In NCAA Division I Football, Winning Isn't Everything

The college football season got under way Thursday night. In one game, Presbyterian College lost to Wake Forest 31-7. That result was not a surprise. Presbyterian is the smallest football school in Division I. Every year, lower-level Division I schools make a lot of money losing to larger and richer schools.

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The college football season kicked off yesterday, and in North Carolina, heavyweights Wake Forest thumped tiny Presbyterian College 31-7. But that was actually closer than some expected. As NPR's Mike Pesca found out, while a close game would have been great for a small school like Presbyterian, winning - or even getting close to winning - was never really the point.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Presbyterian's 1,200 students represent the smallest student body in NCAA Division I. Specifically, the Blue Hose - hose, as in socks - play in what's called the football championship subdivision. So Presbyterian can be seen as the littlest of the biggest. It's certainly the biggest thing going in the South Carolina town of Clinton - sorry, Clinon (ph).

HAROLD NICHOLS: Clinton, where the tea is sweet and T is silent.

PESCA: That's Harold Nichols, the coach of the Blue Hose football team. As Nichols' coaching staff called out some plays in the days leading up to the season opener...

UNIDENTIFIED FOOTBALL COACH: Twos, right here. Twos, let's go!

PESCA: Let's consider some other numbers...

UNIDENTIFIED FOOTBALL PLAYERS: (Counting off) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight...

PESCA: Presbyterian has 105 football players out of a little less than 600 male students, meaning almost a fifth of all men at Presbyterian are on the football team. So the cost of tuition times the number of football scholarships...

BRIAN REESE: At PC, if you go 65 times what it costs us to go to college here, about $42,000. That's a big hunk of change.

PESCA: As school athletic director Brian Reese indicates, Presbyterian is foregoing almost $3 million in order to give out football scholarships. That's a huge commitment. And there are no easy courses, or joke majors, for athletes to coast by on. Presbyterian simply couldn't be a good school if the athletes got off easy because the athletes are the school, says President Claude Lilly.

PRESIDENT CLAUDE LILLY: One-third of them play sports, and the other two-thirds love sports.

PESCA: There is one way that some of the costs of the athletic program can be deferred. Big-time college football programs will pay for the privilege of using schools like Presbyterian as tune-ups for their tougher opponents - pay a lot, as Brian Reese details.

REESE: We'll get, for those games, anywhere between - you know, 350,000 and 550,000.

PESCA: Presbyterian had been playing against bigger, faster, better-funded opponents for a few years. Last year, they played two of these games, losing by a combined 117-3 against Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt. But even veterans of those campaigns, like running back Seth Moreland, were undeterred going into last night's Wake Forest game.

SETH MORELAND: I'm being dead honest with you - it's unfair to them. We're the ones getting the big money. If we lose, it doesn't make headlines; but if we beat them, then they're the laughingstock of the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

PESCA: Last night, Moreland was proved seer-like - for about a quarter. Presbyterian's first play from scrimmage was a 66-yard run. Soon, Presbyterian led 7-0. This upset could not be happening. It wasn't. Presbyterian committed six turnovers after that, and saw the game slip away. But afterward, there was Seth Moreland insisting that but for a few breaks, it could have gone the Blue Hose way.

MORELAND: You know, right now, it's just discouraging 'cause of the loss, especially after, you know, we punched them in the mouth real quick. Confidence levels rose. You know, it really gets in your head, you can win this game. And as a little kid, when I dreamed of playing football, I dreamed of playing in front of thousands of people, you know. So this is always nice, to just get a little taste of it.

PESCA: During the game, the lights flickered and then went out for a time in Wake Stadium, a problem that would never have happened if Presbyterian were hosting the contest. The Blue Hose home field is without lights, a situation that the administration hopes to remedy partly through next year's games against Ole Miss and N.C. State, early season opponents who run faster, leap higher, and sign checks that are bigger.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Winston-Salem, N.C.

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