A First Down

Starting a football team from scratch requires a well-conceived game plan. In this article, one athletic administrator shares the knowledge gained during his collegeís recent successful launch.

By Dr. Donald F. Staffo

Donald F. Staffo, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at Stillman College. He served as Interim Athletic Director for the two years that included the planning and successful implementation of football. Stillman won 4 of 9 games during its first season of play in 1999, and, last fall, finished with a winning record (6-3) in its second season of play.

Athletic Management, 13.2, February/March 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1302/down.htm

On most campuses with football teams, a fall Saturday, replete with tailgating and traditions, brings alumni and current students together. Football, however, has experienced varying degrees of success on college campuses. From 1990 to 1999, 23 four-year colleges and universities dropped the sport while 32 institutions added a team.

The presence of a football team has its pros and cons. Compared to other athletic activities, it tends to bring more alumni back to campus, attract more students to the stadium, and generate more media coverage. However, itís much more expensive and can have greater Title IX ramifications than other sports.

For those institutions without a football program, administrators often wonder, will starting a football team be a positive for our campus? In 1997, at Stillman College, we decided to tackle this question. After much research, led by our President, we implemented the sport and have now completed our second season of NCAA Division III play.

In this article, I would like to share with other athletic administrators considering such a move some thoughts and experiences that may prove helpful should they begin football. Some of what follows may seem obvious, but I recommend that nothing be left to chance or taken for granted. Often itís the seemingly obvious tasks that are overlooked, and problems can result.

Although not exhaustive, this information can serve as a general guide for developing a football program from ground zero. It can be modified for use by other institutions depending upon their anticipated level of competition, level of commitment, the particular reasons the institution is considering starting football, and any other institution-specific concerns.

Research Phase
The first step in this process is to determine if starting football is, in fact, a viable proposition for the institution. This can be accomplished by forming a special committee to conduct a thorough feasibility study. Members of this committee should represent a variety of constituencies, including campus administration, athletic department, faculty, student body, alumni, and community. The study should take a minimum of one year.

At Stillman, our committee began its research by developing three different questionnaires: one for students, one for faculty, and one for alumni. Questions focused on what effect adding football would have on each individual group, and whether each group would support the team. Through these surveys, each group had the opportunity to voice its opinions and express its concerns on the idea of starting football. (Please see "Sample Surveys" below, which should be customized for each institutionís situation.)

Another important step is to bring in two or three consultantsópreferably athletic directors, football coaches, or others who have been directly involved with the start-up of football elsewhere. Their suggestions and recommendations can make the committee aware of potential obstacles. Keep detailed notes of the sessions with the consultants, taking into consideration any differences among the institutions the consultants represent and your own.

Although not necessary for all athletic directors of schools starting football, I also decided to conduct a survey of athletic directors at 30 institutions that had started football during the seven preceding years. The 30-item questionnaire, and in some cases follow-up telephone calls, enabled me to gain even more understanding into the pros and cons of starting football and what it would entail to successfully complete the task. Significant findings from my survey are incorporated throughout this article.

After gathering the above information, the committee can put together a final feasibility study. While it's important to consider all factors regarding starting the sport, the two that must command the major attention are: projected expenses and Title IX.

Football is a very expensive sport to start and maintain, which should be clear from your preliminary research. In fact, most of the athletic directors I surveyed discovered that, despite their detailed projected budgets, costs were higher than anticipated. Because of this, it is critical to gain assurance from the President that the needed funding will be obtained before deciding to bring football on board.

Another major concern is how adding football might affect the institutionís compliance with Title IX. Depending upon the institutionís particular situation prior to football, an athletic director must be prepared to make appropriate adjustments to ensure compliance with applicable federal and state gender equity laws. In some cases, adding another womenís sport or dropping a menís sport may be needed to keep proportionate the number of sport opportunities available and the number of male and female participants.

Upon completion of the feasibility study, the chief executive officer of the institution should be given a detailed, formal report. This should include: a summation of the findings of the surveys; summation of the information, data and recommendations supplied by the consultants; and a breakdown of the projected expenses of not only starting, but sustaining, football.

Before starting the sport, it is absolutely critical to have the complete, unqualified, and unwavering support of the chief executive officer of the college, especially in terms of the funding picture. The CEO must make the commitment to provide the funding or solicit the required short and long-term moneys. This was a point upon which all athletic directors surveyed strongly agreed. Many also recommended discussing with the chief executive officer the importance of financing the sport without cutting corners. Attempts to short-change needed aspects of the program could seriously jeopardize, or at least postpone, the success of the venture.

Once an institution has decided to make an across-the-board commitment to start football, it is critical to plan carefully, taking at least one and perhaps two years to prepare before fielding a team. The recommendations of the consultants, models of the start-up operations at their institutions, and findings from the feasibility study should provide ample guidance for what to do and not to do.

However, the athletic director should also organize a small working committee, consisting of people with professional expertise in specific areas to assist with the more detailed research that will be required. For example, someone with a strong business background can help develop a more detailed projected budget. The athletic director or working committee will be responsible for much of the football-specific administrative work until a head football coach is employed. Even then, the athletic director is responsible for implementing the addition of a new sport to the department.

Another critical first step in the implementation process is getting everyone excited about the addition. Even with strong, consistent leadership from the chief executive officer, the successful start-up of football will require a concerted team effort. From the start, get the involvement and cooperation of other top administrators at the school, including those in charge of institutional advancement, student affairs, buildings and grounds, academic affairs, security, and other areas on campus.

Itís also important to not overlook the coaches of other sports. In my survey of athletic directors, most found that football generally had a positive effect on the other sports and the athletic department. However, some coaches may be concerned that adding football will result in the de-emphasis of their sports. For example, without football, an institution is likely to schedule its homecoming around a basketball game, but with football would probably switch homecoming to the fall.

It is the athletic directorís responsibility to indoctrinate everybody and explain to all concerned coaches how football will benefit the total athletic program and institution. More than simply lip service, the athletic director must demonstrate that time, energy, and resources are continuing to be devoted to the other sports.

Hiring coaches is probably the biggest step in the implementation phase. It is recommended that a head coach be employed early in the process, and that the qualities of this individual be appropriate with those needed for starting a team.

For example, finding a discipline-oriented coach with great organizational skills and good contacts may be more important than finding a great offensive and defensive strategist. Such a coach will be a huge asset in making sure all the football-specific details of starting the sport are taken care of. And a coach with good local, state, and professional contacts will usually have more initial success in recruiting, generating excitement in the community, and obtaining assistance from outside sources to help with the start-up.

Itís also very helpful if the coach is familiar with all facets of national affiliation (e.g., NCAA, NAIA) rules and regulations. In our case, we coaxed a retired college coach who lives in the area into taking on one more, exciting challenge.

Start preparing a schedule of games as soon as the inaugural year of competition is decided since many schools complete their schedules several years in advance. Becoming a member of a football-playing conference will make the task easier, but will also limit control over the selection of opponents. On the other hand, an independent may have difficulty finding other teams to play because after the first two or three weeks teams in conferences will be involved in conference play.

Regardless, take caution the first few years, when your team has mostly underclassmen, not to schedule games against overmatched teams, as potentially lopsided, embarrassing losses could be detrimental to the development of the program. Keeping travel distance and other budget restrictions in mind, it is important during the programís fledgling years that the opponents scheduled give the first-year program its best chance to be competitive and, perhaps, to even win a few games. Although transfer players can speed up the process, the schedule can be upgraded once the team has a full complement of junior and senior players.

The sports information and ticket offices are another important piece of the implementation puzzle. Several months before the first contest, decisions must be made relative to various single-game and season-ticket price and package possibilities, as well as the design and ordering of the tickets. The sports information department should be putting together a media guide and game-day program, as well as planning for the operation and administration of the press box, including the issuing of press credentials and securing student assistants to handle copying and other tasks.

As mentioned above, figuring out the financial aspects of starting football is critical to ensuring success. And, as with the other factors, costs will be specific to your institutionís situation.

The largest potential cost to examine is the gameday venue. There will be significant differences in cost dependent on whether an institution already has a stadium on campus, chooses to build a new stadium, or decides to rent a football stadium. Another potential major cost is the construction of support facilities. This may include several spaces, from offices to visiting-team locker rooms to laundry facilities. In most cases, the strength and conditioning facility will also need to be upgraded and expanded because one of the first things football prospects ask about is the weight room.

Another large expense is the addition of staff. Beyond the coaches, more support personnel are normally needed. This usually includes athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, sports information personnel, equipment managers, an assistant ticket manager, as well as administrative help.

The health, safety, and welfare of student-athletes must always be of major upmost concern, as are concerns about liability. Therefore, due to the nature of the sport, project significant additional medical expenses. Catastrophic insurance should be purchased (check with whatever governing body your institution is affiliated with for guidance). The services of an orthopedic surgeon, team physician, and certified athletic trainers should be attained; some schools also hire a nurse practitioner. In addition, ambulance or ambulance/paramedic service should be on site during games.

In terms of smaller expenses, the football coach should provide his expertise relative to obtaining equipment, supplies, uniforms, and other items needed for football, such as down markers, team benches, large sideline fans, and the like. Again, unless careful attention is paid to detail, it is easy to overlook the seemingly obvious.

Once the expense items have been tabulated, further decisions will need to be made. For example, how many players can the institution afford to have on the team, equip, and take on road trips? How much publicity will be done? Will games be broadcast on the radio? Answers to such questions will be dependent upon the level of play, level of commitment, and the intent and emphasis of the program.

For some institutions, revenue will need to be factored in. For example, will gate receipts be significant? Will there be scoreboard or stadium-advertising revenues? Parking fees? Concessions?

The First Game
As the first season of competition approaches, event-day management must be planned. Officials should be secured from their associations well in advance. Also needed will be linesmen, a downs and clip keeper, a scoreboard operator, an official timer, a 25-second clock operator, statisticians, and a public address announcer. The linesmen and support officials on the field will need appropriate attire. Stadium ushers and program salespersons must be in place and appropriate vests purchased.

There are numerous other small details that must be planned for, including strategies for game-day parking, concessions, and so forth. Such responsibilities usually fall under the jurisdiction of other administrators and campus personnel, but the athletic director should be fully aware of everything. If you assume that someone else is going to take care of a particular task, that task might not get done right. Therefore it is the athletic directorís responsibility to put into place a system of checks and rechecks that will guarantee that all tasks, no matter how small, have been accomplished.

Getting Help
While such a vast array of upcoming tasks may initially seem overwhelming the increasing excitement of the first season of play helps. The athletic director should capitalize on this enthusiasm when looking for volunteers from the ranks of administrators, faculty, staff, and students.

It is suggested that the athletic director continually present the project to everyone at every level as an opportunity to become involved in something brand new. Refresh volunteersí commitments by pointing out that, regardless of how menial a task may seem, it needs to be done well in order to successfully get the program off the ground. Emphasize that becoming involved in any way would give a person a chance to say, years later, that he or she was a part of history in the making.

That theme of seize the moment should be emphasized from the beginning to everyone at every level, from head coaching candidates during interviews and prospective students considering trying out for the football team, to event-management and maintenance personnel. Regardless of whether a paid professional or volunteer wants a unique experience, or simply another item to add to his or her resume, the entire project should be presented to everyone as a series of wonderful opportunities to be a part of the launch of a collegeís football era.

Sample Surveys
The following three sample surveys can be used to assess interest in a school starting a football program, and to understand peopleís perceptions of the sport on campus. Responses to each question should include five choices: strongly disagree, disagree, not sure, agree, and strongly agree.

Survey One:
Sample Survey for Students

1. The addition of football will increase school spirit.

2. I would be willing to pay an increased student activity fee each semester to support the football program.
2a. I would pay an extra __$25__$50__$75__$100 each semester

3. I will support the football program by attending home games.

4. Home football games will result in more students staying on campus on weekends.

5. The addition of football will result in more high school students applying for admission to ______ college.

6. My family will support the football program by attending the games.

7. My friends will support the football program by attending the games.

8. The addition of football will motivate more students to achieve academically.

9. Starting football will have a negative effect on the academic progress of many students.

10. The addition of football will be a financial drain on the institutionís budget and take away money that could be better spent elsewhere.

_____I am in favor of ______College starting football.
_____I am not in favor of ______College starting football


Survey Two:
Sample Survey for Faculty and Staff

1. The addition of football will improve the image of ______ College.

2. The addition of football will encourage more high school students to apply for admission to ______College.

3. The addition of football will increase school spirit.

4. The addition of football will motivate students to achieve academically.

5. The addition of football will have a negative effect on the academic performance of students.

6. The addition of football will bring additional revenue to the institutionís budget.

7. The addition of football will be a financial drain on the institutionís budget and take away money that could be better spent elsewhere.

8. I will support the football program by attending home games.

9. My family and friends will support ______ College by attending home games.

10. The community will support ______College football even though there is already a strong college or high school football program in town.

___I am in favor of _____College starting football.
___I am not in favor of _____College starting football.


Survey Three:
Sample Survey for Alumni

1. Football would enhance the image of _______College and the college would benefit overall from the addition of football.

2. I would financially support a football program by purchasing season tickets.

3. I would financially support a football program by making a donation.

4. I would join a football booster club if the college had one.

5 A football team would help the college increase its enrollment.

6. A football team would help the entire athletic program.

7. A football team would hurt the other sports in the athletic program.

8. I would recommend student-athletes apply to ______College and try out for the football team.

9. I think alumni would return to campus to watch football games.

10. I would rather have Homecoming Weekend with a football game than a basketball game.

___I am in favor of ______College starting football.
___I am not in favor of _____College starting football.