Q: How has the FCS Championship Game continued to grow and evolve over the last decade?A: Well, Team Frisco is dedicated to ensuring the following strategic imperatives – 1) Making the game a major first-class experience for the NCAA, the competing programs and their student-athletes, the larger Football Championship Subdivision, the attending fans and our local Frisco and DFW community, 2) Having a sellout event and, 3) Enhancing the NCAA’s FCS brand awareness. We believe that this remains a great set of targets for our group, and believe the NCAA and the larger FCS community believes this is being accomplished. No doubt that the success and following of the North Dakota State program has played a predominant role in what this game has become known for. But even without NDSU, and there were a couple of games without the Bison, our local committee has always been laser-focused on conducting a one-of-a-kind event for our visitors. In the last decade, Toyota Stadium has undergone millions of dollars in renovations with the addition of the new south endzone seating and multiple club areas combined with the National Soccer Hall of Fame facility, new suites, enhanced video, audio, Wi-Fi systems, and traditional expanded football locker rooms. Teams and fans continue to receive a first-class hotel experience and the Frisco area continues to grow with more enhancements to come. And let’s not forget, the game’s broadcast moves to ABC this year, and we’ve seen our partners at ESPN add a 30-minute preview show before kickoff. People should also acknowledge that the success of this game helped lead to ESPN’s start-up of the Frisco Bowl three years ago. Q: Any regrets with hosting the game?A: Not enough Southland teams playing in it, but I know our coaches and athletic directors are working on correcting that! Q: So what happened between 2006 and when the game first arrived in Frisco in early 2011?A: Taking a few steps back first, the NCAA had occasionally discussed exploring other FCS championship sites. And well before the new stadium construction and our office move to Frisco, I had actually been part of a formal NCAA bid presentation in early 2004 with San Antonio officials for the 2006 FCS Championship Game that would have been played at the Alamodome. However, the NCAA stayed with Chattanooga for that game, and later committed to that location for games through the 2009 season. Once we had moved the Southland headquarters to Frisco, I cold-called the only person I was aware of – Jim Gandy, then the head of the Frisco Economic Development Corporation. Jim was appropriately focused on long-term business development in the city, not necessarily a small-staffed, non-profit educational association like us moving to town, or even attracting a one-off event like a football game. But I knew he had played college football at Texas A&I, and I thought he might be interested in the idea. He was very receptive to the concept, but it was too soon then because the NCAA wasn’t yet considering a move. A couple of years later, the NCAA hinted again at soliciting other interested bidders, and I approached Jim again. He introduced me to Frisco City Manager George Purefoy, and he and Jim listened to my pitch and the possibilities of a game in Frisco. I recall George not saying a word through my nervous proposal over lunch, which included me repeating that I wasn’t even sure the NCAA would move the game, but in the end, he said “yes, let’s pursue it” and things just took off from there. There were immediate meetings with (then-Frisco) Mayor Maher Maso, who quickly embraced the idea and became the face and voice of Team Frisco, city council members, the Frisco Convention and Visitors Bureau and Frisco Chamber, and officials from the Hunt organization and the stadium, then known as Pizza Hut Park. Once the NCAA formally confirmed a bid process for the championship following the 2010 football season, our local group, which quickly took the moniker of “Team Frisco” went to work. John Wagner from Hunt really got us organized and appropriately turned our collective enthusiasm into a coherent, visionary plan. We were named a finalist, hosted the NCAA football committee on a site visit in early 2010, then made a formal presentation shortly thereafter at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis where we were awarded our first three-year game contract. Q: What have been the most satisfying aspects of hosting the FCS game? Proudest moments?A: I strongly believe that Team Frisco has fully and consistently delivered on what we said we would. Our local committee has mostly stayed intact with very few changes to provide consistency throughout the decade. There are a lot of great people involved that mostly remain behind the scenes, including our Team Frisco leader John Wagner, Henry Hill of the Frisco City Manager’s office and many other city staff, Marla Roe and her staff at VisitFrisco, Tony Felker and his Frisco Chamber staff, and so many local volunteers that have been with us since day one. What can often get overlooked is the impactful community service project with the Frisco Miracle League that our two teams are involved with. Very proud of that! Also, after the initial three-year agreement with Frisco, the NCAA has extended the contract three additional times, without considering competing bids, through the 2025 game (and an option for 2026). By that time, Frisco will become the longest-serving FCS Championship host site. Many NCAA sports become known partly by the location they play their championships – the College World Series in Omaha, the Track and Field Championships in Eugene, the Softball World Series in Oklahoma City, and yes, I’m proud to say the FCS Championship Game in Frisco. And proudest of the effort of our Southland Conference staff and our institutional staffers that have come in to work during game week over the past decade, especially in the first couple of years when they managed much more than people think they did. Bruce Ludlow and Jenny McGhee of our staff have been with us since we started exploring this venture. They still do so much, as does the rest of our staff, and that’s allowed the event to prosper and remain the special event it’s become. This is a terrific Division I championship event, and I’m maybe most proud that we have affiliated our Southland brand with this premiere game. Q: What’s the future of the game in Frisco?A: I think the future is great! We know we have a terrific foundation laid for this event, and honestly, it has become a very different game and team experience since the first one in 2011. Moving into our second decade of hosting the game, we are continually focused on what can change for the better. How can we improve the student-athlete experience? How can we ensure these players, coaches, staffs are receiving a top-notch Division I postseason experience? How can we best leverage our location, our market, and our lodging, hospitality and entertainment opportunities to enhance game week? We are actively listening to the NCAA staff and the participating teams before and after each game to ensure we’re in tune with their concerns, needs and wants, all with the idea that this feedback helps improve our future hosting efforts. While we’re now heading into another five- or six-year cycle as the host of the game, I’m sure we’ll soon start itching to initiate discussions about the future of the game as it approaches a possible third decade in Frisco! Q: What was unique about the first FCS Championship Game in Frisco between Delaware and Eastern Washington?A: There was plenty! We had only one chance to make a first impression, and we decided early on that we would do everything imaginable to make it a special experience for the two teams. That started with the team hotel welcomes and continued through their departures after the game. Everything was focused on hospitality and making this a memorable, high-quality national championship experience in every way for all visitors. While we were confident in our ability to serve as a great local host organization, there were many unknowns in having this event for the first time. If things didn’t go well, who knows how long we would have kept the event? Then it got really complicated once Delaware advanced to the game, and we learned that Vice President Joe Biden would attend, as well as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, both UD graduates and avid Blue Hens fans. Two things I’ve never seen – first, the Dallas North Tollway was completely shut down at rush hour to accommodate the VP’s motorcade (remember, the first game was played on a Friday night), and secondly, there were snipers positioned throughout the stadium for the same reason. We sat through a three-hour security meeting the day before with White House staff, Secret Service officials, and other area law enforcement agencies going through every detail numerous times. We realized this was going to be different. The game was a lot of fun, as there was a big lead by one team, a tremendous rally by the other team, and some controversy toward the end of an eventful night. And of course, Vice President Biden was actively moving through the stadium during the game, so it was interesting to watch his entourage and the Secret Service. We even had to provide a hotline telephone location for the VP in the press box in case of any emergency situation! The other unique thing was it was the only Frisco game that was not sold-out, but the approximately 14,000 in attendance enjoyed a great show. Q: Why was this important to the Southland Conference?A: Well, if it were only about the Southland, we would have never seriously pursued the possibility of hosting the game. We certainly weren’t staffed or resourced well-enough to take something like this on by ourselves, nor would our membership have likely allowed that. At that time, we were already in the process of re-starting a neutral site basketball tournament format, developing a new television broadcast venture, and were still settling in after the office move. So, we had much more we could say grace over at the time, and I was likely piling on much more than our staff needed. However, as Southland commissioner, I also wear an FCS hat, and the overall well-being of Division I FCS football always remained at the forefront of my role. We knew hosting this championship game with more of a bowl-week type of experience in this kind of growing community could be outstanding with the right partnerships. When our partners started at “Yes” and then asked what else they could do to make it bigger and better, I knew we were on to something special We now have a decade of exactly that. I would also add that as an active FCS stakeholder, I knew the Southland and its membership would take ownership in serving as the host conference of this game, and that’s also been proven repeatedly. I cannot stress enough that this game needs invested local ownership, no matter where it’s played. If not, then it is just another football game. This Saturday, Jan. 11, the Southland Conference and its Team Frisco local organizing committee partners, the City of Frisco and Hunt Sports Ventures, will play host to the 2020 NCAA Division I Football Championship Game at Toyota Stadium — the 10th-straight national title game at the multi-purpose venue. The game is officially sold-out for the ninth consecutive time, and this year’s game will be televised live nationally on ABC. Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett, a Team Frisco founding member, recently answered a few questions about the national championship game’s successful decade in Frisco, including the origins of securing the contest, maintaining a championship quality to the event, the dynamics of North Dakota State’s frequent participation, and the game’s future. Q: There’s always been the story that Frisco ran out of beer during the first NDSU visit. Is that true?A: It was at North Dakota State’s Friday night pep rally, which was actually held at a hotel in Plano, not Frisco. That being said, there may have been multiple locations that the Bison fans drank dry. They are very accomplished in this area, and it makes for a great story every year. They are terrific fans, maybe the nicest, most respectful fan base out there. We should all be so fortunate to have such a following. We believe that outside the stadium and in local watering holes are thousands of other Bison fans that never get a ticket, and are just here for the larger party. Certainly, Frisco’s economy welcomes this, and establishments cater to the NDSU visitors. Q: How did things change the following year with the arrival of North Dakota State in its first game?A: It got different real fast with North Dakota State, but a big part of that was also having Sam Houston State from our league in that game, and SHSU’s campus is located only three hours south of Frisco. NDSU was in the initial stages of becoming the program we now know, and the sell-out crowd might have been dispersed 50/50, although Sam Houston fans had advance opportunity to buy tickets since its semifinal win came on Friday night before North Dakota State’s win the following day. The more dramatic change came in the third year – the second NDSU-SHSU game — when NDSU fans didn’t “wait and see,” securing game tickets and hotel rooms well in advance, an annual tradition also known as the “Fargo South” takeover. As is the case every year, it is expected that Bison fans will begin reserving hotel rooms for the 2021 game as soon as this game ends, and will buy most of the available game tickets when they go on sale in September. Q: What’s the importance of FCS football, and how does the championship impact the sport?A: Since the FBS conferences control their own postseason, this is the highest level of football sponsored as an official NCAA event, one of the 90 national championships. The NCAA was founded because of football, and the Division I governance system remains primarily defined and subdivided by football sponsorship. Current FCS programs were involved in the earliest days of the sport 150 years ago. ESPN’s College Gameday goes to FCS destinations like Fargo, Harrisonburg, Brookings and the Harvard-Yale game or the Bayou Classic because the sport is a big deal at this level, and is worthy of the national spotlight. I believe that there were 150 or so FCS players on NFL opening day rosters this season, enough to fill three pro teams. FCS conferences have committed to full instant replay in recent years, are constantly expanding their football television offerings, and continue to invest in officiating programs, some partnering with FBS leagues to improve consistent training methods. I’ve told people that college football in Lake Charles, La., and Huntsville, Texas, holds the same importance as it does in Baton Rouge and College Station, only the scale is different. But just like at the highest levels of the FBS, Division I FCS football is a tremendous economic and enrollment driver in over 120 university communities, and it helps define campus culture and branding, student involvement, alumni giving, fan interest, media coverage, and other general connections to a community and region. Further, FCS brings such a broad spectrum of institution types, including the historical success and culture of HBCU institutions, top academic performers such as the Ivy and Patriot Leagues, large Tier I research and flagship universities, faith-based institutions and incredibly effective regional colleges. All told, we have well over 100,000 student-athletes involved in FCS football programs across the country, and we owe them and their followers a championship event worthy of their devotion to the sport. The championship playoff event and final game must properly represent the investment so many of us have in the sport, bring meaning to our university communities, and provide lasting value to these campuses, many of which have committed over a century of participation in this sport. I know the Southland staff and our Team Frisco partners are thinking about all of this when we put in the collective effort to host the FCS Championship Game in Frisco. Q: Take us back to the earliest idea of playing the FCS Championship Game in Frisco?A: Like others in our area, I was an interested observer in Frisco’s new Major League Soccer stadium under construction in 2004 and into 2005. However, I didn’t have much of a soccer background, and since the Southland was then based in nearby Plano, we had no relationships with any officials in Frisco at the time. After relocating our office to Frisco in 2006, I was beginning to drive by the new stadium every day, so I was naturally curious about what was happening there besides soccer matches. I knew there was high school football, some concerts and the NCAA’s national soccer championship, the College Cup, in the venue. Due to my involvement with FCS football, including the beginnings of some informal discussions among other conference commissioners about the future of our championship game location, I then started to wonder about Frisco as a possible FCS site, but it was very, very early, and something I kept to myself. I then attended the 2006 MLS Cup at the stadium in November, and as I sat in the stands with my young soccer-enthusiast son, I hardly watched any of the game. Instead, I examined the physical structure of the stadium, eyeballed the press box and suites, watched the teams enter and exit the field, checked out the concessions and merchandising areas, watched the video boards and listened to the quality of the public address system. At the end of the day, the only thing on my mind was if the stadium could play host to college football, specifically the FCS Championship? The full vision wasn’t there yet, but it was definitely on my mind from that moment. However, the NCAA was still committed to playing its game at its longstanding location in Chattanooga. Q: What were the main selling points for Frisco?A: At the time, Frisco was still an unknown for those outside our area, although the community was already among the fastest growing U.S. cities and acknowledged as a great place to live and raise a family. But we also had to initially explain that this was in Texas, not the City by the Bay. So, there was the hurdle of explaining who we were to others. But once we got our foot in the door, things really fell into place, and that started with the stadium. It was the ideal size, at around 20,000 capacity, and even though it had some soccer-specific peculiarities that college football teams might be puzzled by initially, you knew it could work for a championship game. The venue was fully-staffed, led by Nick Shafer and crew, that managed a year-round event schedule, so you knew everything would be handled appropriately no matter what. We have two major airports in Dallas-Fort Worth, with two airlines headquartered here, and our central location could be reached easily by any destination within a few hours. Further, while we can have some weather extremes at that time of year, and we may be due a snow and ice event at some point, the climate is usually moderate. While we were still a bit short on quality full-service hotel properties in Frisco at the time, you knew we could minimally accommodate the teams and officials, and that more hotels would be coming on-line in a matter of time. We also knew this was a destination location with so much to offer like unmatched shopping, outstanding restaurants, more entertainment and recreation options, and family-friendly fare throughout the area. We also knew we just had to get the football committee here for a visit, and let the city really speak for itself. We knew that would be key, and that’s what happened.