The hammer has dropped on small college football.
Nearly 1,000 miles away from the Indianapolis offices of the NCAA in the state of Texas, a pair of recent championship-winning programs heard the decision with dismay.
“I guess the word we felt immediately was 'betrayed' because I believe we could pull it off with players playing safety and following the protocols,” Texas A&M-Commerce coach David Bailiff said. “I thought we could adhere to those protocols.
“I think if the people who made this decision had to look these young men in the eye, I don’t think they’d be so quick to make this decision.”
After the NCAA Board of Governors shirked the responsibility of deciding the fate of fall championships, the Council of Presidents in each division had the choice of playing football as normal, requiring adjustments or pushing it to the spring. Both the D-II and D-III working groups decided the financial cost was prohibitive.
The sudden decision came as a surprise at the Division II level. The Lone Star Conference, home of the six Division II programs in Texas, was still scheduled to play football as normal starting in late September. The Lone Star Conference presidents are meeting on Friday to consider the alternatives.
“I really didn’t believe they were going to do it,” Bailiff said. “I thought they would at least move it back to January. Those were the rumors, that it would not be canceled.”
Texas A&M-Commerce won its first NCAA national championship in 2017 under Colby Carthel. The job was so attractive after Carthel earned the Stephen F. Austin job in 2018 that it attracted the highly popular Bailiff, the former head coach at Rice, to the D-II level in hopes of continuing the winning tradition.
After a foundational 11-3 season and No. 11 finish in Bailiff's first season, the Lions entered 2020 among the leading candidates to win a national championship. Instead, the Lions will have to wait at least one more year for that chance.
Two hundred miles down I-35 in Belton, D-III Mary Hardin-Baylor – the standard-bearer for all Texas college programs with three Stagg Bowl appearances and two titles since 2016 – was also downcast after the announcement. With most of Division III moving to the spring, there was hope that championships could follow. The NCAA decided otherwise.
“Obviously, I was very disappointed for our players,” Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Pete Fredenburg said. “The majority of the guys are attracted to our university because of the winning tradition. When they canceled, it was very disappointing.”
The American Southwest Conference still plans to play a conference schedule in the spring, but it is not quite the same for a UMHB program that has won the last 15 ASC titles. Expectations in Belton are to compete for a national championship every single year. Even a 2019 loss in the quarterfinals to national finalist Wisconsin-Whitewater – a historic season for any other Division III program in Texas – was a letdown. That's how high the bar remains.
Now that decisions are official, the Crusaders and Lions have no intent of wallowing. Players have been working out on campus since the summer. Players report to Commerce on Aug. 24. Crusaders head to Belton on Sept. 7.
Additionally, the NCAA threw the small college athletes a bone in the form of new eligibility standards. If a season is five games or less, athletes would be able to participate without using any eligibility, leaving 2020 seniors with the option to return in fall 2021 for one last ride.
The American Southwest Conference is expected to play a four-game round robin divisional schedule in the spring with a championship game, per multiple sources. The Lone Star Conference is discussing multiple scheduling scenarios, but it remains highly likely that the LSC will also stay under the five-game limit.
In the non-scholarship world of Division III, there is no guarantee. Team leaders like defensive back Jefferson Fritz, offensive linemen Steve Sellers and defensive lineman E’Monte Smith are seniors who can likely graduate. Fredenburg spoke of one player working an internship who will simply be too highly sought after in the professional world to return. However, he is optimistic many players will stick around for one last ride.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the thing that the guys who come here really believe in each other and the coaching staff,” Fredenburg said. “They want to play with their teammates and friends and they want to go play deep in the playoffs...guys tell us that my goal is to be part of the 2021 fall and have a chance to win a national championship. I love that kind of attitude and that’s exactly what the sentiments of so many of our players are.”
Bailiff has spent much of the last 48 hours working through details with his compliance office and leadership, but now is confident that TAMUC can secure scholarships for players who want to return. Not every Division II program will be so lucky. He expects the NCAA will allow a one-year exception to the 36 scholarship rule to adjust.
Bailiff has also heard positive feedback from his players in the hours since the decision came down. On a roster with 35 listed seniors – with varying levels of scholarship commitment – only two committed to graduating and not coming back after the fall season. The rest want a chance to play for a championship.
“I think it’ll make these guys even more hungry because they miss it,” Bailiff said. “They get a great education here, but they live and breathe football...think if in the great state of Texas you told deer hunters they didn’t have a season. They’d sure get upset too.”
Of course, America needs to get plenty of decisions right just to play any football during the 2020-21 school year. COVID-19 cases are still spiking all over the nation and Texas leads everyone in deaths over the past seven days. Both coaches emphasized how seriously they are taking the COVID-19 pandemic, and how strictly they’re enforcing protocols to keep both players and staff safe.
But regardless, when playing at Mary Hardin-Baylor and Texas A&M-Commerce, the standard is winning a national championship. And with an extra year for players to grow and improve, the hope is it will pay off with some of the best teams in program history.
“That’s the rewarding thing about it,” Fredenburg said. “The reality that you’ve kind of gained a year to get your body in better shape and prepare for the fall of 2021. We’re putting a lot of high expectations on the fall of ‘21.”
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