Opinion » Viewpoint

War Games

How the University of Memphis can win the college football battle.



I've got a check made out to the University of Memphis Foundation for $500. Not much, especially relative to the Alan Graf/Harold Byrd/Elaine Springer scale of giving, but every little bit helps, right?

So, University of Memphis: The $500 is yours.

I'll sign, date, and mail the check the day the University of Memphis moves its football program out of the top tier and into a lower subdivision.

Such a move has less to do with football than with economics, and it has nothing to do with the Tigers' rout at the hands of Mississippi State on September 1st.

The NCAA offers four tiered groupings of athletics from which schools can choose to participate. Division I breaks down into the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

The FBS is home to the powerhouse football conferences that dominate TVs across the U.S. on Saturdays in the fall — and also-rans like Memphis and the rest of Conference USA.

The FCS includes Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale. Division II has schools such as Delta State, Grand Valley State, and Texas A&M-Kingsville, etc. And Division III institutions include Rhodes, Sewanee, and Millsaps.

Right now, FBS collegiate athletics stands on the precipice of a massive upheaval. A handful of schools defected to new conferences last year, but judgment day was postponed when, rather than jump from the Big 12, Texas chose to wait and see. The cease-fire lasted until last week, when Texas A&M announced its intention to leave the Big 12 and, ostensibly, to seek admission into the SEC.

Once the dust has settled, I predict many FBS schools excluded from power conferences will make the move to the FCS. Eternal optimists say Memphis has a shot at grabbing a seat in the Big 12 or Big East, once this last grand game of musical chairs starts. But what price would victory be for Memphis to find itself ensconced in a big conference and having to contend against the superpowers? Will the U of M then enter into the arms race regionally with Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi with the thought that it could possibly win?

I propose that Memphis instead play a nice game of chess. Why throw money at a football program that can't win — and, if you haven't heard, money is good to have on hand these days — when you can put it to such good use academically?

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

College is about education. Memphis should take the millions budgeted annually for its FBS football program and divert it toward a goal of being a top research school. Memphis could be one. In the pursuit of such a goal, the school will be investing in economic development, education, and job creation for the whole community. That kind of thing pays dividends for all of us, not just the fraction of the population that actually cares about the football team.

Fear not, civic leaders. Some other cities that are not host to a university playing FBS football? New York, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Charlotte, and Indianapolis.

Fear not, either, Tiger hoops fans. The strategic move for the football team need not affect the basketball team one iota. Other colleges that choose FCS football but have great basketball teams: Butler, national runner-up the last two years, and perennial top-seeds Georgetown and Villanova. One may argue that without the football millstone around its neck, Memphis athletics could attain even bigger things than it already has.

Drop the program to FCS, and do it with a very public statement and unified front from the university. Say that Memphis believes in academics and wants to have a world-class school first — a school that can support a world-class basketball team but that doesn't waste energy on distractions like football.

Can you imagine the national headlines we would make, and for something so positive? The city that made the entrepreneurs behind FedEx, Holiday Inns, the world's first grocery store, and rock-and-roll will have started a revolution in higher education's relationship with athletics.

An NCAA ad says that most of its thousands of student athletes are "going pro in something other than sports."

It's time for the University of Memphis to do the same.

Greg Akers, a football fan, is editor of MBQ: Inside Memphis Business, a sister publication to the Flyer, and is a frequent student at the University of Memphis.

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