Today's game with Navy provides a rare treat for the Eastern Kentucky football team. The Colonels will travel here from Richmond, Ky., via Piedmont Airlines.
Last week, a bus, two vans and a sedan carried the nation's top-ranked Division I-AA football team to Youngstown, Ohio. That is the normal mode of transportation for Eastern Kentucky and its eight fellow travelers in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Busing it is just one of several economies that enable Ohio Valley teams to play first-class football and still come close to balancing the budget. Although NCAA rules permit I-AA schools to grant 75 full scholarships -- the I-A powers are allowed 95 -- the Ohio Valley has its own limit of 70 and, with money tight in mid-America, there is talk of a reduction to 65 next year.
About one-third of the coaches' salaries at most Ohio Valley schools comes from general funds, in exchange for double duty as physical education instructors. Recruiting largely is confined within state lines, both to restrain travel costs and to avoid the higher out-of-state tuition costs.
All the Ohio Valley schools are state-supported, but their athletic budgets bear little resemblance to the soaring costs at I-A schools. The overall programs range from $900,000 to $1.25 million, with about half devoted to football. A random sampling showed a $435,000 football budget for an OVC member in Tennessee, a $450,000 figure in Kentucky and a $570,000 cost in Ohio, where extra travel boosts the freight.
By contrast, most big I-A schools with their avid support groups have athletic budgets worthy of David Stockman's ax. Tennessee and Kentucky are in the $8 million neighborhood. North Carolina goes through $7 million annually. Maryland last year spent $4.4 million. Rutgers, a onetime mid-major that has joined the big guys, is slightly over $3 million.
The football program at Maryland, including scholarships, is a $1.4 million item. At some I-A monsters, the cost of football approaches $3 million.
These numbers are a key in the current attempt by College Football Association schools to inflate television revenue. With hardly anyone, big or small, able to balance the athletic budget, everyone wants a bigger slice of the TV pie.
When the NCAA established Division I-AA in 1978, one of the ways it encouraged membership was to guarantee at least five television games every two years involving I-AA schools. The CFA argues that the I-AA games have lowered ratings and thereby revenues. It feels that putting I-AAs in the back of the bus and restricting television access to football powers will bring in far more money.
"From a strictly marketing standpoint, there is no argument," said Jim Delany, commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference. "But for the best interest of college football, I would disagree. I don't think the CFA movement is in the best interest of the mid-major colleges.
"With Eastern Kentucky reaching the I-AA tournament final the last two years, this conference has gotten TV exposure and revenues it has not experienced before. We have had two national games, five regional games and three ESPN games. The TV money has covered about 10 percent of the conference programs and that has been very helpful."
Delany said that of the $30 million distributed by ABC last year, $25.2 million went to the 61 CFA schools plus the Pac-10 and Big Ten.
Currently, there are 137 schools in Division I-A and 48 in I-AA. But if a proposed change is put into effect at December's NCAA convention, the I-AA folks will find themselves joined by many marginal I-A schools from the Ivy League, Mid-American Conference, Southern Conference, Missouri Valley Conference, Pacific Coast Athletic Association and Southland Conference.
Eastern Kentucky was I-AA national champion in 1979. It was runner-up to Boise State last year, defeating Division I-A opponent East Carolina in a 10-3 season.