Jerry Trickie, NCAA.com
FRISCO, Texas — Travel. Missed classes. Fan support. Injuries.
The myriad of good reasons for moving the FCS Championship Game back three weeks after the semifinals — this year to Jan. 7 — that outweighed the bad ran across the spectrum. But one may have stood above the others as far as the biggest positive associated with the date change: giving the student-athletes the best possible experience.
“You never could enjoy it before,” Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler said earlier this week before his team fell in the title game for the second time in four years. UD lost 20-19 on Friday as Eastern Washington scored three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes against the nation’s top scoring defense.
Keeler has some experience to back up his claim.
He was coaching in his eighth national title game, including five appearances at the Division III level and three at the FCS level. He said it always felt like his teams were “scrambling” to get to the next site, sometimes on a short schedule.
In past years, FCS teams would battle through four consecutive weeks of action, needing to grind out win after win. The week before the championship contest, the bracket was unbalanced in a sense as one semifinal game was on Friday and the other on Saturday. Keeler felt the winning team from the later game was “at such a disadvantage” because of the quick turnaround and sometimes difficult travel schedules. Delaware would have been in that scenario had the change in date not occurred this year.
It left little time for the players, coaches and staffs to embrace a championship environment. The teams were focused strictly on their title opponent and the opportunities to have a bowl-type experience throughout the week were sparse.
“Now you get a chance to enjoy it a little bit, take your time, make sure you’re prepared,” Keeler said. “Again, I like the format a lot better this way.”
The lucky ones that reached the championship in the past often had little time to prepare for the loss of players to injury. Keeler said without the extra time this year, his Blue Hens would have been without “five or six players if we played Friday after our game with Georgia Southern.”
Add a check mark into the good response column for the solid fan support the teams also received this week. Coming from Cheney, Wash., and Newark, Del., both teams in this year’s title game had a solid share of supporters in the stands and the Frisco, Texas, area throughout their stay. It didn’t go unnoticed.
“I know for us, our community of Eastern [Washington] fans, it’s a lot easier to get excited for it in a sense and really plan for the travel out there and all that, have some time to really load up for the game, so to speak,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said.
“When I heard the numbers and how many tickets were sold right away, it also makes you appreciate this three week break because I think that’s absolutely allowed for more fans, players’ families, parents to come down. It’s made the trip a possibility that had it been a week [between games], I think it would have been less of a possibility for some of the people.”
Both teams were scheduled to get to Texas on Tuesday, although a weight issue on the EWU plane forced the team to arrive several hours later than expected. The change in plan didn’t disrupt the eventual national champions as the new schedule allowed them to wrap up game preparations days ahead of time, something that would have been impossible under the previous format.
Once on the ground, both sides found the activities and hospitality to be top-rate. The teams took part in community service activities at local schools and had a “Barbecue Bowl” team and fan celebration two nights before the game.
“It’s been nothing like this,” Keller said of his previous national title game trips. “Apart from the fact it might be a bowl experience, we’ve had a chance to enjoy it because we didn’t have to prepare during this week. We put our game plan together two weeks ago.
“But also just the way the town has embraced us and how everyone’s just so excited to have us. You can tell, this is genuine, and I think they’ve made a great impression on everyone around us.”
The players shared the sentiment of both coaches.
“I’m sure we expected some exposure and stuff, but everything’s been unexpected,” EWU linebacker J.C. Sherritt said. “It’s been wonderful. Everybody at the hotel to the elementary school, it’s been really professional and well done.”
“It’s been a great experience for me because I haven’t really been to anything like this before,” said Andrew Pierce, a record-setting freshman running back for Delaware. “And just as soon as we got off the plane I [saw] how we were welcomed, and just riding to the hotel, seeing banners of Eastern Washington, Delaware on the IKEA sign. When we went to the little elementary school and how the little kids embraced us, screaming their lungs out for us and they don’t even really know much about the University of Delaware. Just a great blessing seeing everybody welcome us.”
Along with the date change, the venue — Pizza Hut Park — was well received. The stadium gives the championship room to accommodate around 21,000 fans and has all the requisite amenities for fans and the teams, including a number of practice fields.
“I think it’s a great venue,” Baldwin said. “I think it’s the perfect size. …it’s a great park. And the surrounding area is great. Obviously the facilities to practice on, I mean, you can’t get any better than that.”
Across the board, the response was positive for the change. The game is already scheduled to be played in Frisco for each of the next two years.
“I react a lot of times how my players react,” Keeler said. “And so when we got off the bus, kind of took a peek at the players’ eyes and they just lit up. You can see [the stadium] on the Internet, you think it looks like a nice facility. Then you get here and it’s very impressive. This is a tremendous venue to get a chance to play in a national championship game.”
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