The nation has been riveted by the recent run of Florida Gulf Coast University’s basketball program. Ironically a few weeks ago when I posted to Twitter a picture of myself at the Alico Arena (FGCU’s home arena) as the home of “giant killers” (Florida Gulf Coast shocked ACC Champion Miami earlier in the season) people tweeted back at me, what did I mean and who was FGCU? Now everyone knows the school, and it’s evidence as to how big-time sports can elevate the profile of a public University. However, this comes with some peril as well.
I work in sports these days but would readily admit I don’t really follow sporting events that I do not have a direct interest in. For example, I don’t watch the Super Bowl and don’t watch any American pro sports besides Major League Soccer and the soccer league I work for (the NASL). I do watch college sports, however. But what has bothered me lately as someone who follows College Basketball and until about 2007 followed College Football is the emphasis Florida’s newer public universities have put on athletics particularly football.
The University of Florida which has a big alumni base and whose athletic success has helped fuel academic programs is an exception to what I am about to say. Florida State University could be an exception also if they were able to bring academics and research dollars up to a level to justify UF like sports fanaticism and budgets. But this article is not about UF, FSU or UCF another school that has done things more or less the right way. This is more about FAU, FIU, UNF, USF and the private University of Miami.
While it can be argued and will by many that football programs at FAU, FIU and potentially at UNF bring in revenue and recognition not otherwise afforded those institutions, I would strongly argue the opportunity costs both financial and time-wise outweigh the benefits of establishing a D1 football program at developing urban schools. Other sports, including Men’s and Women’s Basketball have suffered at these schools since the football program began. The same can be said of USF which save a two year period recently has struggled in both men’s and women’s basketball since the Bulls football program began. UCF in the last decade rediscovered the value of promoting other programs both athletic and academic just as the University was growing into one of the largest public schools in the country. UCF stands apart from other non-legacy Florida schools in the way it has established its reputation in recent years both academically and athletically.
It is to me is no coincidence that the University of Miami’s academic reputation has been elevated the very same time its football program has become less and less relevant nationally and even locally. Perhaps it’s the fan in me but for over a decade I have advocated UM transitioning from a “football school” which is the province of larger big budget state funded institutions to being a “basketball school” since the Hurricanes play in the ACC (widely regarded as the best Basketball league in the nation) is a medium-sized private school and sits in the heart of a major urban area. I have seen urban schools both public and private like Georgetown, UCLA, Temple, St John’s, Marquette, Maryland and Boston College among others excel at men’s & women’s Basketball while striving to maintain high academic standards. UM has gotten a great benefit from its football program but that benefit long ago turned into shame and embarrassment. It also created a stigma about a University which it does not deserve. The University of Miami is a fine academic institution but thanks to football the terms “Sun Tan U” and Thug U” often roll off the tongue of those who do not know any better. And as we know wrong perceptions often becomes reality in the minds of many including members of the media.
Unfortunately, I believe a certain anti-intellectualism plays into the excitement about football at these universities. While it has been argued the football programs builds pride in the Universities it also most definitely takes away from properly establishing universities as academic and research based institutions. The establishment of football programs at these schools have also allowed Universities that were growing and becoming important urban commuter schools and student options into subjects of ridicule nationally. Again, just about every major university nationally maintains a men’s and women’s basketball program, but Florida’s schools have de-emphasized those affordable programs in the search of football glory over the past several years. Universities should foster pride among its student body, alumni and local residents in academic, scientific and mathematical achievements as well as athletics. Florida’s governing class should
Florida Gulf Coast’s NCAA run can serve as an example of elevating a university’s profile without starting a football program. Hopefully FGCU will continue to build its academic and research capabilities, use it’s men’s and women’s basketball programs as anchors athletically and work to bring real pride to the people southwest Florida. FGCU has demonstrated how emphasizing Basketball, a sport much more cost-effective than Football can put a shcool on a map more quickly and reasonably than the other south Florida public schools who have established D1 football programs. Public University Football programs should only be established once a certain threshold for academics and research grants/dollars have been established. I am not qualified to ascertain what that threshold should be, but I feel it ought to be put in place.