Florida to Add Another College Football Team
By Steve Barnes
Florida State will play for the BCS title. Central Florida has earned a bid to a BCS bowl game. Bethune-Cookman advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Florida has won BCS championships, as has Miami. South Florida has reached as high as second in the Associated Press poll. Florida Atlantic and Florida International have sent Alfred Morris and T.Y. Hilton on to NFL fame.
Watch out football world, Florida is sending another football team to join the mix.
In 2016, the University of West Florida will field its first football team, competing in the Gulf South Conference in Division II. The school, located in the westernmost part of the state in Pensacola, has made its plan and is beginning to implement it. UWF is actively searching for its first football coach.
In the football-crazy town of Pensacola, there has never been a hometown college football team. Due to its geographical location, Pensacola is a gumbo of fan bases. Auburn, Alabama, Southern Miss, Tulane, LSU, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech to go along with Florida State, Florida, UCF and USF are easy game-day drives. The city even boasts fan bases for Michigan, Ohio State, Syracuse, Nebraska, Texas and Penn State because of the influx of military personnel assigned at one of the three naval installations in the area.
Dr. Judy Bense, the UWF president, is bringing Pensacola football. The efforts of Bense, along with athletic director Dave Scott, will have the Argonauts on the field in the fall of 2016. The first players will be recruited next fall and enroll in the fall of 2015. That group will only be allowed to practice and play intrasquad scrimmages. The official kickoff will come a year later.
There are many obstacles in beginning a football program and most involve money. But the university has reached out to the community and businesses and individuals have responded.
Another road block was addressed when the school found a place to play home games. There are plans to build an on-campus stadium, but until then, the Argos will play at Community Maritime Park. The complex is a beautiful venue on the bank of Pensacola Bay and currently is home to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
But there will be other stumbling points that can be smoothed over. For instance, each GSC team is in a “college town.” In Valdosta, Ga., Florence, Ala., and Cleveland, Miss., the local college is the big deal in town. Fans pack the stands each Saturday to see their team play.
On a fall Saturday in Pensacola, UWF football might be facing what UCF faced in its Division I-AA days. A college football game might be about the 10th thing to do on a list especially when the temperatures remain in the 70s until November.
But there is an easy solution to the problem. Play home games on Thursday nights. That way, fans can drive to Tallahassee or Auburn on Saturday or watch on TV. It also gives the students time to go home for the weekend.
Another problem could be the perception of the players. All high school football players have it in their minds that Nick Saban or Steve Spurrier is going to come sign them. UWF simply needs to remind recruits of the local players who are in the NFL now who didn’t attend an SEC or ACC school. Players like Cortland Finnegan, Lawrence Tynes, George Selvie and Morris all came from the area and attended schools like Samford, Troy, USF and Florida Atlantic.
One coach doesn’t think players will be a problem.
“There are so many players in that area (the Florida panhandle), just getting the ones that want to stay home will be a great foundation,” Akron coach Terry Bowden said. “When UWF starts playing football, they will be good and they will be good fast.”
Bowden knows what he is saying. He recruited the area heavily not only when he was at Auburn, but also at Samford and at North Alabama. UNA, coincidentally, is a member of the GSC.
But the task at hand at the moment is finding a coach. UWF has hired Collegiate Consulting to aid in the search. The school has also advertised the position on its website.
There are three names UWF should seek out on its own to gage interest in the program.
First is Steven Campbell, the head coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He has won a GSC and Division II national title as a player (Troy State, 1987) and as a head coach (Delta State, 2000). He has also been on staff at Mississippi State and was considered a candidate for the Southern Miss job after Jeff Bower was released. In his current position, he has the junior college contacts as well as contacts with most FBS teams. That means players who can transfer to UWF and help immediately. By the way, Campbell and his wife Shellie, grew up 10 minutes from the West Florida campus.
Next is Mike Turk. Turk won two GSC and national titles as a player (Troy State, 1984 and 1987) and helped guide his alma mater from Division II to FBS status. Currently he is the head coach and athletic director at Huntingdon (Ala.) College. He took over the Hawks’ program in its second year and he has them competitive in Division III. Imagine what he could do with players on football scholarship.
Finally, there is Brian Turner. Turner is the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at South Alabama. He began at USA at the same point West Florida is today. When Turner joined the staff in Mobile, South Alabama didn’t even have a kicking tee. This season, the Jaguars first official one as an FBS member, they were bowl eligible with wins over Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette. Those two teams will meet in the New Orleans Bowls later this month. Turner’s wife Kristie also happens to be UWF’s all-time leading scorer in basketball. The couple also reside just 15 minutes from campus.
Looking at where UWF is right now after careful planning, the school and community is looking forward to the fall of 2016.
The question is does college football want another powerhouse from the state of Florida?