Chicago State University is moving toward establishing a Division I football program, forming a university committee to assess the possibility of creating a team.
The school on Thursday announced the committee members at a news conference Thursday. They include former NFL players Howard Griffith, Vaughn Bryant, Tom Thayer and Otis Wilson, along with several Chicago high school football coaches, community leaders and school officials.
The committee should provide a recommendation on the speculative football program’s future this spring, CSU athletic director Monique Carroll said.
“If that is favorable, we could be looking at Chicago’s only Division I program, right here on the South Side,” Carroll said. “We will potentially start football as early as fall 2025.”
The university already has conducted a feasibility study on the prospect of the football program, and the exploratory committee is now the “next step,” Carroll said. The committee also will consider adding new women’s sports teams.
Various questions about the possible football program have yet to be answered. It is unclear how the team would be paid for or where it would play games. But as football helmets with green Cougar decals sat before school officials, a marching band opened the news conference with brassy tunes and a muscled mascot danced, school leaders were clearly optimistic the program would become a reality.
“I think that the important work of the committee is to look and see what’s the road map, what are the steps that need to happen,” Carroll said. “Is it fall ‘24, ‘25, ‘26? To really come up with actionable items and timetables.”
She also acknowledged the committee could determine that the program should not go forward.
The public university in the Far South Side’s Roseland neighborhood is Illinois’ only four-year university federally designated as predominantly Black. The school has at times struggled with high–profile lawsuits and low enrollment in the last decade, including enrolling just 86 freshmen in fall 2016. But freshmen and sophomore enrollment has grown sharply over the last year, Chicago State President Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott said.
Overall enrollment decreased 2.1% in 2022, with 2,296 students enrolled in the fall, according to a university news release.
The possible football program “is one part of our ongoing focus to improve the quality of student life, to make Chicago State University a more attractive destination for new students and to contribute to the ongoing economic development of our community,” Scott said.
The university operates seven men’s and eight women’s Division I sports programs. The Cougars left the Western Athletic Conference in June, though Carroll said she expects the university will join a new conference in the next year, a decision that likely will be affected by the prospect of a football program.
The university’s baseball team was cut two years ago, a move Carroll pinned on economic uncertainty during the pandemic. But the school since has added a men’s soccer team, she added. Carroll said she is confident the school would be able to establish the team financially, adding that college football teams typically generate revenue.
When Scott was asked whether the potential football team might play games at Soldier Field amid the Chicago Bears’ developing plans to leave the stadium for a new one in Arlington Heights, Scott answered with a laugh, “If it’s available.”
The team would compete in the Football Championship Subdivision, the second level of NCAA Division I football, a school spokesperson said.
“I hope that, at the end of this committee, we find that we’re able to move forward with this football program,” said Griffith, a South Side native and two-time Super Bowl champion. “It can bring so many other people into your program. It could have such an important impact for our community.”
Griffith said the committee’s recommendation ultimately will be passed to university leaders who will make a final decision. The committee needs to take its time to form a thoughtful recommendation, he added.
The new team could be an investment in the South Side and its young people, Griffith said.
“It’s not necessarily about are people playing in the NBA, the NFL or going on and playing any professional sports but the opportunity to have an education,” he said.