact on schools such as Montana and Montana State.
Last week, FCS powerhouses Appalachian State and Georgia Southern announced they will be leaving the FCS’s Southern Conference for the Football Bowl Subdivision’s Sun Belt Conference, effective July 1, 2014. Between the two schools, they have nine FCS/I-AA titles (Georgia Southern with 6; App State with 3). Additional rumor has two more FCS stalwarts, James Madison University and Liberty University, possibly joining App State and Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt. Add in Old Dominion, UMass, Texas State, South Alabama and Texas-San Antonio in recent years, and many mid-major schools are looking at a move up in division for various reasons. Schools officially announcing their change are no longer eligible for the FCS playoffs as they start the process of increasing their 63 football scholarships to the 85 offered at the FBS level. Idaho and New Mexico State will also join the Sun Belt as associate members for football only.
Without a doubt, those in charge at the NCAA are quietly concerned. Some of these schools have been premiere leaders amongst the FCS ranks over the years. They have also accounted for significant revenues to help offset costs of the FCS playoffs. While these moves were not totally unexpected, and had been rumored for months, there is speculation that others may still follow… but again, those are strictly rumors at this point.
In making the announcement last week, Georgia Southern President Brooks Keel said, “This decision was made with the long-term interest of our university in mind. The Sun Belt will provide our student-athletes with an outstanding opportunity to compete at the highest level, and we are excited to contribute to the conference’s success both on and off the field. I am equally excited about the opportunity that it will provide Georgia Southern and the more than 75,000 alumni that make up the Eagle Nation.”
Added Appalachian State Athletic Director Charlie Cobb, “Quite frankly, our easier course of action was to stay with the status quo. However, and I say this with tremendous respect and gratitude for our past and present colleagues in the Southern Conference, when I say the status quo was not acceptable for Appalachian and it doesn’t embrace the Appalachian spirit, whether it’s in academics, athletics or the arts.”
Interestingly enough, Karl Benson is the new commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference – and the person primarily responsible for the re-structured Sun Belt. His name may sound familiar to many Griz fans as he was in charge of trying to woo Montana into the WAC a few years back when he was still commissioner of that conference.
Said SoCon Commissioner John Iamarino, “I wish I could push a button where (NCAA president) Mark Emmert would say, ‘Hey, this is not in the best interest of college athletics’ – because it clearly isn’t – ‘we’re going to put a five- or a 10-year moratorium on this.’ The only way to do that would be for the association as a membership to say let’s pick a date, an arbitrary date, whether it may be Jan. 1 of 2014, and anybody who wants to move, do it by then, and then after that, five years no movement, and let’s see what happens. But of course, you’re opening yourself up to lawsuits and the big conferences would never go for that. So it will never happen.”
In an article in The Sports Network, TSN FCS Executive Director Craig Haley says the end of the FCS as we know it may now be looming. “Off-seasons are supposed to be about optimism, but the off-season in the FCS has been about as ugly as it gets….
“… On a level of college football that is high on product but short on its identity nationally, the word over the winter that the Big Ten wants to phase out games against FCS schools, perhaps leading to other major conferences to follow suit in the future, was bad enough news as schools try to gain a recruiting foothold and scrap for ways to fund their programs. But Wednesday’s announcements of the one-two loss of Southern Conference powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the FBS level and a reconfigured Sun Belt Conference is further indication that the idea of being a big fish in a smaller pond isn’t good enough today. The continued shifting landscape of college football still has people spooked into thinking the FCS pond will dry up.”
Haley goes on to say it is doubtful FCS football will go away entirely, “but the stature of the FCS will only slip further amid the upheaval…. With other programs still considering the move to the FBS, including Liberty, James Madison, Villanova and Jacksonville State, it seems the FCS level can only take so many more hits while it grasps for national relevance in college football. Another mini-exodus of programs or some unforeseen hit would bring more important strikes against what is still strong on-the-field football. National interest in the FCS could water down to regional interest if the big games and big teams just aren’t there anymore. Hopefully they will. But there’s just too much uncertainty to feel confident in that idea.”
In the meantime, conference realignment talks will continue and the merry-go-round carries on in Division I. Who will be next to leave FCS? What conferences will be expanding? What schools will be attracted to “move up” to FCS? How will all of this affect UM, MSU and the Big Sky Conference? Those are questions that will continue to linger and be debated. Two years ago, Montana went through the exercise of deciding whether to stay at the FCS level, or move to the FBS’s Western Athletic Conference. My guess is that it won’t be much longer before the university is faced with a similar decision.
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Jim O’Day was Director of Athletics at the University of Montana from 2005-2012. Prior to that, he served as the Assistant Director of the Grizzly Athletic Association and later as the Director of Development for Intercollegiate Athletics at UM. Prior to returning to his alma mater in 1998, O’Day was the owner and publisher of the family-owned Western Breeze newspaper in Cut Bank, Montana. Jim currently works for The Farran Group, a real estate development/ investment firm based in Missoula, MT. In addition, Jim serves as a consultant for Epio Solutions out of Seattle, a sports based agency primarily focused on monitoring social media platforms for various colleges and universities. Jim and his wife Kathy have three sons: Chris, Kevin and Brian. Chris and Kevin are graduates of The University of Montana, while Brian is currently a senior at UM.