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20 Colleges That Need to Invest More in Their Football Program

David LutherFeatured ColumnistFebruary 29, 2012

20 Colleges That Need to Invest More in Their Football Program

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    College football is the bread and butter of most athletic programs in America. That's no secret.

    Also no secret is the fact that the overwhelming majority of athletic programs lose money. In fact, according to an NCAA report, only 22 Division I-FBS athletic programs made money for the 2009-10 academic year.

    So asking a college to pour more money into a program might be a stretch for many.

    But there are a number of programs in the nation that could stand to increase the amount of money spent on the money-making football program.

    Not every school has a T. Boone Pickens waiting in the wings to pour a spare hundred million into athletics, but that doesn't mean these programs can't or won't benefit from a more modest, systemic investment.

    So here is our list of 20 programs that really need to invest more in their football programs.

    Since the 2009-2010 academic year is the latest year for which comprehensive statistics are available, we've used those numbers. You can find more details numbers at www.ncaa.org or at www.usatoday.com/sports/college/ncaa-finances.htm.

Cincinnati

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    Cincinnati had a revenue of $40.9 million in 2009-10, and operated on a net loss of $2.6 million.

    Of all funding sources, just 32 percent of that nearly $41 million came from the university itself.

    The Bearcats have certainly seen a resurgence as of late, thanks in large part to Brian Kelly. But once Kelly left, there was a certain sense one got from Cincy that the best years were quickly fading away.

    With West Virginia leaving the Big East, there are some legitimate questions being raised about the conference's stability as a BCS Automatic Qualifier moving forward. Should the Big East lose that moniker, it will only hurt revenue and competitiveness down the road.

    Success is, obviously, an important factor in attracting recruits, but so are top-flight facilities. One of the big complaints about Cincy has been its small stadium and lack of football-specific facilities on campus.

    Yes, Cincinnati has traditionally been a “basketball school,” but when was the last time the Bearcats won a Big East title in basketball? It was 2004.

    When was the last time the Bearcats made it out of the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament? That was 2001—and 2011 was the first time since 2005 Cincy even made the tournament. The Bearcats haven't made a Final Four since 1992, and the last title was 1961. Can we stop calling it a basketball school now?

    A little investment in football facilities will not only help protect Cincinnati from the impending implosion of the Big East, but it could go a long way towards attracting some of those highly-prized Ohio football prospects.

Utah

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    While the 2009-10 numbers don't in any way reflect Utah's move to the Pac-12, it's still important to compare the Utes to not only the Pac-12, but the rest of the nation.

    Utah ranked just 92nd out of the 120 FBS programs in 2010 in terms of net revenue, coming in with a loss of $860,437.

    Utah also spend just $31.7 million on its entire athletics program.

    With Utah stepping up in class to the Pac-12, the Utes will have little to no hope of competing with programs like Oregon and USC unless that number begins to rise dramatically over the next few seasons.

    Top athletes will easily look past a comparatively middle-of-nowhere program like Utah for the big city appeal of USC, especially when USC blows Utah out of the water in every possible metric.

Mississippi

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    Not every SEC program in the world spends money like it's going out of style.

    Ole Miss had operating expenses of “just” $45.7 million in 2009-10 (magically breaking exactly even, with no profit or loss).

    The interesting part about Mississippi's athletic program is that fully $19.8 million (or 43 percent) came from the NCAA and SEC in the form of conference payouts and tournament profit sharing.

    That means the good people of the state of Mississippi contributed just $25.9 million in 2009-10 for the Rebels. Quite a bargain, considering what people spend on some other programs.

    While Mississippi may not be the wealthiest of states, there's something to be said about the connection between a willingness to invest in a program and that program's success.

    If Ole Miss fans are sick of seeing the Rebels get slapped around by their fellow SEC programs, perhaps a little influx of cash to the program will do the job.

    You'd be surprised what a fresh coat of paint can do to an aging stadium.

    All joking aside, Mississippi's proud tradition seems to have fallen by the wayside these past years, and turning the program around will not only require the right coach (which is, in and of itself an investment), but the ability of that coach to attract top athletes to Ole Miss.

    Even the world's best recruiter won't have much success if Mississippi doesn't show a willingness to support the program with more than just bumper stickers.

Kent State

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    Kent State is one of several NCAA programs to report a “break even” year in 2009-10, spending exactly as much as they brought in: $19.4 million.

    For an FBS program, spending less than $20 million is pretty low, but it's made all the worse by the fact that the students paid $10.5 million worth of “student athletic fees” that went directly to the athletic program from the student's (or their parent's) wallet.

    Another way to put this is traditional university sources of funding—including ticket sales—accounted for less than half (just 46 percent) of Kent State's athletic revenue.

    There's no question that Kent State University should be finding other ways to fund the program. Just imagine what the Golden Flashes could do if the university increased its support without asking the students to pony up more dough?

    It's probably not fair to dump all of the blame on KSU. After all, most MAC programs are in the same boat. Perhaps the whole conference should look at alternatives to the FBS, since we're never in any danger of a MAC program getting anywhere near a BCS bowl, to say nothing of a title.

    Just for the sake of comparison, the University of Alabama brought in $130.5 million during the same academic year, and student fees accounted for exactly zero of that. Alabama made most of its money from the traditional sources of ticket sales and NCAA/conference profit-sharing.

Idaho

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    We probably all have to confess that there are times when we wonder why Idaho is even an FBS program?

    About the only thing the Vandals are known for is the Kibbie Dome, and the place isn't even that great.

    Consider this: the NCAA requires FBS programs to average 15,000 fans at home games over the course of one year in any two-year period. The Kibbie Dome, when absolutely filled to capacity, seats 16,000 fans.

    Situated in the sprawling metropolis of Moscow, Idaho, population 23,800, one might understand why Idaho spent just $15.7 million on its athletics program in 2009-10. But of that money, just 16 percent came directly from the institution.

    But just in case you think there's no real point for a school in Idaho that's no good in football to bother with investment in the program, consider the fact that Idaho has been an FBS program for longer than Boise State, yet hasn't bothered to invest in the program the way Boise has.

    Consequently, we talk about the Broncos a lot more than we talk about the Vandals, don't we?

    In comparison, Boise State spent over $36.6 million on athletics in 2009-10.

Louisiana Tech

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    Alright, Bulldog fans.

    It's time to start that letter-writing campaign.

    Louisiana Tech's football program has been one of the better non-AQ programs in the south for quite some time now, and last season, the Bulldogs came within a hair of knocking off not only Mississippi State, but also a ranked TCU team as well.

    Louisiana Tech also has some impressive wins in its history, but has never been able to really gain that year-in, year-out traction to become one of the top non-AQ programs in the nation.

    Perhaps what is needed is a little more support beyond the paltry $16.5 million dollar budget the Bulldogs athletics program operated under during the 2009-10 year.

    We'll give credit where credit is due: The largest single portion of Tech's budget came from direct institutional support, and Louisiana Tech doesn't levee an “athletic fee” on the students.

    But the Bulldogs are going to need an investment beyond the operating expenses if they are every going to be able to pull in recruits to a program that is right smack dab in the middle of SEC country.

    High school prospects that fall just short of an SEC offer should be the players Louisiana Tech targets. But due to the relative lack of financial support, those players typically wind up in the Big 12, ACC, or Big Ten—not at a WAC program like Louisiana Tech.

Iowa State

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    There is no reason—none, whatsoever—that Iowa State shouldn't be one of the nation's top football programs.

    The Cyclones are nestled right in the middle of Big 12-Big Ten country, and have access to all of the same recruits as programs like Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

    Yet for some reason, the Cyclones never seem to progress much past the “barely making a bowl game” stage.

    Iowa State also spends enough to compete, with a budget of $46.7 million in 2009-10. While that's quite a bit less than the top programs in any BCS AQ conference, the Cyclones' spending far outstrips that of some schools that do compete within their own AQ conferences.

    For Iowa State, we look beyond yearly expenditures, and focus more on the foundation of facilities and personnel any program needs to be successful.

    Iowa State's biggest shortcoming has to be the perception of the program compared to programs we've already mentioned.

    Just comparing Iowa State to Iowa will make most people snicker—especially in the Hawkeye State.

    Iowa State's stadium, Jack Trice Stadium, isn't particularly large (55,000), isn't very impressive, and doesn't lure athletes looking to play in front of “big time” crowds.

    Similarly, Iowa State showed up a little late to the indoor practice party.

    While the addition of the Bergstrom Indoor Facility was certainly a positive move, as was the 2008 renovation of Jack Trice Stadium, more of these moves are needed soon to keep Iowa State competitive in recruiting.

    Iowa State could also benefit from an increase in salaries for the coaching staff. Current head coach Paul Rhoads makes just over $1 million per season; pretty laughable for a BCS AQ program with any hope of moving up in the world.

Alabama-Birmingham

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    Considering the amount of money spent on the University of Alabama's main campus on athletics, there shouldn't be too much argument about spending a little more at the Birmingham campus.

    The athletic expenditures at UAB pale in comparison to Tuscaloosa, where athletic expenditures approach $100 million.

    So why is it that UAB operates a similar department on a budget of just $23.8 million?

    Okay, so the Blazers aren't exactly the Crimson Tide. But there is one, huge, giant, monstrous area where any UAB fan would agree a massive investment in needed: Legion Field.

    This aging temple of football has definitely seen better days, and its current state of modernization probably doesn't even meet most standards of the 1980s.

    The stadium is owned by the City of Birmingham, and any major refit would likely come at the cost to local taxpayers.

    In tough economic times, a tax hike is a tough sell. But if the university were able to secure a large percentage of expected costs, it would go a long, long way towards a stadium no one need be ashamed of any longer.

    There's also the possibility of completely replacing the stadium. While Legion Field is accurately described as a mecca of southern football, other great stadiums have seen their final game come and go, including Yankee Stadium.

    If baseball fans get over the loss of a place like Yankee Stadium, football fans can get past the loss of Legion Field.

Central Michigan

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    It's easy to harp on any MAC school for lack of football investment.

    But Central Michigan is one that deserves special attention.

    For anyone who has ever been the Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, you would have instantly noticed two things. First, there's no mountain. Second, it's not that pleasant.

    Amongst the modest and frequently aging, run-down houses sits a moderate-sized college campus and a casino.

    Beyond that, there's not much attracting anyone to Mt. Pleasant.

    Central Michigan also isn't known for attracting the best and brightest of Michigan's college students, ranking just 198th nationally (according to US News and World Reports).

    The Chippewas also play in a typically MAC-looking stadium with a low capacity and even lower attendance.

    The utter lack of facilities on a campus with plenty of wide open, barren land surrounding it is also a likely cause for CMU's inability to attract any attention of any kind.

    CMU also scrapes the bottom of the barrel when it comes to coaching hires. Sure, the Chips hired Brian Kelly, but it was Kelly's first FBS job, and he came from Division II Grand Valley State—meaning Central couldn't even lure away an FCS coach.

    The second Kelly had a path mapped out of Mt. Pleasant, he loaded up his car and hit the road.

    Can you blame him? Money talks, and CMU is pretty quiet.

Buffalo

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    The State University of New York at Buffalo turned a nice little profit in 2009-10, making over $8.4 million.

    That's a profit of $8.4 million. Not bad for a program that only spent $17 million.

    Buffalo is amongst the FBS programs spending the least amount of money annually on athletics, and it unfortunately shows.

    The Bulls have rarely been competitive in the MAC, and when they are, they're not compeitive against other conferences.

    The Bulls are a relatively new FBS program, only joining the top division in 1999 (after dropping football completely in 1970 before restarting as a Division III program in 1977). The Bulls skipped Division II entirely, and spent just six seasons in the FCS before joining the FBS, so it's no wonder the Bulls haven't had a ton of success.

    But despite building the program through a fund raising effort or a program of reinvestment of profits, the University at Buffalo has chosen to turn a profit on the backs of the students.

    A large part of the $8.4 million Buffalo profited from the 2009-10 season was the $7.4 million paid by the students in the form of fees.

    So far, there hasn't been much reinvestment in the football program, and the Bulls haven't been able to attract any noteworthy prospects or coaches for any length of time.

Hawaii

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    Hawaii's addition to this list stems not from its lack of facility investment, its lack of financial commitment to the football program or athletics program at large.

    We're adding Hawaii because of its lack of investment in recruiting.

    Hawaii has long been the bastion of football for those of Polynesian descent. The program is filled with top high school prospects from the state, as well as those from other American territories in the Pacific.

    There's a certain amount of pride about the Warriors in Hawaii, as a casual glance around Honolulu International Airport will tell you (the gift shops are loaded with UH apparel and trinkets).

    But if Hawaii ever wants to get serious about it's program, an investment in recruiting is needed.

    Far too often, it seems as if the Hawaii coaching staff spends more time going after 1- and 2-star prospects from the islands rather than spending any time at all courting 2- or 3-star prospects from the mainland.

    Even when the odd 4- or 5-star recruit comes out of the state of Hawaii, the Warriors seem befuddled and confused when that star picks a school like Notre Dame. How could anyone possibly shun their native Hawaii Warriors?!?

    While there's something special about the makeup of the Warriors football program, they will never be competitive nationally while focusing mainly on talent from the Pacific.

Colorado

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    We're going to throw Colorado to the wolves here, and it's really only for one reason: lack of institutional support.

    You'd think that with a budget of $48.6 million, the university would be coming up with a decent percentage of that money.

    You might be surprised to learn that just 11 percent of that money comes in the form of direct institutional funding.

    The rest of the money comes from the students (in the form of fees), ticket sales, retail licensing, NCAA/conference profit-sharing, and a surprising amount (22 percent) of donations.

    What does it say about a university when private donations account for double the amount of money the university itself will spend?

    While there's nothing wrong with a university minimizing its financial obligations, Colorado students will tell you that their tuition bills haven't been the direct beneficiary of this athletic penny-pinching.

    Moving to the Pac-12 will likely only make things more expensive for the Buffaloes. If you think beating Texas and Oklahoma was tough, USC and Oregon aren't going to be your cup of tea—and it takes more money to get there, too.

    What would happen if the university decided to bring its institutional support for the athletic program more in line with other FBS programs?

Colorado State

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    If you hope to compete with your in-state rival, Colorado, which spends $48.6 million per year on its athletics, you probably should spend more than $25.4 million.

    Colorado State spends about half as much as Colorado on athletics, and only $6.7 million comes directly from the institution.

    Students pick up about $4.8 million with the rest of the revenue spread out among other sources.

    While we might be able to excuse the disparity in funding, considering Colorado State is not a BCS AQ program, the Rams will realistically have no shot at knocking off their chief rival with such a paltry investment in athletics.

    Colorado is not a state overloaded with FBS programs, and recruiting shouldn't be a massive challenge compared to other programs in the region. Yet, Colorado State's lack of support for athletics isn't easy to hide, especially when giving a tour to a recruit who was at Boulder last weekend.

Florida Atlantic

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    There aren't many FBS athletic programs anywhere in the nation that spends less money than Florida Atlantic.

    The entire FAU athletic department spent just $15.2 million in 2009-10. Some schools spend more than that just on football.

    When FAU began their football program in 2001, it was always with the intention of joining the already crowded group of Florida FBS programs.

    While FAU soon joined the ranks of Florida, Florida State and Miami in the FBS, success hasn't come easy. FAU has played in just two bowl games, and has an 8-8 record against Florida programs (no wins against Florida, Florida State, Miami, South Florida, or Central Florida).

    Perhaps worst of all, the athletic program is funded primarily on the backs of FAU students. More than 54 percent of the total athletic funding comes from student fees, charged in addition to tuition. Just 8.6 percent comes from direct institutional funding.

    While Florida Atlantic has recently completed the construction of a new football stadium (which opened in October last season), a much greater investment will be required over a much longer, sustained period of time if students and alumni are expected to continue to support such a lackluster program.

Virginia Tech

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    Considering the success Virginia Tech has had under Frank Beamer, it's pretty amazing to consider the fact that the Hokies spend just $55.8 million on athletics.

    Virginia Tech is certainly getting a decent return on that investment, matching programs like Michigan, which spends twice as much.

    Virginia Tech isn't even at the top of their own conference, and while it's hard to say that Virginia Tech is doing a poor job, just imagine where the program could be today if it had started a program of reinvestment a decade ago.

    Fully one quarter of Virginia Tech's expenses today go directly towards facility maintenance and rental. That's quite a bit higher than a typical range of 15 to 20 percent (which in this case amounts to around a $3 million difference), and way off from some of the more economical programs, like Washington, which spends less than 4 percent on maintenance and rental.

    The reasons for increased maintenance and rental costs vary from school to school, but Virginia Tech may soon find itself coming to the end of the Frank Beamer era. The best way to attract new, youthful talent that will stay half as long as Beamer will be to spend the money not only on contracts, but on reinvestment of the profits made (in Virginia Tech's case, about $2.5 million) into facilities of your own that will save the program money in the long run.

UCLA

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    The university system of the State of California is a little different than many across the nation, so it's really hard to compare programs like UCLA to those of, say, Michigan or Alabama or Florida or Texas.

    But UCLA has a few oddities in their athletic budget that provide massive opportunities of investment, particularly in the languishing football program.

    UCLA is one of those programs that curiously posts revenues exactly matching expenses, in this case $61.9 million for 2009-10.

    While that seems like quite a lot of money to spend, and enough to satisfy most programs, it's interesting to note that direct institutional support accounts for just $60,000. No, that's not a typo. It's sixty thousand dollars.

    So, okay. Maybe it's the unique system California has. Maybe the state government takes care of that directly.

    Well, we checked that, and “direct state or other government support” is also listed at zero.

    If you go line by line down UCLA's athletic revenue list, you'll see that it all comes from ticket sales, student fees, donations, NCAA/Pac-12 profit sharing; TV and radio contracts sponsorships, advertising and retail sales.

    Considering the sources, $62 million is quite a haul, and UCLA should be impressed.

    The problem is, that lump of cash hasn't translated into success on the football field.

    UCLA made one important step with the hiring of Jim Mora as the new head coach, and Mora's contract, worth about $2.4 million per season.

    But UCLA's long term success, if any, will need to be built upon a larger commitment from the institution—certainly more than 60 grand's worth—when positive things happen.

    It's entirely possible Mora could finally find success for the Bruins. But will the Bruins pay to keep him in a town currently dominated by USC?

    And what about UCLA's aging facilities?

    The Rose Bowl is a perfectly wonderful place to play on Saturdays, but the fact remains that it's not part of UCLA. While it's far beter than the US-adjacent LA Coliseum, an on-campus venue would be a much better choice.

    The last time UCLA attempted to build a football stadium on campus, politics got in the way. Nearly 30 years later, perhaps it's time to try again.

Arizona

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    The Wildcats have hired themselves a big name coach. The next step is to ensure that he has every resource imaginable to compete with the USC's and Oregon's of the world.

    Arizona spent $56.9 million in 2009-10 on its athletics program, which pales in comparison to places like Oregon ($77.9 million) and is behind even places like Washington ($61 million) and Cal ($69.3 million).

    The Wildcats are hoping Rich Rodriguez can bring back some respect to the football program, even if “win[ning] the Rose Bowl” may be a bit out of reach for now.

    “You want to go where you can win a national championship,” Rodriguez said at his introductory press conference. “I don't mind saying it. You can win one here [at Arizona].”

    The Wildcats got Rodriguez for the bargain basement price of just $1.45 million in his first season. Arizona must be prepared to up the ante a bit should Rodriguez find success in Tuscon.

    But part of that success will be attracting top assistant coaching and player talent from across the nation. That won't be cheap.

    Is the university willing to accept a higher price tag that comes with increased success?

North Texas

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    North Texas is in trouble.

    Not only did the Mean Green athletic department post an operating loss in 2009-10 (which isn't so unusual), the loss was nearly $7 million!

    North Texas is easily near the bottom of the FBS list, with expenses of $17.1 million, but North Texas took in just $10.2 million in revenue.

    Worse yet, half of that ($5 million) was from student fees!

    Attending UNT just got really expensive.

    The university itself contributed just $13,629 to athletics, the NCAA and Sun Belt pitched in $971k and loans covered another $1.4 million. Beyond that, no single source of income, including ticket sales, amounted to more than seven percent of total revenue.

    So where is all the money going?

    Well, scholarships are going to take up a large chunk of such a small budget, and at North Texas, it's nearly 20 percent of the entire budget ($3.2 million).

    The department spends another 20 percent on salaries for coaches, and 20 percent on support staff.

    We've already reached 60 percent and we haven't even talked about the incidental, day-to-day expenses yet.

    First off, the University of North Texas needs to get its financial house in order. Operating such huge deficits on such a small budget will inevitably lead to the university deciding the athletic department is no longer worth it's admittedly small benefit.

    After all, is UNT ever going to compete with the likes of Texas and Texas A&M? Didn't think so.

    Secondly, the university should stop attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the students. While the argument is easily made that an increase in direct university support just shifts the student's financial contribution from a “fee” to “tuition,” it boils down to a choice the university has to make.

    Which finally brings us to that choice.

    We are never in favor of canceling a football program, as college football is a valuable part of the college experience. But even more important than football is making sure the university is making good decisions with the tax payer and student money with which it is entrusted.

    It's not impossible to build a program like UNT up to the lofty heights programs such as Boise State, Houston or Utah have reached.

    But you can't do it half-way, and right now, it appears as if North Texas isn't quite committed to the idea of an FBS program.

Michigan State

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    Okay. Before all the Spartans fans get whipped into a tizzy, we'll explain.

    Mark Dantonio has certainly done a terrific job rebuilding MSU into a perennial winner, and with last season's Outback Bowl victory over Georgia, the Spartans have that long-awaited bowl win to their credit.

    But, as much as the Spartans hate the Mike Hart for it, the moniker of “little brother” has stuck to the program like a bad smell. Sparty has scrubbed, and scrubbed hard to remove the stench (especially considering Michigan hasn't beaten MSU since), but there's really only one thing that will cover it up: the smell of money.

    Since MSU loves the color green, you would think coming up with the dough necessary to build a truly great recruiting department would be fairly simple. After all, there are oodles of Michigan State alumni floating around the nation (Michigan State is the one of the nation's 10 largest “traditional” universities), and the recent uptick in MSU's performance on the gridiron must have had some effect on the university's ability to solicit.

    But MSU spends just $955,000 on recruiting—a number far outpaced by a number of other Big Ten programs.

    Great coaching and quality facilities will only get you so far. Eventually, you'll need to not only travel beyond the confines of the upper Midwest to find recruits, you'll need to wow them with top-notch visits to East Lansing.

Clemson

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    Clemson has every right to be considered a top-tier program in the nation.

    But you might be surprised to discover the Clemson spends just $56.8 million on their athletic programs.

    Clemson does a wonderful job of selling the brand, not only through ticket sales (which accounts for over a third of all revenue), but also with the impressive amount of annual contributions given to the athletic department (28 percent of all revenue in 2009-10).

    But one of the disadvantages of having a small budge (compared to the major heavyweights in Division I) is a similarly small recruiting budget.

    For the entire athletic department, Clemson spent $1.1 million. Compare that to the $1.4 million spent by Michigan, or the $1.7 million spent by Alabama, and you begin to see a disparity.

    While a half million dollars here or there may not seem like a ton, especially when we're talking about $57 million budgets, it's perhaps one of the most important aspects of any expense report for long-term success of a program.

    With a few simple adjustments, especially given Clemson's ability to raise money from sources other than direct university sponsorship, Clemson could quickly become one of the biggest recruiting forces in the FBS.

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