Winning more than games

It was no surprise when Kennesaw State University announced recently that the Board of Regents approved the school’s plan to start a football team.

After all, KSU had been through a years-long process of examining the idea.

But taxpayers, fans, supporters and alumni of Georgia’s universities should ask whether this is a good idea, even in this football-crazy state.

The question of adding football has become a popular one here, and one with a predictable answer.

But it might be worth examining the situation in another state and sound a cautionary note.

Ohio has a lot of universities and a lot of football teams, and so my old state offers a bit of a case study.

(I’m not inviting a debate about which state loves its football more, produces the best players or coaches or better manages programs. My e-mail inbox has nowhere near the capacity to handle that discussion.)

There are some harsh realities that govern college football; it’s a world where the powerful get more powerful with each passing year.

In the Buckeye State, there are eight schools – all of them state universities – that offer top-tier college football.

“Top-tier” is defined by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for most college sports. Those are the “Football Bowl Subdivision” (FBS) teams, which is how the NCAA defines “top-tier” teams.

The NCAA definition sets the number of football scholarships (85) the schools can offer and whether the schools are eligible to play in the annual bowl games.

In Ohio, one team obviously dominates. Ohio State is the large, land-grant university that annually competes on a national stage. All of its games are on television, and the Buckeyes draw more than 100,000 fans to each of their home games.

The next team in the pecking order is the University of Cincinnati. They are usually on TV, often because it and its league agree to play at odd times to satisfy ESPN. Occasionally the Bearcats find themselves on the national stage, and they draw good, but not huge crowds to their games.

The other teams struggle to succeed, both on the field and financially.

Take Miami University.

It’s a place with a strong academic reputation, set in a postcard-ready small town about an hour from Cincinnati. The university was founded in 1809 and has about 16,000 students.

They’ve been playing football there for 125 years; you’d have to believe they know what they’re doing.

The RedHawks also have the advantage of tradition. Woody Hayes, the famous Ohio State coach started his career there, as did Bo Schembechler of Michigan. John Harbaugh, who coached the Baltimore Ravens to a win in this year’s Super Bowl, played there.

But Miami struggles, averaging just 16,000 fans at games in 2011. And it’s like most of the FBS football programs across the country that compete at the same level as the powerhouse programs: it loses money. So do Akron, Bowling Green, Kent State, Ohio and Toledo.

At the top of its football pecking order, this state is a lot like Ohio. The University of Georgia dominates. Georgia Tech is a strong Number 2. (Again, we’re talking market realities here, not who might win on any given fall Saturday.)

So how does Kennesaw State fit into this? Is Georgia on the path of creating a bunch of money-losing football programs?

KSU president Daniel Papp insists that his school’s plan is conservative and financially sound – mostly because of realistic ambitions.

In an interview at his campus office, Papp said KSU has no plans to pursue top-tier status, and instead will be a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) program. That’s a notch below the big time, with an operating model that’s less expensive.

The Cobb County school, which has 24,000 students and ranks third among Georgia state universities, will still finance football scholarships (63), and plans call for a marching band.

KSU will use its current soccer stadium, and already has sponsor commitments. It presented the Regents with a plan that makes money.

The school needs football, Papp says, because it provides students with a fuller college experience, helps recruit faculty, adds to community connections and helps raise money and awareness.

“As long as I’m president, it will be a very conservative orientated program that focuses on student athletes,” Papp said.

Georgia State and Georgia Southern, which started out with smaller ambitions, have both said they plan the risky quest of pursuing big-time football.

Papp insists KSU has no such agenda.

“In the American South, there is only one thing worse than a major university without a football team,” Papp said. “And that’s a major university with a football team it can’t afford.”