October 22, 2009

Why don't we have an All-Star Game?

A season in football follows a familiar trajectory: preseason, regular season, playoffs, championship game, all-star event.

While we often praise Division III’s efficiency in including 32 teams in a mostly fair five-week competition to decide a champion, there’s a gaping void when it comes to an event that gathers some of our finest student-athletes and gives them one last chance to crack helmets/strap on the shoulder pads for the fans.

And it hasn’t been for lack of trying. But when the word came down last October that the Mexican football federation couldn’t honor its financial obligation to keep the 2008 Aztec Bowl afloat, it left Division III without a postseason showcase for the first time since at least 1996.

There have been other attempts, in various formats -- The All-American Bowl, The USA III/Martin Luther King Holiday All-Star Classic, The East Coast Bowl. The occasional all-division game -- the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl, the Texas vs. the Nation game and the now-defunct Hula Bowl -- has featured a Division III player. And this year a replacement for the Aztec Bowl, the Tazon de Estrellas (Bowl of Stars) is a pay-to-play game in Mexico for Division III senior players.

But if Division III can get playoffs right, why can’t we pull off an all-star game?

For starters, it’s harder than it looks. Especially in Division III, where 90 percent of the teams are located in cold-weather locales in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Northeast; nowhere you’d want to stage an event at the end of football season. Anywhere warm requires travel that costs players or organizers money, and draws the game away from its fan base.

Then there’s the matters of choosing a date that doesn’t coincide with finals, the playoffs or Stagg Bowl, yet takes place close enough to the season where players and fans are still interested. Then there’s matter of financing the whole operation -- let’s be frank here. Even the most well-run Division III all-star game isn’t likely to draw tens of thousands of fans. The national championship’s largest crowd since it moved to Salem in 1993 is 7,992, and that featured a team from a few hours up I-81. So there isn’t much money to made, if any at all, from the gate, concessions, television rights or advertising, although that doesn’t mean no one should try.

Past experiences with Division III all-star games have taught us what doesn’t work, and given us a list of ways to make it work -- two things Around the Nation will get to below. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t folks with drive and vision who see the niche and are trying to make it work.

Trying to make it work
Division III will have an all-star game in 2009.

Peter St. Lawrence, a former safety at St. Olaf, and the Collegiate Development Football League he co-founded are putting on the D-III Football Senior Classic on Dec. 5 in Salem, Va., the site of the Stagg Bowl. Ninety players will be selected to complete in a North vs. South-formatted game.

Played two Saturdays before the national championship, the inaugural D-III Football Senior Classic will use the same hotels, banquet facilities, practice fields and game field as the national finalists do when in Salem. St. Lawrence’s group hired Marty Yutachak, who puts on the New Jersey vs. the Northeast high school all-star game, to be the D-III Football Senior Classic’s executive director. And there are modest plans in other areas -- the game will be carried live on UStream; players arrive on Thursday, participate in a banquet Friday and passing clinic for Roanoke-area children on Saturday morning. They are also promised gear and exposure to media and pro scouts.

It costs $325 to participate.

Rod Myers plans to stage his game at the end of next season. He believes the perfect window is after the Stagg Bowl and Division I bowls are complete, on a Saturday, so as to avoid being overshadowed by the NFL. Although he’s yet to settle on a location or a name for the game, Myers says it will be played on Jan. 8, 2011.

Putting on a game involves at least five major concerns, Myers said in a phone interview Wednesday: Selecting players, covering their airfare, selecting a hotel, lining up activities to keep the teams busy and settling on a warm-weather or domed site for the game.

Myers had discussed holding his game in Canton, Ohio, at the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“They told me ‘we can’t guarantee you there won’t be six inches of snow on the ground,’ ” he said.

A southern California resident, Myers wouldn’t mind holding the game there. It’s easy and cost-effective to find flights into town from just about anywhere. But with only the seven Division III teams of the SCIAC and Chapman within a reasonable drive of the area, what kind of fan base could he expect to turn out for the game? He hopes to draw at least 10,000.

Although Division III’s geographic center is somewhere in Ohio or western Pennsylvania maybe, Myers’s formula for putting on a successful game involves being active in the host community, which has the potential to draw fans that otherwise would not be interested in Division III football.

Saying the game was created to honor the players’ ability and accomplishments, Myers doesn’t want participants to have to shell out a dime.

“Just like any other game you are voted or chosen to play in, I felt it would be a poor decision to expect those chosen to have to pay their way,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “It would be a real slap in the face to the players and their families. I run a classy, professional operation and it just looks tacky to make them pay. We have plenty of lead time to arrange sponsorships to cover their hotel and travel expenses.”

In talking to Myers, it seems he genuinely believes nothing is too far fetched. He’d like for his game to feature a parade through town like larger bowls do, and because of his affiliation with the fledgling Vision Sports Television Network, he doesn’t consider marketing the game to be a hill he can’t climb.

In 40 minutes on the phone, he talked about building credibility by doing things the right way, never thinking about money, and bringing his teams to visit a children’s hospital or boys & girls club.

St. Lawrence is highly motivated as well, touched by his experience as a player.

“Because St. Olaf college and D3 football gave me a new life, I will not feel complete until I have spent myself giving back to both,” he wrote when we exchanged e-mails in September.

After starting his career at I-AA Central Connecticut State, getting injured, losing his scholarship and returning home for a year to work, St. Lawrence wrote about getting a second chance at St. Olaf.

“I saw the power of second chances and the power of players from different backgrounds coming together from all over the country, bonded by a common love for the game and the dream of a better life. Players from [New York], Florida, California, Washington all venturing out to small-town Northfield, Minn., because they believed the coaches when they said, ‘this is not just small-time D3 football, it's a life, its big, and we have something special here.’ ”

Myers gained interest in the Division III void after working with Division II bowls and noticing there was a similar niche in Division III going unfulfilled. He says he doesn’t claim to know everything about Division III, but knows that he’d like to have representatives of all 28 conferences help select the players for his game.

I asked him how he can avoid biting off more than he can chew.

“That is simple,” he wrote back. “Plan a budget, hire a great staff and stick to the game plan. Lay out your logistical and financial needs, move forward to seek working partnerships only with those who can help you meet your goals. Take NO for an answer as little as possible. There are hundreds of companies who would be proud to be a part of such an event. ... Potential sponsors need to see what they can expect in return for taking part in such an event. It is all about getting more than what you pay for.”

What doesn’t work
In separate experiences with completely different all-star games in 1998, neither Ryan Carlson or I came away feeling like we got what we paid for.

Certainly things could have changed in more than a decade -- I haven’t seen a sign of the games we participated in for years. I offer our experiences not to embarrass the men who put the games on or to air out any long-held grievances. Since I didn’t make an attempt to contact either of them to give them a fair chance to tell their sides of the story, I’ll omit the names of the events. I want this only to be cautionary tales detailing what can happen when grand ideas meet less-than-grand follow through.

Carlson, a former Linfield defensive end who stays close to the game by working with a camera on the sidelines, interviewing former players and splicing video highlights for CatdomeAlumni.com, recalls just being excited to get one more game in at the end of his career. As I have oft written in ATN, once you’re done with tackle football, there are very few outlets for that particular love. That’s what intrigued me too.

In my case, I actually received an invitation to play in an all-star game in April of my senior year, in Kentucky. Of course after my career had been over a few months, I wanted to play once more, but couldn’t afford the fee. So when the invitation came to play in an all-star game in Miami, I was eager.

I was full-time starter and asset to my ’97 Randolph-Macon team, but I wasn’t one of the five best players on it; I had no business being in a true all-star game. But because I wanted to play once more, I overlooked that and put $325 on my credit card. (I gave up trying to raise money after an embarrassing phone call to one of the R-MC greats who owned a local dealership, who graciously offered $75).

In brief, we arrived on a Thursday and learned in the hotel lobby that not enough players had signed up for the game to field two teams. We were scheduled to play the Daytona Speed, a semi-pro team. Friday’s “All-Star Reception Dinner” never took place, nor did promised tours to “Bayside and the Italian Mansion Vizcaya.”

My teammates were from Ripon, I-AA Alabama A&M, Division II Arkansas Tech and Mars Hill and NAIA Clinch Valley (now U.Va.-Wise), and those are just the ones I remember. There was a a semi-pro player on our team named Ray who had come down as support staff and ended up starting at middle linebacker.

The organizer surely meant well, but it was a sham from the get-go. But since we were on South Beach, we relaxed by the pool, took in the nightlife and beat the Speed 35-0 in a completely empty Orange Bowl. I didn’t come home with regrets; my money had given me two experiences I otherwise never would have had: a defensive walk-through on South Beach and the chance to dress in the ‘Canes locker room.

Carlson, who had a similar experience, didn’t come home so happy. His full story is on the Around the Nation thread on Post Patterns, but here’s an excerpt:

“I was pretty excited to get invited to an "all-star" game and so was Linfield. 1998 was Linfield's first year in Division III so it was a big deal for a player to get invited to a postseason game. Linfield put up the $400-$500 and I was officially put on the West roster and received a packet of information about the week of the all-star game. Per the itinerary the players would have a media day where we would talk to local media about the game, a combine with professional scouts (arena, smaller leagues, NFL), practices, we would participate in a local Mardi Gras parade, and a number of what sounded like a well organized and planned out events.

Upon reaching New Orleans, I met a few guys from UW-Stout at the airport and we headed out to the hotel. When we arrived the hotel was actually a flea bag motel near the airport. My roommate, a punter from Simpson, was already there and we talked for a bit. The hotel was very sketchy but I wasn't too worried at that point. That evening was supposed to be the "media day" event in the "conference room.” The players went down to the conference room which was actually a dingy, dark, mold infested basement where a half-full keg of warm flat beer and a couple of metal folding chairs greeted us. At that point, the players looked around the room and we all noticed there were only about 20 of us and of course no media. The confirmed roster we saw on [the web site] before we flew out to the game listed about 70 players to make up the two rosters. At that point we all knew something was up. [The organizer] arrived for a few minutes to talk about the week ahead and how great it was going to be and left us about five minutes later.

The players started talking about if more guys were going to show and how we all felt this event wasn't on the level. The next morning there were about five more players (around 25 total) and we all kind of knew this wasn't going down like we had hoped. After we held a practice or, something they called a practice, the players once again met and requested [the organizer] to be present. We point-blank asked him why there were only enough guys to barely make up one roster and expressed with him how disappointed this had become with how unorganized this whole event was. [The organizer] tried his best to dance around the questions and talked about how he could get a local community college to play against us and things were not that bad. Pretty much, the players walked. A number of guys just caught a flight out that night or the next morning or turned the remainder of their trip into a vacation. It was just a bummer because we all just wanted one more shot to play against our peers at the end of our college careers. On top of that, Linfield had been so generous to pay for the trip and it winds up being a complete bust. It was just a bad way to wrap up college football as a player.”

So regardless of whether a student-athlete goes home happy like I did or disappointed like Ryan, neither of the experiences lived up to that one final taste of pure college football like we’d hoped.

Wrote Ryan:

“One thing I do want to make clear is that I'm not saying don't take part in player fee all-star games, but do your research and make sure the organizer has a positive track record and that they have a history on delivering on their promises.”

How it should work
There are examples of functioning all-star games that defy the debacle above. The Aztec Bowl, pitting a team of Division III stars against the Mexican all-stars on their turf, went smoothly from 1997 through 2007.

The ninth annual East Coast Bowl is planned for Nov. 28 in Petersburg, Va. It features a mix of players from Divisions I-FCS, II and III.

The OhioCollegeFootball.Com Bowl plans to feature a similar mix of divisions when it pits 50 players who’ve exhausted college eligibility on a north team vs. 50 on the South at 1 p.m. on April 17. (The date was chosen partly because the weather would be miserable otherwise.) That’s great news for a little more than 20 Division III schools, but it doesn’t do a student-athlete from Massachusetts or Wisconsin or Texas any good.

And people speak highly of the Valero Cactus Bowl, a Division II senior all-star game slated for Jan. 9 in Kingsville, Texas. It was previously known as the Snow Bowl from 1994 to 2001, and was held in Fargo, N.D.

Here in Division III, we blogged last season about starting a new game and wrote about it in ATN. It’s also been a topic on Post Patterns this season.

I asked D3football.com’s Gordon Mann and Pat Coleman for their ideal Division III all-star game scenarios.

Says Mann:
My ideal all-star game would have the following components:

• Played after the Stagg Bowl so all teams can participate. Maybe hold it over the Christmas break.

• Allow a maximum of two players per team. I know the elite teams have more than two kids who are worthy, but I'd want to balance that against the goal of shining light on the kids who won't get a chance to play on national TV in the Stagg Bowl.

• Give the Division III guys a chance to showcase their skills to a larger audience, including pro scouts. Maybe this means only seniors can play since we assume D3 kids aren't coming out early. Over time these opportunities have disappeared as some all-star games, the Arena Football League and NFL Europe have folded.

With that third objective in mind, how about a game that mixes Division III and Division II all-stars from one region against D3 and D2 all-stars from another (North vs. South or East vs. West)? Adding the D2 guys to the mix might increase the likelihood of drawing sponsors, scouts' attention and TV coverage (even if only on a lesser known cable station). You could bill it as a Hidden Gem Bowl. While a D2 versus D3 all-star game is alluring, the D2 guys may not have much incentive to take that.”

Says Coleman:
“I think the ideal D-III All-Star Game would be the night before the Stagg Bowl, in Salem. Obviously logistically that's difficult, since ESPN is usually doing its setup then, but hey, we're talking about the ideal, right?

Otherwise, perhaps the day after. The players from the championship game could suit up if they prefer and get introduced even if they couldn’t play. Fans could stick around for a Sunday noon game and then head home.

And sure, the sponsorship for anything is a question. D-III has ties in all sorts of large corporations, though, such as Burger King, Outback Steakhouse, but this isn't a great time to go looking for that sort of thing. An event like this would never come close to making money.

An airline would probably make the most sense, hoping to get kids into wherever the game is held. I would think we would want to select players ourselves, with a heavy dose of coaches' opinions. Maybe some sort of automatic qualifying system for a senior player of the year in each conference? Although, that would probably give us a dozen quarterbacks.

But another thought that perhaps shares the cost burden a little bit is to challenge the NAIA to an all-star game. Part of me has to be practical and think that the costs of getting 90 seniors to Salem is going to be problematic. But if Division III is bringing 45 kids in and the NAIA is doing the same for the other 45, it might be manageable. Plus, it would give us something else to measure Division III vs. the NAIA on, in addition to the head-to-head matchups that Division III has done well with in recent years.

And if the NCAA won’t allow us to use the football stadium, there is a minor league baseball stadium footsteps away that would be adequate.

This is coming for the men’s basketball tournament. It has the support of the coaches’ association. The AFCA needs to be an integral component of this now, too, and return to fielding a team like it did for the Aztec Bowl. It just needs to be played where fans can see it.”

Me personally?
I’m less concerned with television and whether or not sophomore and juniors are allowed to play.

I think it absolutely has to be cost-free for the participants, and tied in with Stagg Bowl weekend. Any earlier, and you run the risk of eliminating too many good players from teams making deep playoff runs. Any later, and you lose the momentum from football season. After the holidays, Division III fans are on to basketball, or at least no longer have football on the mind.

I envision a time when the Gagliardi Trophy ceremony is on Thursday, the all-star game is on Friday and the championship game is Saturday in prime time. Having all three events tied in together would give fans incentive to make a weekend out of it; anyone coming to one might as well stay for all three. I think it would positively impact the attendance at all three, and make the weekend a celebration of the Division III experience.

Does Salem/Roanoke have enough rooms to pull this off, or enough volunteers to pull off making four teams feel like honored guests? Would the NCAA or ESPN have concerns about someone using the field the day before the championship?

Probably. But this is my ideal. And at the top of my list is something that becomes a true event, as open to as many participants and fans as possible, without taking away from the focus on the playoffs at that time. Could it happen? Who’s to say?

Until then, we have no shortage of folks trying to make Division III all-star games work.

Even we can’t agree on what’s perfect.

For what it’s worth, Myers says he’s open to suggestions, at info@visionsports-tv.com. St. Lawrence and his fellow organizers can be reached at D3seniorclassic@gmail.com, and the OhioCollegeFootball.com Bowl can be contacted at info@ohiocollegefootball.com

Continue this discussion on the ATN thread, because it’s so much more complex than one column can really make clear.

Poll positions

So here's something I'll never understand about polls(ters). How can we rank Mary Hardin-Baylor eighth this week and Mississippi College No. 15 after the Choctaws just beat the Crusaders?

Don't feed me the line about Mississippi College having a three-point advantage for playing at home, and winning 17-14. It doesn't matter that UMHB came in ranked No. 3, and is about as solid a perennial top-five team as there is in Division III, and Mississippi College was unranked.

In a realm where voters are forced to make so many suppositions and assumptions because we lack real data, how can we possibly ignore the one piece of concrete information that we have? The Choctaws just beat the Crusaders. Head to head. Nothing fluky about it.

Being ranked behind a team you just beat, when all else is fairly equal, is just wrong.

I understand that teams don't always put forth their most complete effort, and that injuries and other factors affect how teams perform from week to week. Few people would be shocked if UMHB played deep into the playoffs, long after the Choctaws turned in their equipment.

So I get that it's possible voters still think UMHB is seven spots better than Mississippi College. But I don't agree with it. I think it flies in the face of everything a poll is supposed to be.

Along the same lines, I still haven't moved No. 13 North Central (5-1) ahead of No. 20 Ohio Northern (4-2) on my ballot. Can't see why I would ignore the Polar Bears' 28-19 Week 1 win against the Cardinals. But if North Central beats No. 3 Wheaton on Saturday and ONU struggles with John Carroll (3-3, with a one-score loss to No. 14 Capital last week), I might have to consider it.

I realize there's a school of thought that weighs more recent performances more heavily than early-season games. I'm very much in the head-to-head results trump everything camp. It would take quite the stumble by ONU to get me to cross over into North Central-is-better territory, even this deep into the season.

Conversely, a North Central win over Wheaton might cause me to downgrade both CCIW contenders, behind four OAC teams. Mount Union, Capital and Otterbein to date have each put itself ahead of ONU in the pecking order so far.

The great thing, Division III fans always say, is that we get to sort this out on the field. That's wonderful, but what exactly are we sorting out if we voters are ignoring the results?

A chance to tell your story

I’m taking one more crack at opening ATN up to the masses. Next week’s column is expected to feature a handful of short vignettes from ATN readers. The only request is that they involve something that took place in 1999 or more recently. It can be a father’s tale about watching his son, or a player’s description of what it feels like at the bottom of the pile on fourth-and-goal with the game on the line. It can be about a road trip, an on-air moment, a coaching decision, an alum’s return to campus … the choice is yours. Every perspective is valid.

Keep them as to-the-point as possible and I’ll edit and choose the ones I think ATN readers would most enjoy. It’s a rare opportunity to share the perspective from your corner of the Division III world with all of us, so I hope you take advantage.

Who are those guys?

Since it’s hard enough to keep track of the 238 teams and 28 conferences we follow, ATN keeps a watchful eye on Division III’s record in out-of-classification competition:

vs. Division I, FCS (0-0 in Week 7; 2-6 in 2009)
None

vs. Division II (0-2 in Week 7; 6-10 in 2009)
None

vs. NAIA (0-0 in Week 7; 22-10 in 2009)
Webber International (independent) at No. 5 Wesley
Southern Oregon (independent) at No. 8 Mary Hardin-Baylor
Marian (Mid-States Football Association) at Albion

Games of the week

For a breakdown of this week’s national games to watch and why, see Friday morning’s Triple Take.
Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and I field seven questions regarding this Saturday’s schedule, and give you three answers to each on our blog, The Daily Dose.

The press box

Correction: An early version of this week's column listed the wrong last name for the organizer of the all-star game planned for Jan. 8, 2011. It is Myers.

Readers: Beyond asking for your contributions to the Week 9 column above, ATN is looking for particular feedback on best post-D3 careers and famous Division III alumni in three fields: players, coaches and those who are recognizable for other reasons (entertainers/politicians). Contribute on Post Patterns.

All season, ATN is seeking feedback on the Ten Best lists and moments to remember for the year-in-review.

Around the Nation always encourages general opinions on the column. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send e-mail to Keith@D3football.com or use our feedback form.

Follow Around the Nation …
1. … When the column publishes on Thursdays.
2. … Throughout the week on Twitter. This is ATN’s first season tweeting. Follow @D3Keith.
3. … Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.
4. … Whether ATN travels or observes from the home office, Saturday’s Gameday post on The Daily Dose is where you can find D3 staffers and fans from all over the country sharing highlights.
5. … Advance discussions raised here on Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board.

Sports Information Directors: To contact Keith McMillan, use Keith@D3football.com, or mail to D3football.com, 13055 Carolyn Forest Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.


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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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