Life of the Grizzlies in the NCFA
Collegiate club football is a wild west form of college football. The talent level is all over the place, filling a roster is difficult for many teams, and budgets for each team can widely vary.
The Oakland University club football team hit the ground running after their first season in 2013 in the National Club Football Association (NCFA): winning the 2014 and 2016 national championship and have won Great Lakes conference championships in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, and 2021. The team also played in the 2019 national championship game. However, the Golden Grizzlies haven’t taken home another national title in 7 years.
Co-founder of the team, former player, and current position coach Dr. Nic Bongers spoke with me about the team and some of the struggles with playing in the NCFA.
Photo via ncfafootball.org
“Not all club football teams are created equal,” Bongers said.
Some programs, like Ohio State, Toledo, and Michigan State, that have a DI program can have situations where the DI player drops down to the club team which can be a huge advantage.
“In 2016 for example, the running back from Ohio State lost a scholarship and got kicked off the team from Ohio State. But he’s still an active student, so he played on the club team and he was hard to beat,” Dr. Bongers said.
Sometimes even head coaches will drop down from DI.
“Miami of Ohio’s head coach for a few years, he used to be the head coach of the varsity program,” Bongers said. “So for a few years he was coaching a club team with the same expectations of a DI program. So it’s literally all over the board.”
Now that Oakland has been in the league for ten years, other teams are catching up to their early success.
“Now other teams are really starting to catch up and develop their own models that have surpassed us,” Bongers said. “Teams like Ohio State are developing these club football team models where they take alumni from their program who know what club football is and how it works and how to get people on board and are making coaches out of their players.”
Within their own program, there is a yearly struggle to fill the Oakland roster. The NCFA allows a maximum of 50 players and Oakland has never reached that mark.
He said, “There are between 15-20,000 students enrolled at Oakland University, can we find 50 to play football? You think we could.”
The players that end up joining are hard to keep for the next year too. Many players are not fully committed to returning year to year which makes the challenge even more difficult.
"We always think, 'this team could be scary next year if X guys come back.' Instead of rebuilding every year, we want them to play out their eligibility."
Finally, there is the issue of funding. Each university has their own set of rules, restrictions, and circumstances and it’s not governed by the NCFA.
Sacred Heart University, for example, owns their own coach buses that the team can use for free, which saves the team $4,000-8,000 per trip, according to Bongers.
Other universities, Oakland included, have to pay for transportation. If they cannot afford to rent them, then they have resorted to renting passenger vans to travel to away games.
So there is a lot going against the Grizzlies, but that’s not to say that they never have a shot to win anything. Like I said before, they have won two national titles and six conference titles in their ten years.
The programs that are attached to a larger DI program have a hard time getting people in the stands for the club games. Why watch club football when you can watch DI football?
This is where Oakland has an advantage.
“People can just say ‘yeah, it’s just club’ but we’re the only game in town. So if you want to see college football on a Saturday afternoon, then we’re the only place to go to,” Bongers said. “Ohio State has their DI program, so they love coming here to play us because it’s a packed stadium, we got the PA going, we got an announcer. It’s college football and it feels like that.”
Although it is a struggle to fill a roster, Oakland has still been able to find players that have so much pride and passion for their program and fit their identity.
Bongers said, “We’ve turned players, including Joe DiFranco who was our previous Club President, somebody who has never played football into being an all-American. So it doesn’t matter who’s wearing the jersey. If they’re coachable, they’re coachable. If they buy into our championship mentality, then it doesn’t
The Football Club's Springball practices are coming in April, and any OU students interested in playing football this fall can attend. Contact: email@example.com for more information.