Rick Fires is a reporter and columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Popularity of college football remains strong
Arkansas cheerleader carries a flag around the stadium during a game against Coastal Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in Fayetteville.
I will place the names Erskine, Clarke, Madonna, Barton, and Franklin Pierce together in the same sentence then ask you what could possibly link them together.
Need a sec?
They are among the 12 colleges or universities that will play football for the first time this season or take the field beginning in 2020. In the past six seasons alone, 35 NCAA and NAIA schools at all levels have added football programs to bring the total to a record 778. During the same span, only 11 schools have dropped football, including Alabama-Birmingham, which shut down its program in 2014 then returned three years later.
The data that shows college football continues to grow will be a surprise to some, especially those who've tried to convince us the game we love has become too violent and plagued with problems. Yet, it continues to survive, even thrive.
Those of you who paid attention in high school will remember Franklin Pierce as the 14th president of the United States. The college named after him is located in New Hampshire and its football team is called the Ravens.
Barton College is located in North Carolina, Clarke University, Iowa; Erskine College, South Carolina; and Madonna, Michigan. Madonna will ask its fans to "open your heart" and welcome the Crusaders in 2020.
"Football has the opportunity to be a driving force for our department moving forward," Madonna athletic director Scott Kennell said in a statement announcing the plan. "It is a great way for us to build a larger fan base and can lead to other opportunities for students such as cheerleading, competitive dance and a marching band."
Closer to home, Lyon College in Batesville played football in 2015 for the first time since the program was disbanded following the 1951 season. The Scots earned their first winning season (6-5) in 2017 after starting 0-11 in 2015.
Lyon competes in the Sooner Athletic Conference and the Scots don't mind playing in-state schools. They'll play Sept. 7 at Hendrix College, who brought back football in 2012 following a 53-year absence.
Both teams have rosters filled with former high school players in Arkansas, which was one of the incentives to add football to the list of athletic programs offered at Lyon.
"We wanted to add some diversity and enrollment growth with our male students and it wasn't lost on us that it hurt because we didn't have football," said Lyon College athletic director Kevin Jenkins. "There are high schools in our area that play football, schools like Batesville, Cedar Ridge, Cave City, Melbourne, Newport, and Midland. There weren't enough opportunities for the number of students who played and now they have that chance to continue their education and play football at Lyon."
Not all attempts to add football are successful.
Arkansas-Little Rock spent several months and thousands of dollars on a feasibility study before deciding not to add football. The decision was not surprising, considering Arkansas-Little Rock is mostly a commuter school and fans in central Arkansas remain largely committed to the Razorbacks.
Arkansas-Little Rock is a member of the Sun Belt Conference, which could be the destination for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, should it decide to add football to its sports program. The school's enrollment has grown to 28,000 following a consolidation in 2012 between Texas-Pan American and Texas-Brownsville. Former University of Texas football coach Mack Brown chaired a feasibility study which showed Texas Rio Grande Valley could field a football team as early as 2021 or 2022. The study revealed strong support for football and recommended entry at the Football Bowl Subdivision level (formerly Division I-AA) for at least two years before pursuing Division I status. The Sun Belt Conference already has two Texas schools, Texas State and Texas-Arlington.
Money is a major concern when starting a football program but the long-term benefits for schools and the college experience for its students usually outweigh the initial costs. Just ask the fans at Alabama-Birmingham, who decided they couldn't do without football and brought it back.
Just ask any fan of the record 778 teams, which shows the popularity of college football remains strong.
Sports on 08/11/2019
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