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Mercer and Stetson Flap Their Wings, and an Earthquake Happens In the Missouri Valley?

(Photo Credit: The Macon Telegraph)

You may have missed it, but two pieces of news happened in the last six months that may have a much more profound change on the landscape of FCS football than you might think.

In November, Georgia-based Mercer College announced they would be fielding a football team for the first time in 70 years.

And in March, their Atlantic Sun leaguemates Stetson in Florida also announced their intent to do the renovations necessary to bring football back to their campus as well after a 55 year hiatus.

Chaos theory tells us that small variances (like Mercer and Stetson starting football) sometimes have large, unpredictable ripple effects very far away (like a larger realignment in Midwestern football conferences).

Seem crazy? Not exactly.(more)

The non-scholarship Pioneer Football League has always been a football conference of convenience for its members.

In effect created by the "Dayton Rule", which required schools playing Division I basketball to bring all their sports to Division I, the PFL was a league filled with schools that wished to continue to sponsor non-scholarship or limited-scholarship, football yet still play in the lucrative NCAA Tournament in basketball.

Members like Dayton (Atlantic Ten), Drake (Missouri Valley), Evansville (Missouri Valley) Butler (Horizon) and Valparaiso (Horizon) found a great home in the PFL for the large reason that they were allowed to remain in their very lucrative basketball conference while competing with like institutions in football.  Without scholarships, it didn't cost an arm and a leg to have football, either.

And it was a model that would be able to exported - literally - cross-country.

A year later, San Diego (WCC) joined the football league and made it a conference that spanned time zones, the members of the PFL didn't complain.  Who would moan about a trip to San Diego every couple of years - a great recruiting tool?

Though Evansville would discontinue football in 1997, eventually Jacksonville University (Atlantic Sun), Davidson (SoCon), Morehead State (OVC), Austin Peay (OVC) would join up.  When the the MAAC football league folded, they added Marist (MAAC).  And a year later, they added Campbell (Atlantic Sun).

Now, two more Atlantic Sun schools are coming to the PFL as well - Mercer and Stetson.

Mercer has been a part of Homer Drake’s life for a long time, as has football, although not necessarily together.

Until Friday, when the chairman of Mercer’s Board of Trustees got the honor of making what he called “an historic announcement” in the Bear Rock CafĂ©.

“This is truly a great day for Mercer, a day for which I have long awaited,” Drake said. “I’m very pleased to announce (Friday) that after almost a 70-year absence, the sights and sounds of college football will be returning to the Mercer campus.”

Longtime Baylor head football coach Grant Teaff, who has led the 12,000-member American Football Coaches Association since 1993, was also on hand. Underwood came to Mercer from Baylor.

“Nevermore will Mercer be the same in terms of student spirit, community involvement, alumni jumping on board and being involved in more than they have before,” Teaff said. “Having a stadium on campus will change the dynamics of this campus in so many ways.”

...

Stetson President Dr. Wendy Libby said when she got to DeLand in 2009, she commissioned five boards to look at ways to increase student enrollment, student retention and campus vibrancy. Three of the boards endorsed nonscholarship football and women's lacrosse.

Libby said football and lacrosse will help keep students on campus over the weekend, which would be a plus for the local economy, as students spend their money in DeLand.

"We know a strong Stetson is a strong DeLand," Libby said.

Community members spoke almost unanimously in favor of bringing college football to DeLand.
In addition, on the PFL website they also formally announced their new destination - with some curious additional comments:

“A key component in the decision of our Board of Trustees to resume competition in intercollegiate football was the opportunity to affiliate with the Pioneer Football League,” said Mercer University President William D. Underwood. “Mercer has much in common with the current league members, most notably a commitment to providing a superior academic experience for student-athletes. We are pleased to be joining the Pioneer Football League, along with our sister institution Stetson University.”

“Stetson University is proud to join the prestigious Pioneer Football League as we re-introduce Hatter Football in 2013,” said Stetson University President Wendy B. Libby. “The other colleges and universities in the Pioneer League are similar to Stetson in academic excellence, values and enrollment and we believe we will be a good fit for the league, both on and off the field.”

Two young programs, spreading their wings, getting ready to play football in 2013.  It's an exciting time for both schools and the leadership of the Pioneer Football League, who will become the second-largest conference in FCS (behind the 13-team Big Sky).

Or will it?

*****

Football-only conferences of convenience work best when its membership is unified in purpose, diverse - and small.

With the latest two additions, however, the diversity seems to point to certain conferences having a larger pull than others.

Consider the possible look of the PFL in 2013, split into two divisions, north and south (basketball conference in parenthesis):

NORTH
Butler (Horizon)
Dayton (A-10)
Drake (Missouri Valley)
Marist (MAAC)
San Diego (WCC)
Valparaiso (Horizon)

SOUTH
Mercer (Atlantic Sun)
Stetson (Atlantic Sun)
Campbell (Big South, 2011)
Jacksonville (Atlantic Sun)
Davidson (SoCon)
Morehead State (OVC)

Note that three of the schools in this southern division are members of the Atlantic Sun Conference. And four schools currently in the A-Sun are either planning to field a football team (Kennesaw State), have active groups trying to re-start (East Tennessee State) or start (North Florida) a football team, or engaging in feasibility studies about football (Florida-Gulf Coast).

What if two of these four schools sponsor non-scholarship football, and are looking for a league to join?

The PFL is the logical choice - especially if PFL secures an autobid into the FCS playoffs, which is something they're actively seeking?

Let's say the PFL expands to 14 or 16 teams.

Wouldn't it also follow that the Atlantic Sun, with five members of the southern half of the PFL, would have to look hard at sponsoring this southern half of the non-scholarship football league?

This would certainly suit the Atlantic Sun conference - a conference that has been losing teams, thanks to football.  For them, it gives them more of an identity and will probably help keep the conference together.

You'd have to believe that the folks at Campbell and Davidson would be thrilled with a seven-team conference schedule with all the games much more localized.  And out-of-conference games against former PFL foes would help fill out the rest of their schedules, as well as local D-III schools.

Granted, it's hardly a done deal.  Most notably, Kennesaw State and Florida-Gulf Coast seem to be, at a bare minimum, looking at full-scholarship FCS football - if not FBS.  Time will tell if invites from, say, Conference USA are just pipe dreams or realistic goals for these two schools.

But all it would take is new non-scholarship programs at ETSU and North Florida to cause the earthquake that could break off the PFL into two distinct conferences - one which could be sponsored by the Atlantic Sun.

****

So then what happens then to the remaining schools of the PFL North?

Two of those schools - Butler and Valparaiso - come from the Horizon League in basketball.  I think you might have heard of Butler's basketball team - you know, the team that made the NCAA Finals two years in a row.

Of the existing Horizon schools, there is one school undergoing and actual feasibility studies on adding non-scholarship football (Cleveland State), another with a club team with FCS ambitions (Wright State), and another whose new stadium includes - um - goalpoasts (Detroit Mercy).

If all three sponsor non-scholarship football - and it looks realistic that that's the ambition for all three schools - then a possible nine-team non-scholarship league, sponsored by the Horizion League, seems extremely possible.

Why wouldn't the Horizon, fresh off their basketball success with Butler, look at FCS football conference sponsorship?  It seems a logical next step for their conference growth, especially if they get an autobid in the expanded FCS playoffs.

For the affiliates, little would change.  They'd still be coast to coast, with trips to San Diego and New York every other year, but the potential would be there for midwestern rivalries.  And Detroit Mercy's program is an historic one, that played big-time college football and won an unofficial national championship in the 1930s.

But they'd have the backing of an up-and-coming basketball conference - and a league that is improving its clout on the national scene.

If a split happens, Horizon sponsorship makes an awful lot of sense for everyone involved.

****

Other ripple effects might happen as well.

Might Evansville, in the middle of all this conference alignment in non-scholarship football be tempted to re-start non-scholarship football?

Might Drake be tempted by all-sports membership in a new football-sponsoring Horizon League instead of the Missouri Valley for all other sports?  With five non-scholarship schools and the Horizon nudging up ahead of the Missouri Valley Conference in terms of hoops rankings, might the Bulldogs be tempted by their football vision - which seems more in line with their school than the full-scholarship football publics in the Missouri Valley?

Might Evansville be tempted as well, with a new non-scholarship football team?  And might Creighton be tempted to start things up, who last sponsored football in 1942?

Might High Point out of the Big South - whose chancellor said football was "inevitable" at the school - join the Atlantic Sun as a non-scholarship program?  Might Winthrop out of the Big South - whose students and alumni have also been asking about football - join them too?

In sum, might the actions of restarting football at two southern schools, joining a cross-country non-scholarship football league, be the early tremors of the formation of two new conferences and the beginnings of a realignment of midwest mid-major basketball conferences?

Maybe.  Just maybe.

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