Rams' return to D-II is paying off

Both financially and on the scoreboard, Winston-Salem State feels right at home

Associated PressDecember 12, 2012 

West Texas AM Winston Salem St Football

Winston-Salem State quarterback Kameron Smith(6) breaks a tackle from West Texas A&M defensive lineman Tyrell Higgins(2) while looking for a receiver during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. (AP Photo/Winston-Salem Journal, Andrew Dye)

ANDREW DYE — Winston-Salem Journal

— Winston-Salem State’s financial problems are one reason the Rams are playing for the Division II national championship this weekend.

The historically black university was on track to move to Division I when budget woes forced officials to abort the plan to join the Football Championship Subdivision a few years ago.

So the Rams returned to Division II and made themselves right at home.

In their third season back at this level, they’re 14-0 and preparing to face Valdosta State on Saturday in Florence, Ala., with their first national title at stake.

“I don’t know if it justifies (the decision), but I know winning solves a lot of problems, and people like winners,” third-year coach Connell Maynor said. “If you win, that will make the people that wanted us to stay I-AA kind of forget about that and say, ‘You know what, this is all right. This is pretty cool.’ ”

The move back down a rung on the NCAA’s ladder sure seems to have agreed with Winston-Salem State.

The alma mater of former NFL players Yancey Thigpen and Oronde Gadsden twice has won the CIAA – the nation’s oldest conference for HBCUs – since rejoining the league in 2010.

That came shortly after school officials decided the transition to Division I – and the expenses that came with it – just wasn’t worth it. All those road trips to Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference games in Florida and Virginia began to add up, and so did the increased expenses for scholarships to meet Division I standards.

School officials said the athletics department ran a deficit of $1.8 million during the fiscal year before the move back to Division II. For the fiscal year that ended in June 2012, the Rams had a balanced athletic budget of about $4.4 million – making them one of the bigger spenders in the CIAA.

“The biggest problem with that is money – you’ve got to fund 15-16 sports … (and) those sports are traveling to (Florida A&M), Bethune-Cookman, Norfolk State on a Wednesday night to play volleyball, that takes a lot of money,” Maynor said. “It takes a lot of funding.”

The Rams might not be playing a Division I schedule anymore, but they certainly have plenty of Division I talent.

“These are not your average CIAA guys, your average D-II guys,” said running back Bryce Sherman, one of two transfers from South Carolina.

The school’s roster includes seven transfers from Football Bowl Subdivision teams – including one from each of the state’s four ACC programs. Defensive back Dominique Tate, a Wake Forest transfer, shares a Winston-Salem apartment with current Deacons running back Josh Harris.

Seven more Rams came from FCS schools.

“Did we break a rule? We didn’t? Oh, so we’re smarter than you,” Maynor said, directing his comments toward those critical of the high number of transfers.

“You’ve got to get the game plan and get out there and do the same thing we’re doing,” Maynor said. “Get your program on the same level we are and quit complaining about the transfers we’ve got. That’s how you win games.”

Nobody can argue with the results.

As a team, the Rams rank among the top 10 in eight major statistical categories. They’re fifth in the division with an average of 42.5 points per game; sixth against the run, allowing an average of 87.7 yards; and fourth in turnover margin at plus-1.36.

Only three games have been decided by fewer than 10 points – and two of those came during the first two weeks. The third was a 21-17 win against Indiana (Pa.) in the Division II quarterfinals.

Now it’s on to the title game and a chance to deliver the school’s first championship and become the first HBCU representative to win the Division II crown.

“We’re still kind of in shock, but we’re ready, though,” Sherman said. “We’ve been thinking about it since the summertime.”

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