At 10 p.m. Thursday, the Southern Utah University football team will board a bus bound for Las Vegas. From there, SUU players will stagger onto a 1:15 a.m. flight to Chicago, where they are scheduled to land at 6:30 a.m. Friday.
A lethargic flock of Thunderbirds are then scheduled to take a lengthy bus ride to Nauvoo, Ill., for a tourist stop. Later that day, they will pull into Macomb, Ill., about 30 minutes from Nauvoo. Macomb is home of the Western Illinois Fighting Leathernecks, the team the Thunderbirds will play Saturday afternoon.If T-Bird coach Ray Gregory and a lot of folks in Cedar City had their way, this weekend's itinerary would look awfully different. They would prefer heading north up a construction-riddled I-15 to play the likes of Utah State or BYU or Weber State or Utah. Instead, SUU will log thousands of miles and see more sites than the Griswold family.
An opportunity for his team to compete at, say, BYU's 65,000-seat Cougar Stadium would make his program's century. It would help legitimize SUU football, not to mention provide a significant windfall for the school's athletic department coffers.
Trouble is, in football, Southern Utah is a member of Division I-AA, the scrawny little brother to Division I-A.
Still, as fate would have it, this weekend BYU and USU are hosting a pair of I-AA schools. Murray State, from Kentucky, travels to Provo while Sam Houston State, from Texas, travels to Logan. Utah welcomes Boise State to Rice-Eccles Stadium. Saturday could be downright C-SPAN2-dull for local football fans.
Meanwhile, Weber State plays host to Division I-AA power Montana, which could be the most titillating tilt of the day in the Beehive State. By the way, Montana is the same team the Thunderbirds defeated in Missoula earlier this season.
If there's going to be an unappetizing menu of mismatches, why not the Thunderbirds posing as the main course for BYU or USU? Certainly, SUU would happily show up with a big red apple in its mouth.
Instead, the Thunderbirds are shelling out big bucks in travel costs to play in a 15,000-seat stadium against the Leathernecks, ranked No. 14 in Division I-AA.
Gregory says not playing BYU or Utah State this year will cost the program about $500,000, counting money paid in travel and money lost from gate receipts. In addition, 70 percent of SUU's roster is made up of in-state players. Staying in Utah would give their friends and family the chance to see them play. But those dreams have been dashed.
"People here look at Sam Houston State and Murray State and scratch their heads," said SUU sports information director Neil Gardner. "Why are they playing those teams? That's definitely the prevalent feeling around the athletic department. I don't know how much BYU is guaranteeing Murray State (money-wise), but it's probably more than we'll make in two years.
We'd love to keep that money in the state. We need it."
Of course, BYU and Utah State have their reasons for not inviting Southern Utah to the party. For BYU, scheduling a Division I-AA school is an anomaly, as it's been ages since the Cougars competed against a team from that level. In 1994, Northeast Louisiana was in its first year as a Division I school when the Indians played in Provo, and Arkansas State hadn't been a Division I program long before it played at BYU in 1996. And you aren't likely to see many more Division I-AA teams on the schedule in the future if the Cougars can help it.
BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg's focus is scheduling games with powerhouses, like Virginia, Michigan and Southern Cal. The chain of events that led to slating the Racers of Murray State began when Utah State wanted to sign a home-and-home arrangement with Oregon State and canceled their matchup with BYU, leaving a hole in BYU's schedule.
Seeing as how the Cougars had a difficult early season slate with Alabama, Arizona State and Washington in 1998, Fehlberg looked for a lesser-caliber foe. Options were limited.
Fehlberg spoke with officials from Idaho and Boise State, but "we couldn't get it worked out," he said.
Then, the NCAA passed a piece of legislation that allows Division I teams to count one win over a Division I-AA opponent every four years toward the six-victory minimum required to be eligible for a bowl bid.
"That legislation made it possible to look at a Division I-AA team," Fehlberg said. He talked to Weber State about filling that spot, but that never materialized. He said he doesn't recall if SUU was ever a serious candidate to play in Provo, but he doesn't rule out a possible meeting with Weber State "at some future time."
Fehlberg eventually entered negotiations with Murray State, one of the top Division I-AA programs in America (the Racers are currently ranked No. 9). Murray State turned down a $400,000 payday with Georgia Tech to visit Provo for "significantly less money," Fehlberg said. "It's a big feather in their cap to come out here. It worked for us and didn't cost a lot of money. It will count as a Division I win, assuming we can win. But under different circumstances, I wouldn't do it."
The same attitude prevails at Utah State, for the most part. "We try to schedule Division I games preferably," said USU's new athletic director, Bruce Van De Velde, who is not responsible for this year's schedule. When it comes to playing Southern Utah, he has serious misgivings.
"We have everything to lose, nothing to gain. If we lose the game or if it's close, oh boy," he said. "It's hard to play another in-state game. We already play two in-state games (usually against Utah and BYU). Do we really need a third?"
Though BYU and USU don't play this season, they will resume their long-standing rivalry next year, and it is scheduled to continue through the next four years on a home-and-home basis. But every fifth season, the Cougars and Aggies won't play each other. It's a mutual decision between both schools, and it allows BYU and USU some flexibility in non-conference scheduling.