Coming off the most successful season Eastern Michigan has seen in nearly three decades, the university hopes to continue growing with an investment of $35 million in the athletics department.
According to the Detroit Free Press, Eastern Michigan is putting the finishing touches on a plan to spend up to $35 million to provide upgrades throughout the athletics department, including a new practice field for the football program and soccer team.
The timing of this all comes off feeling a bit strange and may even be a tad overreactive to the mild success of the football program. The football program itself has been seen as a debating point in recent years, with some suggesting the football program is more of a drain on the university than the school should be willing to support. Close to three decades of subpar at best football can do that.
The school has already received $9 million to go toward the $35 million investment, and the plans would still need to be finalized by the school’s Board of Regents. Board members have been informed of the plans and are expected to address the plans again at their next meeting in April. This provides the university leaders some time to collect more donations and strengthen their case for supporting the investment.
“We really want to change the perception of the university,” EMU Athletic Director Heather Lyke said. “There is a growing sense of pride.”
College football is costing a good number of schools money, but the fear of losing a football program or having to drop down a level of competition (and thus miss out on media rights packages and big paychecks from cupcake schedulers) is a tough concern. You can be damned if you do, damned if you don’t by having an FBS football program. Having one gives you a chance to play in a bowl game and receive a share of FBS conference revenue, but if you are a perennial doormat like EMU has been, it takes a toll.
Some schools are willing to do whatever it takes to keep an FBS program afloat, even when the economics of the whole thing seem to stack up against them, like UMass, Idaho, and New Mexico State have experienced. Idaho is returning to the FCS ranks to play in the Big West Conference after being ousted by the Sun Belt Conference and never receiving interest from the Mountain West Conference. New Mexico State suffered the same fate in the Sun Belt, but is hoping to continue as an independent program. UMass remains interested in staying in the FBS even after being removed by the MAC as an associate member in football.
Eastern Michigan had 18 losing seasons in the previous 19 years before going 7-6 in 2016. Was that just a blip on the radar, or a sign of life for EMU? With the university reportedly looking to invest in its athletics future, it would appear the one winning season has inspired the school to rejuvenate the football and entire athletics department. It may end up being a colossal waste of money for the football program with a complete rebuild of the football training facility and renovations to the football stadium (including the removal of the track running around the field), but if it helps other programs improve, there may be some saving face here.
Given EMU’s history, it is probably best to proceed with extreme caution.