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Commentary: Don't expect any more Division I FCS help from Division II

Bearcat football vs North Alabama in the NCAA Div II National Championship game Dec. 17, 2016. (Photo by Todd Weddle | Northwest Missouri State University)

FARGO—North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman praised North Alabama for making the move from NCAA Division II to the Division I Football Championship Subdivision. He sees it as the division adding a potentially quality program after losing so many in recent years.

"I'm glad they're in FCS," Klieman said after his Bison defeated the first-year Division I Lions 38-7 last weekend at the Fargodome. "We've lost schools. The App States, the Georgia Southerns, the Old Dominions. Some of those schools. I wish more teams would come up. I think our division needs more quality teams."

It's true FCS has seen a drain of top programs since 2014, when powerhouses Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, plus Old Dominion, bolted for the Football Bowl Subdivision. They were followed in 2016 by Coastal Carolina, a playoff regular.

But if FCS followers believe there are going to be more top Division II schools like North Alabama (three titles in the 1990s, runner-up in 2016) making the leap, they needn't hold their breath. And the odd story like Kennesaw (Ga.) State, which started football from scratch a few years ago and is now an annual playoff contender? That might be even more rare.

Calls to athletic directors at perennial Division II contenders yielded the same answer when asked the question, "Are you considering moving up to FCS?"

We'll let Grand Valley State's Keri Becker summarize for the group: "The short answer, to make this simple, is no."

Grand Valley State (Mich.), Northwest Missouri State, Minnesota State-Mankato, Minnesota-Duluth, Valdosta (Ga.) State, Colorado State-Pueblo and Pittsburg (Kan.) have all won national championships or finished runner-up since 2010. Some of the schools won multiple titles going back to 2000. None of them, according to their ADs, have any interest in exploring FCS.

And the only school they've heard that's looking at a move up is Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D. The Vikings, it appears, want to move to Division I, but would become a non-scholarship football program like Drake, Butler, Valparaiso and others in the Pioneer League.

"Maybe the conversation we should be having is that there are a number of low-level Division I schools that would love to move back to Division II because they are struggling financially trying to piece things together. But once you make that move up it is awfully hard to go back," Valdosta State's Herb Reinhard said.

Every AD agreed with Reinhard—they are hearing more rumblings about schools wanting to move down from Division I instead of up from Division II.

The reasons for FCS disinterest are many (conference affiliation, gender-equity, etc.) but the overriding one is money. It's just too expensive to expand the football program, plus every other sport.

"We've had great success in football," said Northwest Missouri State's Andy Peterson, whose school has six national titles including 2015 and 2016. "But for us to move up would take such a substantial financial commitment from our university and our community that it is not realistic. I don't believe a regional, public university like ours is in any position to make that jump."

Kevin Buisman of Minnesota State-Mankato, which already offers Division I men's and women's hockey, took it a step farther: "In the present budget environment, we are already finding it difficult to sustain the existing portfolio at a championship level, which is a goal we certainly aspire to for all of our programs."

Jim Johnson of Pittsburg State said NDSU, North Dakota and the South Dakota Division I schools are in different positions within their state hierarchy than the smaller Division II schools they left behind. They are the major universities in their states, not regional schools with smaller donor bases.

"Division I, it's a tough deal," Johnson said. "I think people look at NDSU and the top 10 success stories. But there are about 50 others that aren't success stories."

Josh Berlo at Minnesota-Duluth believes college athletics are generally in a holding pattern, with presidents and ADs waiting to see how the landscape changes in the Power Five conferences like the Big Ten, Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. The Bulldogs have already taken on cost-of-attendance for their men's and women's Division I hockey teams.

"I think there is an amount of uncertainty," Berlo said. "It's kind of wait-and-see right now."

The discussions always circled back to finances and fundraising — and the ongoing cycle of raising money that never seems to be enough and is always ballooning. For salaries. For scholarships. For facilities. For travel. For staff.

"It's so dog-eat-dog in Division I," said Colorado State-Pueblo's Paul Plinske. "You have to have the funding and you have to match it, or grow it, year after year after year. We've sort of conceded the fact our vision is in Division II. That's our model and we're very happy with it."

Maybe the best bet for more high-level programs in FCS comes from within the division itself. If once-powerful schools like Delaware and Montana can regain their former glory and relative newcomers like North Dakota and South Dakota can match their in-state rivals, FCS would be more competitive.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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