Adding football: Why and how

This piece originally appeared in the game program for Stagg Bowl XXXIII, in December 2005.

By Pat Coleman

Christopher Newport celebrates

Christopher Newport went to the NCAA playoffs in its first year of football, a surprise even to those running the program.
Photo by Pat Coleman,

At the end of the first quarter of the 2004 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, Jerry Bawcom appeared almost winded.

With Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor tied at 7-7 through 15 minutes, Bawcom wasn't wearing shoulder pads, or a headset, but nonetheless was one of the most important reasons why Mary Hardin-Baylor was playing in Division III football's national championship game.

The university's president was doing a live radio interview between quarters with's Pat Cummings, watching an event he never expected to be involved in, at least not yet. Not a little over seven years after making the decision to start the sport.

"I don't think we ever dreamed we'd be here as quickly as we are now," Bawcom said then.

But football dreams abound. Seventeen schools currently in Division III have added the sport in the past nine seasons, with two more coming this fall. Four of those have already made playoff appearances. Schools cite improving school spirit, propping up enrollment or changing the gender balance of the student body as reasons for starting the sport. And many have discovered it has benefits beyond the athletic department.

Christopher Newport, a state-supported school in Newport News, Va., found that out starting in the spring of 2000, when it committed to adding football for 2001. "Our president (former U.S. Senator Paul S. Trible Jr.) went to a meeting of our conference presidents and heard about the excitement it had brought to campus," says athletic director C.J. Woollum. "They said it helped fill residence halls, brought spirit to the campus in general."

CNU had studied all phases of football's potential impact, including the costs of laundry detergent, opening the residence halls for preseason camp, interest from the faculty and student body, even what kind of effect it would have on traffic in the local neighborhood on Saturdays.

The team then went to the playoffs each of the first four years of the program's existence, winning the automatic bid in the USA South Athletic Conference (previously the Dixie Conference) in 2001, 2002 and 2003 before qualifying as an at-large team out of Pool C in 2004. And the results improved each time out.

"We won a conference championship game -- we beat Ferrum that first year (in the final week of the season, clinching the automatic bid) and I thought we played extremely well but got lucky too," says Christopher Newport coach Matt Kelchner. Then we went up to play Widener in the first round and got it handed to us." The Captains lost 56-7.

"The next year we competed a little bit in the first round, played a tough game at Washington & Jefferson into the fourth quarter before losing at the end (24-10)," Kelchner recalls. "Then the third year we won a home playoff game.

"(In 2004) we got an at-large, went on the road, played and beat an undefeated team (Salisbury) at their place. Now, the next obvious step is to win two playoff games, and so on."

But despite CNU's success, Mary Hardin-Baylor's trip to the Stagg Bowl in 2004 (a 28-21 loss to Linfield) raises the expectations of what can be done with a startup football program.

"That's pretty impressive stuff getting to the championship game in seven years," says Kelchner. "That's a heck of a job they did down there. I guess it's a pretty similar situation, they have a good recruiting base, good staff, institutional support. To do it within the rules, you have to hit it right."

Mary Hardin-Baylor, in Belton, Texas, was a women's school for more than 100 years before going co-ed in 1971. "Our enrollment was predominantly female, so we wanted to create an increased male base," Bawcom says. "We also wanted to change the social environment on campus on weekends, especially in the fall semester, with the game, the pep rallies and the rest of the experience."

Mary Hardin-Baylor at the Stagg Bowl
Mary Hardin-Baylor's appearance at the Stagg Bowl in 2004 was somewhat unexpected, especially since it had to play road games throughout the bracket.
Photo by Todd Allred for 

"They felt like they needed a venue that would bring the students together," Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Pete Fredenburg adds. "It didn't materialize early but it has since, and that has to make the decision-makers pleased. Those factors and just to get the university some awareness in the public of things (aside from football) that were going on here."

The recruiting goals were modest. With an initial outlay of $1 million, the school felt it needed 65 incoming freshmen in the initial class in order to accommodate the budget. Instead, 200 new students arrived. "Not only did we have ourselves covered, but we could begin a junior varsity team," Bawcom says.

On the field, the Crusaders were a quick study, going 3-7 their first season, 4-6 in their second year, then 9-1, allowing opponents fewer than 13 points per game and narrowly missing a playoff spot.

"The first year I think all of us questioned, can we really see this is going to develop?" says Fredenburg. "But the core group of people that started it all really held us together. The kids that did it were the foundation, and we just added to it every year."

Bawcom, who is a former coach and dean of students, could see the building process was ahead of schedule as well. "After the third year, I could tell that we had done the right things by getting experienced coaches and trying to recruit a solid base of athletes for the program. Those coaches have stuck with us and they love the Division III philosophy even though many of them have coached at D-I."

That year set the bar higher than the original thinking -- that it would probably take a decade before Mary Hardin-Baylor could be a viable competitor for the American Southwest Conference title.

Kelchner's projections for Christopher Newport look modest by comparison as well. "When I first came on the president asked how long it would take to get a winning team. I told him 'three years for sure.' I knew it would probably happen but I was pleasantly surprised it happened right away."

The success stories are not lost on other startup programs. LaGrange College, about 60 miles southwest of Atlanta, has had coach Todd Mooney in place since March 2005 and takes the field this fall. Mooney knows what other schools have accomplished but isn't ready to say it will be able to repeat the success of CNU or UMHB. "It certainly shows you that you can do things in a relatively quick manner. We want to be competitive and win as soon as we can. But we need to be mindful that this is an academic institution and want to bring in kids that are going to be a positive influence, both in the school and community."

Incoming class

The current Division III members who have added football since 1997, and how they've performed through the 2005 season:
School Year added (W-L) Best season (W-L)
Greensboro 1997 (0-9) 2000, 2001 (5-5)
Mary Hardin-Baylor # 1998 (3-7) 2004 (13-2)
Texas Lutheran 1998 (4-6) 2004 (7-3)  
Mount Ida 1999 (3-4) 2004 (6-2)
Averett 2000 (1-9) 2005 (7-3)
East Texas Baptist # 2000 (2-8) 2003 (9-3)
Louisiana College 2000 (2-8) 2004 (5-5)
Rockford 2000 (1-9) 2003, 2004, 2005 (7-3)
Shenandoah # 2000 (3-6) 2003 (8-2)
Wisconsin Lutheran 2000 (3-7) 2003 (5-5)
Christopher Newport # 2001 (5-4) 2004 (9-3)
Utica 2001 (0-8) 2005 (6-4)
Endicott 2003 (4-5) 2005 (7-3)
Huntingdon 2003 (0-7) 2005 (7-2)
Husson 2003 (0-6) 2005 (3-4)
North Carolina Wesleyan 2004 (4-4) 2004 (4-4)
Becker 2005 (0-8)
# Has participated in NCAA playoffs

His school announced an enrollment of 1,046 students for the fall semester of 2005, with plans to approach 1,200 by 2008. Mooney expects to have between 100 and 110 players when camp opens in August. But it's not only about bringing in warm bodies. "As new as we are and with the resources they're putting into this, the last thing we want to do is bring some kids on campus that cause us some black eyes real quick," says Mooney. "We're really looking into the character of the kids we recruit."

His school announced an enrollment of 1,046 students for the fall semester of 2005, with plans to approach 1,200 by 2008. Mooney expects to have between 100 and 110 players when camp opens in August. But it's not only about bringing in warm bodies. "As new as we are and with the resources they're putting into this, the last thing we want to do is bring some kids on campus that cause us some black eyes real quick," says Mooney. "We're really looking into the character of the kids we recruit."

The end goal is to try to balance a student population that is currently 60-40 female. LaGrange is budgeting $3.5 million for adding football, including a building addition to house locker rooms, offices, a weight room and space for athletic trainers. It also covers equipment, anticipated travel costs and half of the cost of putting artificial turf in a city-owned stadium adjacent to campus.

But although a trip to Salem for the Stagg Bowl is certainly on the mind of most Division III football programs, Mooney has more immediate interests to worry about. LaGrange's conference, the Great South Athletic Conference, has just two other schools that play football. So by the time the Panthers' seventh season rolls around, Mooney says, "At that point I'd like to see us an active member in a conference. I'd like to see us competing for a championship in that conference and hopefully national notoriety."

As the only Division III football program in Georgia, LaGrange has the potential to turn local talent into early success, as Christopher Newport has done in the Tidewater area, previously without Division III football. Huntingdon, in Montgomery, Ala., has finished three seasons of football and appears to be carving out a niche for itself in the Gulf South area. And Mary Hardin-Baylor hardly has Texas to itself, but there is plenty of football talent to go around.

"I was confident that the location of our school would be an impact on the kind of kids we could recruit," Fredenburg says. "I had confidence in our staff to develop football players we believed would be successful."

East Texas Baptist made a surprising playoff run, with a first-round win, in 2003. file photo 

Christopher Newport spent what Woollum termed "several million dollars," raised from private donations and student fees (Virginia does not permit state funds to be used for athletics), but has generated a lot of excitement as well, from the moment Kelchner was named coach.

"I'd been at William & Mary, in Division I-AA," Kelchner says, "and seen some of the press conferences we had there. But here we had a couple hundred people, the band was there, writers, three or four TV stations. I was shocked. I was kind of shaking in my boots."

The Captains have a 3,200-seat stadium that has been sold out since Day One, with naming rights sold to a local sponsor. Four consecutive trips to the playoffs can't hurt.

"We defied the norm by far, and it was really pretty shocking," Woollum says.

Both Mary Hardin-Baylor and Christopher Newport say they have received many phone calls from schools looking into adding football. Planning is always on the top of the list.

"I would suggest they do what we did, and make sure they do an in-depth study of all phases," said Woollum. "And make the same commitment we did, secure the best coach they could possibly get, get staff members the year before so they can recruit. We've seen some startup programs that don't have what they need and it's reflected in the record."

For coaches, Fredenburg recommends conceptualizing how one sees one's self and the program. "I think you have to have a clear, concise vision or philosophy of how to achieve that. It's all-encompassing, it's not just X's and O's -- although you have to have that. You have to have a philosophy of recruiting, how you deal with players, coaches. All those in my opinion have to be a part of it.

"In the final analysis, in the hard times, when you're really questioning what you're doing, that's all you can fall back on -- what your beliefs are and how they've developed over the years. It comes right back down to that."

But even though facilities, coaches, philosophy, recruiting, equipment and student-athletes are all crucial to success, coaches of startup programs still point up the ladder to the person at the top. If the president of the school is fully invested in the project, it's easier to achieve success.

"Make sure your president, provost, chancellor, knows exactly what it's going to take," says Kelchner. "If he isn't on board, it's not going to happen.

"There are a lot of presidents who don't understand what it takes to have a successful program, especially with football."

Bawcom appears to understand, however. "I think the thing I would say would be take the time to build a base before you actually kick the first ball," he says. "Develop friends in your community. Get the funds raised. Get your head coach early enough so he can run with you."

Those were the goals. The procedures varied at different institutions, but most agree on various points.

In short:

1) Put together a plan. Adding football is essentially a six-year process, from the moment a school announces its desire to bring the sport to campus until the first freshman class graduates.

2) Hire your staff early in the process. Having more people involved in the recruiting process at its earliest stages will help ensure the first incoming class has quality along with quantity.

3) Make sure your facilities are up to par. That includes not just the football stadium and locker rooms, but other athletic and general campus facilities, such as weight rooms and residence hall space.

4) Involve the community, not only in terms of fundraising but in getting people excited about football.

But none of this will be as effective if the CEO isn't on board. In the case of Christopher Newport and Mary Hardin-Baylor, they were.

"All of these things are important to start with so you can have success later," says Bawcom. "And if you do that, the result can be what happened here."