University of Delaware’s Sports Programs Are Heating up

University of Delaware’s sports programs are taking it to the next level.

Anybody who questions the University of Delaware’s (UD) move up in the Division I football hierarchy—announced in November 2023 and effective July 1, 2025—and its new confederates in Conference USA (C-USA) hasn’t considered the possibilities. On the surface, signing up to play UT–San Antonio, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State and the rest of the C-USA gang sounds like a headache for coaches, players and even the most seasoned travel veteran. Why give up UD’s current neighbors in the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA)—Villanova, Towson, et al—for a far-flung affiliation with a geographically undesirable group of schools?

UD Director of Athletics Chrissi Rawak knows why. And it’s not just because renting buses can be sometimes more expensive than paying for air travel.

“We’re at the table,” she says. “We weren’t at the table before. We were on the outside looking in. That’s huge.”

From left: Captains Chase McGowan, Brock Gingrich, Ethan Saunders and Dillon Trainer, and honorary captain Rich Gannon.
From left: Captains Chase McGowan, Brock Gingrich, Ethan Saunders and Dillon Trainer, and honorary captain Rich Gannon.

There’s nothing wrong with the CAA, but football is vital to college athletics and competing in the C-USA offers the Blue Hens greater opportunities than does the CAA. The Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) is a step below the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), which includes a mix of big-time schools (Michigan, Alabama, Clemson, etc.), and smaller institutions like those Delaware will join in its new conference. By taking a step up, Delaware gains more exposure, revenue and the chance to continue growing its athletic program at a time when schools around the country are positioning themselves for bigger opportunities in the future.

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Delaware is stepping up in class and paying a $5 million C-USA entry fee because it will be good for the university, and it’s a play that could lead to bigger outcomes. With college conference realignment likely to continue for the rest of the decade (and beyond), there could be openings at more prestigious conferences that would elevate Delaware’s profile even more. Blue Hen fans would love to see UD in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) with Pittsburgh, Syracuse, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech, for example. Now it’s possible.

“We’re at the table. We weren’t at the table before. We were on the outside looking in. That’s huge.”

“The vision for the institution is excellence,” Rawak points out. “We want to be recognized beyond the mid-Atlantic region. We [aspire] to be recognized across the nation and the world. We think we’re capable of that.”

Last February, the CAA signed a four-year, $10 million media deal with CBS Sports and Flo Sports, meaning that league teams would split $2.5 million per year. In November 2022, C-USA inked a pact with ESPN and CBS that provides each school with $750,000. That’s not a bonanza when compared to what the Big Ten schools receive ($80 million to $100 million each), but it is more than the CAA contract provides. Since the C-USA conference decided last season to play games in the middle of the week, its teams received TV exposure without competition from other conferences.

There is also the opportunity to play in a bowl game. C-USA guarantees seven appearances each year. In 2023, conference newcomer Liberty University played in the Fiesta Bowl, a top-tier “New Year’s Six” contest.

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“We have very hungry institutions that want to improve their profiles, make impacts and get visibility,” says C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod. “There are a lot of success stories of schools moving up from the FCS. They can be competitive.”

UD joins a sizable group of teams that has made this move. C-USA alone has Liberty, Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State, all former FCS schools. Former C-USA members have moved up to larger leagues, and several C-USA alumni, like Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida, are now members of Power Five conferences.

“If you look at Conference USA over the last 20 years, that league grows champions,” Rawak asserts.

Ryan Carty played at UD on a team that won a national championship. He was part of an FCS national title team while an assistant at Sam Houston. During two years as UD’s head coach, he has posted a 17–9 record and made two playoff appearances. The prospect of playing in a bowl game appeals to him. A lot.

“It’s really exciting,” Carty says. “The competitiveness comes out in you. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but we have that in our sights. We want to transition fast enough to have success early on.”

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Two years ago, none of this seemed possible. Although UD was proud of its football success, as well as its men’s and women’s basketball teams’ 2022 NCAA Tournament appearances, the school was still competing at a level below its potential.

As realignment continued in several conferences, however, Rawak, UD president Dennis Assanis, other administrators and board members began to entertain the possibility of a step up. “It would have been irresponsible for me as an athletic director not to take a long look at the landscape,” Rawak says. Early in 2023, the school examined what would be necessary to move to the FBS level.

One factor was Title IX, which mandates that colleges receiving federal money must offer the same opportunities for women and men. Since FBS schools have 85 scholarship football players versus 65 at the FCS level, there had to be a congruent increase in opportunities for female athletes. That’s why Delaware will begin a women’s ice hockey program in 2025. Last summer, Rawak and her team brought a recommendation to Assanis and the board, which approved the idea and allowed her to have external discussions with other conferences.

“The questions were can we do it, how do we do it, when do we do it and will somebody invite us?” Rawak says.

That “somebody” was Conference USA. MacLeod had met Rawak when they were on the NCAA Council together. When MacLeod heard Delaware was interested in a move, she and Rawak began having discussions. In October 2023, Delaware made multiple presentations to the C-USA board and its presidents. A month later, MacLeod visited the campus, and Rawak presented the school’s resources. By the end of November, C-USA had extended an invitation.

“[The move] makes sense,” MacLeod says. “If people don’t realize that and aren’t prepared, it can be a problem. [UD] is extremely prepared to step up. I definitely think they’re ready.”

The Blue Hens will play football in the CAA in 2024 and be full members of C-USA in 2025.

Junior guard Sydney Boone brings her A game to the Blue Hens’ women’s basketball team.
Junior guard Sydney Boone brings her A game to the Blue Hens’ women’s basketball team.

The Blue Hens will play football in the CAA in 2024 and be full members of C-USA in 2025. Due to NCAA regulations designed to protect schools from moving forward too quickly, they must wait four years to play in a bowl game, but the Blue Hens are OK with that. UD sponsors 22 teams, including the new ice hockey program, and that team, along with men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s lacrosse, field hockey, rowing and men’s soccer will compete in other leagues. Every other squad will be part of the C-USA lineup.

But those are logistical issues. The big picture involves an expanded profile and a broader brand.

“We’re going to do everything we can to build onto the traditions we have,” Rawak says. “That will help us get better. At the end of the day, what we owe our fans is continuing to get better.”

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