MEAC, SWAC schools opt for safety, more secure future over huge paydays
Black colleges see intrastate and regional rivals as better fit
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for several years now have been matched in David vs. Goliath college football games on the road against schools with more powerful, better-financed and better-stocked athletic programs.
But unlike the relatively puny biblical slingshot bearer, HBCU Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams have been unable to strike a lethal blow to topple one of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) heavyweights from a Power 5 conference: Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12.
Already this season, Jackson State fell 63-0 at TCU, Florida A&M fell 49-7 at Arkansas, Bethune-Cookman fell 41-13 to Miami and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) champion North Carolina Central fell 60-7 at Duke.
Last season, South Carolina State lost 59-0 at eventual national champion Clemson in a game in which both coaches agreed to shorten the second half in order to lessen the extent of the pummeling.
Other scores from last season included Missouri 79, Delaware State 0; Texas A&M 67, Prairie View 0; and Marshall 62, Morgan State 0.
Sometimes the results have been catastrophic.
In a Sept. 26, 2015, game in which Georgia of the SEC hammered visiting Southern University of the SWAC 48-6, Jaguars receiver Devon Gales suffered a paralyzing spinal injury during a collision with the Bulldogs’ kicker.
Games bring needed dollars
Why would HBCU teams put themselves through such misery and potential danger?
It’s the almighty dollar: Road games against major college football powers can bring paydays around $500,000. Against non-Power 5 teams in the FBS, payouts range from around $250,000 to $350,000 in most cases. For a school with a total budget of $4 million to $8 million, that’s a chance to upgrade facilities and be more attractive to recruits.
Meanwhile, a $500,000-plus payout is hardly missed from a football elite with a $100 million budget.
Jackson State received a reported $525,000 payout for its visit to Fort Worth, Texas, to play TCU, while Florida A&M received $750,000 and took a 10-hour bus ride to play at Arkansas.
Jackson State coach Tony Hughes acknowledged that the visit to Texas made for a long weekend, particularly with starting tackle Frank Carter suffering an ankle injury that might shelve him for this weekend’s Southern Heritage Classic against Tennessee State.
“It’s tough to lose to an FBS opponent on the road early in the season with a young team, but our team responded very well,” Hughes said. “We played extremely hard.”
Hughes said his team was “able to get out of there” with only one key injury but with a couple of other players “bruised and banged up” who he hopes will be ready for the weekend.
“We don’t have much time to prepare for a Tennessee State team that beat a Division I opponent in their opening game,” he said.
SWAC teams have been scheduling such games for the same reasons, according to SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp.
So, do HBCUs turn a blind eye and keep getting their heads bashed in to rake in cash?
Because of a confluence of events, schools from the SWAC and MEAC are moving away from big-money games against the top echelons of college football.
But this is not the end of so-called football “money games.”
Under the new strategy, schools are now scheduling more games against in-state and regional universities, which gives them a chance to be more competitive and to foster geographic rivalries, according to representatives of the SWAC and MEAC.
Winds of change are coming
Why the change?
Part of it is the handwriting on the wall. Some Power 5 conferences, such as the Big Ten in 2016, decreed that their teams could no longer play FCS schools. (In July, the conference walked back on part of that rule to allow scheduling an FCS team to fill out a home date.)
Also, over at the SEC, Alabama coach Nick Saban has supported the notion that his league not play FCS schools, but this has not become policy.
Meanwhile, the ACC has discussed moving to a nine-game conference schedule, which would likely squeeze out scheduling dates for less competitive programs.
The big concern for some Power 5 schools is that teams need the best possible strength of schedule to squeeze into the formula for the college football playoffs, which currently accepts only four teams — although spirited support seems to be building for an expansion to eight teams.
SWAC commissioner Sharp is not offended. He said the Big Ten edicts are “a direct reflection” of the thinking by some in what he calls the “Autonomy 5.”
“They say, ‘We have to have a strong strength of schedule to allow us to get the most number of teams in the playoffs,’ ” Sharp said. “… I think the Autonomy 5 schools are taking everything into consideration … what in the imperfect world that we live in could stop us from getting one of our teams in the playoffs, and one of these could be strength of schedule.”
Thomas wondered out loud whether some of the Power 5 sentiment is too premature and shortsighted.
“I’m pretty sure that if Alabama or Florida State goes undefeated having played one FCS school, they will still be selected to the college football playoffs,” said MEAC commissioner Thomas.
FBS support for playing FCS
But some Power 5 coaches don’t believe FCS schools should be squeezed out.
“For all the Nick Sabans out there, you have the Jimbo Fishers saying FBS schools should continue to play FCS,” Thomas said.
Florida State coach Fisher said last fall that Power 5 schools freezing out FCS schools could have a chilling effect: It could cause some schools to fail to meet their budgets, which could ultimately cause them to end their football programs.
He likens it to an ecosystem where each level of football has to reach down and help a lower level. And if that system comes crashing down, it could ultimately hurt high school football, which could have repercussions all the way up to the NFL.
“For the betterment of all football teams, FCS schools should be allowed to continue to play FBS schools, and leave it up to the individual institutions to decide whether they should continue to play.
“More FBS autonomous institutions want to assist FCS from a guaranteed-game perspective because they want to see the whole of college football succeed.”
Campus cultural exchange valued
There is another loud and rhythmic reason that majority-white institutions like having HBCUs on their campuses.
Both Sharp and Thomas acknowledge that some opposing schools value the cultural exchange that takes place when the HBCUs take their marching bands on the road.
Such was the case last season when Grambling visited Arizona in a game that helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of both schools’ bands performing in the first Super Bowl, Grambling president Rick Gallot said.
“That was more than a football game; that was a re-creation, a celebration,” Gallot said.
“The bands performed together pregame, and their band stayed in the stands at halftime, and our band had the entire halftime.
Interestingly, Grambling led 21-3 at halftime but couldn’t weather the loss of quarterback DeVante Kincade and lost 31-21.
“But for a quarterback pulling a hamstring in the first half, it would have been Grambling leaving Arizona with a win,” Gallot said.
“Of course, there are games that are lopsided, and coaches have to be careful and conscientious in their scheduling, but to say it’s always going to be a lopsided event is really not the case.”
Moving forward, Grambling’s guaranteed road games will focus on regional rivalries such as Saturday’s $350,000-plus payout at Tulane from the American Athletic Conference, a game in which the Tigers lost 43-14 in New Orleans.
Grambling will feature games against Louisiana-Monroe from the Southland Conference in 2018 and Louisiana Tech of Conference USA in 2019.
Southland Conference schools also play in the FCS, where some schools do have the ability to offer guarantees, although usually at a lesser rate ($75,000 to $125,000) than an FBS school.
“Dr. Gallot and Grambling, they’re not going to do that if it doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint,” said Sharp, the SWAC commissioner.
“If you look at the SWAC, you’ll start to see we are playing a lot of Southland games.
“It’s not a MEAC-SWAC challenge, but it can be a SWAC-Southland Challenge.”
Fear of injuries loomed
Sharp acknowledges that the potential for injury was part of the discussion for a change in scheduling philosophies.
“I think anytime you play a sport that is a collision sport, there is a possibility for injury. … I think those are the types of things that come into play.
When you play a bigger school, Sharp said, the goal is to “get out of there without a catastrophic injury.”
He also points out that if a school suffers a key injury against a far superior opponent, “you’re not going to be healthy all year.”
And that would affect conference play.
With five non-Power 5 conferences, that still leaves ample room for the HBCU leagues to find suitable opponents for their guaranteed payout games on the road.
The FBS’s Conference USA, Sun Belt and Mid-American Conference also fit within a convenient geographical footprint for SWAC and/or MEAC schools.
Louis “Skip” Perkins, athletic director at Delaware State, said schools have heard from alumni and boards of trustees bemoaning the embarrassing, lopsided losses. And some have mentioned injury, including the paralysis of Southern’s Gale.
So Perkins said this season will be the last time the Hornets have a schedule like 2017’s, in which they play West Virginia on Sept. 17 and Florida State on Nov. 18, games scheduled before Perkins arrived.
The school will make around $1 million for those two torturous road games, Perkins said.
Under the new scheduling philosophy, Perkins said, Delaware State will shoot for regional matchups with non-Power 5 FBS schools and get a road guarantee of $250,000 to $400,000 — instead of a Power 5 payday upward of $500,000.
Football disparity just too great
Perkins said it is simply too hard for an FCS HBCU to make up ground on a Power 5 school, given that FBS schools can offer 85 scholarships, compared with 63 for FCS institutions.
Basketball guarantee road games don’t have the same talent and body disparity, Perkins said, because each school awards 15 scholarships.
But in football: “They have so many more bodies, it’s a financial gap and resource gap that you just can’t overcome.
“I still get a lot of calls about that Missouri game,” he said of last season’s 76-0 loss in Columbia, Missouri.
“We love the revenue, we need the revenue, but we don’t need to play a Power 5 school and make $500,000 when we can play a non-Power 5 school and make $400,000.”
Delaware has scheduled the University of Delaware (FCS Colonial) in two of the next three years, Buffalo (MAC) and Marist (FCS Pioneer) in 2018 and Ohio (MAC) in 2020.
On Saturday, Alabama A&M plays at Vanderbilt of the SEC and Alabama State is at Troy of the Sun Belt. Also, Arkansas-Pine Bluff has a guaranteed game at Akron (MAC, $315,000) on Saturday and Sept. 16 at Arkansas State (Sun Belt, $300,000). For next year, Pine Bluff is negotiating to visit Florida Memorial.
“We wouldn’t rule out playing a Power 5 team if it’s a team we can be competitive with,” said Lonza Hardy, athletics director at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
“The impact of money games is a huge part of the equation for us,” said Lynn W. Thompson, vice president for intercollegiate athletics at Bethune-Cookman University.
“Economically speaking, we look at it as a value proposition. We must generate a significant amount of revenue to propel our program forward, and, also, we must continue to schedule the quality of nonconference opponents, which adds value to our schedule from a recruiting standpoint.
“In football, we tend to schedule our nonconference games in the state of Florida so that our fans can follow us,” Thompson added.
“Our combination of a good fan base and tremendous marching band is a great asset to have when negotiating to fill a slot on the schedule of an in-state FBS neighbor.”
North Carolina A&T will pick up $250,000 for a Sept. 16 game 90 minutes away at Charlotte of C-USA. They also play at East Carolina (American) in 2018 and at Duke (ACC) in 2019 and 2021.
In 2015, the Aggies received a $300,000 payout to play the UNC Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. The Aggies-Tar Heels band performance from that game nearly broke the internet.
“We always want to protect the welfare of our students,” said Aggies intercollegiate athletic director Earl Hilton III. “It is football, so injuries can happen in any contest. … We try to schedule teams who will not grind us into the ground.
“We like scheduling regionally. It is a good trip for our fans. Our student-athletes are familiar with the schools, and they know some of the players from the other teams. Plus, it gives us a presence in another part of the state or region, which helps with recruiting.”
Hilton does not rule out playing FBS schools.
“If the money is right, the opponent is right, and it fits with the rest of our scheduling goals, we are willing to play FBS teams in and out of our region.”
“I thought Ohio was a pretty good trip,” Broadway said of the Aggies’ 39-36 four-overtime upset of Kent State of the MAC last season, one of the rare occasions where an HBCU came out with a win over an FBS school. The Aggies received a $330,000 payout.
However, Broadway said, “I don’t ever want to go back to Oklahoma; those guys were out of our league.” The Aggies lost 58-21 to Tulsa of the American West and received a $200,000 payout.
“Anytime you can stay locally and play people within your state, I think it’s a beautiful thing,” Broadway said, echoing his athletic director, Hilton.
North Carolina Central has a similar philosophy, according to director of athletics Ingrid Wicker McCree.
The school has enjoyed a five-contract with Duke, which ends next year.
“This arrangement has been beneficial because it limits travel expenses to compete and provides our fans the opportunity to support our young men and coaches just 3 miles away from our campus,” McCree said.
She said that in scheduling guarantee games, the school considers such factors as location, travel costs and the guarantee offer.
With the ending of the Duke contract, the school is “exploring for potential FBS opponents for subsequent years.”
McCree said the “positive aspects seem to be diminished” during conversations and debate” about playing FBS schools.
“For example, last year, NCCU gained confidence by holding Duke scoreless in the second half and scored 21 points against a Top-25 Western Michigan team,” she said of the team’s 70-21 loss.
After sharing the MEAC football title in 2014 and 2015, under coach Jerry Mack, the Eagles won the title outright in 2016 and went on to play Grambling in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, losing 10-9.
“We cannot dismiss the fact that playing a higher level of competition enhanced our student-athletes’ in-game experience,” McCree said.
“Until decisions are made to not play these games,” she added, “NCCU will continue to compete and offer opportunities for exposure for our student-athletes and university.”
Jackson State coach Hughes welcomes the philosophical shift from Power 5 elites and the move toward regional rivals.
“I definitely agree,” Hughes said. “Like next year, we play Southern Mississippi, and the year after that we play South Alabama.
“Playing Southern Mississippi, you know, it gets the fan bases excited. It’s somebody from in-state you’re more familiar with than a TCU. … It gives our kids a lot more incentive, our fans a lot more incentive to travel. And they have kids at Southern Mississippi who are familiar with our kids, high school teammates and things like that.
“It’s just like Grambling playing Tulane, that type of rivalry. I think it’s healthy for everybody. The financial reward may not be as big, but the other things that you can accomplish by playing those teams early, it’s more positive than playing a Power 5 school on the road.”
Perkins, at Delaware State, said HBCUs and other FCS schools can survive without Power 5 schools.
“If the Power 5 schools say they can’t play FCS schools, I don’t think that would starve FCS,” Perkins said.
“As long as we can play non-Power 5 bowl conferences, I think we’ll be OK.”