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Article on NCAA and the B.S.Club (BCS)

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Article on NCAA and the B.S.Club (BCS)

In college football, moving up isn't easy


In 15 years, 15 schools have gone from Division I-AA to I-A. They have had varying strengths and troubles attracting fans.

By Alan Schmadtke
Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted September 30 2004

The most "exclusive" club in college football still thinks playing on New Year's Day is special.

Wouldn't you, if you never have done it?

The club is made up of the 15 schools – including UCF and USF – who have moved to Division I-A in the past 15 years, and none of them has been close to a New Year's Day bowl bid. In fact, the schools have had 19 bowl bids total, with six of the schools accounting for all 19. None of the fledgling 15 has struggled on the field more than Buffalo, which has enjoyed one winning season since 1986 and has won only six games in more than five years as a I-A program.

The Bulls host UCF on Saturday at UB Stadium in a game that features two of I-A's youngest members – and two programs desperately seeking a sniff of success. Both are winless in 2004 and riding seven-game losing streaks.

New Year's Day never seemed so far away.

"God, football is slow [to build]," said Buffalo law professor William Greiner, who recently retired as the school's president and was the driving force for taking the Bulls to I-A and to the MAC.

"If you really want to do it right – for the right reasons, recruit the right kids and look out for their well-being – it's slow. You just have to be patient."

From Louisiana Tech, which jumped to I-A in 1989, to newest I-A members Connecticut and Troy, patience is a word that gets used a lot. Some schools needed more than others.

Nine of the 15 have losing records since making the move and the combined record of the 15 is 333-442-4 (.430 winning percentage), a mark attributed to natural growing pains, big-money games against established schools and the all-important survival-of-the-fittest principle.

Only one of the 15 (Connecticut) plays in a conference directly part of the Bowl Championship Series. USF will be No. 2 next year when it, too, joins the Big East.

Regardless, nobody's looking back.

"No way," said Troy Athletic Director Johnny Williams, whose school has emerged as the favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference in its inaugural season of membership.

After having success in Divisions II and I-AA, the Trojans leaped into the big-time of I-A in 2002. In their first two seasons, they were 10-14, but they drew attention to themselves off the field. Movie Gallery, a national video-rental business based in Dothan, Ala., which is right down the road from Troy, gave $5 million to name Troy's refurbished stadium. Boosters sold 15 of their 27 new luxury suites to fans or businesses that never had given any money to Troy. And in Game 2 this season, the Trojans hosted the marquee home game in school history – and upset Missouri on ESPN2.

"I've been here 19 years – nine as a football coach, 10 as the AD – and if Missouri is the best it ever gets, it was all worth the trip," Williams said. "What that win has meant for our town and our university . . . the whole community of south Alabama looks at our university totally different now."

So goes one story among the fledgling 15. Others aren't as uplifting.

For more than a couple of the schools, grinding away for more boosters, more marketing and more ticket sales is a daily way of life. And ESPN doesn't show up for those battles.

It doesn't help the newbies that a set of new I-A membership requirements hit the book Aug. 1. They include increases in scholarships (or scholarship money), a two-year average of at least five home games against I-A teams and, most controversially, average home attendance of 15,000 fans.

Florida International and Florida Atlantic, two I-AA programs with tickets punched for I-A and Sun Belt membership next year, are forced to think in those terms. And the attendance numbers aren't good: FIU's home attendance average in 2003 was 7,571; FAU's was 5,882.

Nevertheless, no one can argue about FAU's on-field achievements, including victories this season at Hawaii, at North Texas and at Middle Tennessee. Hawaii and North Texas went to bowls last season.

"I think our people have also come to realize that 15,000 cannot become maximum," Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters said. "Our presidents have told our ADs, 'You can't balance your budget on 15,000. You need to think 20,000 and 25,000, think in terms of filling up a 30,000-seat stadium.' Our guys want to be aggressive."

Scholarship minimums will stay. The attendance minimum is another story. The coalition (read: non-BCS) members of I-A continue to push for a rollback, and NCAA President Myles Brand has told coalition conferences and the media that putting an attendance number on paper might not be wise. But the NCAA's board of directors left the attendance bar in place.

Football is the only sport and I-A is the only division in the NCAA that comes with attendance minimums. It's a nourishing tidbit for coalition supporters who consider much of the NCAA's leadership untrustworthy and I-A's established prime-time players selfish.

"Some people at the [newer I-A] schools have awakened," Greiner said. "I fully expect that those requirements will disappear, or someone or some school will have the NCAA's head in court. I know too many attorneys general out there who know the NCAA's record there isn't very good."

Last year, 11 of I-A's 117 schools averaged less than 15,000 fans. Buffalo (12,419 for six games) was one of the 11.

"The problem we're faced with is the lack of tradition," said first-year Kent State Coach Doug Martin, whose school was another below the magic number. "Our players – and our fans, for that matter – have a tendency to play not to lose as opposed to playing to win . . . as if they expect something bad to happen. That mentality is what we're trying to change here."

Buffalo Coach Jim Hofher wishes he had Kent State's tradition. The Golden Flashes joined the Mid-American Conference in 1951. Hofher's Bulls have been a I-A program since 1999, and they're 4-38 in their sixth season in the MAC.

Lack of tradition?

"We could write the book on it," Hofher said.

Players don't go to Buffalo because of the Bulls' slim trophy case. Just the opposite.

"Does he want to be a difference-maker? Is he a risk-taker?" Hofher said. "Because that's what he's doing when he makes the choice to come to Buffalo or schools that are in situations like ours."

That is, join the most exclusive club in I-A. And probably its toughest.

Alan Schmadtke can be reached at aschmadtke@orlandosentinel.com.

Copyright ? 2004, Orlando Sentinel
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