Erskine, Winthrop ponder programs
By BOB SPEAR - email@example.com
As new teams spring up in the Southeast, two S.C. schools tackle the feasibility of adding football
Benedict College scoffed at the cynics and launched the bring-back-football idea in this area. At a time when some schools cited the game’s expenses and dropped the sport, the Tigers’ administration embraced the concept of starting a program.
Pretty soon, North Greenville and Coastal Carolina joined the parade, and the trend spread across campuses faster than fire ants. UNC Pembroke, Brevard and Campbell in North Carolina, Huntington in Alabama and Shorter in Georgia have taken the plunge in recent years.
The next domino to fall could be Erskine, the small Associate Reformed Presbyterian school in Due West that is conducting a football feasibility study.
In addition, Winthrop, in Rock Hill, has looked into the possibility of adding football, released its report last August and “is in a holding mode,” director of athletics Tom Hickman said.
“I have told people this many times: The elephant in the room is the start-up costs,” said Mark Peeler, Erskine’s athletics director. “We’re talking about in the neighborhood of $7 million before we play a down.”
Echoing that theme, Winthrop president Anthony DiGiorgio wrote in a note on the school’s Web site: “Where would the money come from? Over what period of time? Football is an extraordinarily expensive sport. ... The start-up costs are daunting, and the operating costs are formidable.”
Winthrop’s study projected it would cost more than $18 million, most of that in facilities, to start a football program and more than $2.4 million in annual operating and scholarship costs.
“We’re still looking too see if there is a way to generate the (required) revenue,” said Hickman, who chaired the task force that examined the football question.
Erskine’s study included an online survey, which received more than 1,300 responses. Most negative answers centered on the financial impact.
“Talk about sticker shock,” Peeler said. “People see $7 million and say, ‘Whoa!’ But we also asked, if football could be instituted in a cost-effective basis, would you be in favor, and the resounding answer is ‘yes.’ “
Much of the initial costs would be for facilities, which would include a stadium, field house and practice fields.
“We have talked to people at schools that have added football to know exactly what we would be getting into (in terms of expenses),” Peeler said. “We have done our homework.”
The Erskine board of trustees recommended the feasibility study last October to determine “if starting football would fit into the college’s mission,” Peeler said. The board will receive the report in October.
Increasing enrollment is the centerpiece of Erskine’s look at re-establishing the football program, which played its last season in 1951. The school also had the sport at the club level for a couple of years in the 1980s.
“Basically, we’re looking to see if football has growth potential,” Peeler said. “With football, you add about 100 students and you have intangibles in other areas. How many other students will look at Erskine because of the football program? They might be cheerleaders, band members or girlfriends, or they might be interested simply because the college has a football team.”
Erskine’s enrollment is the 600 range, Peeler said, adding: “Fifty years ago, we were comparable to Presbyterian, Wofford and Furman in size, and now those schools are much bigger.
“Attracting athletes will not be a problem. We have about 60 players in our baseball program, so the numbers are there.”
Peeler understands some faculty members will oppose adding football and acknowledges having football players would mean a difference in culture. But he counters that the school would not hire a coach who recruited players who presented academic risks.
“Football has not changed the academic priorities at Furman, PC and Wofford,” he said. “A coach at Erskine would have to recruit players who matched the academic standards of the college.”
Some wonder how the Flying Fleet would draw fans to its Due West campus, which is located between Greenwood and Anderson. Erskine’s previous teams played in those towns.
Peeler believes some doubters make the mistake of comparing Erskine’s idea of fielding a Division II team with the high-powered programs at South Carolina and Clemson.
“People see the revenue those schools bring in, and that’s not what we will be about at all,” he said. “We’re thinking in terms of scholarships and how much they would bring in. The levels are completely different. Our missions are completely different.
“I don’t know if I thought football would be good for Erskine at the start of the study, but I do now. I don’t make the decision, but I think football would work well.”
Reach Spear at (803) 771-8406 or firstname.lastname@example.org