McFeely: Time for Bison football to plan for moonshot to FBS
There's a sense NDSU football is running in place, expending all that energy with nowhere to go except where it's already been
(Note: This is the first in an occasional series of columns and blogs in which InForum's Mike McFeely will explore the possibility of North Dakota State's football team moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision.)
FARGO — There was a columnist at The Forum who, shall we say mildly, balked at North Dakota State's move to NCAA Division I back in the early 2000s. It was then-president Joseph Chapman's folly, the columnist wrote. It was a path toward athletic irrelevancy, he wrote. Division I stature was, he wrote in a literary nod to "The Great Gatsby," Chapman's "green light" shining across the water, forever his dream but forever out of reach.
In the long career of the columnist, few opinions he shared were more wrong and none have been cited as often as proof he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. The columnist is reminded regularly that the Bison have done better-than-middling since leaving Division II, particularly in football.
Fortunately the columnist has skin made of tree bark and an ego only slightly smaller than the current president's, so vicious criticism does not deter him. Unlike the current president, the columnist is also the self-reflective type, willing to look at his mistakes and learn from them. He is willing to weigh new evidence and form new opinions.
The columnist has 10 years of evidence to offer the following view:
It is time North Dakota State University takes every possible step to prepare its football program to move from the Football Championship Subdivision to the higher Football Bowl Subdivision.
Note the careful wording. It was not, "NDSU HAS TO GO FBS!" It was, "NDSU has to lay the groundwork for going FBS so if the opportunity arises it can pounce."
Big difference. Because NDSU going FBS would be a college athletics version of a moonshot, something that will take careful planning and consideration plus an awful lot of circumstances to go exactly right.
But the payoff? Oh, that would be grand. And worth it. One small step for NDSU, one giant leap for the state of North Dakota.
Have you noticed what recent FCS-to-FBS team Coastal Carolina has done this season? Yeah, that could be NDSU. Other former FCS powers like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State have also provided a road map. It can be done.
The timing for this call might seem odd. The country remains under the thumb of a deadly pandemic and many college athletic departments are facing steep cuts because of it. The Bison football team played just one game in a lost fall season. A potential spring schedule is still in question. The terrific momentum NDSU built the last decade feels like it's slowing because of circumstances beyond its control.
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Recent FCS-to-FBS programs thriving in 2020 Appalachian State (FBS member since 2014), Georgia Southern (2014), Coastal Carolina (2017) and Liberty (2018) have made four of the last six moves. They have a combined 27-3 record this season.
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On the contrary, there might be no better time to examine opportunities. NDSU is located in a small metro area that continues to be economically strong and Fargo-Moorhead continues to grow. While other universities in its current peer group in the Missouri Valley Football Conference could face retrenchment, Bison athletics has a chance to hold the line.
That advantage should be used to move forward. The next couple of years are likely to see changes and shakeups in college sports because of economics and the restlessness of the biggest schools. If a door cracks opens, NDSU needs to shove through it.
FCS and the Missouri Valley league have been wonderful for the Bison. And make no mistake: If the program remains there, NDSU will be just fine and face stiff competition. It is the best conference in FCS.
Yet there also remains the inescapable fact NDSU football has dominated at historic levels.
The question becomes: What else is there to accomplish?
To recap: NDSU has won eight national titles in nine years, has a current 37-game winning streak, had a 32-game winning streak from 2012-14, owns a 128-8 record since 2011, has defeated six FBS opponents in a row including impressive wins over Kansas State and Iowa, has likely produced three straight NFL Draft picks at quarterback including two first-rounders and has hosted ESPN's "College GameDay" twice.
An FBS source told me, "It might seem odd to say with that resume, but don't ever take winning for granted." This is wise and should NDSU remain in FCS it will not continue on its current pace for the next decade. Winning championships is far from guaranteed. But barring coaching catastrophe, extended recruiting malfeasance or program-crippling scandal, the Bison are well-positioned to be among the top few teams in FCS for the foreseeable future.
NDSU has advanced to the national championship game eight times in the last nine years, the playoff semifinals nine straight years and at least the quarterfinals 10 straight years. A "down" year for the Bison would be a loss in the quarterfinals. There is an inevitability, a repetitiveness, to it that is beginning to show up in waning fan interest and, perhaps, waning donor interest.
"Why should I give more money when you win every game anyway?"
There's a sense the Bison program is running in place, expending all that energy with nowhere to go except where it's already been.
That's why it should be looking at FBS, because it represents bigger and better things that would be a new challenge for the university, football program, boosters and community. Success certainly would not be guaranteed, but that would be the point.
Treading into the unknown is good sometimes.
It will not be easy. There's no way to believe it would. Many factors would have to align perfectly to even make an FBS move possible for NDSU, and even then high hurdles would remain.
No. 1, the Bison would need an invitation to a conference.
No. 2, the Bison would need an invitation to a conference.
No. 3, the Bison would need an invitat- ...
You get the idea. Without a league inviting NDSU to join, all discussion is moot. FBS independence is a death sentence.
And there's this pothole: The invitation would probably have to be for football only, known as an associate or affiliated membership, because the school couldn't afford travel for all its teams to be a member of any realistic FBS conferences. The Summit League, with numerous bus trips, is perfect for other Bison sports.
That is a major obstruction, and possibly a disqualifying one. Never say never must be the mantra here.
Geography is not NDSU's friend if it hopes to be FBS some day. Fargo is isolated, far outside the footprint of any Group of Five FBS conference. While Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina fit easily into the Sun Belt Conference, NDSU's only options might be the Mountain West Conference and the Mid-American Conference.
And of those two, the Mountain West would be far preferable. Perhaps the only preferable option.
Football members are Boise State, Air Force, Fresno State, Colorado State, Nevada, Nevada-Las Vegas, Utah State, Wyoming, San Diego State, Hawaii, San Jose State and New Mexico. Five are land-grant universities like NDSU, so it would fit the league profile even if its enrollment is significantly smaller than every school except Wyoming.
You'll notice the league has 12 members, perfect for two six-team divisions. There is no room in the Mountain West. But Boise State, with aspirations of its own for bigger and better things, is restless. If the Broncos escape to, say, the larger American Athletic Conference for football ... there is an opening for a school with a strong football brand to replace them.
In a football-only scenario, the money side of things is within reach. It costs much more to compete in FBS than FCS — there are 22 more scholarships (63 in FCS, 85 in FBS), a bigger recruiting budget, higher coaching salaries, more staff — but there are opportunities for more revenue.
The Mountain West signed a six-year, $270 million national TV deal this year from which NDSU would take a cut.
Nonconference "guarantee" games, in which big schools pay smaller schools to play, would generate more money in FBS than the Bison currently receive in FCS (Wyoming will be paid $1.85 million to play at Texas in 2023; NDSU was guaranteed $650,000 to play at Oregon in a 2020 game that was canceled).
Donor money would likely increase, perhaps substantially, with a switch to playing at a higher level. There would be a boost in interest, and a will to succeed, if NDSU pushes forward.
And, yes, ticket prices and Team Maker fees might have to increase.
As for the idea the Bison would trade a chance at national championships for "nothing" bowl games, there is increasing chatter among Group of Five coaches about a playoff at that level. It's clear it's almost impossible for a G5 team to get a shot at an FBS national title with the Power Five conferences dominating. And even without that, is a bowl game in Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix or — gasp — Frisco, Texas, all that abhorrent?
The idea of NDSU moving to FBS is, as has been made clear, a near-impossibility. A moonshot. The skeptical columnist is not suddenly a utopian.
But let yourself imagine for a moment a Saturday night game in Las Vegas between NDSU and UNLV. Or a road game at San Diego State. Or a Thursday night game at the Fargodome between the Bison and Boise State. Or a home-and-home nonconference contract between NDSU and Central Florida. Or a guarantee game at UCLA.
Probably a pipe dream. But if you're going to have a pipe dream, it might as well be big.
NDSU should get ready, just in case. Sometimes reaching for Gatsby's green light pays off. It has once.
It's time to have the conversation.
Readers can reach Forum columnist Mike McFeely at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 451-5655