We talked to the AD of the FCS school that dropped football
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Two weeks ago, some unusual news broke. Jacksonville, an FCS school in a geographically advantageous location, decided to drop football.
Were the Dolphins competing for FCS playoff sports? No. They participated in the non-scholarship Pioneer League, and had struggled for the last few seasons.
But generally, schools are trying to join FCS football, not leave. Anybody, even at the DII level, getting out of the football game entirely, is a bit unusual. That this news was followed by two members of a solid DII league dropping their programs is even more noticeable.
I wanted to better understand why a school would fly in the face of industry trends and get out of the college football game. So I reached out to Jacksonville athletic director Alex Ricker-Gilbert last week.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Matt Brown: I think my readers are relatively familiar with what the rising costs of college football looks like at a major, FBS program…a world where a coordinator might make $2 million dollars, and a buy game $1.5 million. What does or what did the increasing costs of college football look like for a program like yours?
Alex Ricker-Gilbert: It looks a lot different at a Pioneer Football League school than it does at an FBS institution. As we looked at this over, really a 15 month period, it was It was much more than just cost. There's a very complicated and difficult decision. For us if we're talking specifically rising costs in the league, we played in a really national league. And so, from a travel perspective, we’re going to, San Diego, and Drake, Marist, all over the country. And so travel costs are an easy one to point to, along with the operational side, the operational side of things.
But maybe more so the rising costs of the support as well. And so as we looked at the landscape, there's a lot of support invested into football. programs from athletic training to strength and conditioning to academic support to mental health counseling to game day operations to financial services.
You think about the direct costs involved with football. That's a big part of it. It's not going to cost less to travel to San Diego over time.
But the other the other costs that are associated with football, that’s something we looked at with our other sports too. So, how, by providing significant support in football in those areas, does that affect the experience of our 450 other student athletes? It was really a cost benefit assessment evaluation done by us, obviously of the football program, but also on how football impacts our other student athletes.
MB: I had read that over the over the course of the university reaching this decision that you had looked at case studies for dozens of other institutions that had dropped football. Was there anything that you looked at from your research of other schools that have gone through similar processes that are like, “hey, this is one mistake that we absolutely have to make sure that we don't make” or something that you wanted to do differently?
ARC: Yeah, I think I think we really focused on a number of schools and their decision, and the messaging around their decision, and the execution of the day, the day of conversations.
And most importantly, we really wanted to focus on how do we help the young men and these coaching staff members as best we can. And so that's how we came out on this idea of the scholarships. We’re a non-scholarship program, but we offered full tuition scholarships for any student athlete that decides to stay at the institution because we're the business of producing college graduates.
So if a student wants wants to stay at Jacksonville University, the right thing to do was to make their path to graduation with as little stress as possible after such a difficult decision. So, so the scholarship piece and honoring our students in that way, was a big decision that we made that we thought was different.
We also put together a care team. And that was really intentional to support our young men. And what that was, was I told the young men at nine o'clock on Tuesday morning (on December 4) and they were, you know, very professional, very respectful, but obviously disappointed and upset.
It wasn't just me telling them this information that was hard on them.
They heard from me, but then the idea was that they would hear from others besides just me that will be there to support them. And so, we had my deputy, who knows these young men very well, work as a facilitator of questions and concerns. Our care team was made up of people from financial aid, from the registrar, from compliance, from mental health counseling and from student affairs, so that no matter the question or concern, we had somebody right there to answer that.
MB: What's the feedback been like from alumni or boosters or other stakeholders within the athletics community?
ARC: Yeah, it’s been a mix. I think there’s some disappointment from football alums, which is fair we're happy to talk about that with him.
But I think but generally there's understanding of the decision. I think we were transparent about how we got to the decision. And more than anything, no matter
where people felt, I think the general consensus is that in the process, with the decision being so difficult, there's a thought that we did everything we could to take care of the young men and support the young men no matter what their next step is.
MB: Have you heard from any other institutions about wanting to know about your decision making process, or that might be considering making a similar move?
ARC: We have not.
I've heard from other colleagues just reaching out to connect and discuss and lend support, but nothing specific to that.
MB: I know that your university makeup and your athletic department is is different from even a lot of other schools at the FCS level. Do you think, given these increasing costs, that it is possible that another school might at this level might reach a similar conclusion to yours in the next decade?
ARC: It’s hard for me to speculate on that. I don't know. You know, every institution is unique, every variable, each institutions unique. But I wouldn't be surprised if not more schools will have to make an assessment, long term, to decide what they're offering.
MB: I’d like to talk a little more specifically about that, because I’ve written a fair amount about what smaller schools might get out of their football programs…schools that are not in a position to compete for championships, or to get that Flutie Effect marketing boost. Can you tell me a little more about what a school in your position hopes to specifically get out of a football program?
ARC: I think a lot of the Pioneer League schools when they started, was to help grow enrollment. Not just directly with the program, but the idea was that it might drive other people to the school. If you offer the experience of being able to go to a game on Saturday, some students will be interested in that. But I think primarily in the 1990s, when the Pioneer League was created, the thought was that this could really help with direct enrollment.
MB: Do you do you think that calculus is still the same, given that football is now more expensive than it was in the 1990s?
ARC: Yeah, I think that’s one of many variables for why you have football, but for enrollment purposes at a small private school, I think it really makes sense. But what you have to evaluate that is not just the enrollment on the front end of having football or with the football program, but also, how are those students retaining and graduating? And at what level? And if it's at a very high level, then I think it would continue to make sense to have football.
MB: Hypothetically, if you look back on this in 20 years, what are some kind of key metrics that you would look at and say, You know what, looking back on it now, now seeing this data, this was the right decision?
ARC: Yeah, again, it's hard for me to speculate on 20 years from now, but you know, this decision was made with a long term future in mind…that's how we make all of our strategic decisions. I think how we measure anything at a school comes down to “how is our experience for our student athletes?”
In the future, if we we feel as though we've provided a positive and greater experience for our student athletes that are still with us, these 450 student athletes going forward, I view that as success. But how you ultimately measure that is through retention, and graduation. And as time goes, if those statistics continue to grow, and our university is better because of that, and I view it as a success.
If I can do a little editorializing here, one thing that stuck out to me in this conversation, and in everything else I read about JU’s decision here, was how little the football team itself, as a competitive entity, is discussed. Had they wanted to throw more money or support into it, Jacksonville could have probably won more football games. They’d been very competitive in Pioneer League play before, and there are plenty of good football players in Florida. There are hopeless causes in FCS, but this probably wasn’t one of them.
Alex Ricker-Gilbert was pretty explicit about framing this decision in the context of the student experience, which I personally think is the healthy and responsible thing to do.
Jacksonville isn’t going to get a huge parade, a huge marketing boost, a huge check or anything else for winning eight football games a season. That’s true for a ton of other football teams, FCS, or FBS.
They decided they could improve their student experience by going in a different direction. I suspect other schools could too, but I can’t say for certain. So many other variables go into that decision that I’m not privy to, and every school’s budget, mission, geography, etc, are different.
But I’m glad Jacksonville asked themselves those difficult questions. All I’m really advocating for here, is that other schools do the same.
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