The National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame (NFF) highlighted today that four new college football teams will take the field for the first time this season, increasing the number of schools among all NCAA divisions, the NAIA and independents offering football to 777, an all-time high.
Since 1978 when the NCAA changed its method for tracking attendance figures, the number of schools playing NCAA football (FBS, FCS, DII and DII) has steadily increased by 184 schools from 484 in 1978 to a record high of 668 in 2016, or an average increase of 4.8 schools per year. With the addition of the NAIA and independent schools playing football and the schools across all levels of play who have announced the addition of programs in the coming years, the number of colleges and universities now offering football has been increased to the all-time high 777.
In the past six seasons alone (2011-16), 40 football programs have been added at NCAA, NAIA or independent institutions. Only 13 football programs have been dropped in that same span, including four at schools that closed and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which will return to the gridiron in 2017. All 777 schools that offer football will be represented on the three-story helmet wall at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
The planning and preparation of four programs will come to fruition as they begin intercollegiate play this fall: Dean College in Franklin, Mass.; St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C.; Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, Texas; and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Universities and colleges are adding football at all levels, and administrators have developed sound plans, ensuring the new programs address the unique financial, academic and long-term objectives of their respective schools. The 71 institutions listed below, who have implemented firm plans during the past few years, coupled together with the more than 20 schools with exploratory committees, create a clear and undeniable trend that presidents and trustees nationwide see the value of a football program as part of their overall academic mission.
“No other sport contributes more to the vibrancy of a college campus than football, and we are very pleased to highlight those schools that have added our great game,” said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell. “University and college presidents clearly see the value of having programs on their campuses, and we applaud them for understanding the role football can play in the educational experience of all their students.”
The rationale for adding football varies at each institution, and all of the decision makers who helped develop a plan for launching a program explain that an in-depth study played a critical role in finding the right level of play and the proper financial balance. Small colleges may cite increasing enrollment and addressing gender imbalances while larger universities might highlight the role of football in raising the institution’s profile and its ability to attract research grants. All mention creating a more vibrant on-campus community and connecting with alumni.
“With more than one million high school students playing football and more than 70,000 spots on college teams, there is plenty of room for expansion,” said NFF Chairman Archie Manning. “Many of these colleges clearly recognize that football can play an important role in encouraging students to continue their educations by enticing them to enroll.”
According to a 2015 study of five small universities published in College Planning & Management by Virginia Wesleyan College President Dr. Scott Miller and former Carlow University (Pa.) President Dr. Marylouise Fennell, adding sports teams and facilities, especially football and marching bands, can fuel an enrollment boost. According to the study, each of the institutions observed saw a six-year increase of at least 26 percent, with one school doubling its enrollment during that period.
The schools have added programs at all levels of play in every region of the country, experiencing successes that run the gamut. In all, the 59 programs that have added football from 2008-16 have combined for two national championships, 29 conference championships and 37 postseason appearances. In 2016, Old Dominion (launched in 2009) and Texas at San Antonio (launched in 2011) went to their first FBS bowl games, with Old Dominion winning the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. At the NAIA level, Reinhardt (Ga.), which launched in 2013, won a conference title and finished 13-1 after making it to the NAIA semifinals.
One of the new schools taking the field this fall has actually been playing football for some time as a member of the junior college ranks. It was announced last year that the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference (ECFC) had accepted Dean College (Mass.) as a member beginning with the 2017 season as the college transitions into a four-year institution. Dean began its exploratory year during the 2016-17 season and will play a full ECFC schedule this fall as a provisional member of NCAA Division III.
The other three new football programs, profiled in last year’s NFF release, are all returning to the gridiron after absences of various length. The highest-profile of the three is the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), which reinstated football in 2015 just six months after the program had been shut down. The Blazers will return to Conference USA in great shape, raising more than $38 million for football and moving into a new football operations center. UAB is also aided by head coach Bill Clark, who stuck with the program through the shutdown and has had success in recruiting players to the reinstated team. Clark has also purchased 100 season tickets for the inaugural season and donated them to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham.
NAIA program St. Andrews (N.C.) returns to the field this fall for the first time since the 1950s. The Knights have a football field in place and head coach David Harper looks forward to leading the new program.
“I’m extremely excited about the opportunity of starting a football program from its infancy,” Harper said upon his hiring last year. “I have always wanted to take a program from the very beginning to a championship program.”
Fellow NAIA school Texas Wesleyan will return to the field for the first time in 75 years after last competing before World War II. The Rams will play their first season at Fort Worth’s historic Farrington Field, the stadium where they played their last home game in 1941. Athletics Director Steve Trachier said he hopes the football program will create all-day social events, and the team will compete for conference championships, adding in a 2016 USA Today interview, “If we do none of that, if our kids graduate, we’ve won the national championship.”
These are just some of the impressive achievements at schools that have recently added football. Others include notching impressive attendance figures; attracting increased enrollment; garnering national publicity; expanding their donor bases; and receiving invitations to join conferences at the next level.
The University of West Florida experienced success on and off the field during its inaugural season in 2016. The Argos finished the season with five victories, tying the most by a first-year NCAA Division II program over the last 10 years. The university had three sellouts at Blue Wahoos Stadium and drew more than 31,000 fans to the venue over five home dates for an average of 6,328 per game.
Davenport University (Mich.) finished its inaugural season in 2016 with a 6-5 record, and it will make the jump this fall to NCAA Division II’s Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. And in Morthland College (Ill.)’s first year of a full varsity schedule in 2016, the Patriots finished with an impressive 7-3 record while competing in the National Christian College Athletic Association.
The number of football programs in the nation continues to grow, with five additional universities announcing the launch of new teams since last fall. In June, NCAA Division II’s Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va., became the most recent school to add a program. The Catholic university was founded in 1954 and has an enrollment of 1,385 students. The new Cardinals football team and recently named head coach Zac Bruney will begin with an exhibition schedule in 2018 before moving to a full intercollegiate season in 2019.
“We are so excited to bring a college football team to the city of Wheeling,” said WJU president Dr. Debra Townsley in a June release. “Adding a football team sends a strong message affirming our commitment to both our athletic conference — the Mountain East — and to the Ohio Valley. I look forward to welcoming the local community on to our beautiful campus and to Bishop Schmitt Field.
“We expect to field a football team that excels on the field and in the classroom, and adds to the 25,000 hours of community service that our students complete every year.”
Another recent school to announce the addition of a football team is Ottawa University Arizona (OUAZ). Located in Surprise, Ariz., OUAZ is a new residential university campus that will open in Fall 2017, and it is part of Ottawa University, a private, non-profit, Christian university founded in Ottawa, Kan., in 1865, which already competes at the NAIA level in football.
The majority of OUAZ’s 19 varsity men’s and women’s sports teams will begin play immediately this fall as members of the National Christian College Athletic Association, with plans to work toward NAIA membership. The football team will not take the field until 2018, and the school announced Mike Nesbitt as the head coach in April.
“Ottawa University has expanded strategically during the last 151 years and we are poised for significant growth and exceptional student outcomes here in Surprise,” university president Kevin Eichner said in a release in February.
Ottawa has had a presence in Arizona for 40 years, previously focusing on classes for adults, but it now looks to provide a traditional, four-year college experience. Classes at OUAZ will begin this fall, with construction beginning shortly on its future 35-acre campus that will be embedded in the heart of the city of Surprise. OUAZ will use local city-owned and high school sports facilities until it develops its own. The university aims to enroll 250 students for its first semester, with a target of 3,000 residential students over 10 years.
“It will give those student-athletes in the Valley and Southern California and Nevada…an opportunity to stay a little closer to home and continue to do that thing that they love so much while they get a first-class education,” Eichner told The Arizona Republic in February.
Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich., offered football when it was founded in 1932, and the school fielded teams until the outset of World War II. After a 70-year hiatus, the Blue Devils will once again take the field beginning in 2018. The 4,500-student private university reinstituted its athletics department in 2011, and football is the next step in Lawrence Tech’s new strategic plan that calls for a transition to a more traditional residential college.
“As a result [of the strategic plan] we need to provide more opportunities for an active student life and recreation,” said Lawrence Tech president Virinder K. Moudgil in a January release.
Last year, Lawrence Tech received an anonymous gift of $1 million for a new synthetic grass field, and the university plans a capital campaign to raise $8-10 million for a football stadium. According to Lawrence Tech’s dean of students, Kevin Finn, the university will look to defray costs of the new stadium through the selling of naming rights for the field, stadium, scoreboard and more, and no money will be paid by students for the project.
“The NAIA members are much more diligent in containing costs and stressing scholarship,” Finn said in the university’s release announcing the football program. “And it is our intention to meet or exceed all applicable safety and conditioning procedures to insure the health and well-being of our players.”
The Blue Devils will be led by head coach Jeff Duvendeck as it competes as an independent in 2018 before joining the NAIA’s Mid-States Football Association the following season. With more than 120 players on the team, Lawrence Tech looks to build a loyal alumni base that will return to campus and potentially become donors. The school looks to increase its overall enrollment by almost 900 students and its residential students by 300.
Keiser University was founded by Dr. Arthur Keiser and Evelyn Keiser in 1977, and it now has 18 campuses across Florida. In October 2016, the university announced it would add a football team that would play in a new stadium at its residential West Palm Beach campus, competing in the NAIA starting in 2018.
“Adding football to our athletic program is great for Keiser University and the entire West Palm Beach community,” director of athletics Kris Swogger said in a university release in October. “It is an exciting time to be a Keiser Seahawk, and I look forward to building a successful football program for our students, staff, alumni and fans.”
Earlier this year, Keiser announced former Buffalo Bills assistant Doug Socha as its first-ever head coach.
“It is a privilege and an honor to be named the first head coach of the Keiser University football program,” Socha said in a university release when he was hired. “I am excited to get started, and I will start right here in Palm Beach County. The Keiser football program creates an opportunity for local student-athletes to get a quality education and to compete at a high level in their own back yard. We will be a program that embeds ourselves in the community, and competes for championships while representing Keiser University in a first class manner.”
Alvernia University, a private Catholic university in Reading, Pa., announced in November of last year that its football team will begin play in the NCAA Division III’s Middle Atlantic Conference in 2018. Alvernia President Thomas F. Flynn expects the addition of football to not only enhance the university’s strong athletic culture but also attract students to majors in key liberal arts and professional fields that will complement its large, high-profile healthcare sciences programs.
“During the past five years, we’ve made significant investments to hire and support additional faculty and expand our undergraduate and graduate programs, while enhancing teaching and learning facilities and residential life,” Flynn said in a university release announcing the new football program. “Our launch of football now is part of a logical evolution for the university at a time when we are well situated to expand athletic and recreational opportunities for our students.”
With about 3,000 students currently enrolled at Alvernia, the university will welcome the enrollment growth that will accompany the addition of football and Flynn says it is ideally positioned academically to do so. According to the university’s release, national data shows that the top majors currently studied by football student-athletes include athletic training, business, criminal justice and sport management – all areas in which Alvernia has well-established programs.
Alvernia’s decision to add football followed a comprehensive study that engaged members of the university’s entire community, and the review included an assessment by both campus and trustee task forces. The analysis also incorporated research with a number of similar sized colleges that recently introduced football. This summer, the university is undergoing significant renovations to Alvernia Stadium and the school’s Physical Education Center, including locker room upgrades, additional stadium seating, a press box and a hospitality suite. In January of this year, the university hired Ralph Clark to be its inaugural head coach.
“It is an honor to be a part of history,” Clark said in a release when he was hired. “It’s evident to me that there is a family component that connects everyone at Alvernia. That is something that you do not find everywhere, and quite frankly was important for me to see because next to my faith, family is the most important thing to me and it is something that I will be stressing to student-athletes as we begin recruiting. They’re not just joining a football program, they’re joining our family.”
The addition of a football program often entails a long, calculated process that frequently begins with studies conducted by task forces. Schools are more likely to begin the football feasibility process if there is significant support from the community.
The University of Arkansas-Little Rock (UALR) provides a current example where a student-created petition to create a football team recently garnered more than 1,000 signatures. In July, UALR announced it will conduct a football and marching band feasibility study following the petition. The petition acknowledged that student fees would likely be raised, but the students say they are willing to pay to bring football to the school, which is already a member of the FBS’ Sun Belt Conference. UALR last fielded a football team in 1955 when it was known as Little Rock Junior College.
“I believe bringing football back would be yet another opportunity for our citizens, students and alumni to rally behind our university,” Little Rock mayor Mark Stodola said in a UALR release. “The availability of War Memorial Stadium is a natural asset. However, we want to make sure that the economic and community potential that many of us perceive with a football and marching band program actually plays out on paper.”
The 54,000-seat War Memorial Stadium sits about two miles from campus and sits empty for the majority of Saturdays in the fall. The University of Arkansas is under contract to play one game a season in War Memorial through the 2018 season.
UALR athletics director Chasse Conque said the feasibility study will examine every aspect of starting a football program, including initial and annual costs, staffing, playing venue, facility construction, and economic and student enrollment impact. Although an exact figure will not be known until the study is completed, an earlier report from KATV in Little Rock put the program’s startup costs at an estimated $15-20 million.
While football at UALR is still far from a reality, Conque previously told FOX 16 in central Arkansas that “football can bring a community together; it brings a campus together.”