With nearly every FBS program opting to shift back into “playing mode” before the holiday season, it’s looking more and more like the four FCS programs that opted to play full slates in the fall made a good decision.
Of course, that decision had to fit each individual school, it’s budget and it’s physical location … but for the four who opted to schedule a fall season, so far so good.
Don’t look for any kind of bow from the Athletic Directors involved — Allen Ward (Abilene Christian), Brad Teague (Central Arkansas), Matt Roan (Eastern Kentucky) and Ryan Ivey (Stephen F. Austin). But one has to point out the obvious … they and their schools led the charge to do something bold this fall, and so far, it’s working out. And with 14 other FCS schools opting to try to play at least one fall game, and nearly the entire FBS level coming back online in one way or another, they’re not feeling as “alone” as maybe they did several weeks ago when they were being questioned about the decision to play.
They’ve had a shot to play games on a national stage with the ESPN family of networks, many times on dates that had sparse slates after many months of no football at all — providing a national platform these schools are not used to. They’ve played in FBS games where their teams have had a shot to make some noise and also given their players a chance to get film against FBS teams … and let’s face it, they’ve been able to recoup at least some of the lost revenue COVID19 has cost athletics budgets.
Sure, it’s hindsight, and no, were not out of this virus hell just yet. And sure — as the cliche goes — hindsight can magically bestow 20/20 vision to even the most near-sighted. But give credit where credit is due because … so far, so good. Not surprisingly, there is a bond among the four ADs who helped bring a full fall slate to their schools. Lets call it a Southland Conference connection. Obviously three of the schools are currently in the Southland, and Roan helped build Nicholls’ program into a winner before heading to EKU.
“For us, it was about our ability to effectively support 350 student-athletes,” Roan told HERO Sports, talking about the ability to test frequently and protect its kids. “We’ve had an overwhelming response from our fan base, and they’re excited to have a year like this.”
Roan brought up the unusual schedule his football program was able to put together. EKU’s players opened with a chance to play against West Virginia and Marshall, then won a game this past weekend in Charleston, S.C. against The Citadel. This weekend the Colonels host a unique matchup with an offensive juggernaut at Houston Baptist, a matchup that never would happen in a normal year — and there’s even a home-and-away scheduled with Teague’s program at Central Arkansas.
Teague’s program was the first one in the FCS Nation to make it clear — we’re going all out this fall. He and his head football coach Nathan Brown made it loud and clear they wanted a full schedule, and would talk to anybody about a game — including with juggernaut North Dakota State, a program many FBS and FCS schools wouldn’t touch this fall.
“I just didn’t understand why we were quit calling this thing,” Teague told HERO Sports. “Every day, new information comes out and I just thought we need to push forward until we can’t anymore. If something comes up next week and we can’t go anymore because of the virus, OK … but I do think some schools wish they hadn’t made the moves they did.”
Ivey, who helped build Austin Peay into the program it is today before coming to Stephen F. Austin, agreed. And he wasn’t afraid to talk about the financial aspect of it, which is a reality. Like any of us, athletic programs have bills to pay too, and the FCS doesn’t have the major monster television contracts the FBS conferences have.
“The financial piece of it is important,” Ivey told HERO Sports last week. “We’re not immune to the financial challenges the pandemic has brought. (Playing the FBS games and getting the payouts) is going to help us as an athletic department.”
SFA began the season with three straight games at in-state FBS schools, pushing UTEP and UTSA well into the fourth quarter before conceding. Along with good paydays, the rebuilding program showed some grit and played scrappy defense in the first two games before SMU did in fact blow out the Lumberjacks. SFA is 0-3 going into this weekend’s winnable home game against a lower division team (West Texas A&M), but there have been positives in the way the program set this fall up.
The truth is, the fall decision to play was never an easy one — in either direction, to decide to play or cancel. The way these four athletic directors saw it, this is a square peg and potentially round-hole situation. One size, or decision, does not fit all.
“I think it was just something that was in ACU’s best interest,” Abilene Christian’s Ward told HERO Sports last week. “Our kids had been really working hard during the summer and we spent a considerable amount of time working to adhere to NCAA standards and protocol. We had access to testing and we could make that happen at a high level, so when that happened, we felt like it was in our best interest to play in the fall … Abilene (the city) had some cases of COVID but it wasn’t like some of the larger metro areas. We felt like we could manage it and do it in a way that was safe for our athletes.
“And hopefully, we’ll get some recognition and attention as one of the few that did.”