Towson won't take Div. I-AA to bank

College Football

September 26, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FOOTBALL IS a money-losing proposition for all but a handful of Division I schools. Even those are generally the schools that sold their souls to the devil. Or, in the case of the University of Washington, Rick Neuheisel.

It doesn't much matter if it's Division I-A, with 85 scholarships to pay for, or Division I-AA, which allows 60 free rides, plus time, materials and coaches. It's still such a bad deal, a college president or athletic director doesn't need a magnifying glass to read the fine print on the warnings.

Maybe that's why Towson University officials never brought out the magnifying glass in the first place. You could say they know, but they don't want to know. They've made their choice.

"In Division I-AA, there are none that break even. Even at Delaware, they spend more money than they take in," said Wayne Edwards, Towson's athletic director, about the cost-benefit of Division I football.

"Sports such as football and basketball get more publicity. Is it worth the cost for the identity and perception we get for playing football? We feel it is," he said.

And there you have it: Towson's Division I-AA home opener was yesterday against Northeastern. With it, a new era dawned.

In a landscape where economists and watchdogs for institutions of higher learning contend that colleges are losing the "arms race" in big-time college sports, Towson has jumped in, paws first.

Welcome, Tigers.

Your reward is just as you had hoped: a headline in the sports section of your hometown daily, otherwise known as the first turnstile of access to the population in which you seek to bolster your presence -- and admissions applications and alumni donations.

In switching from the Patriot League, which ended its affiliation with Towson in favor of similarly smaller, private schools like Colgate, Army, Navy and Lehigh, Towson now competes in the Atlantic 10, a Division I-AA football conference.

For football fans, there's little question that Towson's games against new league opponents like Hofstra, Massachusetts, William and Mary, James Madison and Villanova invite greater interest.

Last week, the Tigers went to Delaware and nearly beat the defending I-AA champion Blue Hens. Just being associated with Delaware football would have been good enough, because this is the first season of scholarship football for Towson, but it was better than expected.

"We were ahead 7-0 at halftime and we were up most of the third quarter. They scored after we fumbled to go up 17-14, but we came down and had a chance at the end," Edwards said.

"It was a different environment from the Patriot League. Twenty-three thousand people. Sold-out stadium. It was a great environment," he said.

A year ago, in anticipation of the switch to Division I-AA, Towson gave away 17 scholarships to football players, all of whom redshirted to save their eligibility. This year, it added 13 scholarship players. Towson can take pride that it played only 30 scholarship athletes against Delaware's 60, but there's another side to the equation: Unfortunately, for a school aching to use football and basketball to help establish and assert an identity that will carry Towson University into the next 50 years, it's called reality.

At Towson, it is not exactly as it is in College Park, where Maryland's Division I-A football program has positioned itself to slog it out -- for a ton of cash -- with the big boys of the now super-conference Atlantic Coast Conference.

At Towson, the idea was to align the school with "academic peer institutions" that reinforce Towson's identity.

Still, there's a cost. At about $18,000 per athlete, plus the cost of coaches, staff, travel, equipment and insurance, Towson will now spend $2 million a year on its football program.

It will also await word on whether the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference in which six of the Atlantic 10 football participants play the rest of their intercollegiate sports, will take on football after the 2006 season. This will consolidate all programs under one conference, strengthening the CAA.

One can only hope that the Tigers' new stadium, named after Johnny Unitas, can help fill the coffers. According to the economists who study such things, Towson deserves all the help it can get.

Forging ahead in the money-sucking world of scholarship football and basketball, Towson's plight is no different from that of any other school attempting to position itself for those "intangible" benefits that some think come with big-time football and basketball.

The same week that Towson opened its inaugural season of what will eventually be its $2 million football program, the Knight Foundation issued a study that might make any college president shudder.

The headline? "New Study Debunks Link Among Winning College Athletic Programs and Increases in Donations and Quality of Applicants." Cornell professor Robert H. Frank concluded in his Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics report that colleges would be wiser to "spend the money in other ways." "Individual institutions that decide to invest more money in their sports programs in the hope of raising more funds or improving their applicant pools may be throwing good money after bad," Frank said in the report issued Sept. 7.

Frank's conclusion spoke to a need for greater "arms control" in college sports.

"Doing so would allow colleges to divert resources to meet other pressing needs without sacrificing any of the real benefits that college athletic programs generate," and with no sacrifice to the mostly indirect benefits, like alumni donations or stronger applicants.

These things, the study concluded, are mythical.

Good luck, Tigers. On the field and in the coffers.

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