I’m going to tell you the story of a university. Long considered a commuter campus, the school lies on land-locked real estate just outside of downtown in an American major city. The school of around 30,000 students has a real problem with parking for commuters, living space for residents, and a gaping hole where school spirit normally goes at traditional institutions.
Forget 1,000 students; this program struggles to get 1,000 fans total at men’s basketball games, its student section a mere shell because there just isn’t any support. Students aren’t against basketball, but by the time the season rolls around, freshmen are unimpressed by the athletics program and initial interest is waned.
So, the university wants to change all of that. They want to make athletics a point of pride in the university, bringing people in the school community together for real. Students, forever, have clamored for football. They never organize, but the constant murmur of dissent because the school isn’t a “real” or “traditional” university finally falls on expectant ears. The university decides to pursue football.
The detractors are numerous. This isn’t the right time, with the economy so poor. The students will never go for I-AA football, and they’ll never pay for it. There are two bigger, BCS conference schools in the state. One gets the vast majority of support from people in the city, because it’s the state’s flagship school. It’s only an hour and a half outside the city, an easy drive for just about anyone. The other school has over 100 years of football history to fall back on, a dynamic athletics program with Final Four appearances and four football national titles. These two teams aren’t the only football that fans can find in and around the city. The university’s prospective athletic program would share the Dome downtown, just blocks from campus, with a successful NFL franchise.
The support of the university has been lacking, and football has an uphill climb if it just wants to tread water. They hire a man, famous for leading the NFL team, to push for football at the school. He talks to alumni, he talks to the community, he gauges interest. He finds that there is a lot of it; people want football at this school. It’s a go.
Students buck the first trend; their elected student leaders vote unanimously to support an $85 increase to the athletics fee that accommodates football, the needed women’s sports, and a marching band because hey, it’s not college football without a marching band. The school officially announces they will begin playing football in two years. The skeptics are there again. How will you pay for it? Where will you practice? You’re going to play in the Dome? It’s far too large. You don’t have support for men’s basketball, why would you expect so many more people to show up for the second level of college football, I-AA FCS?
The university hears the talk. They even understand the possibilities, that they could begin an expensive football program in a cavernous dome in front of a handful of students, family and friends. They go ahead anyway. They hire an old ball coach who played for Vince Lombardi, who talks about God and family and working hard. He assembles a program; dozens of football players step foot on campus a year in advance of the first game, redshirting the year so they can play four years of college football.
Their situation isn’t without advantages. That Dome is just a few blocks from campus, and will be just fine for the program. They have a large student population and alumni base in the city, and if they can win the hearts and minds, they’ve already won. The university is in a football-crazy state, in a football-crazy region.
On September 2nd, 2010, the Georgia State University Panthers took the field for the first time. The Georgia Dome seats over 71,000, making it immediately the largest stadium in Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as I-AA. The university expects 15,000 to 20,000 people for the first game, with a drop-off to around seven or eight thousand for the rest of the season. To get as close to a guarantee victory as possible, GSU schedules Shorter College, an NAIA school that is populated by guys who weren’t even stars on their high school teams. Scheduling that game is a risk; casual football fans could care less about NAIA teams, and they may stay away because of it.
GSU plans to only have the lower bowl open for the first game. The 20,000 they expect will fit, if a bit snug, in the first level. It becomes apparent, however, in the days leading up to game time that they will need more than the lower bowl. They decide to open seating in the second level, the middle section between the field level and the gargantuan top-level.
It’s a good idea. Fans who decide to walk up to the stadium for tickets find themselves waiting for 40 minutes. The student section fills minutes after they open the doors, overflowing with students who have long begged for a reason to give a crap about their alma mater.
When it’s all said and done, over 30,000 fans witness the first game in Georgia State football history. The game outdraws the Atlanta Braves by 5,000. Those are the same Braves that are leading the NL East right now, like they have done over a dozen times in the past two decades. On September 2nd, the baseball team that won’t play second fiddle for the Philadelphia Phillies is doing just that for the Georgia State Panthers.
UGA will always be king. The Panthers aren’t claiming to take them over. Georgia Tech will always own Atlanta. The Panthers will want to change that, but not today. For now, just being able to cut their little, 30,000 person slice is good enough.
It was, quite possibly, the biggest day in the history of Georgia State University. It was the day that 30,000 people were unwavered by the NAIA opponent, the I-AA status, or the myriad of other football options in and around the city. They wore GSU Blue, and they were damn proud to do so.
“[GSU Athletic Director Cheryl] Levick said she looked into the expectant eyes of her players and ‘felt chills.’ And it wasn’t, she noted, just the players. Walking the concourse, she kept being stopped by gray-haired alums who wanted to say thanks.” Mark Bradley, Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“My wife and I (both graduates) were beaming with pride all night long as if our kids had just finished law school. While watching this back-cracking unfold, I took glances at my three kids, who are all under 13 years old. I kept thinking to myself that they will always have GSU in mind because this was their first college football game. It wasn’t in Athens, at Bobby Dodd, or even my old stomping grounds in Knoxville; it was to our alma mater’s first college football game ever. They will remember this when it’s time for them to make a decision of what school they want to attend. I have a feeling that they won’t have to be taken here kicking and screaming like so many others have years ago because this will finally be a school of first-choice; not a place of last resort.” Poster Simon Phoenix, PantherTalk.com forum.
“‘I’ve been waiting for this for, like, ever,’ said Nicole Gaddy, who is a … freshman.” Ken Sugiura, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Also from Sugiura’s article: ‘”I’m just thrilled that Georgia State students are getting to experience this,” said Peggy Gallagher, a professor and chair of the department of educational psychology and special education. “Everyone’s walking around with a smile on their face.”‘
Maybe the best quote was also the shortest. “‘I love Georgia State football!’ a fan sitting near the end zone screamed, throwing his arms in the air.” Associated Press
So many people said it couldn’t be done, and right there is proof. Proof that not only they can do it, but we can too.
Look, you can search all over the country and not find a university that is closer to UWM than GSU. Our campus is the second-most cramped campus in the country – Georgia State is the first. GSU has spent its entire history as a commuter school, only recently warranting the residents to buck that stigma. Sound familiar? GSU has to deal with fans of the state flagship, UGA, getting everything they don’t, and then fighting within their own city against a program with a 118-year head start in football.
Speaking of football, GSU is the third-best option for football in Atlanta, fourth if you consider UGA football. In Milwaukee, there’s nothing. It’s a completely untapped market.
The main difference between GSU’s situation and ours (and really it’s the only hiccup) is they had the Georgia Dome ready-made. We don’t have a facility that we can move into right off campus; the distance from the GSU campus to the Georgia Dome is literally the distance from the UWM Union to North Avenue.
While I won’t get into it too much (holy crap it’s 6 a.m. and I need to sleep), here are some stadiums built for I-AA FCS programs in the last 15 years. Norfolk State’s stadium is the best example. I left out some smaller stadiums; a complete list will come out when I have the full report ready (oh yeah, it’s coming).
Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Cal Poly: 22,000 seats, $19.405 million
Alfond Stadium, Maine: 10,000; $7.5 million
Finley Stadium, Chattanooga (FCS Championship home): 20,688; $28.5 million
William Price Stadium, Norfolk State: 30,000; $12.2 million
Here are a couple videos I’ll leave you with: