For small schools, paydays can be big

When Wofford, S. Florida tackle large conferences, money comes rolling in

September 26, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Watching tape of Wofford College this week, Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe is having flashbacks of another unknown and undaunted wishbone team hoping its wishes come true at the expense of a big-name opponent.

It happened a decade ago when Taaffe was the head coach at The Citadel and his team shocked Arkansas, 10-3, in Fayetteville in the season opener. The next day, Razorbacks coach Jack Crowe resigned.

"We had beaten South Carolina in '90," Taaffe recalled yesterday. "So the players who were on that team knew it was in the realm of possibility."

And the coach?

"Realistically, you're hoping to play well enough not to get embarrassed," Taaffe said. "The longer you stay in the game, the more pressure it puts on the bigger school. That's what happened against Arkansas."

Taaffe and the rest of the Terrapins are hoping it doesn't happen Saturday, when the I-AA Terriers visit Byrd Stadium. It won't take long to determine if this is a mismatch or a scheduling mistake for Maryland.

It will take 60 minutes for Wofford to get its biggest payday of the season.

These kinds of games are scheduled for a variety of reasons, usually for money but sometimes for love. In the end, the schools that play them pad either their win columns or their athletic department budgets but rarely both.

The games - between big schools and smaller ones, between teams from large conferences that have become part of the Bowl Championship Series and little ones that have not - dot the college football calendar every fall.

With teams now allowed to play as many as 13 regular-season games, what athletic directors call "buy" games and some players call "polish" games have become even more prevalent.

This weekend is no exception.

Whether it's Wofford at Maryland, Troy State at Missouri or South Florida at Oklahoma, they're the kind of games that can turn into dreams come true for some players and coaches.

More often, though, they can turn into nightmares.

Just ask South Florida coach Jim Leavitt.

Coming off a 39-point loss two weeks ago at Arkansas, Leavitt will be taking his Bulls to Norman to play the Sooners. If not for his job security, one might think Leavitt is going from the frying pan to the fired.

Asked what South Florida got out of the Arkansas experience, Leavitt is blunt.

"A paycheck," he said.

Talk about your get-rich-quick schemes.

South Florida received $550,000 for being road kill in Fayetteville and should make about $450,000 playing a similar role at Oklahoma's Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

But Leavitt, who came from Kansas State to South Florida seven years ago to start a program now in its second season of Division I-A, said making a quick million for the football team isn't the reason this game was scheduled.

In fact, this week's game has more to do South Florida athletic director Lee Roy Selmon's family ties, as well as with Leavitt's friendship with another former Kansas State assistant and current Sooners coach Bob Stoops.

"I think Lee Roy wanted to give his son a chance to go back to Norman [where the elder Selmon starred for the Sooners in the mid-'70s]," Leavitt said.

Things haven't turned out exactly as planned. Lee Roy Selmon Jr., a defensive tackle, will be on the South Florida sideline, but he is out for the season with a knee injury.

Leavitt is hoping his young program can get more out of it than another player on the trainer's table.

"When you get a game like this, it shows your fans and potential recruits that you're moving in the right direction," said Leavitt, whose program will move into Conference USA next season.

Though fans at the bigger schools might think these games are a waste of their time and money, those involved in scheduling them and playing them say they serve a purpose.

It goes beyond the reported $225,000 Maryland is paying Wofford, which jumped in when Troy State bought out of the second year of the Maryland contract when Missouri offered a two-for-one deal with the tiny Alabama school.

That left Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow scrambling last spring to fill a home game, which wasn't that easy considering the late date and that she couldn't pay nearly what schools in the Southeastern Conference or Atlantic Coast Conference power Florida State shell out for the right to play a smaller opponent.

"It's a lot easier when you have a lot of money, because you're pretty much in the driver's seat," Yow said. "The best buy [games] usually goes to the Florida schools. We are not even in their ballpark."

Wofford athletic director Richard Johnson said whatever the small South Carolina school winds up taking home is a bonus.

"We needed it for name recognition for recruiting and institutional marketing," said Johnson, whose football team played both state powers Clemson and South Carolina last season. "We use it as a vehicle to attract students from a wider area."

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