Editor’s note: As part of our college basketball preview, Eagle beat writers are projecting what the state’s basketball programs will be like in 10 years. For Wichita State, we look at the upside and downside of a possible return of football. Here’s the downside.
The athletic director and president looked at 25,000 empty seats in Cessna Stadium on a cold, rainy November day.
The homecoming game against Florida Atlantic drew 6,231 fans, many lured by free tickets and camel races. Most left after the halftime show.
The president scheduled an executive staff meeting for Monday morning, wondering if this is what university president Warren Armstrong felt like in 1986. Everyone knew football had to become Wichita State’s No. 1 priority.
That meant tough decisions, starting with cutting men’s tennis and men’s track and field. They continued with the elimination of charter flights for all sports. Cost-of-attendance stipends for sports other than football and men’s and women’s basketball disappeared. Coaches salaries froze and new hires started at industry minimums. The days of retaining coaches by paying the top salaries in the Missouri Valley Conference ended.
The athletic director told the basketball coach to start calling ACC and Big Ten schools to schedule guarantee games. For $200,000 each, they might salvage a few charter flights for the longest trips. The script flipped from the days when WSU preyed on football schools such as Southern Mississippi and New Mexico State to play guarantee games in Wichita.
In 2019, WSU added football in an attempt to boost enrollment and find a more prominent home for its powerful men’s and women’s basketball teams. It traded Missouri State for East Carolina and Southern Illinois for Temple.
It didn’t work.
How did this happen?
WSU started on the right path, bringing football along slowly from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. It joined the American Athletic Conference, just in time for the Big 12 to steal Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston and Connecticut to bounce to the ACC. SMU, Tulsa and Tulane saw the direction of the American tilting toward large public universities with below-average name recognition and decided to form the football equivalent of the Big East with private schools.
WSU spent millions to play football against Florida International, Temple and Texas-San Antonio, which wasn’t in the plan in 2015 when president John Bardo told consultants to weigh football’s possibilities for transforming his university. By 2026, Bardo is retired. So is Hall of Fame basketball coach Gregg Marshall. Athletic director Darron Boatright is at Alabama, where he hired basketball coach Steve Forbes away from Wichita State.
Confronted with football’s deficits, the new administration is forced to act and basketball’s spot atop the athletic department’s power chart is no longer assured. While nobody possessed the power to cut Marshall’s budget, that mood changed with turnover and mounting expenses for football.
In 2026, Wichita State shares more in common with schools such as Charlotte, UAB and Southern Mississippi than it does basketball-dominant schools such as VCU, Gonzaga and Creighton. The differences can be seen in the NCAA basketball RPI rankings. In retrospect, fans say, it now seems clear how well WSU fit into the MVC.
In 1986, Armstrong gathered several donors to tell them of football’s imminent demise. Bob Geist was in that room and said he warned Armstrong about a resulting hit to enrollment. In 2016, he remained intrigued and optimistic about football’s potential at WSU. He was also cautious and concerned about its effect on other sports.
“It would be wonderful to have a good Division I football program,” Geist said in ’16. “My gosh, the expense is just unbelievable. A lot of us have gotten over it.”
By 2026, WSU joined the list of schools harnessed to football, with the best of intentions, at a cost it hadn’t anticipated.
Charlotte, a member of Conference USA, played its first football game in 2013 as an FCS member and moved to FBS in 2015. Basketball, meanwhile, faded and hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2005 or compiled a winning conference record since 2010. In 2015, former UAB basketball coach Jerod Haase paid $66,000 out of his salary for men’s and women’s basketball cost-of-attendance stipends. His donation came after the school dropped three programs (including football) to cut costs, moves later reversed.
By 2026, WSU fans learned that football can work as a start-up or renovation and it can help a school secure a place in a different athletic conference. They also learned football’s enormity and complexity is not to be overlooked as a potential drag on all sports.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig in 2016. He oversaw the transition from FCS football to FBS at Western Kentucky and Old Dominion. “You’ve got to be all-in. That goes across the board from the regents to the president to the senior-level administration to the community. If everyone is not completely committed to everything it takes — the financing, philosophical support, physical and tangible support — it will not succeed. If there’s one area that’s either reluctant or opposed … then it will quickly show.”
It’s November 2026. Homecoming at Wichita State. Forty years after dropping a struggling football program, the sport is back at Wichita State. Those who remember 1986 aren’t sure why.
What the fans say
WSU beat writer Paul Suellentrop asked 2016 Shocker fans for their opinions on a possible return of football to campus.
“I’m very excited about the possibility (of football). I think it would be good for the university, good for the city. The city embraces WSU basketball, and the same could be done for football. It could compliment basketball, rather than compete with it.”
— Klee Watchous
“I don’t think football makes much sense. First of all, the amount of money it will cost to get things like facilities, staff, scholarships, and a new stadium is pretty staggering. Where is that money coming from? Even tapping into the large donors won’t cover it all, and students don’t want to pay for it.”
— Kelsey Coonce
“If they are wanting to add football to just to say we have football then no, it makes zero sense. But if they add football with a plan to move to a better conference then, absolutely, I would be in favor of adding football. I can see a scenario where, let’s just say the AAC, says they would take us, but we would have to have football first.”
— James Helms