South Alabama reaping benefits of joining FBS club in football-crazy state

South Alabama's fast track from no program to college football's top division has helped boost revenues, name recognition and perhaps even enrollment in a state where the sport is king.

Now, the Jaguars are hoping that joining the other four Football Bowl Subdivision teams in football-crazy Alabama will bring bowl berths and championships to the port city. Less than six years after deciding to add football, South Alabama is entering its first season as a full member of the revamped Sun Belt Conference.

"Football has, in my humble opinion, shed a whole different shade of color and of perception of who we are," athletic director Joel Erdmann said. "We have a great university. We always have. We have a great athletic program, and we always have. But the addition of football has just framed it and provided that little extra jolt, that I think if you step back and look at those qualitative things that are hard to put numbers on — school spirit and school pride and how we're perceived by the public and how we're perceived nationally — I think it's been enhanced.

"I think we're at a whole different level."

In 2007, when trustees approved the creation of a football program that debuted in 2009, South Alabama's athletics program had operating revenues of $9.03 million. The fiscal year ending last fall saw revenues leap to $17.7 million with football breaking even, according to documents posted on the U.S. Department of Education website.

Higher student fees have paid a portion of the bill.

Enrollment has climbed about 1,000 to 15,000 students since fall 2007, university spokeswoman Jennifer Eckman said.

"We definitely think (football's) been a factor among many other factors," she said.

The money remains small change for the Southeastern Conference's Auburn and Alabama, each several hours away but casting a long shadow. Emphasizing the gap, during South Alabama's four seasons of football, the century-old programs combined for all four national titles. The state's football schools also include five-time Sun Belt champion Troy and Conference USA's UAB.

The Jaguars went 2-11 and 1-7 in the Sun Belt during a transitional season when they weren't eligible for a title or postseason berth.

South Alabama coach Joey Jones, a Mobile native who played receiver for the Crimson Tide under Bear Bryant, said his team will be significantly better because of that experience.

"If you look at when we started in 2009 to where we are in 2013, we went from having nothing to being a big-time Division I football program in a great conference," Jones said. "The thing is, we've made great strides to get here to this point but obviously we've got to take some more strides to get to where we want to be and that's the great thing about it. The goals that our young men and our staff have in mind, they want to get there."

Wide receiver Bryant Lavender is among the fifth-year seniors who have been along for the entire ride. Lavender said the $10 million field house completed in 2008 was just "slabs and posts" during his recruiting visit.

"I knew coming in in '09 that this year would mean a lot to the program and the university and the community," he said. "It's really big, because we have a lot of opportunities that we didn't have before in the first few years. We can go to a bowl get the conference championship and possibly get on a national stage that we haven't been on before.

"The possibilities are endless. The ball's in our court. All we've got to do is win. That's all we've got to do."

South Alabama won its first 19 games, mostly against junior colleges, Division II teams and prep schools.

South Alabama's basketball program has been to eight NCAA tournaments and the baseball team 25. But Erdmann knows football tops the pecking order of college sports in the state.

"It's a piece of our geography and our culture here in the Deep South that people hold onto very dearly," Erdmann said. "We're still right on the ground floor of that, but I think we've got a chance to do something very special."

He said the excitement leading up to this season is similar to that of the Jaguars' debut. The players are certainly noticing.

"It's exciting stuff," quarterback Ross Metheny said. "The students are excited. We're excited. The faculty is excited. You go to class and the faculty knows you're a football player and they're excited and they're talking to you about it. There is a lot of buzz and we want to live up to that excitement."

Jones, who was hired three months after trustees voted to add football, figures the players, coaches and staffers will always be able to savor being part of the program's move from the "slabs and posts" that greeted the early recruits.

"It's easy to go to Alabama where you've got tradition and you can win and win immediately and all that," Jones said, "but the bottom line is we can look back and say we were the first to do a lot of things here."