Eric Gay, Associated Press
Hungry for glory and perhaps a little gold, five schools are in the process of moving up to college football's top level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, as the season kicks off this weekend.
To some seasoned higher education observers, the gamble sounds like buying a pet python: Sure, it'll get the neighbors talking about you. But when things go bad, they go very bad indeed.
Their advice to presidents considering following Georgia State and Texas-San Antonio (in year one of a two-year transition to full FBS membership) and South Alabama, Massachusetts and Texas State (in year two): Think long and hard about big-time college football's capacity to hurt a university's hard-earned reputation in the blink of an eye.
"The first thing I'd say is, 'I'll give you Graham Spanier's email address,'" said James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, referring to the former Penn State president — the most spectacular but hardly only example of an academically ambitious college president felled in a football scandal.
Duderstadt compares major college football to the credit-default swaps the wrecked the economy four years ago — risky and little understood investments that can blow up and hurt owners and innocent bystanders alike.
"I'd say, 'Let's be sure you take your rose-colored classes off and recognize what you're leading your institution into,'" said John Roush, president of Division III Centre College in Kentucky, who played college football himself at Miami University in Ohio and watched two sons do the same at FBS schools. "There's some glamor. Arguably, there's some payback. But the culture you're inviting into your organization is problematic at best."
The programs making the jump say they've done their homework and are ready.
"I think any university president who has a right mind would be nervous about getting into football because of all the potential pitfalls," said South Alabama president Gordon Moulton, who said he resisted football for years. But the one-time commuter school is growing into a residential campus, and morale is up since it started a Football Championship Subdivision (one level down) program just four years ago.
Promising students, family and alumni "have an expectation to see football on a major public university campus," Moulton said. And "people here quite frankly don't consider you're really playing football unless you're playing (FBS) football. He says he's confident South Alabama can maintain its integrity, and has limited the financial risk thanks to a $150-per-semester fee the football-hungry students agreed to pay to support the program (and the also-expanding marching band).
Since 1979, when the NCAA split into Divisions I-A and I-AA, roughly two-dozen schools have moved up (the divisions were renamed the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision in 2006). A comparable number of have moved down, and a few have gone back and forth.
Strictly by the numbers, moving up hasn't paid off for most. FBS programs collect much more revenue from tickets and TV, but also cost more to run, from travel to new stadiums to scholarships and the inevitable arms race for winning coaches. A 2007 study co-authored by Transylvania University professor Daniel Fulks, who collects accounting data for the NCAA, found most schools that moved up to I-A "experienced substantially greater net losses after reclassifying."
But money isn't the only measurement. Universities cross-subsidize many programs that — at least directly — cost more than they take in, from classics departments to jazz bands, because they think they're otherwise worthwhile.
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