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SAN ANGELO, Texas - Cary Fowler made a lateral career move from Midwestern State to Tarleton State in 2008 in part because his new team played its home football games on campus.
Midwestern plays home games at Memorial Stadium, which is two miles from the MSU campus and owned by the Wichita Falls Independent School District. Tarleton plays home games on campus in a stadium it owns.
"Playing on campus is as important as anything you can do. It was a big selling point for me leaving Midwestern and coming here," said Fowler, who went to Tarleton in 2008 as defensive coordinator and now is the Texans' head football coach.
"It's all about student involvement. It's not just the football team. The students have ownership when they can walk from their dorms to the games."
With our society becoming one of convenience and instant gratification, and with Division I college football games being televised all day Saturday during the season, small colleges are fighting for fans. Many small college athletic directors and coaches believe the answer is playing home games on campus closer to the students.
Angelo State recently announced the move of its home football games from San Angelo Stadium, which is a few blocks from campus and owned by the San Angelo ISD. The Rams will begin playing on campus this fall at LeGrand Stadium and Sports Complex, a track stadium which will be renovated to accommodate football.
ASU's move on campus caught the eye of athletic directors and head coaches around the Lone Star Conference. When ASU moves on campus, five of the seven football schools in the LSC will own their stadiums and four will play on campus.
"We have a good relationship with the school district here, but at the same time, we have always liked the idea of playing on campus. It's the collegiate model right now," said Charlie Carr, athletic director at Midwestern. "If you play on campus, the games become the center of campus activities for that day."
Carr said Midwestern has discussed building an on-campus stadium that seats 8,000 to 10,000. He said such a move was "a few years away."
"We used to try and pick game times when there was the least competition from games on TV that particular Saturday. But we don't do that anymore because there are games on from 11 in the morning until midnight," Carr said.
The idea of football games becoming centrally located on campus is strengthened by the improved tailgating opportunities for students, alumni and fans.
"Our tailgate parties are on the parking lot between the dorms and the stadium, and the entire parking lot is usually full," Tarleton's Fowler said. "They shut down the parking lot to other traffic on Friday before home games. People start showing up with their tents and campers and grills and coolers. We have live bands performing before the games."
The Tarleton media guide said Texan Alley, the tailgating area, includes live music, food, washer pitching and inflatables for kids.
"Someone who's not a football fan might see the tailgating and wonder what's going on. They might come over to the tailgate party and end up going to our game," Fowler said.
Scott Gines, vice president of intercollegiate athletics at Texas A&M-Kingsville, estimated his school draws 5,000 or more for its tailgate gatherings prior to home games on campus at Javelina Stadium.
"It creates energy. The culture of pride and tradition are magnified when your sports venues are centrally located for students," Gines said.
"Plus, if you can bring visitors front and center on your campus for a tailgate or a football game, it magnifies the upside."
No LSC team plays farther from its campus than Eastern New Mexico, which plays home games eight miles north of Portales, N.M. Greyhound Stadium was built between Portales and Clovis in 1968 in hopes of drawing fans from Clovis, but the hopes never materialized.
Now, ENMU officials are close to raising the $8 million needed to break ground on a 5,000-seat, on-campus stadium that the Greyhounds hope to be playing in by 2016. The multipurpose turf stadium also will host soccer, track, intramural sports and band practice.
"We have a situation where every game feels like a road game," said Dr. Jeff Geiser, ENMU's athletic director. "The students approved a student fee increase to help fund a new stadium."
Geiser said the on-campus stadium will not only benefit the university, but the city of Portales as well.
"Fans that come from out of town to our games don't spend any money in Portales. They eat, gas up and spend the night in Clovis," Geiser said. "After we start playing on campus, I can see a hotel and another restaurant opening up near our campus on the west side of town."
Geiser thinks playing on campus also will benefit ENMU in recruiting players.
"With our proximity to Texas (10 miles from the border), we have to recruit players from Texas," he said. "Football's king in Texas, and those kids are used to playing in good facilities. We have to be at least on par. If they don't see good facilities, they'll go somewhere else."
Tarleton's Fowler has seen the difference playing on campus can have in recruiting.
"It's a great stadium at Midwestern, but it was tough on recruiting. You had to drive players all the way out there, and if there was an event going on, they couldn't even get on the field," he said.
"We didn't have our own locker room (at Memorial Stadium). We had to dress on campus and ride buses to the stadium. I think it's an advantage to practice in your stadium where you play. I think that creates a home-field advantage."
Attendance also figures into small colleges preferring to play in smaller stadiums on campus. ASU struggled to fill one side of 17,500-seat San Angelo Stadium. Midwestern fills about half of Memorial Stadium, which holds 14,362.
Small college athletic directors and coaches say filling a smaller stadium creates a better atmosphere.
"I don't care what the size of the stadium is, I like the idea of having a sellout," Midwestern's Carr said. "When you see places that have a lot of empty seats at home games, it sends the wrong message."
Even West Texas A&M, which typically ranks at or near the top of the LSC in attendance, struggles to fill half its stadium. The Buffaloes averaged 8,767 fans last year in 20,000-seat Kimbrough Memorial Stadium, which is a mile from the WT main campus.
"We have a great atmosphere. If we can put 11,000 or 12,000 fans in the stands behind our team, our players feed off that," said Michael McBroom, WT's athletic director.
"But I don't think there's any question that anytime you can put a stadium on your main campus with your dorms, it creates a better game-day campus environment. That said, I don't want to throw up some stadium with aluminum bleachers that's too small just because it's on campus.
"If you build a nice stadium where the people are on top of the field and there's plenty of parking and amenities, it would be a great thing. You've got to do it the right way," McBroom said.
Playing on campus figures to benefit students and could improve attendance. But will it help the home team win more games?
"There are a lot of ways to win, and I'm not sure playing on campus automatically translates into winning," Midwestern's Carr said. "But it gives you more of an upside."
Colby Carthel, who was defensive coordinator at WT for seven years and is now head coach at Texas A&M-Commerce, played football for ASU from 1996-2000. He said the Rams' on-campus stadium "will make it tougher to beat them there. As an alum, I'll be anxious to see it when we come play there (Oct. 11) this year."
Carthel added, "Winning cures all ills. If you're winning, the fans will show up and support you no matter where you play."
Comparing LSC Football Stadiums
Angelo State Eastern N.M. Midwestern Tarleton A&M-Commerce A&M-Kingsville West Texas A&M
Stadium LeGrand Greyhound Memorial Memorial Memorial Javelina Kimbrough
Capacity 6,500* 6,100 14,362 7,500 10,000 15,000 20,000
2013 attendance 5,727** 2,026 7,262 5,201 4,335 9,614 8,767
2013 Record 5-6 7-3 7-3 7-3 7-5 2-8 11-3
Stadium arrangement Own Own Rent Own Own Own Sublease
Location On campus 8 miles away 2 miles away On campus On campus On campus 1 mile away
*Estimated capacity after stadium renovations.
**Angelo State played its 2013 home games in San Angelo Stadium, which has a capacity of 17,500.
The information for this graphic was provided by sports information contacts at Lone Star Conference universities or from LSC school websites.