Rusty Wright's belief in the future of college football has never wavered.
There have certainly been opportunities for Wright to be concerned instead of confident. His tenure as head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has coincided with a period of significant challenges and drastic transformation in and around the sport, including programs changing conferences and levels in hopes of raising their profile and boosting their finances.
Still, as he enters his fifth season leading the Mocs, the former UTC tight end has generally scoffed at the notion of his alma mater moving to the upper tier of NCAA Division I competition, the 133-team Football Bowl Subdivision. Although Wright's team competes in D-I's lower tier, the Football Championship Subdivision, he has experience as a staff member at multiple FBS programs, including at Georgia State in his last stop before returning in December 2018 to UTC, where he had two previous stints as an assistant.
While the university has never officially stated a desire to leave the 128-team FCS, it's logical to assume that if an invitation came and the opportunity made financial sense, UTC would be open to the idea. Changing levels would also mean leaving behind the Southern Conference, where UTC has been a member for more than four decades.
This is the 10-year anniversary of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern leaving the SoCon for the FBS by joining the Sun Belt. The same conference approached UTC, but the university was undergoing leadership changes — it did not have a chancellor or athletic director at the time — and no move was made.
The Mocs had endured 19 losing seasons in their first 35 years as a D-I program, but it was also at that point they began to make noticeable progress, earning a share of the SoCon title in 2013, winning it outright in 2014 and again sharing the title in 2015. The Mocs also made three consecutive playoff appearances from 2014-16, fueling an appetite for some to explore how the program could compete at the highest level.
They haven't made the playoffs since then, although they have contended for the SoCon title in recent seasons, but that's just one factor in why deciding to stay put might be the best move for UTC.
As with so many things, money and power are big parts of college football. And as with so many things, the money and the power reside at the top.
While the current FCS postseason format features a 24-team bracket to determine a national champion, the FBS didn't introduce a playoff until the 2014 season, and the four-team event — it will expand to 12 teams beginning with the 2024 season — has almost exclusively included schools from the Power Five.
Those powerful five conferences are the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern, although the most recent rounds of realignment are having an impact there, too. The Pac-12 will lose eight of its current dozen members starting with the 2024-25 school year — four to the Big 12, four to the Big Ten — with the money from TV deals a major factor.
Where it will get interesting going forward seems to be with the lower half of the FBS conferences known as the Group of Five — the American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt — which may not have the bargaining strength or money of the Power Five, but could still prove attractive to an FCS program seeking a boost.
UTC's football spending in 2022 was the fourth-highest for a public school in the state of Tennessee at $5.18 million, according to the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics Database. Middle Tennessee State University, a C-USA program, was listed at double that at $10.6 million, a number that still pales in comparison to the $18.1 million for Memphis of the American Athletic, and yet SEC member Tennessee's $47.2 million makes that look small.
That doesn't account for the role played by name, image and likeness deals for student-athletes, which add another financial element to the big picture. In the two years since the NCAA lifted its longstanding ban on players being compensated for endorsements and similar activities, NIL deals have become a consideration in luring athletes, either as recruits out of high school or transfers from other colleges.
It's obviously a two-way street, with recognizable athletes — whether in the competitive arena or via commercials and social media — able to raise the profile of a program, but those same athletes benefit from being at schools with established brands that are household names.
It's a lot to think about.
"There's going to be some that are going to have to make hard decisions here soon," Wright said. "The one thing that's different for us here is we've always operated with no money, so it's not that big of a deal, right? Those folks are eventually going to get cut off at the knees, and they're going to go, 'What are we doing now?'"
While changing conferences or moving up a level may sound like an easy win at first, it's not always great for those left behind, and it might not be as beneficial as hoped for to both those leaving and the leagues they're joining.
The Atlantic Sun, known now as the ASUN, thought it had a plan. League leadership was attempting to build a conference of public FCS institutions with the hopes of moving up to the FBS, which allows a program to offer more scholarships. Fast-forward a couple years and Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State and Sam Houston State have jumped to C-USA and the rest of the league had to pair up with the Western Athletic Conference just to have a bid for the FCS playoffs.
Still, even in remaining within the FCS, joining the right conference for regional rivalries or more recognizable opponents can help put fans in the stands and encourage interest in a program, which makes it easier to ask for donations.
The Mocs play their home games at Finley Stadium, which has 20,688 total seats — Finley's website lists UTC's game against Tennessee State on Oct. 18, 1997, the venue's grand opening, as having a record overflow crowd of 22,646 — and their average attendance for five home games last season was 8,030. That was an improvement on the 2021 average of 7,482 (five games) and the 2019 average of 7,767 (six games). (The Mocs' 2020 and 2021 schedules were seriously affected by the coronavirus pandemic, as was Finley.)
"If we were to go Conference USA or Sun Belt, you're bringing in teams that we could probably come close to filling that stadium," UTC vice chancellor and athletic director Mark Wharton said in a February conversation with the Times Free Press. "Some of those other teams, it's no disrespect to them, but it's not much different than what we're playing now, so you can't count on gate revenue. So if we're looking to move, it has to be the right fit, the right subject."
In American college athletics, football is almost always the driving factor for decisions, and there's no reason to think that's about to change.
Operating in that fashion, though, has unintended consequences.
When the West Coast foursome of Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington leave the Pac-12 for the Midwest-based Big Ten a year from now, the football programs will find ways to manage the travel, logistically and financially. But what happens with the other sports?
One of the Pac-12 members that has not announced an imminent move is Stanford, although the California private school is interested in joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, according to multiple media reports. In addition to its prestige as an academic institution, Stanford boasts an athletic department that, top to bottom, is annually one of the best in the country. But as part of the Pac-4 — Cal, Oregon State and Washington State are the other three that, for now, will remain after this school year — the Cardinal don't have a clue where their future lies.
In addition to football, UTC's athletic department fields 14 varsity sports: basketball, cross country, golf and tennis for both men and women, soccer, softball, track and field plus volleyball (beach and indoor) for women, and wrestling for men.
Wright said the moment is coming when everyone will have to figure out what's best for them. UTC could make the move to the FBS, but will a place in the Group of Five be available? Or will those in the FBS but outside the Power Five — or what remains of it — simply become another subdivision?
Wright referred to comments made recently by SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who after watching the latest round of realignment with the Big Ten jumping to 18 teams and the Big 12 moving to 16 — Sankey's own league will jump to 16 when Oklahoma and Texas leave the Big 12 next summer — said the College Football Playoff may need to be reevaluated. Again.
"Eventually at some point and time, it's going to shake out and there's going to be that group of 40-60 (teams), whatever they are," Wright said. "Then the rest of us have to figure out, do we go to that group that goes to 100 scholarships? We go back to 85 and we stay in it? We go back to 75? Then there's groups of 50, and we go down from there. That's what's coming; you can see it.
"So it'll be interesting to see."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com.