College Football: Are the Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens Still an FCS Powerhouse?

Alan BlackAnalyst IIIJuly 15, 2013

September 3, 2011; Annapolis, MD, USA;  Delaware Blue Hens running back back Andrew Pierce (30) scores a fourth quarter touchdown against the Navy Midshipmen at Navy Marine Corps Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The University of Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens are a storied football program.  Since moving up to what is now the FCS of college football in 1981, UD has won a national championship, lost in the championship game three other times and made it to at least the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs a total of 12 times.

Legendary head coach Tubby Raymond amassed 300 wins in his 36 seasons as the head coach of the Blue Hens and was inducted into the NCAA Hall of Fame in 2003.  Just two seasons after Raymond's 2001 retirement, his replacement, K.C. Keeler, guided the Blue Hens to a national championship. 

The fanbase was a force to be reckoned with, too. Delaware was the only FCS team to average more than 20,000 fans per home game each season for the 10-year period between 1999 and 2009.

In 2009, the team's hometown, Newark, was listed in the top 200 of The Sporting News' 400 Best Sports Cities, earning that ranking almost entirely on the strength of the UD Football fanbase.

The Blue Hens made the FCS Championship game as recently as the 2010 season, experiencing a heartbreaking 20-19 loss to Eastern Washington.

Since that 2010 season, however, UD has taken a bit of a step back.  First came a 7-4 2011 season that saw the Blue Hens miss the playoffs.  Then came a 5-6 record last season, culminating in the firing of Keeler, the only head coach the team had known since Raymond's retirement.

The team hasn't fared so well recently in the Battle of the Blue against hated rival Villanova, either.  UD has won the game only once in the past seven seasons, which is unacceptable to most fans.

The fanbase hasn't been quite as formidable either.  The last season in which the team averaged at least 20,000 fans per home game was the 2009 season. Delaware was barely able to crack the top 5 of FCS attendance, despite having a stadium capacity and tradition that usually put them right near the top.

New head coach Dave Brock has no prior connection to the school, so his hiring hasn't exactly been greeted with excitement by most of the fanbase.  The mystique surrounding the whole program isn't currently what it used to be.

Which begs the question: Can Delaware still be considered an FCS powerhouse?

For the first time in a long time, there is major uncertainty surrounding Delaware football.  The Blue Hens just missed the playoffs for a second year in a row, fired their championship-winning head coach and hired an outsider who hasn't been met with open arms by the fans. 

From that perspective, it seems like "powerhouse" might not be the most accurate title. 

On the other hand, things might not actually be as bad as they seem. 

Between winning the 2003 national championship and making a title game appearance in 2010, Keeler's teams missed the playoffs four times and twice posted losing seasons.  That means that Delaware's status as an FCS powerhouse never came from year-in-year-out excellence.  It came from sporadic greatness every few years.  There's no reason to believe that the current two-year downturn isn't just part of that pattern.

The attendance figures can also be explained by student unhappiness with strict policies related to game security and a feeling that the University's administration doesn't value the football program or the fanbase properly.  Changes to make game day more student-friendly would most likely result in a return to higher attendance.

Also, it is important to note that while attendance figures are down by UD standards, the team still posted the fifth-best attendance in all of FCS football last year, despite a losing season.  The attendance may be disappointing by the program's traditional standards, but it still beats out almost all of the other schools in the Blue Hens' subdivision.

The conference schedule will also be getting a little easier for Delaware, as recent formidable team Old Dominion leaves the CAA to transition to the FBS ranks.  One less difficult game on the schedule makes a return to glory that much easier.

Another good sign for the Blue Hens is the return of running back Andrew Pierce, who saw his production last season cut short by injury. The four-year starter is one of the top backs in the nation at the FCS level, totaling over 3,500 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns in what were essentially two and a half seasons of play.

So the potential for UD to have a great season this year is still very much there.

Is Delaware still an FCS powerhouse?  It all depends on how you look at it.