By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Use the term "sleeping giant" around a sports team and it has a weird feel to it. While you revere the team for its potential, you also wonder why it struggles to reach and then sustain a higher level of play.
The FCS has a handful of such programs. None is ready to challenge the power programs like Villanova, Montana, Appalachian State and Richmond any time soon, but they have the coaches, talent, facilities, even tradition, to at least raise their stature within their conference. Once they do, they want to keep it on a higher level.
One such program is Sacramento State. Indeed, Northern California probably doesn't spring immediately to mind when thinking of the Big Sky Conference, especially with the teams often in control up north (Montana, Montana State, Weber State and Eastern Washington). But the wealth of high school talent that the Hornets draw from in California's capital city and its surrounding region is impressive, and boosts their chance of lifting the program.
The Hornets have had only two winning records in the last 17 seasons, but they have made impressive strides under fourth-year coach Marshall Sperbeck, making a three-win improvement from his first season in 2007 (a 3-8 record) to 2008 (6-6) and then posting a .500 mark in the Big Sky (4-4) last season while going 5-6 overall. They haven't had a winning record since 2000, when they went 7-4 overall and 5-3 in conference games.
New FieldTurf is being added to Hornet Stadium and the project is scheduled for completion by the end of May. That follows earlier facility upgrades like new locker rooms and a new weight room.
The Hornets have enjoyed good-sized crowds in the past and were third in attendance in the Big Sky last season with an average of 9,935 per game. If the program can get its record into the black again, the seeds are in place for an even stronger fan following and, ultimately, consistent success.
"We're fighting to get into that upper echelon," said Sperbeck, a native of Sacramento who will be 50 years old during the 2010 season. "That's kind of where we have to go. We feel we've gotten to the middle of the pack. Now we have to take that next step."
Rising senior quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who has 6-foot-3, 235-pound size, shared snaps with Jason Smith last season, but has won the top job this spring. He will be teamed again with some talented wide receivers in Brandyn Reed and Dylan Reed. Defensively, the Hornets have to improve their No. 116 national ranking in total defense. Sperbeck believes his defense will be faster in 2010, when it features defensive tackle Christian Clark and strong safety Zach Schrader.
"I think we've made incremental steps for what we're trying to do," Sperbeck said, "build the program with players who have good character. Recruiting is a big part of it. And we've brought in some good recruiting classes."
Sacramento State is one of a number of sleeping giants across the FCS. Following are five more programs anxious to reach a higher level of play:
GEORGIA SOUTHERN (Southern Conference)
It's back to the option for the Eagles under first-year head coach Jeff Monken. Fans of the former FCS power - the Eagles' six national titles are the standard - hope it's also back to the winning ways. That they have missed the FCS playoffs for four straight seasons is a hard pill to swallow in Statesboro.
Monken, the program's fourth head coach in five seasons, appears to be a year or two away from significant success in the always rugged Southern Conference. Last season's nucleus was young, including defensive tackle Brent Russell, who earned first-team all-conference honors as a redshirt freshman, and middle linebacker Dion DuBose, the Eagles' leading tackler as a sophomore.
The Pirates must wish all of their players were as imposing as 6-foot-5, 340- pound stud defensive lineman Kenrick Ellis. If so, they could get out of their rut of 5-6 seasons, which has hit three straight years. Attendance has reflected the drop-off for a program that went a combined 31-4 from 2004-06.
This year's team motto is "Resurrection to Glory," and second-year head coach Donovan Rose is well-schooled in the winning ways of the program, having spent 18 seasons as an assistant coach at Hampton, mostly under the legendary Joe Taylor. The Pirates will rely on their defense this season and hope to make a move in a conference that includes Florida A&M, now coached by Taylor.
MISSOURI STATE (Missouri Valley Football Conference)
There's great potential for a growing fan base, and people figure to be willing to get on board considering the student body is 23,000 strong, the city of Springfield is the third-largest in the state, and the Bears compete in a Midwestern hotbed for football.
Coach Terry Allen had great success at Northern Iowa in the 1990s, including seven straight playoff appearances. This season, he returns 16 starters off a 6-5 squad, including linebacker Antoine Wilkinson and quarterback Cody Kirby. If they reach the playoffs, it would be the Bears' first appearance since 1990.
PRINCETON (Ivy League)
OK, Ivy League schools don't participate in the FCS playoffs, but considering the Tigers played in the first collegiate game (against Rutgers in 1869), this is a program that has tradition. The results haven't matched the history, the excellent facilities or the big donors to the program. The Tigers' only Ivy League crown over the last 14 seasons was a shared title with Yale in 2006, and the fan base is disgruntled.
Enter new coach Bob Surace, an all-league center on Princeton's 1989 Ivy League-championship squad. He left the Cincinnati Bengals after eight seasons as an assistant to become the Tigers' head coach, though he's keeping the black and orange stripes worn by both teams. His young coaching staff should breathe energy into the program, which is coming off three straight 4-6 seasons (and 3-4 in the league each time) and returns quarterback Tommy Wornham and linebacker Steve Cody.
With longtime power Grambling State and emerging power Prairie View A&M in the same West Division, it won't be easy for first-year head coach Stump Mitchell to make a big move in the standings. Still, the former NFL player has name recognition, and that's a start for a program that had been mediocre the last five seasons under Pete Richardson, including 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the SWAC last fall.
Southern ranked 15th in FCS attendance last season (an average of 13,817), so the desire for the program to reaffirm itself is evident. Mitchell is even on an eight-city tour to visit with alumni and fans. Quick improvement might be unlikely considering a number of senior leaders were lost after last season. The top returnee is Jason House, who had an FCS-leading 10 interceptions as a junior.