Without a winning record since 1995 and a 12-47 record over the past five years, there has been a lot of talk from the public about Eastern Michigan University dropping its football program down to a lower level of competition.
In a letter written to The Echo in October from Zachary Jones — an adjunct instructor and research assistant at EMU — he suggested what many associated with the university have said.
“Maybe our school could do without a football team,” Jones wrote. “Maybe we could go down to Division II football so we could be more competitive?
“We could compete in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Here we would be very competitive, we are the same size as Grand Valley State University and smaller than Wayne State University; both schools are in that conference.”
But many who suggest the positives of dropping down are in the dark about what advantages the athletic department sees from playing at a Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly Division I-A, status.
“If you’re going to drop down a level in football, that’s going to affect our conference status first and foremost,” EMU athletic director Derrick Gragg said. “And that’s not something we’ve ever discussed on any level since I’ve been here and I don’t think they’ve had that discussion otherwise.”
A team like Eastern Michigan, which has had six full-time head coaches in the last 20 years, might be more competitive against smaller teams, but it would be at the cost of other sports at the university — many of which are very successful against current competition.
Often people will see Eastern taking on a big-time program, like a Michigan or an Ohio State, and wonder why EMU would ever play said schools, knowing full well the chances of being competitive are a long shot.
Part of the reason why Eastern plays the high-level opponents is money.
“Of course it’s an economic thing,” Gragg said. “What you don’t want to do is have four non-conference, BCS-type games. You can make a lot of money but then you’re looking at a great competitive disadvantage. But we’re trying to develop it where we’ll play two BCS opponents a year, a ‘like-opponent’ — an Army — and hopefully every year, or every other year a 1-AA opponent.”
The 2009 season saw the Eagles earn $1,774,500 from the three non-conference road games against Arkansas, Northwestern and Michigan. The addition of a $62,500 reimbursement payment Eastern is receiving from the Mid-American Conference for a broken contract agreement in past seasons with Idaho brings the 2009 revenue to $1,837,000.
Eastern Michigan is set to play big-revenue games next season against Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Virginia. With the addition of a $62,500 payment from the MAC for a broken contract agreement with Idaho, 2010’s total revenue for those three games is $1.8 million. Army is scheduled as an EMU home game for the second straight year at the cost of $150,000.
Guaranteed contracts have also been signed with road games at Michigan and Penn State for the 2011 season, at a total revenue of $1.15 million. With two more non-conference games that year yet to be scheduled, the department might look for another “like opponent” — a Division I-A team the Eagles could stay competitive with and possibly beat — which based on past figures could pay around $150,000.
Football Championship Series team Morgan State has agreed to play a road game at EMU in 2011 at a cost of $300,000. Purdue is set to pay Eastern Michigan $750,000 for a 2012 game in West Lafayette, Ind., and Penn State, Rutgers and Army’s contracts total $1.4 million in 2013. Florida will pay $850,000 for a 2014 game in Gainesville, Fla.
Of the revenue earned from big-ticket football games, 10 percent is invested directly back into the football team. For the 2010-11 athletic season the football program is projected to receive $113,550 from its four scheduled non-conference opponents.
Some of the rest of that guaranteed money is dispersed throughout the university’s other 20 teams — which include both men’s and women’s cross country. The men’s cross country team, for example, is a 14-time MAC champion, with its latest championship in 2008.
“That’s money that’s being used to support the entire department,” Gragg said. “In particular some of the women’s sports programs. Everyone knows that generally, men’s basketball and football are the only sports across the country that produce any revenue.”
Money earned from high-profile opponents is paid to the MAC in support of post-season bowls for conference teams. That amount is $130,000 annually, per university, and at EMU is taken from the money the football program receives.
But does an institution like Eastern, with its lack of success in football, really need to play those games?
“I think you’d find that any institution like ours, whether it’s the Mid-American Conference, Sun Belt Conference, Conference USA, they’re very necessary because they help us with our overall budget,” Gragg said. “You simply wouldn’t have that revenue if you didn’t play those games.”
And money is especially hard to come by for EMU. When Gragg was hired, the budget was cut by 15 percent.
“Honestly, we do a lot here with nothing,” said associate athletic director of internal affairs Mike Malach, who handles the athletic department’s finances.
What Malach was referring to was running a department for 21 teams, the most of all MAC teams. Compared to its two Michigan MAC counterparts — Western and Central Michigan — that have 16 each, there is less money to go around. The record number of teams has also been a topic of conversation that resulted in the idea of cutting a few sports in 2007 as a possible way to save money.
Ohio University cut men’s outdoor track and field, men’s indoor track and field, men’s swimming and women’s lacrosse to bring its total number of intercollegiate sports in the MAC from 21 to 16. The move was done by then-AD Kirby Hocutt, strictly to save money, allowing more money to be allocated for scholarships and equated in increased competitiveness.
Gragg shrugged off potential for the elimination of sports in 2007 at EMU as a very preliminary discussion that didn’t hold much water, citing talks may have stemmed because of the fact he was a new hire and cuts Ohio had made.
“We’re pretty much at our minimum level as far as being able to operate,” Gragg said. “I think on the level that we’ve operated on in the past few years, I don’t think there’s any room for cuts, unless you’re talking about elimination of sports programs, which is the last thing you ever want to do.”
The Underdog Role
Though in the program’s 118 years of existence there has not been a recorded win against any team from a power conference — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-10 and SEC — recent triumphs by MAC teams over their big-conference counterparts give hope to the Eagles looking forward.
Central Michigan was paid to play at Michigan State this season and upset the Spartans, 29-27. Two other MAC teams pulled fast ones in 2009, as Northern Illinois beat Purdue, 28-21, and Toledo clobbered Colorado, 54-38.
And the Eagles have had their recent close-calls on the road at Northwestern, as they were beaten 27-24 on a 49-yard field goal with six seconds left in September. Eastern had also kept things close, 14-6, on the road in 2006.
In past years Eastern Michigan used Ford Field, a 65,000-seat stadium in Detroit, as a selling point to host higher-profile teams, Northwestern and Navy. But with the advent of the 12-game schedule and successful pressures on large programs from small conference teams, Gragg believes he can get a team from a power conference to agree to play in Ypsilanti.
“It’s very difficult for BCS schools to schedule football games because of the addition to the 12th game,” Gragg said.
“Though it helps them revenue-wise, they all want to play seven or eight home games and it’s getting to a point where we can see that and we can leverage getting them into our home field. We’ve had conversations with Big Ten and Big 12 institutions about playing football games here at Rynearson Stadium — not even having to go to Ford Field.”
Gragg declined to comment specifically on what teams Eastern Michigan might entertain because discussions are ongoing. An agreement has been reached with Michigan State and the three MAC schools from Michigan in what is being dubbed the “Celebrate the State” football series. Besides the 2012 game, EMU locked in two additional games against the Spartans in East Lansing — in 2014 and 2016 — and a home game in either 2018 or 2020.
It is also likely the Eagles will host MSU in men’s basketball as a part of the contract, and that there are strong possibilities of the EMU women’s basketball hosting the Spartans at the Convocation Center, as well.