With the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament underway, we take a look at some of the schools that are a constant presence in March that might be candidates to add a football program. We curated the list from approximately 20 teams down to 12 programs all of which have made the NCAA tournament at least 3 times over the last decade.
The criteria for determining the teams on the list below were based on schools that do not currently sponsor football and have made multiple appearances in the tournament since 2010. We ultimately settled on 3 appearances to limit the number of teams on the list.
As with many of our articles, we have an important disclaimer: this is a purely speculative exercise. There is no inside information and we don’t have any sources. This is intended to be a fun article and a thought experiment. One final note: this will be more a quick hits article than an in-depth look at all 12 schools as we typically write up.
All of these schools face some of the same problems such as a lack of a stadium, which means a high initial cost, finding a conference to play in, and deciding which subdivision (FBS or FCS) they want to have a long-term future in. Furthermore, there are past decisions that present a hurdle as well as dealing with behind-the-scenes politicking.
Let’s start with the list of teams.
The list of 12 programs is provided alphabetically below along with the location of the school, the number of appearances in the NCAA tournament since 2010, and the conference the schools will be a member of in 2022-23. Clicking on each school’s name will bring you directly to that part of the article if you wish to just read about a single school.
|School||Location||NCAAT Appearances Since 2010||Conference as of 2022-23|
|Belmont||Nashville, Tennessee||5||Missouri Valley|
|Creighton||Omaha, Nebraska||6||Big East|
|Iona||New Rochelle, New York||7||MAAC|
|Loyola Chicago||Chicago, Illinois||3||Atlantic 10|
|Marquette||Milwaukee, Wisconsin||6||Big East|
|Providence||Providence, Rhode Island||5||Big East|
|St. John's||New York, New York||3||Big East|
|VCU||Richmond, Virginia||9||Atlantic 10|
|Vermont||Burlington, Vermont||5||America East|
|Wichita State||Wichita, Kansas||8||AAC|
|Winthrop||Rock Hill, South Carolina||3||Big South|
|Xavier||Dayton, Ohio||8||Big East|
One school that most certainly fits the criteria but isn’t listed is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have been an incredible mid-major team knocking on the door of winning a basketball National Championship but have yet to breakthrough at the time of publishing this article. Gonzaga will be the subject of a larger, more nuanced article later this year because there are many tantalizing possibilities for the school.
Let’s start this list by looking at the soon-to-be MVC team: Belmont.
The Belmont Bruins have been a popular mid-major presence in the NCAA Tournament since 2010. In fact, they have been a frequent visitor since 2006 when they were in the Atlantic Sun Conference. They made 5 appearances from 2006 through 2012 followed by a move to the Ohio Valley Conference. Since 2013, they have made 3 additional appearances (not counting 2020 when they won the OVC conference tournament) and never finished worse than 2nd in the regular-season standings. None of this even accounts for the success that the women’s basketball team has had with 6 straight NCAA tournament appearances dating back to 2016.
All of this adds up to Belmont’s latest move to the Missouri Valley Conference alongside fellow OVC member Murray State for the 2022-23 academic year. While Murray State currently sponsors football and has yet to decide which conference they will join after leaving the OVC, Belmont doesn’t offer football.
There would be two factors to consider for Belmont if they added football: where they want to be as an athletic department and where to play football. Based on how Belmont has moved up through the mid-major conferences and probably wouldn’t like to play in the conference they just left (OVC). Other options include the Big South and Missouri Valley Football Conference (not associated with the MVC).
Overall, this isn’t likely for numerous reasons including the lack of space in the Nashville area for a new football stadium as well as the costs associated with building a stadium.
Big East Return?
There are 5 teams on our list that reside in the Big East: Creighton, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, and Xavier, which have all made multiple appearances in the NCAA tournament. The other 6 programs in the Big East are Butler (non-scholarship Pioneer Football League), Connecticut (FBS independent), DePaul (no football), Georgetown (Patriot League), Seton Hall (no football), and Villanova (CAA).
The Big East is a stratified set of schools when it comes to football. Bringing back the sport would be a challenge with teams having different ideas on where to play football. The five teams on our list have all decided that football isn’t worth the expense. Creighton (1942), Marquette (1960), Providence (1941), St. John’s (2002), and Xavier (1973) gave up on football decades ago making a return highly unlikely. In addition, DePaul (1948) and Seton Hall (1981) also stopped sponsoring football.
One paradoxical reason why the Big East could possibly return is that football isn’t the primary sport for the conference as is typically seen at the FBS level. While not the only sport they sponsor, the Big East has been historically associated with basketball. That leaves open the possibility of setting up an FCS conference that maintains the focus on basketball. This could also allow the likes of Butler to remain in the PFL and not have to offer scholarships.
The biggest problem in this scenario is the basis of the article: 7 teams in the Big East don’t have football for a reason. The high costs of starting up a football program for minimal return aren’t likely to make them do a 180-degree turn and reinstate football after decades-long absences. The Big East’s future is staked on basketball and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them double down on that in the next set of realignment moves.
Iona is another mid-major program that is a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament. Since 2012, they’ve made 7 appearances as the MAAC Champion although they have yet to break through with an upset victory in the big dance. The Gaels previously sponsored football until the conclusion of the 2008 season when they disbanded the team due to a “lack of equitable opponents”. Additional reasons included (possible paywall) the dissolution of the MAAC football conference, MAAC teams giving up football, and competition worries as Iona did not offer scholarships.
So what has changed in the last 15 years? Iona has made a concerted effort to expand its footprint starting with the acquisition of Concordia College and investing in athletics. Iona hired Hall of Famer Rick Pitino as the basketball coach, which paid off immediately with an NCAA Tournament berth and has added numerous club sports.
While none of these moves were specific to football, we can’t help but notice that there’s a coast-to-coast conference that sponsors non-scholarship football at the FCS level. The Pioneer Football League would be a good destination if Iona were to bring back football and a majority of the schools in the PFL are located in the Eastern half of the US.
There are also additional conferences Iona could join though that would require an invitation, willingness to join said conference, and offering scholarships in football. None of those seem particularly likely and with all three needed for this to come to fruition, it makes the odds even greater. To go all the way with the analysis, the additional conferences they could join are the CAA and Northeast Conference, which would be a boon to both the revived football team and a solid mid-major basketball program.
Overall, Iona adding back football is a longshot for the same reason the Big East sponsoring football is unlikely: there’s little incentive to add back a sport that was already deemed too expensive. Unless the MAAC does a complete 180 and brings back football as a conference, this is tough to envision.
Loyola Chicago has been a recent darling at the NCAA Tournament following two Cinderella runs to the Final Four in 2018 and the Sweet Sixteen in 2021. Like numerous schools on this list, they too had a football program once upon a time and discontinued the program in 1930.
While Loyola has focused on everything other than football since 1930, the basketball program has moved from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley Conference and will head to the Atlantic 10 beginning with the 2022-23 season. The A10 doesn’t sponsor football, which means some members have football-only associations with other conferences.
There are multiple options if Loyola were to bring back football. The first is the MVFC, which is based in the Midwest, and Loyola would be relatively central to most opponents. Another option is the Ohio Valley Conference, which would see Loyola be the northernmost football member. They could also join the CAA as an associate member, which houses fellow A10 members Rhode Island and Richmond. Finally, there is the oft-mentioned Pioneer Football League if the Ramblers did not want to provide scholarships.
As crazy as the idea of Loyola adding football sounds, it was an idea brought up by the school’s president Michael Garanzini in 2012. There were several stipulations at the time including a new stadium, two practice fields, and a budget big enough to support scholarship athletes and coaching salaries.
A decade has elapsed since Garanzini brought up the potential return of football and things have changed. There’s a stadium with an impending vacancy in Soldier Field, Loyola has changed conferences again, and the Loyola brand has never been stronger. While offering scholarships in football seems most likely for Loyola, that was a requirement for a previous administration and may not be shared by the current or future ones.
Overall, this isn’t the worst idea but still seems farfetched. The 10-mile journey down Lake Shore Drive to the off-campus stadium in Soldier Field is not ideal to attract fans nor is the cost of building a practice field especially if it means paying a premium for land.
VCU is a team we’ve mentioned before in a 2018 article on potential FCS teams. Given the school’s location in the mid-Atlantic or Southeast (depending on your definition of US geography) as well as having a club team, there’s potential here. On the court, the Rams have been well-known since their run to the Final Four in 2011. They have made an additional 8 NCAA Tournament appearances since 2012 though never with the same amount of success as the 2011 team had.
Back in 2018, our article mentioned that the VCU Athletic Director at the time did not want football. That changed in 2019 when Ed McLaughlin became AD and was far more open about adding football; however, it is not high on his priority list.
One of the biggest issues facing VCU – and every school on this list – is building football facilities including a stadium. The estimate for startup costs at VCU was $50 – $100 million followed by $6 – $9 million for an annual football budget. This doesn’t factor in the additional sports added to meet Title IX requirements, which will drive up the costs as well. The AD is also on record saying they want to play football at the highest level – the FBS.
If they were to play in the FBS there are two immediate candidates in Conference USA and the Sun Belt. The former seems like a more willing partner given C-USA’s openness to FBS newcomers. There’s also the option of VCU playing at the FCS level for a few seasons before moving up to the FBS though that is more of a fallback option if FBS conferences are tuckered out from the realignment game.
Overall, VCU’s football prospects seem brighter in 2022 than in 2018 but they’re still dim. The massive outlay for the facilities is a drawback and the time isn’t quite right for VCU to pursue football. It’s still worth keeping an eye on VCU to see how much closer they get to adding football.
Vermont has appeared in the NCAA tournament 5 times since 2010 though they have never gotten beyond the Round of 64 during that time. Unsurprisingly, Vermont is another program that dropped football. The Board of Trustees dropped football after the 1974 season to save $200,000 a year (equivalent to $1.15 million in 2022).
So why bring back football at Vermont? For starters, there are plenty of regional opponents for them to play. The Catamounts are a member of the America East Conference, which does not sponsor football. However, 4 current AEC members – Albany, Maine, New Hampshire, and Stony Brook – all play football in the CAA (Stony Brook will become full CAA members in 2022-23). Bryant University will be joining the AEC in 2022-23 but will house its football program in the Big South Conference. Of the 2 conferences, the CAA would be a great landing spot if Vermont restarted its football program.
So why won’t this happen? In Vermont, football has seen a decline in participation leaving some to wonder if the sport may disappear altogether from the state. The school has also focused on sports that are cheaper to operate while finding a modicum of success. Basketball, hockey, skiing, and soccer are just some of the sports they’ve opted to focus on that can be paid for multiple times over for the cost of a football stadium.
While this one looks great on paper, digging a bit deeper shows how troubled a return of football would be for Vermont. It’s a recurring theme in this article but there’s a reason most schools don’t sponsor football anymore: the costs aren’t justified by the revenue and exposure these schools would receive.
Our penultimate team for this article is Wichita State a school that has notable football history. The Shockers made history twice in 1905 when they were called Fairmount College. They played the first night game west of the Mississippi River when they defeated Cooper College (now Sterling College) 24-0. They also played an experimental game on Christmas Day in 1905 that can best be described as boring. The game ended scoreless with a total of 7 first downs.
The football team has also faced a pitfall when in 1970, a plane carrying players and head coach Ben Wilson crashed. A total of 31 people including 14 players and Wilson were killed. The Shockers opted to finish the season despite the loss of life.
In 1986, the university decided football was too much of a financial burden on the athletic department. The sport cost $1.5 million in expenses with revenues of $667,000. On top of that, another $3.6 million would have been needed to pay off existing debts and improve the stadium. On the field, there wasn’t much success with the last bowl appearance coming in 1961. It’s not hard to see why they opted to disband the program.
So why bring it back? There’s an appetite to see football return (here as well) and Wichita State would have plenty of closer regional opponents in the remodeled AAC. There have been numerous studies completed to assess the level of interest and bringing back football has been positively received. As Wichita State President John Bardo said, “Everyone wants football but no one wants to pay for it.” That’s been the case with several schools on this list as well. For Wichita State, they would need to renovate Cessna Stadium – assuming it is not demolished soon.
With the new-look AAC, Wichita State bringing back football isn’t as unlikely as other schools on this list. It would have been harder to envision before the realignment changes but the addition of Texas-based schools makes the travel far more reasonable. However, they’d need massive infrastructure improvements and the money to maintain the football program. This is squarely in the highly unlikely but not impossible category.
The final school referenced here is Winthrop and this is probably the best option of all the teams listed. Winthrop has been to the NCAA tournament three times since 2010. Prior to that, the Eagles were a more frequent NCAA tournament participant with 8 appearances between 1999 and 2008.
What makes Winthrop an interesting possibility is the current conference they play in and a recent study they conducted and published about starting a football team. Winthrop is a member of the Big South Conference, which has seen quite a bit of turnover and the football membership will dwindle to 5 teams in 2023 with Bryant, Campbell, Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, and Robert Morris.
The losses have been so steep for the Big South that they will merge with the Ohio Valley Conference in football. This will allow all the teams from both conferences to still be eligible for an automatic qualifying spot in the FCS playoffs.
There is considerable backing from the students at Winthrop for a football team. The university conducted a study and published the findings in 2016. Ultimately, the schools dismissed the idea of adding football on the grounds of additional financial burden. The school estimated construction costs of $11.5 million to renovate a local stadium plus an additional $5 million for operating a scholarship football program.
If you get beyond the initial startup costs, which are pretty hefty, there’s a lot to like about Winthrop’s Big South possibility. They’re located in a football-crazy location, have a conference to play in, and could use a football program to potentially launch themselves into a more lucrative conference. The sticker shock was enough to sway the school’s leadership away from the idea although it sounds good on paper.
When looking at potential Division 1 football teams from a pool of frequent March Madness participants, it’s pretty tough to find good candidates. Most of the schools have previously sponsored football but disbanded the teams due to financial issues. Bringing them back – when football is more costly than ever – would seem to fly in the face of those decisions.
Of all the teams, two from the list above stand out as potential football candidates: VCU and Winthrop. Both sit in the fertile football grounds of the Mid-Atlantic/Southeast part of the US and would have conferences to join with few problems. On the flip side, both schools (and every school on the list) face the massive startup costs associated with a new football program. Those alone are likely enough to discourage any school from seriously considering the idea of football.
While we would like to see a few of these teams eventually bring back football or start a new team, we admit these are a set of low-probability events. Nevertheless, some schools may not be deterred by the high initial costs if they feel there are enough reasons to go ahead. In the land of realignment, sometimes nothing more is needed than the whim of a school president or AD who firmly believes that adding football is worth the investment and risk.
Photo courtesy of St. John’s Athletics