USF serves as college football startup model

As an athletic director with a fledgling college football program in a pro city in the South, Cheryl Levick knows her fans point to USF's quick ascent as a dream model for Georgia State's future in Atlanta.

"Our fans have watched, and when they see a program like South Florida that has been able to move successfully, it gives them hope," she said. "It gives us an opportunity to say, 'If they can do it, so can we.' Watching what you did and how you did it, and then trying to build a program to be just like them."

As USF enters its 17th season of college football, a new generation of startups is arriving, hoping to carve out a niche and move up through the conference and division ranks much the same way the Bulls did in their first eight years.

In one sense, the Panthers are taking a first major step faster than the Bulls did — they move up to Division I-A this fall, in just their fourth season; USF did so in 2001 in its fifth season. The Bulls didn't land in a conference until two years later in Conference USA; the Panthers join the Sun Belt this fall.

Georgia State plays in an NFC South team's stadium, calling the Georgia Dome home the same way USF has Raymond James Stadium. But Georgia State faces other obstacles that the Bulls never had to worry about.

USF had only one losing season in its first 14; Georgia State has had two, going 3-8 in 2011, then 1-10 last season after a 6-5 opening season. Georgia State is even more reliant on student fees for its athletic budget, with those accounting for about $17 million of its $26 million.

Georgia State has attendance concerns that USF never had — the NCAA requires an average of 15,000 during one of two transition seasons to I-A, and the Panthers' average dropped each season, to 12,309 last year. The NCAA has never enforced the attendance requirement, but Georgia State is treating it as a hard minimum, setting a goal for 105,000 fans total for its seven home games.

USF had the momentum of Jim Leavitt from his hiring in 1995 until his firing in 2010; Georgia State had instant credibility in former Alabama coach Bill Curry, but he retired at age 70 after last season, with Indiana State's Trent Miles taking over.

Miles, who started 0-18 as a head coach at I-AA Indiana State, had winning seasons in his final three years there, earning Levick's trust to take over.

But just as USF benefited greatly from conference realignment in 2005, moving to the Big East, Georgia State landed a spot in the Sun Belt — a first step that was an acknowledged risk for Levick, who saw what a better conference did to help elevate USF's position nationally.

"When the conference realignment hit and we had that opportunity to go to the Sun Belt, you need to take those opportunities whenever you can," she said. "We knew we had to do that. We knew we had the financials behind it, but our program wasn't up to where it should be yet. We can get it there if we have sound financials and fans that back it and want it."

And while USF launched its program essentially on its own, with no real contemporaries in its early years, Georgia State is in the middle of a pack of young programs either building from scratch or ramping up from backgrounds in I-AA football (see chart).

For all its USF comparisons, Georgia State's model is probably closer to Florida International, which launched its program in 2002, made it to the Sun Belt in 2005 and will move into Conference USA this fall. They share more than a Panthers mascot — FIU is in the shadow of the University of Miami, fighting for college fans in its own city, much the same way Georgia State has to contend with Georgia Tech.

The Panthers will benefit financially from games at West Virginia and Alabama this fall, and will play at Oregon in 2015. Landing a big-name home game is the next step, but as the program and its fan base continues to grow, Georgia State is confident in the growth of other young programs around it.

"We just need to build the program," said Levick, whose school celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. "We'd love to get to be as successful as South Florida."

Meet the new kids

USF's rapid ascent has cooled in recent years, with back-to-back losing seasons and a new place in the American Athletic Conference instead of the BCS-aligned Big East. But the Bulls are old in Division I-A terms compared to these startups, which join Georgia State on the fast track for college football's top tier.

This doesn't count non-scholarship startups such as Stetson and Mercer, which will play in I-AA, or recent I-AA promotions such as Western Kentucky and Massachusetts, or longtime I-AA powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, which will move up to I-A and the Sun Belt in 2014.

Get to know the new and soon-to-be new members of I-A football:

Charlotte: (first game in 2013, joins Conference USA in 2015) Another NFC South market moving quickly — the 49ers will be in I-A in their third season after two years as a I-AA independent. They won't face a I-A opponent until '15, but they'll host Temple that year, with trips to Kansas State and Virginia Tech in future seasons.

Old Dominion: (resurrected program in 2009, C-USA in 2014) The program hadn't played since 1940, but the Monarchs beat Georgia State in each of the past three seasons. After playing mostly I-AA teams, this is a paycheck year for ODU, with games at East Carolina, Maryland, Pittsburgh and North Carolina.

Texas-San Antonio: (first game in 2011, C-USA in 2014) Former Miami coach Larry Coker's Roadrunners beat Georgia State in 2011 and 2012, and picked up three wins against WAC teams. They've been quick to line up solid opponents for home games, such as Oklahoma State and Houston this season.

South Alabama: (first game in 2009, Sun Belt in 2013): The Jaguars piled up wins in their first three seasons against junior colleges and I-AA schools, but hit a wall in 2012, going 2-11 against big-boy competition. Top competition starts coming to Mobile, with Mississippi State and Navy there in 2014 and N.C. State in 2015.

USF serves as college football startup model 07/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 11:54pm]

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