Frisco Is Great Location For FCS Championship Game

By JIM O’DAY

For the first time, the top tier of Division I collegiate football has a true playoff format and title game to determine its national champion. This year’s much-anticipated game at AT&T Stadium outside Dallas will feature the Oregon Ducks and The Ohio State Buckeyes.  While most eyes will be focused on that championship game in northern Texas on Monday night, another Division I champion will be crowned two days earlier not far away in Frisco, TX.

On that day, the Division I Football Championship Subdivision title game will be played in Toyota Stadium between the three-time defending national champs North Dakota State (14-1) and its co-champion rival from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Illinois State Redbirds (13-1).  With a 10-team conference, the two squads did not meet during the regular season, and both lost to Northern Iowa (23-3 vs. NDSU and 42-28 against Illinois State).

Five years ago this week, I was part of a small committee assigned to look into the facilities and communities being considered as the site for the NCAA Division I Football Championship title game starting in 2010. The prior 13 years, the game had been played in Chattanooga, TN., and before that, Huntington, W.Va.  And while the University of Montana, amongst a few others, submitted a bid to host the championship, the two finalist came down to Chattanooga and a relatively-unknown community 30 miles north of Dallas, TX, called Frisco.

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Having attended six national championship games in Chattanooga, TN. (five with the University of Montana Athletic Department as a staff member with the Montana Grizzlies – 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2009, and another as a first-year athletic director representing the school in 2005), and two more as a fan in 1995 and 1996 in Huntington, WV., when the classification was referred to as Division I-AA, I was appointed by the NCAA Division I Playoff Selection Committee as its chair, and to be heavily involved in the new site selection process.

Although Chattanooga had done a remarkable job the previous 13 years, the committee felt a location change was warranted. The sub-division needed some rejuvenated energy, and Frisco appeared to be just the place to get it done.  It was a risk, but a risk worth taking. After all, Frisco was only 30 miles away from Dallas and its many entertainment and night-life options, as well as 25 minutes away from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.  It was a community on the rise, having the distinction as the fastest growing city in America from 2000-2009.  The population was 33,714 in 2000; and had grown to 144,000 by December 2014.

With all the positives, there were some initial concerns.  First, FC Dallas Stadium, as it was called when it opened on Aug. 6, 2005, was a 20,500-seat soccer-specific facility – not a football complex.  The locker room facilities on the northwest end of the complex caused some issues as the two teams would have to share a portion of the walk-way leading into the playing field. The natural Bermuda Grass surface also made some nervous (i.e., Griz fans remember the disaster at the 2004 championship game in Chattanooga when the playing surface was torn up after torrential rains hit the area in the week leading up to the game). While we tend to think of Texas having fairly moderate weather in January (a decision to move the game from December until after New Year’s had been made the previous year), the temperature when the committee made its initial visit that January day was about 10 degrees above zero, with a bitter cold wind chill factor … much like Montana.  Finally, the Cotton Bowl about 50 miles away would be played the same day, and would serve as significant competition for the football fanatics from the Dallas area.

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FCS Championship game in Frisco, Texas, with former Dallas Cowboys star EversonWalls.

Still, TEAM FRISCO did an amazing job selling its story, and making everyone feel like this was the place for the FCS championship game to be played the next three years (ultimately, the contract was extended until after the 2015 season). With the new infrastructure, hotels/motels, restaurants, malls, etc., it appeared to the committee a move would be worthwhile – and popular.  As a Montanan, and knowing how Grizzly fans had traveled to Chattanooga for five of the 13 games held there, I was constantly reminded by the Frisco welcoming committee that almost all hotels had their own restaurants and bars – a concern that had been mentioned often by Griz fans in their previous visits to championship sites. Although UM has not qualified for the title game in Frisco, the amenities have been extremely popular to the visiting fans – especially those from North Dakota State.

When teams arrive for the title game, it is very noticeable around the community.  Banners are everywhere, and merchants and others are keenly aware of what’s in town.  Although it was a fairly hard sell to many of the locals the first year, the championship games have sold out each of the past three years – and another sell-out is expected Saturday. Much of that is due to the tremendous support by the Bison fans who have traveled from North Dakota to watch their team win the title each of the past three years. The first year, Eastern Washington won the first-place trophy with a wild 20-19 victory over Delaware.

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Toyota Stadium, Frisco,TX

Locals are also starting to take notice.  Not only do they have one of the best soccer stadiums in the country, but they also have a beautiful minor league baseball park and the practice arena for the NHL Dallas Stars. The community loves its athletic events. Frisco is also home to many working professionals who are employed in the Dallas area, including a number of Dallas Cowboy players. During my initial introductions to the community, a considerable amount of time was spent with Cowboy legends such as Emmett Smith, Emerson Walls and Randy White – all of whom were strong supporters of moving the game to Frisco.  Our celebrity guest for the second year was NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, who played at Division I-AA Mississippi Valley State from 1981-84. The first year’s game also attracted United States Vice President Joe Biden, a University of Delaware alum.

Although the contract with Frisco is set to expire after the January 2016 game, I don’t expect it to leave the area anytime soon.  Along with the many attractions to visit in the area, the Dallas Cowboys plan to open their new headquarters in Frisco in 2016.  The 91-acre complex will feature a state of the art training facility and practice fields. In addition, it will include a luxury hotel, high-end shopping area, restaurants and a 12,000-seat indoor stadium where the Frisco Independent School District will hold its high school games.  The support of the game sponsors is also incredible, and well organized. Toyota Stadium is owned by the City of Frisco, in partnership with the Hunt Sports Group (which also owns the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL), the Frisco Independent School District and Collin County.

Yes, it was a gamble to move the game to Frisco — and in retrospect, it was a very good decision.

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Jim O’Day was Director of Athletics at the University of Montana from 2005-2012. He also served as the Assistant Director of the Grizzly Athletic Association (1998-2000) and later as the Director of Development for UM Intercollegiate Athletics (2000-2005).

Prior to returning to his alma mater in 1998, O’Day was the owner/publisher of the family-owned Western Breeze newspaper in Cut Bank, MT. He was also sports editor of the Kalispell Daily Interlake from 1980-82.

In late 2013, Jim started his own consulting business, O’Day Enterprises, LLC.  His main clients include Farran Realty Partners, a private equity real estate development/investment firm based in Missoula; Epio Solutions of Seattle/Missoula, an agency primarily focused on branding/marketing/public relations utilizing various social media platforms for businesses, universities, non-profits and individuals; and BancVue, a company based in Austin, Texas, that aligns itself with small community banks and credit unions across the country to compete against the large mega banks. In addition, Jim is consulting for various oil and gas firms, as well as providing valuable professional resource services for intercollegiate athletics, fund-raising, capital raises, employment opportunities, etc. 

Jim and his wife Kathy have three sons: Chris, Kevin and Brian – all three graduates of The University of Montana.

 

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