How did DII school win a national title after only existing for four years?
West Florida went from nothing to champions in less than five seasons. Can that be replicated?
Good morning! Thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
As a quick housekeeping note, I plan to publish one more newsletter tomorrow, then take a little holiday time off. Extra Points will resume later next week, with some more interviews, and some updates on what I hope to do with this project in 2020. If you have thoughts on the sort of stuff you’d really want to see more of (or less of) with Extra Points in 2020, feel free to drop me a line.
But we can talk about all that stuff later. Today? Today I’d like to talk about DII. Because something absolutely wild just happened.
A college football “expansion team” just won the DII title
Okay, they’re not exactly a true expansion team, but West Florida is awfully close. The program didn’t play a real football game until 2016. The very next season, they catch fire late in the year, and made it all the way to the DII championship game. They take a bit of a step back in 2018…
And then won the dang national title. The West Florida Argonauts knocked off Minnesota State, 48-40, on Saturday to finish another deep playoff run as an underdog.
Winning a national title is very difficult at any level of football, but to do it so quickly after establishing a program from thin air is mind blowing, especially when you consider how rocky the transition periods have been at the FBS level. Some schools go decades without meaningful success. I mean, shoot, Kent State just won their first bowl game this weekend.
So how did they do it? And can anybody else try to replicate what they’ve done?
I’m not going to lie to you guys. I don’t closely follow DII football. So I asked the internet. And then I decided to double check what the internet told me. I reached out to a professor at UWF, fans of the school, and to Brandon Misener of D2Football.com. And generally, here’s what I this happened:
Geography and off the field stuff certainly helped
If you’re going to start a college football program from scratch, you’d want to start it in a place where you’d be close to quality high school football talent. Ideally, you’d also want to be somewhere where you didn’t have to closely compete with other schools, or fight for oxygen in a big city, or close proximity to pro or FBS programs. It’d probably be pretty hard to try and build a program from scratch in say, Vermont.
But UWF is not in Vermont. It’s in Pensacola, right on the Florida panhandle. That location is nearly perfect for a DII expansion team. Florida only has one other DII program, Florida Tech, and they’re a good 500 miles away, and is more academically selective. One of the major programs that recruited the area, North Alabama, just reclassified to FCS. So UWF can recruit talented players in the Gulf Coast area, plus Florida kids who were overlooked by FCS schools, and accept transfers from folks who want to get back to Florida, all without a ton of competition. That’s a great situation for accumulating talent.
DII schools can only offer 36 full ride scholarships as well, which means some football players may need to pay their own way. UWF’s tuition and cost of attendance are lower than some peer institutions, which makes that transition a little easier, especially if that recruit could qualify for say, a Pell Grant.
But hey, geography and proximity to talent alone doesn’t make a winning program, even at the DII level. Just ask Georgia State, or Charlotte, or Rutgers.
Transfers probably helped too
A whopping 51 players on UWF’s roster came from either a JUCO, a postsecondary prep school, or another four-year college. A few of them were even FBS transfers, coming from places like Oregon, Colorado State, Liberty, Navy and Southern Miss.
That’s not terribly uncommon at the DII level, at least, not in that part of the county. Valdosta State, a DII power that’s also right by the Florida state line, also has dozens of transfer or JUCO kids on the roster. And many of UWF’s top contributors, especially on offense, were recruited out of high school.
Transfers and JUCOs certainly help build depth and increase the topline talent level on a roster, especially for a young one, but I don’t think they, alone, are responsible for UWF’s lightning quick rise.
This is also probably a good time to start a DII program
Jon Morse, who runs SB Nation’s Kansas State site, Bring On The Cats, made a good point to me. In the last two decades, several very strong DII programs, like Central Arkansas, South Dakota, North Dakota State, and North Alabama, have reclassified to FCS. Many of those spots in DII aren’t being filled by say, DIII or NAIA programs that have established a culture of success, but by completely new programs, like UWF. Morse estimates that there are about two dozen DII teams that now that did not exist 20 years ago.
That’s a lot, seeing as there are only 170 or so DII programs, period, and not all of them are trying to win a national title. There are still plenty of DII programs with histories and budgets and fan support, but the pathway to more immediate contention, if you make the right hire and have the breaks go your way, is much easier here than it might be at FBS or FCS.
And UWF caught some breaks!
It’s probably worth pointing out that West Florida didn’t run through the season like some unbeatable juggernaut. Prior to the start of the playoffs, D2football.com had them ranked 19th. They finished 8-2, and didn’t even win their conference. In order to win the national title, they had to upset teams ranked #1, #2, #4 all on the road, then beat #6 Minnesota State on a neutral field. These games were close!
It’s also pretty clear that the administration supported football, and handled the logistics of starting a program well.
UWF plays in a good enough conference to put them in the conversation for the playoffs, and once you get there, anything can happen. But they’re not Alabama. I mean, I guess Pensacola, is almost Alabama, but you all know what I’m getting at here.
They also did the important stuff well. They hired a great coach.
Geographic destiny is moot if your program doesn’t do the other important stuff really well. UWF hired Pete Shinnick, who already had experience launching a new program, having successfully done so at UNC Pembroke back in 2007. It took him three seasons to get UNC Pembroke into the DII playoffs, and he won 50 games there over seven seasons. My twitter mentions and DMs were full all weekend of people raving about his ability to evaluate, recruit and develop talent.
If you do that, and get a little lucky, and have great geography and access to talent, you have a good shot at winning a lot of football games.
Could UWF do even more?
That’s a natural question to ask if your team makes two national title games in the first four years of existence, right? There aren’t any non-HBCU scholarship FCS programs in Florida, nor are there any right by the Gulf, so you could see a potential geographic niche for UWF. And with 13,000 students enrolled, the school could be large enough to compete at a higher level.
But maybe being able to do it, and doing it, are two different things. That would cost a ton of money for a program that doesn’t even have their own stadium yet (UWF shares a playing field with a AA baseball team), and hasn’t had time to build a huge fanbase. D2Football.com’s, Brandon Misener estimated than less than 2,000 UWF fans made the trip to Texas for the national title game, which isn’t a great indication that they have enough fans to handle reclassification right now.
There’s always the question about whether that’s even worth it. The professor at UWF told me he isn’t even sure if he’d want the school to jump a level, where making deep playoff runs would be much harder and the costs would be greater. But he admitted, it’s tempting to wonder what’s over that next hill.
But those are questions for different times. For now, fans of the school can enjoy a historic, meteoric rise to football success. It’s a path that would be awfully difficult, if not impossible, for an FBS program to enjoy, but perhaps a highly motivated school at a lower level could find similar success, if they hire the right guy and get a little (okay, a lot) lucky.
If an FBS team reclassifies, about the best they can hope for in those first few years is a shot at the Cure Bowl. It’s kinda cool that a team, with the right breaks, can compete at the highest level, right away.
Maybe not the message you want to read if you’ve been flailing away at the FBS level for the last hundred years with little to show for it….but hey, if that life doesn’t suit you, there’s plenty of room in DII.
Just maybe try to avoid scheduling UWF.
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