BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. -- The usual daily rhythms of a college campus are visible at Gardner-Webb University. The marching band convenes on a vast stretch of green, synchronizing its steps. Book-toting students congregate at the union, sipping coffee and sifting through assignments. And, if you listen closely, you can hear whistles blowing and pads popping in the distance.
Just down the hill, hidden from view, the Gardner-Webb football team is wrapping up one of its final tuneups before boarding a charter jet to play the Pitt Panthers. Birds might be chirping away in the trees lining the practice fields, but there is nothing serene about the scene as Bulldogs coach Ron Dickerson Jr. brings the long afternoon to a close.
The defense jumped offside four times, which means they have to complete 48 up-downs -- a tedious exercise that requires them to fall to the ground and immediately push themselves back to an upright position. Some players begin to tire as early as the 10th repetition. They're all huffing and puffing by the end, when Dickerson Jr. orders the team to gather around.
"When I'm up here talking, you better be up here tight!" Dickerson said.
He wants to see the expressions of his 90 or so young men, who wants to win and who doesn't. His floppy white hat blocks the sun setting to the west over the nearby Appalachian Mountains.
"We've got an opportunity to do something special," Dickerson said.
The second-year head coach knows his kids, their stories and how to motivate them. But today, to the thousands of fans who watch the Bulldogs run onto Heinz Field, they will be faceless and nameless, a blur of black, red and white brought in mercilessly for the slaughter.
Gardner-Webb's mantra for this season is "no excuses," but, this week, they could make a list long enough to span the Allegheny River. The Bulldogs are a Division I-AA program, while the Panthers are in Division I-A. Pitt lost to Division I-AA opponent Youngstown State in its opener on the same field, but Gardner-Webb does not appear ready to compete with Pitt, much less pull an upset.
The Bulldogs are 0-3 with blowout losses to Wofford, Richmond and Samford. Last week, they had to play six freshmen on defense. The same day, Pitt thoroughly dominated No. 13 Virginia Tech, 35-17.
Thus begs the question: Why is Pitt, which spent about $21.3 million on football during the 2010-11 school year, playing Gardner-Webb, which spent about $2.9 million?
These agreements are more common with each turn of the calendar. Pitt (1-2) will pay Gardner-Webb $475,000 with an eye on securing a victory that will go toward the required six wins to qualify for a bowl game. Gardner-Webb gladly will accept the money because it will help justify the existence of its intercollegiate athletic program at a university that is currently subsidizing about $10 million of the $11 million it takes to run it.
"It's part of the food chain," Gardner-Webb vice president of athletics Chuck Burch said.
Across the 200-acre campus, the arrangement makes Gardner-Webb president Frank Bonner a bit uncomfortable as he sits in his office.
"I'm very torn and have a lot of mixed feelings," Bonner said. "Because on the one hand, I think there's a lot at the big level that's going wrong with athletics. The tail is really wagging the dog, big-time. I'm very worried about what the future of college athletics is.
"But, on the other hand, I'm also very idealistic about the value of athletics. I might sound corny, but I really believe that athletics is a genuine part of education."
Gardner-Webb never will make money off athletics. Even at the highest level, few schools do. Bonner acknowledged that his university could easily take the money it spends on sports and use it to fuel more merit-based scholarships and increase the academic profile of his privately funded institution. Yet, here he is, getting ready to watch his Bulldogs be thrown into the Panthers' lair for a big payday.
"If it's so bad that it's not a good experience for the players that's the way I would consider it to be dirty money," Bonner said. "If anybody gets hurt more than they might be in a normal game, or if we get just totally humiliated, then that makes it tough."
Back on the practice field, the players aren't thinking about any of this. The Pitt Panthers represent a chance to measure themselves against highly recruited players. And, at least outwardly, there isn't a hint of fear in the huddle.
Dickerson is done with his talk, the team recites the Lord's Prayer, and it's time to break for the night.
"One, two, three, WIN!" the Bulldogs say.
At Gardner-Webb, they like to say that their school is not for everyone. That's not meant as a slight; it's more that they realize the experience they're offering would not be attractive to many teenagers.
Founded in 1905 as Boiling Springs High School, a Baptist boarding school, the university does not allow drinking or smoking on campus, and students are fined if caught. Profanity is highly discouraged, and the 4,300 students are required to attend more than half of the 16 spiritual seminars offered each semester.
Boiling Springs, which has a population of just less than 5,000, is a one-stoplight town that rests about 50 miles west of Charlotte. To say that Boiling Springs is a sleepy place does not quite explain it.
The most obvious dining options near campus are McDonald's, Hardee's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Subway, but there is also a pizza shop, a Mediterranean restaurant and the Bulldog Quik-Snak on Main Street, where you can play some old-fashioned arcade games and get a cheap and delicious burger basket. Boiling Springs is a dry town, so the closest bar or pub is 6 miles away in Shelby, N.C.
This is not a school for a kid who is looking for any semblance of speed in his or her lifestyle, which made it easier to carry on athletically first as a junior college, then as a four-year institution with National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics sports and, as late as 2000, at the Division II level. Trying to convince a young man from Atlanta or Charlotte who can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds to attend school for four years in Boiling Springs likely will be fruitless.
Still, as a Division I-AA school, Gardner-Webb can recruit reasonably talented athletes. The Bulldogs have come a long way since Burch played center for the football team in the late 1970s at 215 pounds. While Gardner-Webb was just starting to figure out the athletics game as an NAIA school, Pitt was building a powerhouse, winning a national championship behind the running of Heisman Trophy-winner Tony Dorsett in '76.
As college sports evolved into big business, with TV contracts pouring money into the coffers of the elite programs, conferences became stronger and schedules tougher. Schools needed a way to guarantee as many wins as they could in non-conference play, so they began looking outside of Division I-A. NCAA rules stated that only one win against a Division I-AA team could count toward a bowl berth, so why not?
Now, playing a Division I-A school or two each season is part of the equation for Gardner-Webb. It began in '07 with Ohio and Mississippi State, and from then on Burch has told his men's basketball and football coaches that playing guaranteed (money) games was a part of their responsibility to the university. Burch said the goal is to bring in $1 million a year through that avenue, and the reality is that there aren't many other revenue streams from which to choose.
"Most of the money that flows from college football stays in the pockets of the elite conferences," said John Cheslock, a senior research associate for Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education. "These payments are one of the few mechanisms by which the wealth is shared in college athletics. There are not that many mechanisms aside from these payments."
Burch has to attend meetings with all other Gardner-Webb vice presidents and show them the ways that athletics is bolstering to the school's mission. Being able to pledge that $1 million helps, as does the opportunity that a game like the one today gives the Gardner-Webb name to scroll across the ESPN Bottom Line ticker accompanied by a name like Pitt.
Pitt was put in a scheduling bind when West Virginia and TCU moved to the Big 12 Conference. Temple, now a member of the Big East, took one spot, but Pitt had to find another replacement. Gardner-Webb was deciding between Texas A&M, Oregon, Oklahoma State and Pitt for its 2012 guarantee game and opted for the Panthers. The $475,000 payment matched the combined total from the guarantee games against Ohio and Wake Forest last season, according to Burch.
It is unclear where that money is coming from at Pitt, which is trying to improve its financial standing by moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference in '13. Through a spokesman, Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson and chancellor Mark Nordenberg declined comment for this story
An examination of public records from Pitt's Big East peers by Bloomberg showed that most of the league's athletic departments were being subsidized by their universities in 2010-11.
Rutgers, for instance, was getting $28.5 million from the university (including nearly $1,000 per student in fees). South Florida was paying $16.6 million a year to fund athletics.
West Virginia was at the low end among the conference's public institutions, paying out $4.4 million.
"That's why they're leaving the Big East," Cheslock said. "The Big East has pretty big subsidies. The Big East is right on that edge tottering between elite conferences and non-elite conferences. Pitt is in a tough situation in that it wants to be big-time. It's not going to be like a MAC school and play three out of four non-conference games on the road. As a major player, you play home games you are guaranteed to win."
There are no guarantees in college football. Remember Michigan losing to Appalachian State in '07? In '08, Gardner-Webb came within a blocked field goal of taking Georgia Tech to overtime before losing, 10-7.
"Part of it is kind of a dream, that it could happen," Bonner said.
Before Ron Dickerson Jr. could be hired to coach Gardner-Webb, he first had to talk with a man named Tracy Jessup.
Jessup is the school's vice president for Christian Life and Service. His role in the coaching search is to ask candidates to give their Christian testimony, an explanation of what would make them fit to minister to the players.
Dickerson told the story of how, at age 7, he had mononucleosis and grand mal seizures that put him in a coma for three weeks. Some doctors did not think he would make it. His family prayed for him constantly. One morning, he awoke, fully conscious.
"He really feels like he's evidence of a miracle that's taken place," Jessup said.
A man would have to be a true believer to want to coach Gardner-Webb, especially given Dickerson's big-time pedigree. His father, Ron Dickerson Sr., a Coraopolis native and an assistant coach for his son, was an assistant coach at Pitt from 1978-81. That meant that Ron Jr. grew up with stars like Dan Marino, Hugh Green and Rickey Jackson as his baby sitters. Ron Jr. played football at Arkansas, then with the Kansas City Chiefs, and oversaw the wide receivers at Ole Miss, where he coached Steelers receiver Mike Wallace.
Dickerson took a pay cut to come to Gardner-Webb because it seemed like it was in God's plan. Today, he tries to block out all of the perfectly legitimate excuses for why his team could be on its way to a tough season.
To Dickerson, it's a simple numbers game. He does not have a large enough staff to focus much on the big picture. Without a full-time secretary or administrative assistant -- his wife, Kendreah, volunteers during the day and gets some help from students through a work-study program -- Dickerson's job can be pretty mundane.
This week, he planned the Bulldogs' travel to Pittsburgh down to the color of shirt (red) they would wear at the hotel Friday. A morning coaches' meeting featured a debate about whether they would have Chick-Fil-A for the players when they arrived.
It is never going to be easy to win at a place where players routinely miss practice because Gardner-Webb can't arrange their class schedules just right, and football has to share its weight room with the 20 other sports.
Something as simple as rain can be a major problem.
Gardner-Webb's practice fields and stadium playing surface are natural grass, and, when it pours hard enough, the Bulldogs have to take over the wellness center gym. During the first two games of the season, the coaches' headsets stopped working because of rain.
"I am not complaining but you have to be very creative, I'll tell you that," Dickerson said.
The good news for Dickerson is that Gardner-Webb's administration is looking at more than wins and losses. Burch said he never has fired a coach simply because he was losing too many games. Gardner-Webb wants to see the kids graduating and being positive influences in the community and figures that, if those boxes are checked, the wins will come eventually. Still, Dickerson will not be satisfied with that standard.
"He wants his kids to win," said his wife, Kendreah. "And he wants them to have the feeling of winning. But there's not pressure here. One lady said 'Your husband is doing an awesome job' right as we had a turnover. She's going, 'Oh, it's OK.' "
It's certainly a different world.
Each Wednesday, Dickerson has a luncheon with the Bulldog Club, the booster organization that has never raised more than $140,000 annually. This week, about 10 fans attended at the Bulldog Quik-Snak to hear Dickerson's take on the Pitt game and further get to know the man. At the end, there was a raffle and giveaway. Dickerson's ticket number was called, and he was awarded a decorative paper pumpkin. He laughed and said his two kids would enjoy it.
Right then, Dickerson couldn't have been further from the big-time. But, as he reminds himself daily, there's nothing to complain about.
"Money isn't everything," Dickerson Jr. said. "So many people think all of us coaches make a lot of money, but there's a lot more to it than that. I've got 100 young men I have to worry about. They're kids, not gladiators."