Thursday night road trips become tradition for FSU
When Florida State packs its bags and heads north on Wednesday, it will continue a trend that has evolved into tradition.
For the eighth time in 10 years, the Seminoles will play a nationally-televised Thursday night road game. And thanks to a variety of its own logistical problems, Florida State hasn't hosted a Thursday night game since 2002.
This season, the downsides of the tradition are amplified. Thursday's game at Boston College is a division game, and at 1,100 miles, it is the team's longest road trip of the year. It will also come with just four days of rest following Saturday's win over N.C. State.
"I understand why they put us on (Thursday nights). I wish they wouldn't, but they do," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. Florida State is .500 (5-5) in Thursday night road games dating back to its first foray, the famed 33-28 loss to Virginia in 1995 - FSU's first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference defeat.
"But we don't play (Thursday night) home games," he said. "And that's our fault from that standpoint, but we're trying to work on that within the school to try and find a time to play a Thursday home game. We've been designated for one of them (on the road) every year so we might as well figure out a way to play one at home."
The issue of getting a Thursday night game in Tallahassee is complex, well beyond a phone call to the ACC office or ESPN. The logistical issues range from academics to parking to the geographic makeup of FSU's season ticket holders.
"Scheduling a Thursday game has a little bit to do with what your coach wants and what you think is best for your program. It's not a good fit here," FSU Athletic Director Randy Spetman said. "I wish it was. It would save us from going on the road one year. And while I don't think we'll go on the road every year, it seems like it has been that way."
Issues start with stadium, geography
Florida State's winding road map to hosting a Thursday night game starts with its biggest hurdle - Doak Campbell Stadium itself.
During the school week, FSU's stadium complex - known formally as the Devoe L. Moore University Center - is the operational hub of the university. It houses four colleges and 12 administrative departments including the admissions office, the registrar, financial aid and undergraduate studies.
According to Spetman, if a Thursday night game was played at FSU, it would force those colleges to cancel classes and the 12 offices to close for both Thursday and likely Friday. That would probably be enough to cause a domino of closures across campus. Taking it one step further, even if the option existed to close just the portion of the university housed in the stadium, it wouldn't solve the campus-wide parking problem that would arise with the midweek game.
"Even if we decided to teach academics in the (stadium) during games, we would still have a parking issue for the university," Spetman said.
In 2002, when Florida State last played a Thursday home game, the school decided to hold its first-ever "fall break," shutting down the university for the Thursday and Friday surrounding the game. The school and its then-president Sandy D'Alemberte were heavily criticized for creating an academic break based around a football game. In light of the negative publicity, D'Alemberte, who left his post at FSU in 2003, promised to never hold a Thursday night home game while classes were in session. At the time, the Atlantic Coast Conference's television contract required that FSU host two Thursday night games and its 2002 contest against Clemson was the second of its two-game obligation.
Since then, the Seminoles have played six Thursday night games on the road.
Beyond the academic and parking hurdles, there's the unique demographics of the program's support base - the season ticket holders. Making it to a Thursday game would be a tall order for many Seminole faithful.
According to Ben Zierden, Assistant Athletics Director for Ticket Sales and Operations, roughly 30 percent of the FSU season ticket base lives in the local area, a miniscule number compared to the local base that the majority of Division I-A schools enjoy.
For a Thursday game, it means the other 70 percent would have to travel in from areas like Orlando, Tampa or Miami. A Thursday home game would likely require much of that 70 percent to take two business days off in order to attend.
"We're challenged with that," Zierden said. "It's challenging enough for people when it's a weekend and they just have to spend the money on the travel and they don't have to take off of work. But during the week, to miss time at work, it's even more difficult."
Logistically, it may not make much sense for Florida State to host Thursday night games. But competitively, there's no doubt that the inability to host is damaging.
The late kickoff and the national television audience usually equates to a hostile environment on Thursday nights. The record proves it: ACC road teams in ESPN Thursday night game teams are a combined 24-34 (.414) all time. Home teams are a combined 51-27 (.654). Since 2002, FSU is 3-4 in its seven Thursday night appearances.
"The coaches don't feel it's a good thing," Spetman said. "Our teams get into a very good cycle of timing, so it throws your cycle off. So that's the competitive disadvantage."
When it comes to Thursday nights, success isn't just limited to the better team on paper. From 2006-2010, teams were pinned as Thursday night home underdogs 34 times. According to the website Beyondthebets.com, the underdog went 22-12 against the spread and won the games outright 18 times. Florida State accounted for three straight up losses as the road favorite during that five-year span.
No coach in America would enjoy saddling up for a road conference game on Thursday night. Fisher is no exception, and what burns him most is the lack of recovery time that the Saturday-to-Thursday road game turnaround allows.
This week, Florida State preps to play Boston College with only four days of rest. Of Florida State's eight Thursday road games since 2002, this will be the third time it has gone without a bye week on the previous Saturday. Its last Thursday appearance on a short week was a 24-21 loss at Wake Forest in 2007.
According to ACC rules, teams squaring off in a Thursday night conference game must enter with the same amount of days off since its previous game. Boston College also played this past Saturday, beating Maryland for its first league win of the season.
"Make no mistake about how tough that is. I wish they would outlaw it in college football," Fisher said. "Not just for us, but for anybody. I don't think any team should have to play on a five-day turnaround because of the wear and tear on bodies.
"I think it's unfair to college football kids. I think it's ridiculous. I don't think it's fair to their physical and mental stature. I don't care who it is that has to do it, I don't think it's a good thing for college football."
The ACC's role
The Atlantic Coast Conference is aware of Florida State's plight when it comes to hosting a Thursday game, but before the league gets rolling on is schedule in any given season, it checks with its members to gauge interest in hosting a Thursday game.
"We don't operate under the assumption that Florida State can't (host Thursday night games)," said Michael Kelly, the ACC's Associate Commissioner for Communications, Broadcasting and Football. "We check with every school every year as to what their availability is for our special games. And every year, it just has coincided that it was something that Florida State couldn't accommodate at home and that's why they've had so many games on the road."
Contractually, the ACC is obligated by its new 12-year, $1.86 billion ESPN TV contract to schedule five Thursday night games. They do not have to be conference games, but four of the five need to be hosted by an ACC team so the league can dictate the start time. In 2011 there are four Thursday night conference games (Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech; FSU at Boston College; Virginia at Miami; UNC at Virginia Tech) and one out-of conference game as N.C. State traveled to play at Cincinnati on Sept. 22. The league is also obligated to hold a game on Labor Day, which was between Miami and Maryland this season.
Outside of FSU, Kelly said that scheduling Thursday home games has been difficult for Clemson and, until recently, North Carolina. Boston College also does not prefer to host one more than every other year. On the other hand, there's Virginia Tech, which likes to play twice on Thursday each year if possible - once at home and once on the road.
But as Florida State can attest, the inability to host a Thursday night game doesn't screen a program from hitting the road.
"All 12 of our schools continue to be open minded and need to be available to potentially play on the road," Kelly said. "If you can host on Thursday, we try to work on that. If you can't host, going on the road is always a possibility. It just so happens to be the way it has impacted Florida State."
"When we have negotiated these TV deals for a lot of money, we've given up some of our flexibility to do what I think is totally good for our programs and student athletes," Spetman said. "They need to sell programming and advertisements, so this is what they force us to do."
Making it happen
With Veterans Day falling on a Friday (Nov. 11) in 2011, it gave FSU an opportunity to explore its first Thursday night home game in nine years. The Friday holiday would have allowed the university to tack Thursday on to a Veterans Day school break, meaning a Thursday home game would have only affected one school day instead of two. Even better, the actual break itself would be built around a holiday instead of solely around a football game.
Spetman, who said he had to propose this to the academic side of the university a year in advance, had the university's support to play a Thursday home game on the Nov. 12 weekend this season. But as the schedule began to form, Spetman and the coaching staff realized that playing a Thursday night home game on that particular weekend would have required the team to play 11 straight games without a bye week.
Fisher said that once he saw that a potential Thursday home game required that many consecutive games without a bye, they didn't pursue the home game any further. Kelly said Florida State's interest in hosting ended before a potential opponent was proposed.
"We thought going 11 weeks without a bye would be a bigger competitive disadvantage than having to play a Thursday night game (on the road)," Spetman said.
Spetman said he doesn't expect the Thursday night home drought to last much longer and he believes the academic side of the university is open to the possibility.
"It's not a dead issue for the future. And we're not going to play 12 years in a row on the road on a Thursday night," Spetman said. "I think we'll eventually get one in time but that's something we've got to work on."
But outside of Thanksgiving - the traditional FSU-Florida weekend - the next national holiday to fall on a Thursday or Friday during football season won't come until Veterans Day 2016.
"I know that Florida State has explored and seems interested in continuing to explore the possibility of hosting on a Thursday night which we would gladly accommodate," Kelly said.
While all the hurdles make a Thursday night game at Doak Campbell Stadium hard to envision in the future, some are holding out hope. Fisher and Spetman both said they'll continue to pursue any opportunity to host one.
"I would definitely like to see it and I would say that to the president," said former FSU great Derrick Brooks, a former member of the FSU's Board of Trustees. "There are no issues that couldn't be overcome to get a Thursday night home game. We need it, we can benefit from it and I think all the academic colleges can make an adjustment for one game to make this work.
"I think it's more political than it needs to be, and I think the university can make it happen for the greater good."
For now, though, Florida State will pack their bags on four days rest and trek 1,100 miles for another Thursday night road game. The Seminoles' newest tradition continues.