Chicago State wants to start a football team. I went to campus to find out what happens NEXT:
What does Chicago State need to make their football dream a reality?
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Earlier last month, I was surprised to see Chicago State announce they're establishing an exploratory committee to study starting a football team.
That Chicago State is interested in football isn't what was surprising to me. After all, we've known since November 2021 that Chicago State was interested enough to conduct a formal feasibility study. I even discussed the possibility with former CSU AD Elliott Charles back in September 2021. The school received the feasibility study in December 2021.
But the school appears to be more serious about this process now. Just last week, the school announced the members of that exploratory committee, a group that includes luminaries like Howard Griffith (a former All-American at Illinois and current BTN analyst) and Larry Huggins (organizing member of the Chicago Football Classic), along with many individuals in the Chicago State community.
Sitting on a shelf next to athletic director Dr.Monique Carroll's desk is a football helmet with a Chicago State Cougar on it.
We're a long way from Chicago State football kicking off, but it's fair to say that the process has now legitimately started. So why now? Why not last year, when the school first got a copy of the 100+ page feasibility study?
Dr.Carroll told me it was about timing. Dr.Carroll was only hired herself in late July 2022, and the school's president, President Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, was given a contract extension a few weeks earlier. Now that the school and the major administrative leaders have more stability, with institutional financial pictures a bit clearer, and with the entire campus revisiting a new master plan, the school felt now was a better time to seriously begin the football process.
Wait, why is Chicago State doing this again? Isn't football...you know...expensive?
It sure is, and it's fair to say that Chicago State is one of the smaller, and more resource-challenged schools in D-I. The Cougars aren't looking to start football to join FBS and compete for championships against Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Chicago State is looking at starting a scholarship FCS program. While they would obviously love to be competitive in that space, the biggest reasons for exploring football are about growing enrollment, capturing more media and branding attention in Chicagoland, and finding a stable, long-term conference home for all Chicago State sports. Outside of tennis (who competes in the Horizon), all of Chicago State's teams currently operate as independents. Dr.Carroll told me that she doesn't believe that is sustainable in, long-term.
Despite smaller enrollment (~3,000 students, most of whom commute) and a small budget (under $15 million), Chicago State does have a few possible advantages.
For one, Chicago State won't need to build a stadium...or at least, not im the immediate future. University officials told me last year that the school considered SeatGeek Stadium (the former home of the Chicago Fire, in Bridgeview) a potential option for football games. There are also multiple large high school stadiums near campus that could potentially be converted into FCS-caliber facilities.
Chicago State's location also offers some advantages. Campus is a short drive from one major airport (Midway), and within bus distance of more than a dozen FCS programs. While campus enrollment is in the 3,000s now, , Dr. Carroll told me that Chicago State used to be a much larger institution, and has the capacity to grow quickly. Finding sufficient athlete housing, for example, shouldn't be a major problem.
But there are still significant investments required to make this plan happen. And that's where the committee comes in
If Chicago State adds a football team, in order to remain compliant with Title IX, the Cougars would need to add multiple additional women's sports. According to the initial feasibility study, the school is considering adding softball and bowling, but others, like beach volleyball, could also be considered. The school would need to budget for not only additional scholarships, but travel, equipment, and support staff.
There's also the matter of facilities. Chicago State actually has an excellent basketball facility, the Jones Convocation Center, which includes weight rooms and athletic department offices. But there is nowhere in that building that could accommodate the locker room, weight room and meeting room needs for an 85+ man roster. While it's possible temporary accommodations could be set up somewhere else on campus, eventually, the school would need to build additional facilities to support those athletes.
Supporting 100+ more athletes also means that Chicago State would need to hire more of...just about everybody. More trainers, more compliance officers, more academic support specialists...the works.
Between coaching salaries, travel, equipment, scholarships and insurance, the Collegiate Consulting feasibility study suggested Chicago State would need to eventually spend more than $5 million more a year in annual expenses. In addition, the feasibility study also projects that Chicago State will need to spend more than $4.5 million on new facility space for sports medicine, sports performance, department offices and softball locker rooms. Given interest rate adjustments, supply chain hangups and Chicago's higher construction labor costs, the actual price could very well be even higher.
Is that impossible? No. Would it require major investments? Yes
This is why I think it's fair to say that Chicago State is planning on adding football, they hope to add football, they are taking steps to add football, but they're not like UTRGV, where they can hire a coach and start accepting season ticket deposits. This is still at the aspirational stage.
Dr.Carroll comes from a revenue generation background at previous stops, and it's possible that Chicago State can tap into Chicago's deep corporate, civic, and political resources. The school's basketball arena, after all, was paid for by the State of Illinois, rather than university fundraising. While the school doesn't have a massive list full of rich alumni that would be happy to make seven-figure gifts, there may be other entities who could give enough in-kind gifts to make this happen. These are the kinds of questions the committee needs to answer.
This is a pivotal time for the athletic department
It hasn't been an easy decade for Chicago State. Some of their problems were self-inflicted, some were outside their control, but the department now sits without a stable conference home, without a huge budget, and with an uncertain future.
But the news isn't all bad. Despite having to play all over the country, the men's basketball team has a KenPom ranking above UIC, Louisville, and several MAC programs. The school's athletic department budget is ticking up. And the school continues to talk to other athletic conferences, looking for a new home.
Dr. Carroll told me that the most important aspect for Chicago State is to find " a league that wants them,", a place where Chicago State could park most of their sports, rather than trying to cobble together a half-dozen affiliate memberships, or accepting a short-term, provisional contract. She also said that the school wants to find a conference home "where we can be competitive. We don't want to come in and automatically be at the bottom of any conference." A conference affiliation with HBCUs, who share a lot in common with Chicago State's budget, institutional mission and student makeup, would certainly make sense but isn't necessarily a requirement.
Football might help Chicago State's pitch for conference membership, but the school also doesn't want any invites to solely hinge on adding football. But the school also understands that independence isn't a sustainable solution...not from a travel perspective, competitive perspective, or financial perspective.
So now is the perfect time to have all of these big conversations. Football would certainly be a new level of ambition for the CSU athletic department. They've got a 100+ page PDF that explains how they might be able to execute on those ambitions.
Now they just need to find a way to fund it.
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