WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem State’s financial problems are one reason the Rams are playing for the Division II national championship this weekend.
The historically black university was on track to move to Division I when budget woes forced officials to abort the plan to join the Football Championship Subdivision a few years ago.
So, the Rams returned to Division II and made themselves right at home.
In their third season back at this level, they’re 14-0 and preparing to face Valdosta State on Saturday in Florence, Ala., with their first national title at stake.
“I don’t know if it justifies (the decision), but I know winning solves a lot of problems, and people like winners,” third-year coach Connell Maynor said. “If you win, that will make the people that wanted us to stay I-AA kind of forget about that and say, ‘You know what, this is all right. This is pretty cool.’?”
The move back down a rung on the NCAA’s ladder sure seems to have agreed with Winston-Salem State.
The alma mater of former NFL players Yancey Thigpen and Oronde Gadsden has twice won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association – the nation’s oldest conference for HBCUs – since rejoining the league in 2010.
That came shortly after school officials decided the transition to Division I – and the expenses that came with it – just wasn’t worth it. All those road trips to Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference games in Florida and Virginia began to add up, and so did the increased expenses for scholarships to meet Division I standards.
School officials said that the athletic department ran a deficit of $1.8 million during the fiscal year before the move back to Division II. Chancellor Donald Reaves said at the time projected the deficit would grow to $15 million by this year.
For the fiscal year that ended in June 2012, the Rams had a balanced athletic budget of about $4.4 million – making them one of the bigger spenders in the CIAA.
“The biggest problem with that is money – you’ve got to fund 15-16 sports ... (and) those sports are traveling to FAMU, Bethune-Cookman, Norfolk State on a Wednesday night to play volleyball, that takes a lot of money,” Maynor said. “It takes a lot of funding. We’ve got some people out there that want to fund the money, I think it wouldn’t be a problem to go back to I-AA. But everybody that wants to go back don’t have (the) money.”
The Rams might not be playing a Division I schedule anymore, but they certainly have plenty of Division I talent.
“These are not your average CIAA guys, your average D-II guys,” said running back Bryce Sherman, one of two transfers from South Carolina.
The school’s roster includes seven transfers from Bowl Subdivision teams – including one from each of the state’s four Atlantic Coast Conference programs. Defensive back Dominique Tate, a Wake Forest transfer, shares a Winston-Salem apartment with current Demon Deacons running back Josh Harris.
Seven more Rams came from FCS schools.
“Did we break a rule? We didn’t? Oh, so we’re smarter than you,” Maynor said, directing his comments toward those critical of the high number of transfers.
“You’ve got to get the game plan and get out there and do the same thing we’re doing,” Maynor said. “Get your program on the same level we are and quit complaining about the transfers we’ve got.” That’s how you win games.”
Nobody can argue with the results.
As a team, the Rams rank in the top 10 in eight major statistical categories. They’re fifth in the division with an average of 42.5 points per game; are sixth against the run, allowing an average of 87.7 yards; and are fourth in turnover margin at plus-1.36.
Only three games have been decided by fewer than 10 points – and two of those came in the first two weeks. The third was a 21-17 win over Indiana (Pa.) in the Division II quarterfinals.
Now it’s on to the title game and a chance to deliver the school’s first championship become the first HBCU to win the Division II crown.
“We’re still kind of in shock, but we’re ready, though,” Sherman said. “We’ve been thinking about it since the summertime. Coach has been telling us about wanting to win a national championship. We all believe. It’s here now. We’ve got to play hard. We’re ready, though.”