Sports

In the far west, only western Oregon and central Washington still offer D-II college football

MONMOUTH, Ore. (AP) — When Arne Ferguson started as an assistant coach at Western Oregon in 1989, road games meant bus trips. Sometimes a few hours to schools in Washington. Sometimes it’s just a few minutes up the road to Oregon towns like Salem, Forest Grove and McMinnville.

All on the bus and neatly housed in the Pacific Northwest.

Now that he’s entering his 18th year as head coach, those bus days are long gone. Ferguson and his team are frequent flyers because there are only two NCAA Division II programs left on the West Coast.

The Wolves will fly six times next season. They will play non-conference games in South Dakota and Minnesota, and league games in Texas and New Mexico.

It’s a massive undertaking, both financially and logistically. It requires wake-up calls at 3am on Friday, followed by buses to the airport, four-hour commercial flights, Saturday games and Sunday all in reverse order.

This season, there will be more than 160 programs in the country that play football at the Division II level, and only two of those — western Oregon and central Washington — are in an area of ​​more than 68 million people. California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Montana do not have D-II football programs.

“It’s the biggest challenge financially, but it’s also a really big opportunity for our department and our university because we’re very visible all along the West Coast and all the way down to Texas,” said Western Oregon athletic director Randi Lydum. “I try to tell people that when you see a football team walking through an airport and they’re all wearing their Western Oregon University gear, we’re like walking billboards.”

Western Oregon and central Washington are affiliated members of the Lone Star Conference for football — opposing schools are located in Texas and New Mexico — while their other athletic programs play closer to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.

Division III and NAIA programs remain strong in the West. But there is a worrying gap in Division II. The progressive disappearance of programs over a 30-year period has created difficult travel decisions and raised questions about whether it’s a worthwhile investment.

“(The players) wouldn’t know what it would be like to hop on a bus and drive a few hours to some of these closer locations. It’s just a way of life how we live here,” said Central Washington coach Chris Fisk. “But I think it’s positive to be making the move to the Lone Star Conference, and while it does involve travel and the kids aren’t worried about the budget…but it’s just what we have to do to be there.” . “I’m able to compete with and compete against really good teams.”

Ferguson seems determined that western Oregon will move forward. He played for the Wolves in the mid-1980s, returned as an assistant and, aside from a year as a high school coach, has been associated with Western Oregon for more than 30 years.

He has been monitoring the development of the program, which is located about 65 miles southwest of Portland in a city of about 11,000 people. In Ferguson’s day, western Oregon was evolving from an NAIA program that competed with public and private schools in the Pacific Northwest to the current state of jet-setting to find matches.

His main concern is the opportunities lost through cutbacks elsewhere. During training camp, Ferguson had 138 players on the field. For a school with a total enrollment of fewer than 4,000 students, this is a significant percentage of the total student body.

“We’ve had kids who came here and didn’t think they were going to play and suddenly they’re a starter (and) in the whole league. We saw them come through here and suddenly they’re doctors,” Ferguson said. “And we’re proud to give them this opportunity and this platform so they can just put their heads down and work, be good people and learn to grow up and be successful.”

It wasn’t like that before. A slew of programs existed on the West Coast until the 1990s, before several California schools, including Chico State, Cal State East Bay, Sonoma State, and San Francisco State, gave up soccer. Another domino fell in 2009 when western Washington scrapped its program.

Central Washington and western Oregon switched to the Lone Star after Cal Poly Humboldt and Azusa Pacific retired from soccer for the past five years. The region suffered another blow last spring when Simon Fraser, the only Canadian member of the NCAA, declared its football program was failing.

The two remaining programs are now attracting players from across the region. The Western Oregon roster last season consisted of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Texas and Kansas.

“We can represent a bigger part,” said Western Oregon quarterback Gannon Winker. “So at Western Oregon we represent a lot of California, Washington and Oregon, and now we’re getting even closer to Texas and we’re able to bring kids from across the country to a place that they may not have seen before.”

As always, money matters. The revenue streams that made headlines at the FBS level and led to the recent conference realignment are foreign ideas to smaller schools. A large portion of western Oregon’s sports budget comes from the Oregon Lottery. Grants exist, but rarely does a player get a full ride.

Division II allows a maximum of 36 scholarships in football – often split between an entire team. Central Washington has 28 or 29 fully funded scholarships; Western Oregon has 13 or 14.

“There are thousands of kids on the West Coast who don’t get the opportunity to go to the next level,” Fisk said.

While Division II football is thriving in the Midwest and parts of the East, it is struggling to gain widespread attention in the West. Utah Tech – formerly Dixie State – used to play regularly against western Oregon and central Washington and competed in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference before beginning its transition to the FCS tier in 2020.

“There’s no interest in Division II athletics in the state of Utah and the surrounding area. It just doesn’t exist. People can’t even tell you about Division II programs,” said Utah Tech athletic director Ken Beazer. “Now in the Midwest or the far East, I think Division II has some street cred. I think it has some profitability and some fairness. It’s not sporty out here. And that’s what we found out.”

The transition is not quick. Utah Tech officials believe it will take a 10-year process before their revenues and infrastructure reach the point of many of the top FCS programs.

Questions about FCS are regularly asked in central Washington, and fans see the Big Sky Conference as an option. It’s not just a football decision, however, and a promotion would likely mean an additional $10 million a year in need for the entire athletic department.

“A lot of people come up to me and talk to me about it all the time, and I say it’s not money they have to come up with once. This is money you must have every year. And you have to increase that,” said Dennis Francois, athletic director of Central Washington.

This season, both central Washington and western Oregon have football travel budgets in excess of $400,000. When Francois first arrived in central Washington ten years ago, the entire budget for football operations — including travel expenses — was $300,000.

Because of this cost, guarantee matches with FCS teams are a must. One of the flights from western Oregon is the season opener at South Dakota State, the reigning FCS national champion. While it’s not a big payday, it should still bring in enough money to offset one of the plane trips later in the season.

For now, both schools appear intent on making the situation work for as long as possible.

“I’m biased, but I love collegiate athletes and I love our collegiate football athletes,” Lydum said. “They just bring an energy and excitement to our campus that I think we would sorely miss if we didn’t have them.”

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AP College Football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll

Source: apnews.com

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