Towson University athletic director Tim Leonard's resume, with stops at colleges in places as far-flung as Boise, Idaho; Orlando, Fla.; and Dallas, suggests he knows something about change and new challenges.
That's a good thing.
Because life in college athletics is on the verge of seismic change, and for an institution such as Towson, failure to get ready for the upheaval is courting an extremely unpleasant outcome, in Leonard's view.
"There's a lot that we don't know about the future of college athletics. The one thing that is certain, though, is change," said Leonard, who arrived at Towson in 2013 from Southern Methodist University. Some of his other stops were at the University of Central Florida, his alma mater Boise State and Illinois State.
"If you're a student of history and you look at the NCAA and its history, there has always been change," he continued. "Whether it's been in classifications or conferences, there have been realignments; there have been expansions. … So change is going to happen. It's just a matter of when it's going to happen. And it's probably going to happen before we're ready."
Leonard is in the earliest stages of building momentum for his vision for Towson's athletic future. Obviously, the support of new university president Kim Schatzel, who took over at Towson in January, is essential. Schatzel is the third university president Leonard has worked for in his three years at the school.
"Dr. Schatzel is very supportive of athletics," Leonard said. "She understands what we're trying to do, and she understands the important role that athletics play within the university, especially from a perception standpoint and an engagement standpoint."
Getting Towson ready for an uncertain future has become Leonard's mission.
Dramatic College Football Changes
The tectonic plates in college sports, especially for football, started shifting two years ago when the now-famous Power Five college football conferences were granted the autonomy to pass some of their own legislation. In football, the Power Five comprises about half of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).
Soon after, those conferences -- the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast -- voted to expand the breadth of college scholarships to include an additional layer of money for athletes that is commonly referred to in athletic circles as "cost of attendance" (more on that later).
It's important to understand that a great deal of policy and activity within the NCAA is driven by football, because that sport generates the most revenue, attracts the most attention and engenders the most prestige for universities.
That cost-of-attendance change -- which adds to the cost of scholarships substantially -- was exactly the type of thing that is sure to cause extreme financial pressure on FBS football universities that are not in the Power Five. Those non-Power Five colleges have been referred to as the Group of Five (coincidentally, there are five of those conferences as well).
The added layers of scholarship money account for miscellaneous student expenses, such as transportation. Typically, the extra money adds $3,000 to $5,000 to the value of a full-ride scholarship (tuition, fees, room and board and books). Previously, students getting full athletic scholarships did not receive that extra money. Now they do at Power Five schools, and not just for football but across the board in all sports.
The reality is that not many other universities outside the Power Five can easily afford it. Not surprisingly, that gives the Power Five even more leverage in recruiting.
The added scholarship money the Power Five has now made de rigueur in college football may be one of the more obvious examples of the drift occurring between the biggest sports schools and everyone else, but it's not the only wedge.
So it is clear to some folks -- such as Towson athletic director Leonard -- that, in time, the gap will continue to widen substantially between the 64 colleges that are in the Power Five conferences and the 61 universities that make up the Group of Five conferences in 2016. There also are three FBS independents: Notre Dame, Army and BYU.
Peering Into The Crystal Ball
Where the Power Five's ambitions will take those schools remains unclear, as are the ramifications for the Group of Five. One scenario has those 64 colleges that make up the Power Five spinning off into their own universe, leaving the remaining FBS institutions -- well, no one knows exactly where.
However, the ripple effects are likely to even touch universities such as Towson, which currently is in a lower football classification, the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA.
Not everyone agrees that a split in the FBS is inevitable. One of those is former University of Maryland basketball and NBA star, Rhodes Scholar and ex-U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen. McMillen is now the executive director of the Division 1A Athletic Directors' Association.
"I don't necessarily agree with the premise that it is inevitable that the Power Five schools are going to break off and go off on their own," McMillen said. "In Division I-A, we have schools that have athletic budgets from $30 million to $40 million all the way up to $200 million. But what we're all about is trying to keep the schools in our organization together. We've been attempting to do that in various ways, including the distribution of some resources."
That may be the goal of McMillen's organization, but there are significant challenges in holding together the FBS, to put it mildly. And most of those challenges involve money, both on the revenue side and the expense side.
McMillen has been frank in describing the disparity in television money that gets tossed at Power Five schools and the relatively meager TV revenue that trickles in at Group of Five schools.
"There is such great pressure to compete, and the TV money is so great," McMillen said. "You have Power Five schools getting $30 million a year in TV revenue and $1 to $2 million for [schools in] the American Athletic Conference (a Group of Five conference).
"Clearly, the TV money has resulted in pressure for bifurcation in the structure of college athletics, but we're making every attempt to keep it together. That you have a Maryland playing Bowling Green [in football] can be a good thing. … I think the verdict is still out."
Terps fans will probably wince at the reminder of Bowling Green, a Group of Five school, soundly beating Power Fiver Maryland in football, 48-27, last September.
However, in the main, Group of Five schools have little chance to consistently compete against Power Five universities, and the Group of Five is virtually eliminated from the new college football playoff system because the playoff selection process makes it essentially a Power Five-only party.
Looming Challenge For Towson
So how does all this unevenness and resultant uncertainty within the FBS affect Towson, an FCS university?
Towson's Leonard explains.
"I think there will be one more wave of a handful of schools moving into the Power Five, maybe Boise State or BYU out West. Maybe Houston or [the University of Connecticut]. They'll get to 67 to 72 schools, and that'll be it," Leonard said.
Then the dominoes start falling, in Leonard's view, as the current Group of Five schools scramble to realign, perhaps in a new classification as they try to save money with geographically oriented conferences and uniform regulations for scholarships and staffing that control expenses and make their athletic programs financially sustainable.
"And that's where I think there's an opportunity for Towson, because when [the Group of Five] gets strangled out [of the FBS], there are going to be universities -- the UConns, the UMasses, the Temples, the Memphises, the East Carolinas -- who will have to regroup. When they do, that gives us an opportunity to be a part of that regrouping. "
The alternative, Leonard said, is unpalatable.
"Or, as a university, we say that's just not the game we're going to play, we're going to stay status quo. Well, that's my concern, because in life, if you're maintaining the status quo, you're falling behind. My concern is that is if we do that, we become de facto Division II."
So much hinges on football, Leonard says, because that sport influences public perception and provides the foundation for revenue, whether that's institutional and alumni fundraising or sponsorships or gate receipts.
"The NCAA is driven by football. Whether that's right or wrong, that's the way it is," Leonard said. "And that's especially true for a public institution -- it is defined by football."
Towson's challenge is unlike many other public colleges, because it happens to be situated in a pro-sports market.
"The answer is you have to play at the highest level you can possibly play at in order for people to take you seriously, because that's what they're used to," Leonard said. "They're used to the NFL; they're used to Major League Baseball."
By "highest level possible," Leonard doesn't mean Towson, with a current athletic budget of $23 million, should aspire to FBS competition or try to be another University of Maryland, but it does need to be prepared to reach for the next rung, the athletic director said.
Leonard hopes that such a move can be done in concert with Towson's current sports league, the Colonial Athletic Association. Some of Towson's CAA competition already has a head start, he pointed out, namely James Madison University, with its outstanding football stadium, and the University of Delaware, with its built-in brand-name advantage.
Tigers Coaches: Preparation Needed
Leonard's vision for Towson athletics has some of his coaches excited, and not just Rob Ambrose, the head football coach, but also coaches such as Sonia LaMonica, the women's lacrosse coach, and Pat Skerry, the men's basketball coach.
"Tim is dead-on," Ambrose said. "It's not a question of if those changes are coming; it's a question of when. … Tim is doing something not a lot of ADs are doing. He's trying to plan for it."
Even at Towson's level, Ambrose is beginning to feel the pressure of the added miscellaneous money in scholarship packages. Towson has been able to add the cost-of-attendance money to the men's and women's basketball scholarships. But to do so in football, it would force Towson to offer that money in every other sport. Towson can't afford that.
"I just lost a player to UNC Charlotte (an FBS school) over cost of attendance," Ambrose said. "This is the first year that's happened, so we're already in an arms race."
"I don't recruit against Delaware anymore," the football coach said. "I'm recruiting against [FBS schools] Old Dominion and UNC Charlotte."
So how does Leonard help Ambrose deal with escalating competitive forces?
Leonard's strategy for getting Towson prepared for what he believes will be an opportunity to reposition the school's athletic programs and consistently compete in recruiting and on the scoreboard revolves around facility improvements -- both for fans and to help his coaches run more competitive programs.
For instance, the Towson football team, men's and women's lacrosse teams and the field hockey team all use Johnny Unitas Stadium as their primary place for games and practices.
If Leonard could generate the funding for extra practice fields, it would make life a lot easier for a lot of his coaches, such as women's lacrosse coach LaMonica.
"We all try to work together, but it's a challenge fitting in practices when you're competing with other programs' practices, with the students' class schedules and, in this part of country, dealing with the weather," LaMonica said.
"We have great real estate here at Towson and a lot of possibilities and a lot of potential to have some outstanding facilities for all of our varsity sports," LaMonica added, "but unless you have the right people see that potential and put some dollars into it, potential remains just potential."
A reality of college athletics is that Leonard can help the school's lacrosse programs by creating awareness that football will soon be at a crossroads.
"Whether people agree or not, football drives the train," Ambrose said. "You can have a really good basketball team, but in terms of a trickle down from, say, bowl games, that's going to come from football."
Towson basketball coach Skerry is playing in Towson's newest athletic facility, SECU Arena, and his players, along with the women's basketball team, get the added scholarship money. However, he agrees that the future remains unclear, and Towson needs to be nimble enough to adjust to change.
"I'm a team player, and I've said all along that football is driving the bus," Skerry said. "I'd like to see us move up. If we can move up and win, that helps everyone. That's good for football, for lacrosse, for basketball, even for academics."
In the case of basketball, there's the added scholarship money for cost of attendance for the men's and women's teams because it's financially feasible, plus most, if not all, of the competition has it.
"I appreciate it, and our kids certainly do," Skerry said. "But for us, it just means that we can sit at the table [competitively]."
As other Towson coaches have noted, Leonard's efforts so far are important because they raise awareness of the evolving nature of athletics.
"That's the important thing that Tim is doing. He is educating people. He's keeping them informed," Skerry said. "You don't want whatever is going to happen to happen and not be prepared."
Putting Together A Plan
For his part, Leonard has to sort through priorities.
While his coaches put practice facilities, meeting rooms, weight rooms and the like at the top of their wish lists -- and Leonard sympathizes -- the athletic director also needs to think in terms of what improvements (assuming he can get the funding) can generate revenue.
From that perspective, he looks at the experience of a fellow CAA school, James Madison, in Harrisonburg, Va. Earlier this decade, James Madison invested a reported $62.5 million in expansion of and improvements to its football stadium. At Bridgeforth Stadium, seating was increased by 10,000 to a total of 25,000, and even more importantly, luxury boxes and club seating were added.
Last football season, James Madison had the fourth-highest average football attendance in FCS among 123 teams with an average of nearly 19,500, according to NCAA figures. Towson's average attendance at Johnny Unitas Stadium for six home football dates was about 6,600. The average for all FCS teams was about 8,300.
So James Madison stands as an example of the impact that improved facilities, especially luxury amenities, can have on exciting a fan base.
"Our stadium is approaching 20 years old, and it needs some renovations and updates … but the one thing that is desperately missing is premium seating." Leonard said of Johnny Unitas Stadium. "It's hard to get the kind of people we need coming to games if we don't have anything to offer them. So we have to look at enhancing out premium amenities."
As Leonard goes about trying to position Towson for likely change, he will need to enlist the support of the university community and make the case that help for athletics, ultimately, will boost all phases of university life, including academics.
"I'm pleased that Tim's leadership prioritizes student success -- especially in academics -- where most notably, TU's African-American student-athletes' graduation rates rank in the top 5 percent for all Division I public institutions in the nation, while male African-American student-athletes ranked nationally in the top 10 percent," university president Schatzel said in a statement.
The journey Leonard envisions for Towson has to begin somewhere, and he believes the first step is trumpeting the university's athletic program, its accomplishments and its ambitions to the media.
"If you look at our resources and assets and you ask what distinguishes us from, say, even James Madison, it would be that we're in a major media market and they are not," Leonard said. "We do have to deliver this market; we have to penetrate it. … We have to create an awareness, so that when someone in the greater Baltimore area thinks about enjoying a college football experience, with the bands and cheerleaders and tailgating, they think of Towson."
Achieving preeminence in the consciousness of the region is the key, the athletic director said.
"We can't just be another Baltimore school," Leonard said. "We have to be the premier Baltimore school when it comes to intercollegiate athletics."
Issue 222: June 2016