This has not been a good few months for major college football. Schools like Ohio State, U-S-C, and Miami have run afoul of the NCAA. That’s also the case at UNC-Chapel Hill, where football coach Butch Davis was fired just before practice began, and school officials will face the NCAA infractions committee in October.
While this environment would seem to make college presidents run from big-time football, one UNC system school is running toward it.
UNC-Charlotte is building a stadium, hiring a coach, and even producing inspirational videos.
UNC-Charlotte Athletic Director Judy Rose knows what you’re thinking. And no, she’s not crazy.
Judy Rose: "Quite honestly I’ve had a few athletic directors who are friends of mine across the country said ‘what are you doing? What are you thinking? Do you know how good you’ve had it?’ But if you’d ask them if they’d really go back, if they were serious about it, and say, can I imagine my university – where I am right now - and my athletic program, our athletic program, without the sport of football? None of them would say let’s do away with it."
It’s hoped that football will transform this former commuter school into a so-called big-time university. UNC-Charlotte is already there in some ways – the school will likely top 30,000 students in a few years. Charlotte has taken a bullet train to get that big – and some say it may have missed a few stops along the way.
There’s no law school or medical school. In fact, the city of Charlotte is the largest metropolitan area in the country without a medical school.
And despite its size and modern, picturesque campus, UNC-Charlotte also doesn’t get a lot of attention.
And that, according to chancellor Philip Dubois, is where football comes in.
Philip Dubois: "You know, it’s not the physics department’s fault that they’re not on ESPN, but the reality is, they just don’t get that kind of attention. We could be talking about our mission statement, and we wouldn’t get one television camera."
Dubois says he was reluctant to pursue football at first. But the chance to keep students on campus on the weekends and draw alumni and the community back persuaded him. He seemed much more into the spirit back in April, when the school broke ground on a football stadium…
Dubois: "Are you ready for some football?"
The answer, if you are history professor David Goldfield, is a resounding “no.”
David Goldfield: "I hate to be a curmudgeon about this. There are lots of positives with a football program on the campus of UNC-Charlotte, but my concern is the economic cost of such a program."
Goldfield isn’t your average curmudgeon. He was UNC-Charlotte’s athletics faculty representative to the NCAA for 17 years and has season basketball tickets. But he says spending $45 million dollars on a stadium and another $6 million or so a year on football is too much.
And Goldfield is especially bothered by how UNC-Charlotte is paying for football – with a 350-dollar increase in annual student fees.
Goldfield: "For our students, many of them work, many are the first generation going to college and are really struggling to make ends meet, particularly in this economy. Basically, we’re trying to build a football program on the backs of our students."
Maybe now would be the time to cut to a campus protest, or hear from a disgruntled student, outraged that his or her hard-earned money is going to pay for something like football.
But student support for the fee increase is nearly universal. Amanda Markham is a senior from Apex and the student body vice president.
Amanda Markham: "It’s something that I’ve been advocating for since I first got here at UNC Charlotte. And I really saw it take shape in student government, that’s where it started, and then transferred to the students and there’s really a grassroots movement."
In 2008, an online survey sponsored by the student government showed overwhelming student support for raising fees to build the stadium and football program.
Markham says starting football will give Charlotte students some ammunition in the spirit wars with friends at Carolina and State. And it will also let her generation have a chance to shape the school’s future.
Markham: "We’re a relatively young institution. So this gives us an opportunity that a lot of other schools don’t have to really chose who we are and our own traditions and who we want to be."
Markham says she’ll be on campus early on that first game day – August 31, 2013. She looks forward to tailgating, cheering on the 49ers, and hopefully winning.
What she won’t see is a marching band. UNC-Charlotte doesn’t have one of those. Yet.