With six schools now fielding Division 1 Bowl Subdivision teams, Florida has become a major battleground in the college football arms race. But does it pay to play?
KNIGHT GAME: The University of Central Florida Knights played their first game in the school’s new on-campus stadium this season. Richard Lapchick, who holds an endowed chair at UCF and directs the university’s Sports Business Management program, was skeptical that UCF could compete successfully in Division 1-A in a state with so many top football teams. He now says, “I must admit it’s the very best thing to happen to the university from a student morale point of view. There was a spirit on campus I hadn’t seen before.” [Photo: University of Central Florida]
The sun hasn’t risen yet on the September morning of the University of Central Florida’s first football game in its new stadium, but already students and alumni are setting up hundreds of canopies along an expansive green mall at the center of campus. They lug chairs and charcoal, boom boxes and beer coolers. By 11 a.m., steaks and burgers are sizzling on grills. Kids who’ve painted themselves in the school colors are dripping sweaty streaks of black and gold.
At the new, $55-million Bright House Networks Stadium nearby, UCF officials have planned a string of “tradition-building” events leading up to the game between UCF’s Knights and the University of Texas Longhorns. But most students reject the packaged pep to start their own tailgate traditions. Passing up the opportunity to learn the fight song from UCF’s cheerleaders, they stick around the mall, sucking down Monster energy drinks and Natural Light, listening to a deafening remix of Usher’s “Yeah,” and tossing small, gold footballs.
The revelers say this display of school spirit at UCF’s sprawling, suburban campus east of Orlando is unprecedented. “This is all the stadium,” says Allison Freeman, a 19-year-old sophomore from Naples. “I’ve never seen this many people on campus at one time.” As a freshman, Freeman says, she never went to any UCF football games, which had been played at the Citrus Bowl 15 miles away. This year, she plans to attend every game at the new 45,000-seat stadium on campus. “We feel like we’re a real university,” she says.
The University of Florida Gators are the only school in the state — and one of only about 25 nationally — whose football program makes enough money to keep the whole athletic budget in the black. [Photo: University of Florida]
Exactly the point, say UCF officials. To them — and to officials at other ambitious state schools, such as Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and Florida International University in Miami — feeling like a real university these days requires a big-time football program.
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And one after another, Florida public universities have piled into an arms race in which they raise and spend millions to chase wins, prestige and money on the gridiron. UCF jumped to the NCAA’s top tier, the Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division 1-A), in 1996. The University of South Florida didn’t even have a football program until 1997 but now competes in the Big East Conference and cracked the top 10 national rankings early this season. Florida Atlantic, which joined Division 1-A in 2005 and plays in the Sun Belt Conference, beat a Big Ten team, Minnesota, earlier this fall. Florida International joined Division 1-A in 2006. Meanwhile, both FIU and FAU are right behind UCF with plans for multimillion-dollar stadiums on campus.
There is little question that big-time football makes many students, alumni and faculty feel good about their schools. The arms race also reflects the legitimate aspirations of up-and-coming universities to have all the amenities that long-established schools like the University of Florida and Florida State have enjoyed. But it also highlights an uncomfortable truth: While four of Florida’s six Bowl Subdivision football programs pay for themselves, the state’s public universities are pouring huge amounts of time and effort into building programs and stadiums at a time when academic programs at the schools remain weak — and state funding for higher education overall lags far behind the schools’ growth. The state may have at least two teams among the nation’s top 10 football programs, but it lacks a single university with similar academic rankings.