CHARLESTON, S.C. - Year in and year out, Citadel athletic director Les Robinson puts together one heck of a football schedule.
Some consider it the toughest in small-college football, and others say it’s the hardest in the nation, considering the school’s limited size and resources.
While Georgia Southern routinely suits up against the Central Connecticut States and West Georgias of the world, its Southern Conference foe, The Citadel, rakes in a small fortune with annual trips to face the country’s elite - Florida, Auburn, LSU. The list goes on, and the Bulldogs often play two top-tier Division I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools a year.
GSU, on the other hand, has faced just one full-fledged I-A member in the last six seasons, the Georgia Bulldogs in 2004. But the Eagles do have one I-A game lined up each of the next three years beginning with a trip to Colorado State this fall. GSU will revisit Athens in 2008 and head to Navy the following season.
Eagle athletic director Sam Baker said Georgia Southern “is always exploring opportunities to schedule NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision institutions. It is important to remember that it takes two institutions mutually agreeing on a specific date to make a game become a reality.”
Since 2003, The Citadel has traveled to LSU, Auburn, Duke, Florida State, Ole Miss, Pittsburgh and Texas A&M. This season it’ll head to Wisconsin, followed by trips to Clemson and Florida in 2008, the University of North Carolina and South Carolina the following year and Arizona in 2010. By then, the school will have totaled approximately $5.5 million in guarantees. It’s all part of a plan by Robinson, the school’s AD since 2000, who aimed to arrange games with teams from every BCS conference.
Critics of Robinson’s tough scheduling say there’s no sense in signing up for a surefire blowout, especially with the injury risks. But Robinson said the players are grateful, having tracked him down on the sidelines to personally thank him for setting up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
“They are looking around at 80,000 people — that’s what you live for if you are a football player,” said Robinson, who was recently tabbed an Astroturf AD of the year. “You live to play the best. That’s the biggest thrill in the world.”
So how does he get the top-dog I-As to agree to play his I-AA Bulldogs season after season?
“It’s mostly about relationships,” said Robinson, who developed plenty while playing and coaching basketball at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s North Carolina State, where he later served as athletic director.
Rather than sitting around waiting for his phone to ring, Robinson has initiated most of the big-time games he’s scheduled. The affable leader makes an effort to travel to the school he wants to play, preferring to visit his fellow ADs in person.
Robinson continues to build his expansive list of contacts by attending the annual Fiesta Frolic, an invite-only, three-day gathering of I-A coaches and athletic directors put on by the Fiesta Bowl. Friendships started at the meetings have resulted in numerous guarantee games for The Citadel. Robinson said he’s the only I-AA AD in attendance at the meetings, which he was included in from his days on the NCAA basketball committee.
Sure, it helps that the Bulldogs are usually a sub-.500 team, but Robinson clearly knows how to market The Citadel.
“If I were to credit myself with anything, I know I’ve got a good product, and I don’t screw it up,” he said. “I sell The Citadel and what it stands for – that you are not going to go wrong playing us. So far it’s worked pretty well.”
All about the Benjamins, sort of
On the surface, money is a large factor behind scheduling major I-A opponents.
Last year the Bulldogs picked up $750,000 for traveling to Pittsburgh and Texas A&M and earned another $775,000 from games at Florida State and Ole Miss in 2005. Georgia Southern will make $200,000 for playing at Colorado State this year and $260,000 for the trip to Georgia in 2008. Those numbers are crucial to the financial health of small-college athletics, but Robinson said the advantages of such games have many more benefits, mainly recruiting and national exposure.
Because of its rigid military requirements, the Charleston, S.C., based school faces more recruiting challenges than most of its competitors. To student-athletes considering The Citadel, a chance to face the nation’s best has been a draw.
“We have football players who come here right now because we playing against every BCS conference,” Robinson said. “So probably the most important driving force in scheduling these games is recruiting to build a program. I want to give our coaches every opportunity to recruit the best football players they can, and playing in the Big 10, the Pac 10, that helps.”
The recruiting, he said, extends beyond the football field and helps attract prospective students in general.
But for the football players, playing nationally televised games is a chance to shine. Former Bulldog running back Nehemiah Broughton credits being drafted by the NFL’s Washington Redskins to playing at Auburn in 2004. Scouts saw him run the ball well there, resulting in an invitation to the Senior Bowl and an eventual draft selection.
As for long-range benefits for the school, Robinson said the national exposure awarded to the Bulldogs has been huge.
The Citadel-Auburn game sparked the interest of a Los Angeles Times writer and resulted in a five-page in-depth feature highlighting the school and gracing the front page of the major newspaper’s Saturday edition in November 2005. The Times’ coverage was worth an estimated quarter of a million dollars in advertising, Robinson was told by friends in the newspaper business.
Playing big-name schools on the road also enables the Bulldogs to reach out to alumni scattered across the country who aren’t necessarily able to travel back to South Carolina for football games.
“When we take our show on the road it engages people,” said Robinson, adding that the football program has received some of its largest donations from the state of Florida and Texas in the past three or four years. “I’m not going to say I attribute it to playing football at Texas A&M and Florida, but it helped. When we take the team down there, it reignites the alumni and reconnects them with the college and donations go up. That and recruiting are probably the biggest benefits.”
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-0413.