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The agony of EMU football: why comparisons to basketball are wrong

July 22, 2010

(Note: this post is an expanded and more thought-out version of comments I posted here.)

EMU’s football record over the last 20 years is 62-163-1. Of course, they start each year with a clean slate, but obviously they tend to end up in about the same place year after year, and for many of the same reasons. Some people like to point to the “Cinderella” stories in college basketball, programs like Butler or Gonzaga that seem to come out of nowhere and become basketball powers. But there are some key differences in the competitive landscape between college basketball and college football, and those differences don’t bode well for Eastern Michigan.

Consider first the huge difference that just one key player can make in a basketball season. A basketball player playing 30 minutes a game (reasonable for a starter) makes up 15% of his or her team’s minutes played (5 players x 40 minutes/game = 200 minutes played). A football starter will usually play 20-40 minutes (offense or defense, but rarely both) and is one of 11 players, so he would contribute a maximum of about 6% of his team’s minutes played. So a single outstanding basketball player tends to have a much larger impact than a single outstanding football player.

Also, in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), there are 120 teams giving 85 scholarships each, for a total of 10,200 (approximately 1/2 of which go to “power conference” teams), and given EMU’s historical performance, we’re probably getting players nearer the bottom than the top of that 10,000 athlete list. Division I basketball, by comparison, has about 256 men’s teams offering up to 13 scholarships each for a total of 3,328 scholarships (with about 27% going to “power conference” teams). So a school like EMU has a much better chance of landing good basketball players than good football players, and remember, each basketball player means more to a program than each football player.

Another way to think of it: Eastern’s men’s and women’s basketball team were each one player away from making the NCAA tournament this spring. It’s going to take a lot more than one player to get the football team to a bowl, and the Eagles are struggling to get those players.

Plus there’s another key difference once teams make it to the post-season. In basketball, a team like Butler has the opportunity to play for the championship. If basketball’s post-season were run like football’s, Kansas would have played Kentucky for the national championship and Butler would have been matched up with New Mexico. (See 2009 college football: Alabama v. Texas and Boise State v. TCU). Actually now that I think of it, New Mexico was an at-large team in the Mountain West, so they wouldn’t have been in the mix; Butler probably would have played Temple.

It's hard to compete against this, even indirectly.

Finally, EMU is in what’s been termed a “kill zone” around the University of Michigan. This applies far more to football than to basketball. In 8 home football games in 2009, the Wolverines drew four times as many fans as their 16 home basketball games drew in 2009-2010. The basketball season also comprises many more games, stretched out over a longer season (four months in the regular season, compared to three months for football). If someone is a casual fan of both teams, or a fan of one and a casual supporter of the other, there is an opportunity to attend home games for both programs in basketball, much more so than in football.

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