At Indiana State, when alumni discuss their college football team it isn't always a happy conversation.The Sycamores have been ranked in the Top 25 for five weeks, they beat Missouri State on Saturday with a field goal in the final seconds, and in Mike Perish they have one of the most prolific quarterbacks in program history -- but when some Indiana State alumni talk about football, it's not to relish these greatest of times.
It's to ponder the end of times.
As in, Indiana State without college football.
Can you imagine? ISU alumni can and are, in conversations with each other and with the alumni association and with the athletics director -- and even with me. Multiple Indiana State alumni have emailed, asking me to find out if the situation is as dire as they fear: that college football is at risk in Terre Haute.
So I asked the athletics director at Indiana State, Ron Prettyman. And I asked the school's chief financial officer, Diann McKee, university treasurer and vice president of business affairs and finance. I asked them what alumni are asking of me and of each other: Is Indiana State nearing the day when it has to decide on the financial viability of its football program?
Said Prettyman, the AD: "Lots of decisions are out of my hands. The president, the trustees, they make decisions in the best interest of the university. I make decisions in the best interest of the athletic department. I'm battling for football and the entire athletic department every day."
Said McKee, the VP: "That's beyond me, I think. That decision is kind of above my pay grade, if you will."
Lots of words there. Notice one that's missing when I asked the Indiana State AD and the Indiana State CFO if the football program might soon be in jeopardy:
Neither said: No.
This column here, this isn't an attempt at sensationalism. Run for the hills, they're shutting down Indiana State football! I'm not saying that. What I'm saying, what I'm doing, is trying to include in the conversation those Indiana State alumni who aren't talking about the football program's future, who don't understand what is happening around college football and what it could all mean for the Sycamores.
Our city, Indianapolis, matters greatly to Indiana State. Of the roughly 60,000 ISU alumni in the state, more than a quarter – 16,000 – are in Indianapolis, according to ISU Alumni Association assistant director Hilary Duncan.
At the Indiana State Foundation, the fundraising arm of the university, they look longingly this way, toward all those alums 75 miles northeast of Terre Haute.
"We have a lot of interested alumni in Indianapolis," says Phil Ness, associate VP for athletics development, "but we need some more of those alums to get in the car on a Saturday afternoon and watch some of our football games. If we can engage that segment of our alumni base – [Indianapolis] is probably the highest standard of living in the state -- then I think things begin to snowball for us."
The richest conferences have discussed taking their money-making machine and hiding it, refusing to schedule FCS schools like Indiana State, which has one guaranteed game on each of its next three schedules – at Purdue in 2015 for $450,000, Minnesota in 2016 for $475,000 and Tennessee in 2017 for $500,000,according to the Star's Mark Alesia.
One such payday a year covers roughly 4 percent of the ISU athletic department's budget, so while losing it would hurt -- and Prettyman doesn't think those games would go away entirely -- it wouldn't be a death knell. What would be a potential death knell? Multiple legal actions facing college football now, most notably two separate lawsuits against the NCAA filed by college athletes seeking a free marketplace, and a case before the National Labor Relations Board from Northwestern football players asking to be recognized as employees with the right to unionize. Those are being contested at the highest levels of college sports, but the trickle-down would reach FCS schools like Indiana State.
If college football players are legally empowered to unionize, coupled with "God only knows exactly what (legislative) craziness could prevail," as the Power Five AD told me, the ramifications for a school with a budget as small as Indiana State's – ISU ranks No. 162 of the 230 Division I schools surveyed by USA Today – are financially devastating. Add to that a 90-year-old money pit of a stadium located off campus? Financially unviable.
"The litigation could have a tremendous impact on college athletics," says McKee, "and not just at Indiana State."
And so alumni, the ones who know enough to know what is happening and to fear what could happen next, are talking. To each other, to the AD, and even to me. This email came from lifelong Terre Haute resident James Twitchell, a 2009 ISU graduate:
"We've got a lot of pride here in Terre Haute and Indiana State, a lot of good people who have been able to do more with less than maybe any university in the nation. No one wants to talk about or think about cutting programs, but the way things are going I think that a lot of smaller schools like us are going to have to make a lot of tough decisions going forward."
Twitchell passed along an email that one of his friends, another Indiana State alum, sent him this week:
"If we lose college football, all because a few people wanted all the money to themselves …"
Concerned alumni are talking to Ness, too. And this is what the man in charge of fundraising for athletics tells them about the future of Indiana State football:
"You know what? I think it's time for you to write that $25,000 check."