Managing Sports Editor
In order for opportunity to knock, it needs a door.
Judging by reports this month, the University of Delaware is sprucing up its athletic front door, which could open to a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference — that is, should the conditions be right in the eyes of university leadership empowered to determine action on what would be the biggest move in athletic department history.
Delaware’s present home, the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) member Coastal Athletic Association (CAA), has transformed through a membership makeover since the departure of rival James Madison University to the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference in July 2022. James Madison bolted from the CAA as well as its technically separate football league, CAA Football, an entity that shares the same commissioner as the all-sports CAA and participates in the CAA’s live event streaming contract with FloSports.
If Delaware were to depart the CAA for primarily football promotion reasons, it is likely that it also would find the most politically practical solution to be a corresponding exit in the all-sports conference, not just a ditching of the football outfit. That is partially a function of the unlikelihood that an FBS conference would invite the Blue Hens for football only and of the risk involved in attempting FBS independence, which invites scheduling headaches and the forgoing of revenue distributions collected by being in a league.
Such FBS scenarios are being engaged with by Delaware officials, according to Delaware Online/The News Journal, which reported last week the university Board of Trustees’ approval of closer examination of a reclassification to the FBS.
Motivating Delaware is, in part, the new-look CAA that has introduced institutions perceived as further apart from the Hens in athletic identity, resources and success. While James Madison (aside from its leap past Delaware in on-field results in latter years) was seen as perhaps the league’s closest peer of the Blue Hens in school size and football-oriented commitment to athletic success, certain newcomers to the CAA, among them Hampton University and 2024 football-only add Bryant University, are not of comparable pedigree or institutional profile to Delaware.
In the latest edition of the Extra Points newsletter Friday, veteran college athletics insider Matt Brown alluded to the new-age-CAA causing wandering eyes, writing, “a major part of why Delaware (and quite frankly, other schools too) are interested in potential other options is that not everybody sees some of the newest CAA additions as peer institutions or athletic departments.”
While that appears to be the prevailing notion in Newark, Delaware must also weigh its geography, which is central in the CAA’s expansive Atlantic footprint and is an outlier for the most plausible FBS conferences that the Hens could enter.
Though Brown reports Delaware’s disinterest in southern-centric FBS leagues Conference USA and the Sun Belt, conferences with a presence to the north are also imperfect fits. The Power Five-level Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) will not consider an FCS program for expansion and the American Athletic Conference (AAC), despite occupying the middle tier of the FBS ranks, has historically not been inclined to pull from Division I’s lower football subdivision, either. There is no indication that the AAC will change course in that regard without radical change to its makeup.
The Mid-American Conference (MAC) also lacks a track record of recent, successful FCS call-ups, but it could be the most geographically feasible option for Delaware while holding its own as a palatable spot for the university academically with its collection of public universities.
The MAC’s East Division features the University of Buffalo and five schools in Ohio. The University of Massachusetts Amherst, a former conference opponent of Delaware football, had a stint in MAC football from 2012 to 2015 and is currently an FBS independent. UMass being open to a MAC return is a hypothetical that could aid Delaware with an eastern wing of the prospective conference, but the probability of UMass actually considering that arrangement hinges on its attitude toward continued Atlantic 10 Conference membership for non-football sports, namely basketball.
As presently constructed, the MAC is from top to bottom a sound academic bunch with which to be associated, which is thought to be of importance to university decision-makers who are tasked with considering giving up athletic ties with elite CAA school brands William & Mary and Stony Brook University. The MAC members are all at least R2 Carnegie Classification for research activity. Three match Delaware’s R1 status.
While no single FBS conference has been linked to an invitation the Blue Hens’ way, Delaware is continuing to push in the realm of facilities that make it plenty FBS-worthy. The university is in the midst of quiet fundraising for a project that would, at the fan level, reimagine Delaware Stadium’s north end zone seating structure. Additionally, it would construct a new indoor facility beyond that seating, relocating team offices and locker rooms in the process with modernization relative to existing Delaware Field House accommodations.
Delaware has yet to publicly launch fundraising efforts for this phase of athletic complex renovations (its second since the Whitney Athletic Center construction), but it has twice referred to “an upcoming facilities project” in the course of announcing “major gift” athletic department donations. The first such donation came from retired NFL player and Delaware product Nasir Adderley and most recently, the language was used by the university in its release sharing news of the gift by fellow football alumnus Matt Nagy.