Fourth down

November 27, 1990

In retrospect, there is little doubt that Towson State University fumbled in 1987 when it moved from Division II football to Division I-AA. Not merely because the initial support has waned, but more so because the new status has become a trap: In Division I-AA, schools can award 70 scholarships, but TSU has the equivalent of only 45 to offer this year. In part as a result, TSU is simply not competitive. Its 2-8 record this year left the JTC stands virtually empty; some 500 students -- out of a student body of 10,000 -- showed up to cheer the Tigers on. In fact, the only thing that has increased since 1987 is the athletic department's deficit which, at the end of this school year, will hit an unthinkable $257,000. More ominous, pending changes in NCAA regulations could make it more expensive for TSU's other sports teams to keep Division I status.

Now that President Hoke Smith has wisely rejected increasing annual student athletic fees from $270 to $370, there is only one feasible option: beef up fund raising. But past experience here doesn't offer much hope. The Tiger Club raised only $65,000 last year: Support among alumni was anemic (only 17 football alums contributed), and area businesses have not been forthcoming either. More than that, the fact remains that if a school is not among the 60-70 big-time, profit-making football schools in the country, Division I-AA football is simply not going to be cost-effective in the '90s -- fund raising aside.

Still, the notion of suspending football altogether is not palatable -- nor is it necessary. By making football a non-scholarship sport, TSU could save $338,000 a year -- more than enough to cover the deficit. The worst-case scenario would mean fielding a Division III team, which could hardly be worse for either attendance or the team's performance. But there's a good chance the NCAA will approve a new Division I-AAA status in January for football on a non-scholarship basis, which would put Towson State in a division with 35-40 quality schools which are in similar fiscal straits and need similar accommodations.

The transition might hamper this year's recruiting effort, and it would, certainly, take a couple of seasons to restructure the schedule. But in the long term, the benefits of maintaining the team without straining the financial resources of TSU would more than outweigh the distaste of a short hiatus.

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