Saturday, March 22, 2008

Non-scholarship football schools doing well in basketball

Around FCS: Hoops or Football?
Published: March 21, 2008

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Like most folks interested in sports, I'm keeping a keen eye on the opening rounds of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament this week. But as I'm watching teams like Davidson, Georgetown, Drake, Butler, San Diego and Cornell, I'm thinking about how college basketball impacts the Football Championship Subdivision.

It comes as no surprise that some of the teams that are thriving on the basketball court are non-scholarship schools in FCS.

There has always been a tendency for some schools to divert funds from football to benefit basketball, particularly for colleges that struggle with their budgets. And there have always been schools that have been better-known for their hoops prowess than their gridiron success.

But seldom has there been a year where the rewards for such a strategy have seemed so plentiful.

In all, four teams that compete in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League (Butler, Davidson, Drake and San Diego) made the field in NCAA basketball. Georgetown - a Patriot League member in football - and the Ivy League's Cornell also punched NCAA tickets.

Four of those six (Georgetown, Davidson, Drake and Butler) have notable basketball resumes.

Georgetown has won a national championship. Drake nearly beat Lew Alcindor and UCLA in a Final Four. Davidson has come within an eyelash of a Final Four appearance. Butler's Hinkle Gym was the venue for the film "Hoosiers." And San Diego has made a trio of trips to the NCAA tournament.

Sacred Heart lost to American in the final of the Northeast Conference, to keep another FCS team from reaching the tourney.

American was one of 17 schools without football to reach the NCAAs. Siena and St. Mary's are among those who have dropped their FCS programs in recent years, to the benefit of basketball.

Only four scholarship teams in FCS made the NCAA hoop field - Villanova, Mississippi Valley State, Portland State and Austin Peay. Two of them are known for their basketball, two are not.

Villanova has long been a basketball powerhouse, with two trips to NCAA championship game and one national championship banner hanging from the rafters of its arena. There is little doubt on the Main Line where the Wildcats' fancy lies.

Austin Peay is another school with a rich basketball tradition. Anyone remember Fly Williams? Interestingly, the Governors made the basketball tournament in the same year that they decided to move back to the Ohio Valley Conference in football, and began offering football scholarships again.

Mississippi Valley State made its fourth trip to the NCAA basketball tournament, but more people remember Jerry Rice, Willie Totten, and their football accomplishments than anyone who has played basketball there.

Portland State's basketball program may have been helped by the rising profile of the Vikings' football team, as coach Jerry Glanville has tirelessly promoted the school since being hired a year ago. Whatever the case, PSU earned its first NCAA hoops trip.

One of the more interesting cases of a school de-emphasizing football and seeing its basketball fortunes soar is Davidson, a school that made some noise with an upset over Gonzaga on Friday afternoon.

The Wildcats chose to drop athletic scholarships in football after the 1987 season, and were promptly kicked out of the Southern Conference. Davidson petitioned for reinstatement and was accepted back in every sport but football in 1991. The Wildcats remained a football independent until joining the PFL in 2001.

In the meantime, Davidson has seen a resurgence in its basketball fortunes, hearkening back to days of coaches Lefty Driesell and Terry Holland. The Wildcats have made five NCAA tournament appearances under coach Bob McKillop, including three in succession.

Taking a different approach to helping basketball is Western Kentucky, which matched up with Drake in a first-round tournament encounter on Friday. The Hilltoppers, the 2002 FCS national champions, moved to the Football Bowl Subdivision at least in part due to a stated desire to make its basketball program more attractive.

WKU's football program has gone steadily downhill since their championship run of 2002, and isn't likely to improve much with a frequent diet of money games. But the Hilltoppers, who reached the Final Four in 1971 with center Jim McDaniels patrolling the middle, have long cared more about basketball, with football as a mere afterthought.

Western Kentucky hopes that in moving up to 85 scholarships in football that it will be able to attract a better basketball home than its current Sun Belt Conference locale. The Hilltoppers would like to find themselves in Conference USA, or perhaps the Mid-American Conference, in years to come.

There isn't much love lost around FCS or in WKU's former football league - the Gateway Conference - for the Hilltoppers, due to the bridges they burned on their way out of FCS.

Like most FCS supporters, I was rooting whole-heartedly for Drake in its first-round, overtime battle with Western Kentucky - even thought the Bulldogs came up just a little short of a big upset.

And, I'll continue to root for those FCS schools throughout the NCAA basketball tournament.

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