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Smaller college football teams cash in with wins and checks

Nathaniel Bott

Upsets are a spectacle of college football, giving rise to Goliaths of a season falling to the Davids. The FCS “Davids”, who win against Power Five schools, can leave fans with an “anything is possible” mentality and develop new allegiances.

That is, unless you’re a fan of the Gators. Or Hawkeyes. Or Cavaliers. Or Hokies, Wolverines, Golden Gophers or Beavers. And on. Sixty-four teams make up the Power Five (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC), and half have lost to a FCS or Division II opponent at some point in their history.

Those cheering for the underdog may not realize these teams are getting paid to play those unlikely match-ups on the road. The money is real, as in six-digit type of checks per game. And since 2007, when Appalachian State defeated Michigan, FCS teams have been demanding and receiving more money.

Bison Bullies

North Dakota is one of those FCS programs reaping big wins and big checks. They have won five straight FCS championships and have had unprecedented success against the opponents within their division. Recently graduated quarterback Carson Wentz was selected second overall in the 2016 NFL Draft and now starts for the Eagles.

The Bison have a 9-3 record against FBS opponents, including six straight victories dating back to 2010. The biggest win came this season, on the road, against then-No. 13 Iowa. That victory launched the Bison into the national scope of success, tallying enough votes to be No. 27 in the AP rankings.

“We told our players all week long that we belonged,” North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman said following the Bison’s win over Iowa. “We belonged in this spotlight and what we had done in the past had given us the opportunity to think that we belonged.”

The key phrase is on the road. All those victories have come in their opposition’s house, leaving defeated fans with sullen looks and shaking heads. The Bison also get travel expenses, lodging, facility usage and a meaty check just for showing up.

Show Me The Money

When North Dakota State traveled to Kansas State in 2013 and beat head coach Bill Snyder’s Wildcats, they received $350,000. Since Appalachian State’s 2007 victory over Michigan, the payout numbers have been steadily increasing.

To open the 2015 season, Georgia Southern got paid a whopping $850,000 to take on West Virginia, as the Mountaineers were scrambling to fill a hole in the schedule. Georgia Southern got roughed up in that game, but it provided experience for their players and a monetary compensation that goes a long way.

FCS opponents aren’t the only ones getting in on the fun, as the Western Michigan received a combined $1.6 million to play Northwestern and Illinois on the road this season. They proceeded to beat Northwestern and smack Illinois by 24 points. Head coach P.J. Fleck is building a reputation by winning games against stingier competitors, which helped lead to him becoming highest-paid MAC coach at $800,000 per year, 45 percent higher than the next coach in the conference.

“I think what you are seeing right now in college athletics is an arms race, everyone is trying to do outdo all of their competition to attract high school kids to come to their school,” said Matthew Kulick, Western Michigan’s assistant athletic director for facilities and operations. “In that sense it’s imperative for schools to have great athletic facilities to stay competitive. Coach Fleck always talks about having the WOW factor when you walk in the building and you get that here.”

The money goes a long way for the athletic departments for these schools, contributing to things like higher employee salaries, athletic facility upgrades, gear replacement, and overall program funding.

“The money brought in from these high profile non-conference games goes toward the entire athletic department budget,” Kulick said. “We have been very fortunate and some amazing donors stepped up to the plate and helped us realize Coach Fleck’s vision for the football facility. It’s kind of a hard question for us to answer as all of the money we used to renovate our facility in the last couple years has been privately raised.”

Shying Away

At the Big Ten football media day, the conference pulled the plug on playing FCS opponents in what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany called an “athletic director's agreement.” Delany also said the new nine game schedule should increase the overall level of competition and possibly the game day experience as a side effect.

“We just play,” MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said prior to MSU’s meeting against FCS opponent Furman. “I just look and see who we're playing against and we line them up. But I know this; that Furman will come here with the intentions to win. Everybody always does. That's the way this game is played.”

Credit Nathaniel Bott / WKAR

That is a big key that helps fuel some upsets –– coaches and players overlooking an opponent that is of lesser stature than them. For Dantonio, that has never been a problem. MSU is 4-0 against FCS opponents under his tenure.

MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis announced that the Spartans opening season victory over Furman will be the last time the team squares off against an FCS opponent, and the Spartans are one of those 30 teams who remain unbeaten against FCS foes.

The Necessity

MSU and the Big Ten may be shying away from playing these teams, but somehow, someway, the FCS schools and programs within conferences falling outside of the Power Five will find a way to play up. Without the money they get for these contests, their athletic departments would struggle.

The prime example is Eastern Michigan, and its struggling football program. They’re unable to schedule enough of these types of games, meaning the lowered cash flow has hurt the university’s overall financial state. EMU was urged to drop their Division I football program, but chose to keep it going – for now. That leaves the athletic department in faces a steep climb to get back into good monetary standing.

“I will say that generally most FBS athletic departments, as a whole run, deficits, so it’s important for the entire athletic department/university to bring in money from these games as that can help reduce the overall deficit,” Kulick said.

FCS schools, without the opportunity to play big opponents, run the risk of having under-maintained facilities and a sharp decrease in athletic revenue. And when an FCS opponent like North Dakota State continuously beats FBS programs, it could result in teams shying away from setting up games with them.

But for the Bison, who are scheduled to take on Pac-12 opponents Oregon and Colorado in the 2020s, it’s not all about the money. Their competitive nature wins out, whether it be with the coaching staff of the players; they plan to keep winning those games.

“Those kids have the power to believe –– you don’t go 73-5 over the last five years and not believe you are going to win,” Klieman said. “Everybody in that locker room said ‘this is a big game, but it’s not the biggest game we have played in.’ I’d take the national championships every time.”

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