Harold Nichols is a Presbyterian College lifer. He played quarterback for the Blue Hose in the late 1980s. He served as a Presbyterian assistant coach for two stints in the ’90s. Now he leads the football program in the infancy stages of a giant leap for the college.
So, no matter the final score of Presbyterian’s loss Saturday at No. 12 Mississippi, few can better appreciate how far the Blue Hose program has come over the past quarter of a century more than Nichols.
“It’s a long way from those turkey days with Newberry,” Nichols says. “That’s for sure.”
Never during those annual Thanksgiving Day rivalry games against Newberry did Nichols – or anyone else associated with the Presbyterian program – envision the day when the Blue Hose would collect $500,000 or so paychecks for playing the likes of California, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Mississippi and Vanderbilt. Nor did anyone imagine that Presbyterian would compete at the FCS level.
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“It’s been quite the journey, quite the process,” Nichols says.
Presbyterian stepped up from NCAA Division II football eight seasons ago to the FCS level, meaning it no longer competes against Newberry and other members of the South Atlantic Conference and now goes against fellow Big South Conference members Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern, as well as going outside the league to play Furman, Wofford and The Citadel.
This season marks the second in which Presbyterian was fully accredited by the NCAA to compete at the FCS level and to be eligible for league championships and postseason playoffs.
At first glance, a 5-5 record after Saturday’s 48-0 loss at Mississippi signals a season of mediocrity. A look beneath the surface reveals that Presbyterian has made great strides and was competitive in the Big South for the first time.
Part of playing at the FCS levels means scheduling what are called “money” games each season against FBS opponents. The idea is for the lower-level programs to generate revenue that can aid them in improving facilities, recruiting and general upgrades.
This is the first season that Presbyterian has played three “money” or “guarantee” games. By playing – and, of course, losing – at Northern Illinois, N.C. State and Mississippi, Presbyterian football will net more than $1 million.
“Being able to get that kind of revenue by playing those teams is very, very important to what we’re doing,” Nichols says. “The college made a commitment to the Division I transition, and we finally got it to the point where we’ve been able to raise the level of athletic ability.”
The athlete Presbyterian recruited prior to 2007 competed favorably at the Division II level, and the Blue Hose won the South Atlantic Conference title in 2005 and went 7-4 in 2006.
Then came the jump to FCS under then-coach Bobby Bentley. Presbyterian went 6-5 in the first season and 4-8 the next, but the Blue Hose were not playing all games against FCS competition.
In 2009, Nichols was hired after assistant coaching stints at traditionally successful FCS programs Rhode Island and Bucknell. Nichols knew it would take time, and his first five teams compiled a dismal 9-44 record, including 4-24 in the Big South.
Nichols was not alone in questioning whether Presbyterian had made a wise decision to jump to FCS football. It has been a much-debated topic on campus and among alums.
“There’s arguments on both sides,” Nichols says. “I do think, having the opportunity to be on that stage and get the kind of exposure for the school and the program, being Division I, there is some real merit to that, some real value to that.”
Nichols points to Saturday’s game as the best example. To purchase television advertising that would match having their school and football program appear before 40 million viewers on the SEC Network would be cost prohibitive.
“What a great opportunity to showcase our great school on that kind of stage,” Nichols says. “What an unbelievable opportunity it is for us and for our school.”
Presbyterian will close the season on Saturday in a conference game at Gardner-Webb. With a win, the Blue Hose would finish with a 6-5 overall record and 3-2 mark in the Big South.
That is a long way from the Turkey Day games against Newberry.