JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The future of University of North Florida’s (UNF) football program is facing a third and long.
Four and a half years ago, the university’s top leader called adding football “inevitable.” Now, UNF President John Delaney says UNF could be a decade or two away from having a football team.
“It's actually inevitable. It's just a question is it in a few years or 10 or 15,” Delaney told First Coast News in the 2013.
“I think it is going to be a while before we add football,” Delaney says now, admitting the decision to pass on the sport wasn’t popular with everyone. “I don’t go to a rotary club speech that I don’t get asked about football.”
UNF is at a crossroad. Delaney is retiring next year, university enrollment is stagnant, and the Southside-based public university is facing funding issues.
“Money, money and money!” Delaney said.
Delaney believes the university needs its student population to double before it can successfully field a football team. 15,975 students attended UNF in the fall of 2016.
"If you get to 25,000 or 30,000 you can make that work," he said. "25,000 is a little bit harder and 30,000 makes it work, but we don’t want to get to 30,000. We want to stay a mid-sized university that gives you the advantages of a small school.”
In January 2013, Delany asked the UNF Board of Trustees for permission to begin discussions about the possibility of starting a football program. By April 2013, the decision to pass on football was made. Delaney says the decision was made after the numbers were crunched and students were polled.
“We got caught up in it,” Delaney said. “When we finally got the pencil down and cranked the calculator out to see the numbers it was the equivalent of $400 or $500 dollars per semester to the students. The students just didn’t have an interest to pay $900 or a $1,000 in extra fees.”
Emails obtained by First Coast News reveal the game plan for football didn’t add up with the university’s budget at the time. According to one 2013 email, Delaney wrote: “It would require a significant student fee increase and bonding authority. I don’t see our current governor [Rick Scott] authorizing that.”
Later, Delaney addressed the issue of other universities of a similar size adding football programs He said that the Ospreys “needed to see what it took.” Delaney adds he did not expect the media to get so far out in front of him.
“Football is definitely feasible at UNF, and at Division 1. There isn’t any question,” he said.
The emails also reveal the university brought in HOK Sports, a big-time sports stadium architecture and engineering firm behind the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia and Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Fl. to discuss stadium needs for UNF football.
“We always thought we would use it at Hodges Stadium," he said. "But you don’t really do a football stadium outside of the track anymore. We have a nine-lane track that pushes the fans too far away. We went to look at where we could site it, where we could get parking and traffic. It was really more on the southeastern side of campus.”
According to UNF’s athletic master plan study published in 2013, the school wanted to build a new 25,000 to 35,000-seat football stadium, two practice fields and new support facilities. The study says UNF would like to start construction in 2026 with a projected cost of $126,930,000. The stadium would be located on the site of the current golf course.
According to the plan, “prior to commencement of the study, the University notified the consultant team that due to various reasons, the earliest that the University could support a football program would likely be year 2025 or later. Accordingly, the University’s new charge to the consultant team was to be less focused on the development of only a football program and its subsequent effects to other athletic facilities, but to take a more comprehensive approach and develop a master plan for all of the University’s athletic facilities (including a proposed football stadium and ancillary facilities site to be reserved until some future date)."
“Football is expensive. Make no bones about it,” says Jacksonville Sports Council CEO and former Jacksonville University Athletic Director Alan Verlander. “You can’t take a decision like this lightly.”
Thinking back to 2013, Verlander remembers the conversations regarding football at UNF. He worked for the Jacksonville Mayor’s Office at the time.
“You saw t-shirts saying still undefeated. There was a lot of emotion around it,” Verlander said.
Conversations were happening everywhere in the community and not just around the campus, Verlander said. Part of the conversation was what could a potential football rivalry with Jacksonville University do for the community.
“With the powers that be, this will be a topic that is continually discussed,” Verlander said.
A football program at UNF could be successful, Verlander says, if the university goes about it the right way by investing in the program. He says starting a football program can create a lot of challenges “politically” if not done correctly.
“Will it create a political firestorm because let’s face it, I mean sometimes athletics can create a firestorm on campus,” Verlander says. “On a university campus there are many constituent groups that interested in athletics.” He says groups such as a school’s Board of Trustees, faculty, athletic boosters and coaches of other sports all have a stake in the game.
“You have really got to be committed to the expense of adding football and finding a way to capitalize on that,” says sports business analyst and author Kristi Dosh. She wrote a book titled Saturday Millionaires that focused on the money behind college football athletic programs. “You have to be doing it for the right reasons. You should have well researched reasons to raise the profile of the university.”
She says a university wanting to start football should expect to spend anywhere between $75 million to $125 million. She says schools such as Wichita State, Kennesaw State and Georgia State are similar to UNF that recently added football. Despite the high cost, Dosh says it can be positive for the university if done right. “You have to understand how you can leverage the football program to benefit the university.”
But there is a downside, according to Dosh.
“It means more student fees. When you see schools adding football it is usually on the backs of the students," Dosh said.
Currently, UNF students pay $19.53 per credit hour in fees. A number that would certainly increase if the university was to add football. Dosh says there are other ways to raise money for football.
“The problem is you can often get the alumni or the community to support the program and commit the funds, but what happens when you have only won one or two games after five years? That’s when the support falls off," she said.
According to the National Football Foundation, 777 colleges and universities offer football across the country. In the past six seasons, 40 football programs have been added and only 13 programs have dropped the sport.
There are a lot of universities that have gone from commuter schools to major universities in their state because of football. It put them on the map,” Dosh said. “Because football made people want to live on campus and brought alumni back to campus. So I think done correctly football could have a huge impact for UNF.”
With Delaney set to retire in 2018, some believe the conversation will just continue.
“I do think there is a market for it. I think there are people that would support it,” Verlander said. “Good or bad this will have to be something the new president will have to address.”