NCAA Football at GMU?

Every several years a group of students at my university make a request of our administrators: bring NCAA football to George Mason University. Actually, their request is that the university initiate a NCAA Division FBS (formerly Div 1-A) or FCS (formerly Div 1-AA) football program, complete with scholarships, a stadium, and presumably placement in a major conference.

GMU actually has a football team. There are no scholarships, but they have a coach and they play a respectable small college schedule, playing our rival Virginia Commonwealth University, and occasionally William and Mary.  I’ve never been to a game myself, but I have had a few students over the years who have told me about the dedication of the players, but there is little student following and attendance is sparse.

I’m often conflicted about students’ request for a “real” football team at GMU. My undergraduate alma mater, West Virginia University, has had a football program since the late 19th century; as an undergrad I attended every home game, rain, snow or shine.  Football games and the rituals that surrounded them were among my fondest college memories.  I married a life-long Penn State fan, and for many years we were members of the Nittany Lion Club.  We drove to State College every fall for games until my twins were born, and afterward we attended a game at WVU to introduce the children to wonders of college football.  I wept when Joe Paterno was unjustly fired, even more so when he died in January.  I have longstanding ties to college football.  My father, Paul Lattanzi, was a major college official  (for basketball and football) in the 1980s and worked as a Red Cap for WVU Football until his death in 2003.

When I return to WVU or Penn State for games, I often lament the fact that my GMU students are missing out on an important aspect of the college experience.  Football has a way of bringing students and alumni together.  Throw in the marching band and you’ve got yourself  a memorable college experience that can tie students to an institution for a lifetime.

Most people are surprised when I tell them I strongly opposed developing NCAA football program at GMU.  As much as I love the game, I’m opposed because I’m convinced it would be an abysmal failure.

As a life-long observer of the sport, I realize that not all schools are ideally situated to be football schools.  This has nothing to do with the longevity of the program, but more with location and demographics.  Temple University in Philadelphia is a prime example.  They sit in a city of 1.5 million people, and rarely draw more than 25,000 fans at home football games.  The University of Pittsburgh (est. 1889) has longevity as a program, but compared to its local peers Penn State (est. 1887)  and WVU (est. 1891) has poor attendance and alumni support.  It’s no secret that big city schools have more competition from professional sports teams.  But what about a school in a large metro area like DC?  Would GMU’s location in the suburbs make a difference?

I don’t think so.  The University of Maryland, a school that has fielded a football team since 1892, averaged about 39,000 people per game last year.  That may sound great, but a good many of those ticket sales were from fans from opposing teams like WVU who follow their team on the road.  It’s not what you could expect for a newly formed team at GMU.  It’s probably close to the best one could expect, and frankly, you can’t run a football program with that type of attendance.

Another issue is our current student participation with Men’s basketball.  I’ve been a season ticket holder since 2006, and while the Patriots do have the best attendance in the CAA, our average hovered around 5,000.  Keep in mind students are admitted free and we have approximately 33,000 students.  We sold out one game against ODU at Homecoming this year (our arena holds some 9,400).  That alone should tell student football enthusiasts that GMU cannot expect student support to simply emerge for football just because it’s there.

Football isn’t a field of dreams.  You can build it, as they have at Pitt, Temple and Maryland, and there is a very good chance they won’t come.

The final and most important reason why I think scholarship football is a bad idea at GMU: it will effectively end every men’s sport except football and basketball.  Title IX requires that universities offer equivalent scholarship opportunities for women.  Division I-A football teams typically offer 80 scholarships, which means that GMU would have to decrease or eliminate the total number of scholarships in other men’s sports and increase those for women.

Very recently GMU’s incoming President Angel Cabrera was asked his opinion about establishing NCAA football at GMU.  As reported in Connect2Mason.com, Cabrera said:

If there’s a way to have more of that [pride] and not lose our shirt in the process, I’m all for it,” Cabrera said. “If someone can figure out a way to have football and create more of that sense of ‘winning tribe,’ if you will, and we find a way to be able to pay for it, I’m all for it.

Cabrera’s comment reflects the fiscal reality of universities that host NCAA sports programs: they’re expensive.  But he also acknowledges a true issue in the Mason community: the lack of school spirit and limited student engagement.  Working toward a better basketball conference, like the Atlantic 10 or perhaps one day the Big East, might move us in that direction, and there are probably less expensive ways to address those issues.

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9 thoughts on “NCAA Football at GMU?

  1. Josh Holman

    Interesting outlook. I played football at Mason (after transferring from WVU) and have been a high school football teacher/coach for over 10 years. While I don’t totally disagree with your argument, I do want to add a couple points:

    I think you’re comparing apples and oranges when you compare us to Temple, Pitt, and Maryland. Those schools have a rich football tradition, and all of them have come on tough times recently (although Temple’s program is on the upswing). I don’t think anyone is expecting a team at Mason to compete with those teams. A better comparison might have been ODU who has recently started FCS football and plays in the CAA, where Mason’s athletic teams play. ODU football has been a huge success and the team has been very successful in a short period of time.

    As someone who started attending Mason basketball games in the 90’s and was a season ticket holder from 2001 to 2007 (until we moved away from the area), I can assure you that the attendance by Mason students is far and away better than it used to be. In fact, I would argue that the students today at Mason come out in numbers better than any other school in the CAA. The correlation between students at basketball games and students at football games doesn’t always equal up. Our rival JMU might be lucky to have 300 students at a basketball game, but boy do they pack the stadium for football! I think the bigger issue for Mason’s basketball attendance is the local community and the alumni, not the students.

    Having said all that, I don’t disagree with your point – I just think we might have different expectations. I think football at Mason could be a success, if your comparing it to other CAA schools. Would I like to have football at Mason? Yes. Would I want football at the expense of our other programs? No. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two most successful basketball programs in the CAA are schools without football. I think it would be a better investment for Mason to push and become better in basketball. Looking to upgrade to the Atlantic 10 is an excellent idea, one that really needs to be done sooner rather than later with Temple’s recent departure.

    Football at Mason can succeed, but Basketball at Mason if supported by administration could go much further. A practice facility for basketball would be a huge step. I’m hoping that will be the direction our new administration. Like it or not, it was 6 years ago when our basketball team did more to spread the word about Mason than any academic program or building ever could.

    Thanks,

    Josh Holman
    Class of 2001

  2. Thanks for an engaging post Deb on an important topic; one that was sure to surface with a Presidential change. I don’t read anything conspiratorial in Dr. Cabrera’s comments (or in your blog post). What I see is an incumbent President speaking honestly (if we can pay for it is a big IF) while not alienating people who view football as something desirable for Mason, a view I do not share.

    My problem with NCAA football at Mason beyond the sound reasons you present is that it’s just not innovative, which is why I love this University and what makes us special I believe in higher ed. What would be innovative to me would be to build school spirit around something like social entrepreneurship. Let’s fill a stadium full of community and school members celebrating the work of people like Mason alumna Zainab Salbi . Let’s build school spirit around solving the world’s most intractable problems in health, education, the environment, human rights, and economic development. Let’s all cheer for people like current undergraduate student Frank Petricoin http://bindlebags.com/about.html who is seeking to build the next “Tom’s shoes” to help alleviate homelessness.

    I realize I’m dreaming here, but what can I say? Engaging with colleagues in creating communities that make a difference is what inspires me and keeps me believing in the value of higher ed. Go Mason Go!

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    John, I appreciate the distinction you draw between a potential GMU program and major college teams, but my point was this: GMU cannot hope to build a program that will be profitable on the CAA (ODU) level. It just won’t work. Football works very well in places like JMU because they are small communities and truly college towns.

    Paul, I agree completely. President Merton once estimated it would take a minimum of $15 million dollars and in increased of $500 per semester per student to cover the start up costs of a football program. Imagine what we might do with even a fraction of that investment in any number of programs that engage student intellectual life and the life of the community?

  4. jholman34

    First – it’s Josh, not John.

    Second – So you only want football if it’s profitable? I find that interesting because in your blog you mentioned the danger of losing some of the other men’s and women’s sports due to total XI… most of those, if not all of those sports are not profitable, yet you want those to stay? If you want to use the profit argument, fine, but be consistent. Many programs that universities have aren’t done for profit. Mason Day costs the university money, should we get rid of that too?

    Lastly – Good luck selling tickets for your celebration on solving the world’s problems. Something tells me the stadium might not be packed for that event. When you want to have a legitimate debate on the benefits of athletics, you know where to find me, but I have a hard time buying the fantasy world that your trying to pitch. It’s not realistic, it’s not world we live in, and it’s comical to think that it would improve school spirit. Last time I checked, the Final Four brought a lot more school spirit than all the educational triumphs the school has achieved combined.

    1. Josh, m’dear, it’s all about money. If GMU had a $5 billion endowment we could afford to take a risk with football, but the budget is too tight, to many programs are underfunded, our employees are poorly compensated. We have to pay for those things that are central to our mission: educating students. Schools can’t invest in pipe dreams if they don’t have the funds. No secret there. Of course, there are many other consequences to having a football team, and losing mens’ scholarship sports is one of those consequences. All of the consequences should be considered, but in our current fiscal state if it can’t turn a profit, it can’t be.

      Last time I checked, GMU made it to the Final Four one time in 30 years. With the exception of a few powerhouse schools (UConn, Kentucky, Indiana, Georgetown, Florida), few teams, let alone mid-major teams EVER make it that far even one time. Returning to my alma mater, WVU made it in 2010. Before that they made it to the Final Four when Jerry West was starting for the Mountaineers. It’s special because it’s usually once in a life time. A new football program would probably not do that in your or your children’s lifetime.

      What Paul Rogers proposed, and I support, is a number of different paths to engagement. The benefit of what he proposes is that you don’t have to sell tickets or fill a stadium to make it work. We don’t all have to be engaged in the same activity to be engaged in the university.

  5. bdgg

    Sadly, you lost all credibility when you said “I wept when Joe Paterno was unjustly fired.” The fact that the PSU world continues to cling to this notion that Paterno was “unjustly” fired shows complete detachment from reality…. or support for pedophilia. (or both)

    1. Sadly, you are misinformed. Joe Paterno didn’t molest, or observe the molestation, of anyone. He was fired for political reasons, and if you were familiar with the context in Pennsylvania and Penn State, you would know what I meant.

  6. Steve

    I know this is an old post, but I believe GMU should definately look at starting a football program. Football is part of the total college experience. Some of my fondest memories of college are related to the football games. My son is currently looking at colleges and although he likes GMU it always ranks behind other schools in the area that have a football program. He sees how fun the football experience is in relation to college life and wants to be part of it.

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