Lower-tier teams play up to the competition

The Baltimore Sun

By now, everyone who follows college football knows about what happened when Appalachian State traveled to Ann Arbor last season to play Michigan. By now, everyone knows the Mountaineers shocked the then-No. 5 Wolverines, facilitated Michigan coach Lloyd Carr's early retirement and went home to little Boone, N.C., $400,000 richer.

But how in the name of Bo Schembechler did The Little Team That Could get on Michigan's schedule?

It's all about keeping your ear to the ground.

That's what Appalachian State sports information director Mike Flynn was doing in the winter of 2007 when, through a friend, he heard that Vanderbilt had worked its way off Michigan's home schedule and that the Wolverines were looking to fill an open date, not to mention their massive stadium.

You could invite just about any team in the country on any level and the 110,000-plus fans would paint their bodies maize and blue and head to "The Big House." So it happened that Appalachian State, winner of what is now called the Football Championship Subdivision in 2006 and headed for another title last season, found its way there for the 2007 opener.

Though longtime Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore abhors the label of "money games" or "guarantee games" - "I call them opportunity games," Moore said in a recent interview with College Sports TV - it's hard to argue that they're anything else but manna-from-heaven paydays to help foot the bill for nonrevenue sports.

It's hard to fault athletic administrators such as Jay Sutton for following the mantra of Jerry Maguire.

"For us going to play for $400,000, it was about the money," said Sutton, Appalachian State's associate athletic director and the man responsible for scheduling the game.

The result - Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 - changed the landscape not only for the two teams (and one beleaguered coach) involved, but also for the rest of the schools occupying the two levels of college football - the upper-tier Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) and the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).

"It was a wake-up call," Morgan State athletic director Floyd Kerr said.

It woke up coaches and athletic directors at the bigger schools to be a little more selective when scheduling the smaller schools. Just ask Carr, whose dwindling support evaporated after the loss to Appalachian State. Even a respectable 9-4 season didn't save him.

It also woke up coaches and athletic directors at the smaller schools to expand their horizons and start believing that the benefits of playing up are more than just financial. If your team happens to pull off an Appalachian State-type upset - considered by some to be among the biggest in college football history - the impact goes beyond balancing the books.

"It gives you more media attention," said Kerr, who scheduled Morgan State to play at Rutgers this season for a $300,000 guarantee. "It helps your strength of schedule when it comes to making the [FCS] playoffs. You're given more favorable treatment [by the selection committee] than if you play down."

Appalachian State will add to its giant-killer legacy, not to mention its school's general fund, when the season opens this week. According to Sutton, LSU is paying Appalachian State $550,000 for its trip to Death Valley.

While that might be chump change when it comes to the exorbitant paydays some FBS schools are receiving - Navy, for instance, is reportedly getting $1.4 million to open the 2009 season at Ohio State - it's a long way from the days of getting paid with a bus trip and burgers.

According to several athletic directors, the trend began when the NCAA allowed its Division I-A member schools to add a 12th game beginning in 2006. It also added the caveat that playing Division I-AA schools wouldn't count against the total of six wins to become bowl-eligible as long as you could get the stadium half-filled.

While most of the FBS would rather schedule a lower-tier FBS team just to maintain some level of credibility - strength of schedule is still a factor when it comes to the Bowl Championship Series calibrations - sometimes FCS programs such as Appalachian State are more competitive.

In the Sagarin Football Rankings released after the 2007 season, Appalachian State finished 44th overall. The Mountaineers were slightly ahead of Michigan State (47) and Maryland (51) and way ahead of such perennial powers as Nebraska (61), Miami (75) and Notre Dame (90).

The guarantees have become as big a story as the games themselves.

In June, Duke athletic director Kevin White told USA Today: "I think it's just subject to whatever the market will bear. There is no way to legislate against this type of escalation. I think at some point it will move into the maintenance phase. But the cost of doing business has become much steeper as it relates to having a one-way opponent."

Morgan State's Kerr said it is like any other business - it's who you know.

"It's about relationships," Kerr said.

If you happen to have a long-standing relationship with a big-name athletic director or coach, as Youngstown State had with Ohio State's Jim Tressel, the payday can be enormous. According to Kerr, who worked at Youngstown State when Tressel was its coach, the Buckeyes shelled out $650,000 to shellac the Penguins in the 2007 opener.

Not that this trend will continue, especially if teams such as Appalachian State, McNeese State or even Youngstown State pull off another upset.

Though Appalachian State's picturesque campus and 21,050-seat Kidd Brewer Stadium - otherwise known as "The Rock" - has become a favorite destination for smaller programs trying to see how to make it to the top of the FCS, Sutton is finding it increasingly difficult to find big-time opponents.

They don't mind paying.

Losing is another matter.

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