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CEDAR FALLS — The change to a new year annually brings about new obstacles and opportunities for college athletic departments. Headed into 2022, though, college athletics is once again undergoing considerable change.
As it relates to Northern Iowa, the Football Championship Subdivision — in which UNI football competes — has become a large part of the latest changes.
Perennial playoff programs Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State are headed to the FBS’ Conference USA, while James Madison is also headed to the bowl subdivision, joining the Sun Belt Conference.
“It’s certainly something that made me perk up and pay attention, because you never know how many of these dominoes are going to fall and how it’s going to impact you,” UNI Athletics Director David Harris said.
How the Bearkats, Gamecocks and Dukes moving upward and onward affects the FCS remains to be seen. It’s undoubtedly a considerable loss of viewers as all three programs have great fan support, but their departures won’t have a financial impact that will register on the subdivision’s Richter scale.
A fair point of concern moving forward though is whether the FCS’ best teams will more frequently make the move to the FBS, creating a pseudo feeder league as the FBS’ revenues prove irresistible.
UNI rival North Dakota State seems poised to be the next domino to fall, as there’s been rumored interest in an FBS move to the Mountain West Conference.
“That’s certainly going to be an opportunity for schools if they decide they want to take advantage of it, but I think the FCS is set up to be independent and strong in and of itself,” Harris said. “It’s not meant to be a level or a system that feeds into the FBS.”
Harris pointed out that the FCS’ ability to produce NFL talent and play an entertaining brand of football is a big factor in its ability to persevere during moments like these. He also acknowledged the importance for UNI and other programs to invest in their facilities and student-athletes will only grow as realignment continues.
Harris said there are resources the UNI football program has that many others in the FCS don’t, while also acknowledging there are resources they do not have that others do.
One particular example is the cost of attendance stipend.
While the Panthers sponsor all 63 available football scholarships, they do not sponsor cost of attendance stipends that pay out monthly and typically range annually between $2,000 to $4,000 per student-athlete.
“For us, we want to look at all areas. We want to look at operational costs, we want to look at cost of attendance, we want to look at the elements that impact the student-athlete experience and try to raise that experience for them,” Harris said.
Currently, UNI’s annual athletic scholarship cost across all sports is nearly $4.5 million and its Panther Scholarship Club typically raises nearly $1.5 in donations. This leaves the department with a roughly $3 million bill to cover annually. Until that number comes down, there doesn’t appear to be a pathway toward funding cost of attendance.
“The more money we get from the PSC, the less money we have to come up with from a scholarship standpoint. Or, the more money that we might have to be able to move toward a cost of attendance model in a sport like football,” Harris said.
Another financial element that could boost the program’s ability to recruit for talent is reciprocity. Reciprocity allows out-of-state student-athletes to attend colleges in nearby states for a reduced tuition rate and a number of UNI’s Missouri Valley Conference peers benefit from it. However, Harris says it’s “not a silver bullet” for the program, but acknowledged it carries a degree of benefits and there have been internal conversations on the matter.
So, while Harris and his colleagues continue to work toward growing annual Panther Scholarship Club donations, gifts the past two years for an outdoor turf practice facility and team meeting room in the UNI-Dome were much-needed improvements.
Harris says he regularly speaks with head football coach Mark Farley about moving the program from a “consistent playoff performer” to a “championship level program.” And with cost of attendance and reciprocity seemingly years away, a $45 to $50 million UNI-Dome renovation is the program’s next step in that journey.
“The renovation of the UNI-Dome, I believe, is the single most important thing we can do for the overall health of not just the football program but the athletics department,” Harris said. “We’re hopeful that in 2022 we’re in a position to be able to take our plans public.”