Mac Engel

Tarleton State wants to be big time in athletics and will use the TCU model

Immediately after announcing this week its intention to become a Division I athletic department, long-time Tarleton State athletic director Lonn Reisman’s phone erupted in calls and texts, including one from TCU.

The Horned Frogs would just love to host Tarleton State in a football game in 2021.

“For years I have had a hard time filling out schedules and I can’t get games; now I’ve got offers from all over,” Reisman said. “There are many teams we’ve had talks with. We’d like to have visibility in the Metroplex. We have a brand new campus in Fort Worth and it’s important we have that identity and visibility.”

He prefers not to specify exactly who is offering to play his soon-to-be DI program, but assume all of ‘em. Other teams need wins, and Reisman’s athletic department is going to need their money.

The “little school” in Stephenville, Texas is prepared to join the insane race that is NCAA college athletics. However busted and dysfunctional the model of college sports is, it remains the most effective marketing tool for a school.

The concept of going to Division I, which Tarleton first broached in 2003, became a reality this week. Little TSU wants to be big Tarleton State.

If all goes according to plan and the NCAA approves it, as expected, Tarleton State will be a Division I school in July of 2020, and a member of the Western Athletic Conference. The WAC plans to sponsor football in the next few years, so initially Tarleton will be an independent DI FCS program.

My dearest Tarleton Texans, prepare to spend a ton of money, and hope you can be as lucky as TCU.

Expanding your brand, donations and applicants through sports is a risky play, and TCU remains one of the most successful schools in the modern era to do this.

Tarleton can do this, too, it just needs to be patient and committed no matter who is in charge. And it would help if it won a lot of football games.

TARLETON’S PLOW TO DIVISION I

When James Hurley interviewed for the position as the President of Tarleton State in the summer, it was made clear to him by the Board of Regents that going to the Division I level was a priority for the university. That whomever would take the job as President best be OK with Division I athletics.

Not every university chancellor or president is crazy about DI sports. It’ s not hard to find a president or two who loathes our fascination with sports; the ideologues typically feel sports compromises the academic foundation of a school.

Then there are realists.

“I know this is something they had flirted with for a long time,” Hurley said. “I was in a good place at (Tusculum University in Greenville, Tenn.). If I was going to make this transition it was going to be an institution with a tremendous ceiling.”

A part of the Texas A&M system, Tarleton has slowly grown and expanded over the years. It currently has an enrollment of 12,000, and it’s athletic department has been competitive as a Division II program for decades.

In the modern era, TSU was an NAIA school before it went to DII in 1994. The basketball programs have been some of the better teams for decades on the DII level.

The football program has been competitive.

If they were going to make this jump, they simply had to just get out of their own way and go for it.

“I know when we first talked about this in 2003, we were probably not ready for it. But I never gave up on it,” said Reisman, who has been at TSU for the last 31 years. “I thought over the last couple of years we were ready to make this jump. I’ve watched us come from a non-scholarship NAIA school where we had 3,000 to 4,000 students.

“I cannot tell you how much it means me we never gave up.”

TARLETON’S SCHEME FOLLOWS TCU’s PATH

Tarleton is hardly the first school to invest heavily in athletics as a primary means of marketing. The plan is to win, and by doing so increase media exposure. Then the donations and applications flow.

Since the turn of the century, no school in the United States executed this plan any better than TCU. Since the success of the football program, and the school steadily moving up into higher profile athletic conferences, applications and donations have been at an all-time high.

The exposure for Football Championship Subdivision member schools are not on the same level as Football Bowl Subdivision, but it’s more than Division II.

All of it is bigger. All of it is significantly more competitive.

Hurley said the plan is currently to add women’s soccer in the future, and that all of the facilities are in a good place. Ask any AD around the nation who works in DI athletics, and they will all tell you, eventually, every single thing on campus will need upgrades.

The current plan is to grow, and to be a player in NCAA Division I athletics, and FCS football.

“We want to grow our footprint and, as we think think about expanding into the Metroplex, having a strong brand is important,” Hurley said. “We are doing this to expand our profile.”

The hope is that by being in a conference that has schools in California, Washington state, Chicago, Phoenix, Kansas City, New Mexico, and Utah, kids from those regions will consider Tarleton as a potential destination for school.

Tarleton is not the first school to do this, but it is the latest.

It can be done. It is not easy.

“This is great for the athletic department but it’s great for the student body,” Reisman said. “We are not a small college any more. We are a major university.”

Good luck Texans, and be sure to bring your wallet.

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Mac Engel is an award-winning columnist who has extensive experience covering Fort Worth-Dallas area sports for 20 years. He has covered high schools, colleges, all four major sports teams as well as Olympic games and the world of entertainment, too. He combines dry wit with first-person reporting to complement a head of hair that is almost unfair.
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