Five new collegiate football teams will take to the gridiron this fall, upping the number of football squads across all divisions to an all-time high of 774. Below is a glimpse at each of the five new pigskin programs:
Location: Odessa, Texas
Affiliation: NCAA Division II
Western Texas is known for two things: oil and high school football. The powers that be at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin hope to add a third tradition: college football.
“We’re trying to take Friday Night Lights and make it Saturday Night Lights,” said head coach Justin Carrigan. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel here. The support is in place already, we’re just looking to add to an already football-rich culture.”
Athletic director Steve Aicinena could sense the thirst for football in the region when he helped bring the first club sports to the university in 1994.
“When I first moved here I found it hard to believe that a high school team would charter a jet to play games,” Aicinena said. “It told me that football was very highly valued in this community. The interest and enthusiasm that football is bringing is carrying over to our institution as a whole.”
Location: Pensacola, Fla.
Affiliation: NCAA Division II
When comparing itself to peer institutions, the University of West Florida noticed something was missing: a football team.
So with the school set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017, the time seemed right to fill the gridiron void.
“Part of the growth of our institution as we’ve moved to our 50th year is to add football and use athletics as a front door to grow the brand of the university,” said athletic director Dave Scott.
For an athletic department with 88 conference championships in 21 years, UWF hopes the addition of football creates the biggest growth.
“It’s not very often that you get a start in being part of something new,” Scott said. “I think it’s really going to do what we thought it would do for the institution: create traditional life opportunities on campus and make people more excited about our institution and bring kids in.”
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
David Fulcher played seven seasons as a Pro Bowl safety with the Cincinnati Bengals and another four as a high school coach at Cincinnati Christian High School. So when Cincinnati Christian University started its football team, the Eagles knew the man for the job.
“(Fulcher) is a Cincinnati guy true and true,” said CCU athletic director Kellen Zawadzki. “He’s engaged in the community, gives back to the community. You couldn’t have a better person to lead a program.”
The Eagles seek to capitalize on their location near the downtown area of the Queen City and engage students and faculty via football.
“What football brings is a community atmosphere,” Zawadzki said. “It brings people together. Statistics show that for every one football player you bring in, two students jump on board just because of the excitement and buzz around it. It’s good for campus life and for the overall community.”
Location: Grand Rapids, Mich.
With an eye on jumping up to the NCAA ranks in the future, Davenport University knew it needed a football program. A consultant conducted a feasibility study in 2012 and gave the school the green light to the gridiron.
“New programs always bring a sense of excitement,” said athletic director Paul Lowden on the Davenport ahtletics website. “Starting a football program has created an even more positive atmosphere on campus and in the community.”
The Panthers will compete as Independent members of the NAIA this fall as the school begins a three-year transitional membership process to the NCAA’s Division II ranks.
“There are not a lot of coaches that have the opportunity to start from the bottom up and I am confident that with the great administrative support and staff and coaches that are already here, we will be successful,” said head coach Lou Esposito.
Location: West Frankfort, Ill.
Affiliation: NCCAA (Division I)
Only seven years old as an institution, Morthland College does not have much in the way of history or tradition. And that’s how Mike Popovich wants it.
“We told recruits they could either ride the wave or they could be wavemakers,” Popovich said. “You could go to another program where winning and tradition is already established. But me, I want to be the first guy that goes ahead and does it. Tradition has to start somewhere, and we have the opportunity to do that here at Morthland College.”
Popovich, 34, is tasked with leading the Patriots in their first varsity season. The club played a six-game JV slate last fall under previous coach Mike Rude. With experience coaching at the high school ranks as well as with Army West Point’s Sprint football team, Popovich hopes to build his own tradition at Morthland.
“The community needs the college, and the college needs the football program,” Popovich said. “It’s an opportunity to be a part of something bigger.”