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 that 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 glasses 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 glamour. 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 have 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 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 it also costs more to run the program, 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.
And while other researchers disagree, Fulks believes in the so-called "Flutie effect," named for the transformation Boston College enjoyed from a regional to nationally prominent institution that was given a major boost by one player — 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie — and his one signature play of the season: A "Hail Mary" touchdown pass to beat Miami on the last play of the game.
The increased visibility a school can enjoy is "very real," Fulks said. "The number of applications goes up, your diversity in the student body goes up." GPAs and freshman test scores can rise, too.
But if the benefits of big-time football don't all show up in a strict model of revenues and expenses, neither do the potential costs.
To Roush, the Centre College president, FBS football is like a cancer cell implanted inside an institution — innocuous at first but growing into something destructive. Schools struggle to win initially and throw money at the team, alienating faculty whose own salaries are frozen. Gradually, the university loses control of the athletic program, and student-athletes suffer.
"Choosing to go to FBS is simply to invite big money in over time," Roush said. "When you allow that kind of distortion to take shape, it does bad things. It can dampen morale in other parts of the organization. It can create an elite class of students and employees."
At first, schools say "'Oh, we're going to be careful about that,'" Roush said, and they may be. "The problem is 10 years from now when they're paying their football coach $1.5 million in today's dollars" and values have been compromised.
Even supposed success stories are cautionary tales, like Central Florida. After moving up to FBS in 1996, the Knights have cracked the AP Top 25 and reached four bowl games, coinciding with a general rise in the university's profile.
But they likely won't reach a bowl game this year. They are banned, following a 2011 investigation in which the NCAA found evidence the football and basketball programs were involved with runners for sports agents and making cash payments to recruits (UCF is appealing the postseason ban).
A recent survey by the online publication Inside Higher Ed laid bare the "It can't happen here" denials of college presidents. Only a quarter agreed "the presidents of big-time athletic programs are in control of their programs." But nearly two-thirds of Division I presidents said such scandals couldn't possibly happen at their institutions.
They do happen, and even — perhaps especially — at academically ambitious institutions, where they can devour an entire presidency. Think of Donna Shalala, fending off the latest recruiting scandals at Miami, or Holden Thorp, trying to navigate the University of North Carolina through unprecedented budget cuts while in perpetual crisis mode over an academic scandal in the football program that's hurt UNC's good reputation.
"What do you think (new president) Rod Erickson is spending his time on at Penn State, any of those guys?" said John Burness, a former head of public affairs at several major universities, including Duke, where he saw a good year of work spent almost entirely dealing with the lacrosse case there.
"When you get involved in the negatives, the scandals, it's such an enormous sinkhole of the time of the institutional leadership they almost can't deal with anything else," he said. "When schools start out no one is assuming there will be a problem. But there's so much money involved in this, there are inevitably going to be problems."
Moulton, the South Alabama president, said the school's eyes are open to the financial risks (for now it enjoys a rent-free municipal stadium, but concedes it may have to build one down the road). He says South Alabama has "very intense programs" to monitor the academic side of the football program. As for reputational risks, he thinks playing in the Sun Belt Conference will help his school stay the course.
Still, he acknowledges, scandals "can happen to us, too." When they do, "no matter how careful you are and what you do, I think the main thing you have to do is show if something like that does occur, that you had all the right practices in place to try to prevent that."
Duderstadt — the former Michigan president — would argue the better lesson to take from Penn State is an honest reckoning of just how much is at stake.
"If (the Penn State scandal) had occurred in almost any other part of that institution, it would have been a big story" but it would not have resulted in the same kind of massive blow to the university, Duderstadt said.
"Do you really want to put not only your institutions but yourself at risk for something that you'll have so little control over, that you really will not understand?" he asked. "Once you put it in place, it's going to run on its own."
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