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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 12:10 am

Bringing college football to Springfield?

New UIS athletic director could be the man for the job

Jim Sarra
PHOTO BY ALEX CAMP
College football in Springfield is all but a pipe dream now. However, the new athletic director at the University of Illinois Springfield – who has extensive experience in bringing football to a collegiate program – may spur hope that one day the capital city could be a hotspot for football on Saturday afternoons.

Last June, Jim Sarra was named athletic director at UIS. In his first six months, Sarra has settled into his new environment. “I really enjoy being here,” Sarra stated. “When I first got here and took the position, I felt like we had a tremendous opportunity to expand what was here previously. Kim (former AD Kim Pate) did a good job setting up a base. There’s an opportunity to build upon it.”

 Previously the deputy director of athletics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Sarra was instrumental in bringing football to UTSA in 2012. Sarra explained that, given the geographic and cultural setting, it was inevitable for UTSA to have football. “It made all the sense in the world,” Sarra remembered. “They’re the seventh largest populated city in the United States, you’re in a Division I conference, you’re in the state of Texas with no football, it’s a major city and it made sense.”

 In contrast, Sarra commented on the prospects of UIS showcasing football. “It’s a huge undertaking,” he admitted. “The first thing you want to do is bring somebody in to do a feasibility study, to determine whether or not you should have football here. You’re in the Division II level, so are you going to be able to sell tickets? Does it outweigh the expense? Can you generate the revenue?” Having football would be an opportunity to expand the brand and spur growth within the university, Sarra said.

He assessed the local high school football scene. “Everybody loves Rochester. Everybody loves Glenwood. Everybody loves Sacred Heart. There’s an affinity where, unless you take that entire program and put it here, you’re not going to have the same affinity, so you pull a couple kids from these schools and it makes up a little difference,” Sarra said. “You’re not going to pull all of those people from Chatham, Auburn, Rochester and Sacred Heart.” He concluded that for UIS to have stability in its football program, they must develop a niche apart from the aforementioned high schools.

 Nevertheless, Sarra was optimistic when asked whether or not football will see the light of day at UIS. “There’s no reason not to. You still have an opportunity here on the UIS campus where there’s enough land to do something.” Sarra recommended Kiwanis Stadium, site of the men’s and women’s soccer games, as a possible arena for football. “You can do something similar here and make it worthwhile. I think it’ll be great for the university,” he said. Sarra points out that the key for developing football is enrollment. According to a September press release by UIS, the school had registered 5,428 students in the fall 2016 semester. Despite the total being the second largest student body in school history, Sarra states that the enrollment has to be 7,000 to 10,000 students to bring the sport on campus,

 Sarra has lofty goals for the school to grow while he is in charge. “The true vision here is to be the premier Division II public university athletics program,” he said. “Basically, we want to be ‘it’ in the Midwest. When students who are athletes look at an opportunity, they’ll look and think UIS, because it’s going to have the best facilities and it’s going to have the best experience. We’re going to engage them in everything. We’re going to give them every opportunity to be successful here. It’s a long term, but it’s a consistent long term.”

Alex Camp is an editorial intern at Illinois Times. He is pursuing his master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield.

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