Could Chicago State become the state’s fifth FCS program?

Chicago State was a member of the NAIA and Division II before transitioning to Division I in 1994. (Photo by Chicago State University)

By Dan Verdun

Could Illinois add a fifth team to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level?

According to its own athletic department release, Chicago State University has convened an exploratory committee to examine the addition of what would be Chicago’s first Division I football program on the city’s South Side.

Four state schools — Eastern Illinois, Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Western Illinois — currently play at the FCS level.

Last week Prairie State Pigskin contacted the Chicago State University athletic department requesting an interview with athletic director Dr. Monique Carroll.

A university spokesperson responded that the school will hold a 12 p.m. on-campus press conference Jan. 26 in which Carroll, university president Zaldwaynaka (Z) Scott and committee members would be available for comments.

Carroll was, however, recently quoted in a story by The Athletic.

Dr. Monique Carroll

“I think it would be huge,” Carroll told Matt Fortuna. “We would be Chicago’s only Division I football program, so a city that has as much going on especially in the sports landscape as Chicago does, to add to that with Division I football, I think that would be awesome. And then the campus, we are trying to grow enrollment. We’re doing different things strategically to see how we can make the university better. I think this enhances the student experience on campus. This engages the South Side community.

“We are South Side Chicago. I get a little lost for words, because the impact is immeasurable almost.”

Chicago State’s exploratory committee will be announced in its entirety during that press conference. It is comprised of school and community staff, students and leaders, along with “football stakeholders” in the Chicago area, according to the school.

Former University of Illinois and Denver Broncos’ fullback Howard Griffith is reported to be a committee member.

Over the coming months, the committee will study the impact of a football program and deliver their recommendations to the university president. 
“The convening of the Exploratory Committee captures the momentum and progress of Chicago State University’s athletics program,” Scott said in the university release. “We are focused on strategies that will both enhance the student experience and support economic development for our community.”

Carroll, who was hired last July, said that a fall 2025 start date would be manageable, based on the feasibility study’s findings.

Enrollment . . .

Matt Brown is the publisher of “Extra Points,” part of @D1ticker, which claims to be the “most-read daily emails covering the business of college athletics.”

The Chicago-based Brown is the former Associate Director of College Brands for SB Nation college sports. He also wrote the 2017 book “What If?: A Closer Look at College Football’s Great Questions.”

Brown cites potential enrollment increases as one of Chicago State’s considerations for adding football.

Chicago State, a predominantly Black Institution located in the city’s Roseland neighborhood, has an enrollment under 3,000 students.

“Even if Chicago State fully funded the maximum number of scholarships allowed in FCS, which is unlikely in the short term, it could still add another 30 to 40 non-athletic scholarship students — students who would pay some level of tuition,” Brown wrote in late 2021. “That doesn’t include students who may decide to enroll at Chicago State to participate in a marching band, work as student trainers, or other positions associated with football. An addition of football would also require the school to add multiple new women’s sports, sports that would not give a full scholarship for every athlete on the roster.

“For a school that currently only enrolls a few hundred new freshmen every year, potentially adding over a hundred more students could be very significant for the institution, even if those teams don’t win games or sell tickets.”

Chicago State presently sponsors seven men’s sports and eight women’s teams. Its feasibility study is reported to have examined the additions of beach volleyball, softball and a marching band.

. . . conference stability

Brown also cites Chicago State’s desire to find a stable league affiliation to meet its needs.

Located at 9501 S. King Dr., Chicago State has been competing as an independent this season after leaving the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) last summer. The Cougars joined the WAC in 2013 as part of a six-school expansion.

Originally, the WAC’s plan included the development of a Midwest division with Chicago State and the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) as the anchors.

However, UMKC left the conference in July 2020. Over time, the WAC has added members located in south and western regions of the country.

Chicago State logo

“After the WAC announced several new additions in Texas and Utah, Chicago State withdrew from the league, and the school is still looking for a new home,” Brown wrote.

Brown added that Chicago State had conversations with the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), Ohio Valley (OVC) and Southland about long-term affiliate membership status.

Brown also reported that sources “familiar with the decision-making have told me that the ADs in the MEAC have voted to take Chicago State, but that the presidents have not…and that they are leaning towards not doing so.”

One of the biggest sticking points appeared to be Chicago State’s inability to guarantee it will add an FCS football program.

Ohio Valley addition?

Though Chicago State and the Ohio Valley may have had discussions, such an invitation to join the OVC appears to be a long shot.

The Ohio Valley, the league in which Eastern Illinois competes in numerous sports including football, has gone through a number of changes in its membership.

Five schools — Austin Peay, Belmont, Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State and Murray State — have left the OVC in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Valley added Arkansas-Little Rock, Lindenwood and Southern Indiana. Of that trio, only Lindenwood — based in suburban St. Louis — fields a football team.

“Football is important in the OVC and it is considered a positive attribute when considering perspective members. We have a history of adding schools that sponsor football but have also added strong members that bring value although they do not sponsor the sport,” Ohio Valley commissioner Beth DeBauche said in an e-mailed statement.

Pioneering a path

Another possibility for Chicago State could be the Pioneer League, which is primarily Midwest-based and includes nearby Valparaiso University. Moreover, the conference is a non-scholarship FCS league, which would save the Cougars scholarship money.

Yet, the Pioneer League is football only, with its members competing in other conferences for other sports.

Chicago State desires to belong to one conference for all or nearly all of its athletics.

Financial concerns

Funding a football program is likely the largest obstacle Chicago State faces.

While the Cougars possess a top-notch basketball facility complete with a modern weight room, the school “would almost certainly need to build either a football-specific performance center, or another multi-sport athletic complex,” Brown said.

In addition, significant staffing upgrades would be required.

“Looking at various MEAC, Southland and OVC schools in our FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) directory, the typical spend on just a football coaching staff runs between $900,000 to $1.5 million,” Brown wrote. “Chicago State would also need to hire more compliance officers, sports information officers, physical trainers and other administrative staff.”

Furthermore, Brown reported: “According to the school’s FY20 FRS report, adding a million bucks in football coaching salaries would double the department’s spending on coaching salaries for all sports. The department reported spending roughly $8 million in total.

“If the school added football, and then say, women’s lacrosse and beach volleyball, it’s not hard to see a world where that $8 million would need to become at least $15 million, every year.”

Where would the Cougars play?

With football not a part of its present athletic department, Chicago State would also need a field to play its games.

Building just a small stadium is not a cheap endeavor, even on land Chicago State already owns. Estimates for a high school-level venue run between $25,000 and $100,000, factoring in league requirements, type of playing surface and numerous other aspects.

Engineered surface areas can cost anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million.

It is certainly possible that Chicago State could partner with an area institution. Brown points to many in close proximity.

“Chicago State could also potentially leverage its relationship with SeatGeek (Stadium), or partner with the City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools and/or the Chicago Parks District to renovate any of the larger high school stadiums in the area,” he wrote. “Gately Stadium, for example, is only about a mile away from campus, and Eckersall Stadium is only about four miles. Those fields likely aren’t ready out of the box for FCS football, but renovating an existing field is much cheaper than building your own.

“Sharing a large high school field is not unheard of at the FCS level. Depending on which external partners were willing and able to be involved, Chicago State should have multiple options.”

Case in point: Chicago State men’s and women’s soccer play their home games at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep and Kroc Stadium.

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