November 5, 1998

The history behind college football's divisional split

Rob Holliday, Staff Writer
It was the fall of 1978.  

In September, President Jimmy Carter brought Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and Menahem Begin of Israel together at Camp David to sign a peace agreement.  

In one of the greatest tragedies of all time, members of The People’s Temple took their own lives at a compound called Jonestown in Guyana.  

In a lesser-known event, one which took place in December of 1978, the world of college football was changed forever.  At a contest in Wichita Falls, Texas, Florida A&M outlasted the University of Massachusetts, 35-28, to gain possession of the first-ever NCAA Division I-AA football crown.

Although the first title game was played in 1978, Division I-AA football as it is known today did not come into being until 1981.  Prior to 1981, the NCAA did not have any criteria separating its member schools within the Division I ranks.  

If a university participated in I-AA football, as Florida A&M and UMass did in 1978, it was by its own accord, not because of an NCAA requirement.  

The option transformed into a requirement when the NCAA convened on Dec. 3-4, 1981, and formulated a policy outlining necessary criteria for a football program to be considered I-A. Those programs which did not meet the criteria were classified as I-AA.

Stadium size, game attendance figures and financial aid, which help discriminate between I-A and I-AA football programs today, were just a few of the criteria handed down by the NCAA.  

Since Appalachian’s football program, along with those from all the other Southern Conference schools, did not meet the requirements necessary for I-A football classification, it was re-classified as a I-AA program. The Apps, and the rest of the conference, played its inaugural I-AA season in the fall of 1982. 

The Southern Conference got off to a bang in I-AA football, with two member institutions, Western Carolina and Furman, qualifying for post-season play just one year later in 1983. Appalachian made its first I-AA post-season appearance in 1986 when the Mountaineers fell to Nicholls State, 28-26.

The NCAA’s reasoning behind the separation of Division I football spans in many directions.  

Popular opinion holds that one of the major factors associated with the football split was the decision by the NCAA to allow its member schools to make their own television arrangements.  

Before 1981, the NCAA regulated college football appearances on television, with each conference, regardless of its size or the sizes of its member schools, being guaranteed a regionally televised contest.

Once the universities were given power to make their own television appearance arrangements, competition between them for network appearances became stiff.  

To many smaller conferences, ones which did not have the size and wealth to outbid the larger schools for television time, the NCAA’s decision to allow its member colleges to determine their own television appearances was damaging.  

To the Southern Conference, which before 1981 was guaranteed a network televised game each season, the new policy meant a $500,000 loss, said Appalachian Athletics Director Roachel Laney.  

This laissez faire television arrangement policy helped forge the gap between Division I schools, making a split necessary.  

The schools with large football programs, a broad base of fan support and a deep pocketbook were able to make television arrangements which would likely help them to sustain and even expand their already well-developed football programs.  

Meeting the stadium, attendance, financial aid and numerous other Division I criteria, especially when television revenues were included in the picture, was not a problem for these schools.

For the smaller schools, those which did not have the resources to land profitable television contracts, keeping up with the big boys was virtually impossible.  

Since such a gap was forged between the schools with the means to gain television access and those without them, the NCAA split Division I football into two categories.

Many things have changed in the past 20 years. The two-round, four-team I-AA tournament in 1978 has grown into a four-round, 16-team affair.  

This year’s version of the I-AA post-season, one in which Appalachian is likely to be included, gets underway Nov. 28.


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