If Wichitans had devoted as much time attending Shocker football games from 1970-1986 as they do discussing the program these days, we might still have Shocker football. Instead, WSU football died a quiet death in 1986. There are no signs it is coming back, which doesn’t keep fans and the media from playing the “what if” game.
KSN is the latest, with its Questionable Call series that you can check out here. It takes a black-and-white view of a complex problem, pitting the usual suspects against WSU president Don Beggs and ignoring any middle ground. I don’t get the link between the “fairness” of a mill levy and WSU football – because if you think Sedgwick County residents paying a mill levy (total around $7 million annually) that goes to WSU is unfair, it’s unfair regardless of whether the money goes to scholarships, building maintenance or football. Maybe you understand that better than I.
If you’re a long-time WSU fan, you’ve probably heard it all. It’s an irresistible topic, with passion and opinions and no real way to prove who is right and who is wrong.
I’ve spend almost seven years covering WSU athletics, and done a few football stories myself. We will stipulate that people like football, marching bands and tailgating. Don Beggs likes football. Athletic director Eric Sexton likes football. I like football. I loved watching Prince McJunkins run the option. In a perfect world, WSU football would thrive and every fall Saturday would be sunny and 70.
Let’s also stipulate that it’s a shame WSU dropped football in 1986. It’s a shame because Shocker football did matter to some people. It’s a shame because a lot of athletes no longer feel connected to their school. It’s a shame because Shocker football did enjoy some good moments.
Once gone, it’s hard to bring back. The better course would have been to drop to I-AA and see how things played out. Without football, WSU could find itself in a weaker position if there is a big realignment in college athletics. We don’t know how the years play out with football, of course. Does WSU baseball go on its great run from 1988-1996 if football exists? Does Levitt Arena get renovated into Koch Arena if football exists? Regardless, I think we can say that if we had it to do over again, we want to keep football and take our chances. Maybe it continues to drain resources. But maybe it works.
Football proponents will ask “If other schools can do it, why can’t WSU?” The answer is, those schools can do it because they didn’t drop football.
Finally, let’s say that the proponents of football deserve credit. I don’t agree with all their tactics or arguments, but they are fighting for something they believe in and they are fighting to improve their school.
Here is what I can add:
- Football proponents make a big mistake every time they attack Beggs. Every booster with good sense, every coach and every athletic department official worships the guy. He is supportive of athletics and a big reason Koch Arena exists. The football proponents, well-intentioned as they are, alienate moderate fans when they make Beggs into the bad guy. The pro-football group that popped up a few years ago wanted to change the tone of the debate and work with, or at least not against, WSU. That is the right approach. Its website still exists. I haven’t heard much from the group in a long time and I would take the fact that its pledge sheet topped out at under $300,000 as a bad sign for bankrolling a return by WSU football. If you can’t get enough dreamers to pledge Monopoly money, how much passion is there?
- Football talk goes nowhere as long as Beggs is president, and it shouldn’t. He is close to retirement. Football isn’t something you hand off to the next president unfinished. His successor will be asked about football at the first news conference and weekly for years and years. It is that person’s decision. Adding football must start in the president’s office. That office must drive the decision, or people won’t take it seriously.
- If you want to think about adding football, you need to think in terms of adding a new athletic department. Koch Arena and its weight room, offices, training rooms etc. are adequate for WSU’s current sports. There is no room – none – for 100 football players and 15 coaches. By adding that many people (not to mention a women’s sport or two) you are fundamentally changing everything that goes on in that department. Space and staffing that is now adequate becomes inadequate.
- Let’s say you can raise $10 million to get things started – build a building, add scholarships and improve Cessna Stadium (although it may take more once architects and engineers take a hard look around that structure). That is the easy part. With the right approach, you might get people excited about reviving the program. It won’t be easy. It might stall out. But it’s got a chance. The hard part is coming up with an extra $3-4 million in eight years when the team is 3-8 and drawing 5,500 fans a game.
- You might say it doesn’t matter – it’s worth it to have homecoming and a band and something to do on six Saturdays a year. It’s worth it for the students and the community to cheer local kids wearing the black and yellow. It’s worth it because, dream a little dream, WSU might hit it big with football. You might be right. But understand what that might mean. It likely means no more paying a basketball coach $900,000 a year. It might mean dropping men’s track and field, as Missouri State did. Or men’s tennis, as Kansas did. It might mean the women’s basketball team can’t go to Italy for an exhibition tour. It might mean a track and field coach or a volleyball coach no longer sees WSU as a fit because their program dropped in importance. Football makes many WSU coaches nervous. They’ve seen how it works at other schools, and they know football sucks up most of the resources. It’s not just about money. It’s about attention from the department and the AD. Maybe that’s all worth it to you, because you don’t care about track or tennis. If so, that’s fine and you’re probably in the majority. Just understand how much things might change.
- What’s the upside? That’s a great question. WSU would need to set a goal. Is it Football Championship Subdivision (the former I-AA) or Football Bowl Subdivision? FCS gets you in the MVC for football. It’s a money pit, but WSU could compete. If it wins, it will draw fans on a FCS scale. Is that enough? MVC football is the most realistic scenario from a competitive standpoint, but there’s less upside and less sizzle than some fans desire.
- FBS means WSU needs a new conference. That’s a volatile scene. There’s one grouping of schools that makes sense and would give many of WSU’s sports better competition (although not necessarily in basketball). That is whatever becomes of Conference USA. If you tell me WSU adding football gives it a shot to be in a conference with schools such as Tulsa, Memphis, Houston, Rice and SMU permanently, I’d say it’s worth a hard look (and I’d lobby to get Missouri State to come along). It makes less geographic sense than the MVC, but enough schools are in the ballpark it’s not a total disaster. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I’m not riding a bus with the volleyball team for 14 hours to New Orleans to play Tulane. If we think football is crucial, that’s the best option. The WAC is a mess. The Sun Belt is not attractive.
- Can football help other sports? That’s iffy. Without football, WSU enjoys a lot of success in a lot of sports. Baseball flourished. The non-revenue sports are in a boom time over the past 10 years and WSU has the MVC All-Sports trophies to prove it. Men’s basketball is in good shape with the resources to fight off BCS programs for its coach. It’s impossible to make an argument that dropping football harmed other sports. WSU coaches learn to recruit without football. The social aspects might help with some recruits. However, some coaches will tell you that if their choice is showing a recruit a WSU game with 7,000 fans in the stands vs. a school with 50,000, they would rather not bring football into the picture. In that scenario, they are better off selling WSU as a school that is unique without football.
- On the other hand, if we’re dreaming, a baseball conference with Rice, Houston, Southern Miss and Tulane is attractive. Schools such as Tulsa and SMU would push WSU in sports such as golf and tennis. There is an attractive conference, with reasonable travel and potential for rivarlies, to be developed out of the non-BCS schools in the southern parts of this time zone. Does WSU need football to be a part of it? Probably. Will it ever happen? Impossible to say.
- Football proponents are convinced WSU is losing enrollment because of football. They neglect to mention WSU’s largest enrollment came in 1989, three years after football ended. But I can buy that football can help enrollment at some schools. It’s easy to find people who will say that. How much? That’s harder to say. If there is a pool of students who are choosing Kansas State (as the argument goes) over WSU because of football, will WSU suddenly win that battle? K-State will always offer Big 12 football and a Saturday on ABC against Texas. WSU, no matter its conference, will not. So I’m not convinced there is a large group of students waiting to flood Morrison Hall because WSU revives its football rivalry with Southern Illinois. My guess is it’s easier to build enrollment because of football at a school that is on ESPN and ABC weekly than it is at an MVC school. My guess is things happened at Kansas State beyond football that helped it grow. How many new students does it take to justify football’s expense?
- Few people thought baseball would be a big deal at WSU in 1977. In 2001, nobody predicted volleyball growing into its status. So I won’t underestimate Shocker fans. A winning WSU football team would draw, as long as your expectations are reasonable. If everything went right, could WSU build a program similar to East Carolina or Southern Miss or Miami (Ohio) in 20 years? Maybe.
- However, we know a losing football team doesn’t draw. It didn’t in 1976 or 1986 and it won’t now. A college football fan can sit at home and watch 15 games on TV instead of bundling up on cold November day to watch a losing team.
- A winning football team could add a lot to WSU and Wichita. A losing team adds less, with an increased risk of drowning the department in debt and killing other sports. It’s possible WSU football could be a success. It’s just as possible it could flop, with history weighing in on the side of flopping. How much is WSU and its fans willing to risk to find out? The person who makes that decision must wield a perfect plan and a high degree of confidence.