by Stuart Nachbar, Daytripper University Contributor *
In November 2013, former PAC-12 coach, now college football analyst, Rick Neuheisel, sang a song praising the success of Ed Orgeron, then interim head coach at the University of Southern California (USC). Orgeron, aka “Coach O,” led their Trojans to four consecutive wins, including an upset over fifth-ranked Stanford, and rebuilt the energy and spirit around the program. But watch the clip as you listen to the song. The Trojans played to large blocks of empty seats before Coach O took the helm, and shortly after. Orgeron’s first home game as interim coach, a 38-31 win over Arizona, drew 65,000 fans, with nearly 30,000 empty seats. Only the win against Stanford came close to selling out the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Trojans home field since 1923. The annual rival game against cross-town UCLA, a 35-14 loss, came up over 7,000 seats short. I’m left to guess that Trojan fans are fair weather fans when the weather is beautiful, and the team is not playing at its best.
USC is not the only school where college football must compete for fan loyalty in a city where there are so many things for their students and alumni to do. The University of Pittsburgh vies for attention against the NFL’s Steelers, and the start of the NHL Penguins’ hockey season. The University of Minnesota faces similar competition from pro football and hockey. The University of Miami, like USC, offers many sunny days and distractions, though the NFL Dolphins have not been a dominant team for some time. Within the Mid-Atlantic region, where I live, there’s cynicism about future attendance successes for Maryland, Rutgers, and Temple because of competition from professional sports and other distractions.
A winning program helps to make a football school. But so does dominance and resilience, dominance meaning that college football has the limelight during the season, resilience meaning that the team draws well, no matter their record. Notre Dame is quite selective, just like USC, offering admission to only 18 percent of the students who wanted to come this fall. It is also a better football school. The Fighting Irish sell out every home game, regardless of their record. I looked at attendance figures during down seasons, stadium seating capacities and other data from university websites to find other examples of true football schools like Notre Dame.
The University of Michigan Wolverines drew over 100,000 fans to each home game to Michigan Stadium, aka ‘The Big House,’ during a 5-7 season in 2014, as they always do during a winning season.
From 2012 through 2014, playing under sanctions that prevented their Nittany Lions from accepting a bowl bid, Penn State-University Park drew no worse than 90,000 fans to Beaver Stadium to any one of their home games, even against a non-conference opponent. I visited Penn State just before the first game of the 2012 season and spoke with many downtown merchants and students. They had no less love for their team, or the university, during sanctions. Merchants posted stickers in support of Penn State Academics right next to the Support Penn State Athletics stickers.
Ohio State drew no fewer than 105,000 fans to each home game during a 2011 season when their head coach resigned, and the team struggled to a 6-7 record. Playing the next season under sanctions that prohibited their Buckeyes from going to a bowl game, Ohio Stadium, aka ‘The Horseshoe,’ was still filled for every home game. If you want to go to a football school where you can to clothe yourself in school swag for a pittance, as I did five years ago, this is the place.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has won more football games than any team in the land for the past 50 years, including five national championships. But their Cornhuskers have not won anything beyond a division title since joining the Big Ten. Slogging through a 6-7 season in 2015—their reputation got them into a post-season bowl game—the Cornhuskers filled Memorial Stadium, their home field, beyond capacity for every home game.
Baylor University in Waco, Texas plays in a much smaller stadium (just over 45,000 seats) than USC, Notre Dame or the Big Ten schools. However, their Bears sold out McClain Stadium, their home field, for all but one game during th 2016 season under an interim coach, and had fewer than 4,500 empty seats—filling over 90 percent of capacity—for every home game during a 1-11 season in 2017.
I admire the loyalty and community around these teams, even if the face of sanctions and poor seasons. That’s why they are all true football schools.
* As founder of Educated Quest, Stuart Nachbar provides personalized college, transfer and graduate/professional school admissions advisory services to help students and parents make the best-informed decisions their future education. Having worked around higher education for over three decades as an admissions advisor, author, urban economic development professional and senior-level software marketing executive, he knows the “inside baseball” about how colleges do business. Stuart holds a BA and MBA from Rutgers University, a Master of Urban Planning for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Certificate in College Admissions Counseling (with Distinction) from UCLA. He and his wife, Carol, live in Central New Jersey.