The Kickoff 

Long a well-worn joke, Virginia Commonwealth University may soon give Rams football a serious look. But is it worth the financial risk?

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Fourth and Inches: Going For It

HERE'S WHY THE idea persists.

Last year Cole Ransom, 20, and James Tait, 22, both juniors, were sitting around reliving high-school glory days when they came up with an idea to revive VCU student club football.

This is their inaugural season. They say the team, with its 35 players and all-volunteer staff of coaches, wasn't started with the idea to could build interest for an NCAA-sanctioned football program at VCU. "We just wanted to find a way to play football again," Tait says.

But would VCU students support an official collegiate program? In 2008, the Student Government Association posed the question to students in an online poll, and 73 percent supported bringing football to campus. But only 39 percent supported raising student fees to pay for it.

Still, the very idea seems to excite the players on the club team. "Every guy on our team would love to see that happen," Tait says.

Richmond doesn't have a reputation as being a football town. But neither did Norfolk prior to ODU reviving football.

"For the most part, I think the majority of politicians and citizens think it's a very positive idea, and support it financially," Teague says.

Sources close to the VCU Board of Visitors say there's not a groundswell of support for developing a program, only members who are open to discussing it.

Make no mistake, there are benefits to VCU starting a program. If anything, the university has a winning basketball tradition. But because basketball is usually played on weekdays and in the evenings, teams are limited in their ability to unite fans. Most in the industry agree that football, unlike anything else, unites alumni and students. And football teams are the ultimate on-campus amenity. For a school looking to raise its academic profile, to increase its reputation as a teaching and research institution — all goals of President Rao — football could be the key.

Most studies show that sports programs, especially successful ones, contribute to an increase in awareness of a university. When programs win at a high level, invariably there's an increase in student applications, sports economists say. That increase doesn't necessarily translate into more qualified students enrolling. But in the competition for funding and brains, awareness can be currency.

In that regard, the university already may have a workhorse athletic program. Its men's basketball team's extended run through the NCAA basketball tournament — and its first appearance in the Final Four in the spring — created an untold amount of brand awareness for the university. It's yet to be determined what impact the run ultimately had.

What it also has done is slow down discussions of football. "The basketball team's success of late," Teague says — "it's dominated our thinking so much in the last six months that a lot of the football program stuff has taken a back seat. Whatever happens, you just don't want it to be a detractor."

But the potential is there. And the longer VCU chooses to wait, the longer that potential goes untapped. "More than anything," Teague says, "if we do it, we want to do it right." S

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly reported that VCU is the largest public university in the state. George Mason University is now the state's largest university, with about 33,000 students.



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