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Football Programs a Dying Breed at Small D-1 Schools
Small programs financially and logistically unable to compete in new divisional setup.
The average football fan sitting home on a Saturday afternoon watching countless scores scroll across the bottom of the screen may be missing one of the most prevalent trends in college football for the last decade and a half: the dissolution of numerous football programs.
The problem dates back to 1991, when members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s 85th national conference passed sanctions preventing schools from “playing down” in football; that is being classified in Division II or Division III football while the remainder of the school’s athletic programs competes in a higher division.
The ruling, which was hailed as beneficial for the little guys of D-II and D-III who lacked the resources of their D-I counterparts, had profound ramifications for the so-called big guys in the equation. Prior to the ruling, Division I institutions were able to sponsor football without giving players scholarships, and play teams from lower division who also did not grant scholarships (Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships for any of its athletic teams).
Adding insult to injury for these schools, the following year’s NCAA conference elected not to put into motion a proposal to create a separate division, known operationally as Division I-AAA, as a special dispensation for schools forced to make the move up in division.
For 27 schools across the nation, the decision to be made became whether or not to begin offering scholarships to members of its football team, or risk playing in the more competitive D-I football scene at a disadvantage to scholarship-granting programs.
Of those 27 schools in that situation, nine have since dropped their football programs (including Santa Clara in 1992 right on the heels of the decision). Others, like Georgetown, have assimilated into Division I Football Playoff Subdivision (former I-AA) starting in the 1993 season and some, such as the University of Connecticut, have made the expensive transition to D-I Football Bowl Subdivision (former I-A).
Of the nine schools discontinuing football, many of them have similar characteristics as Saint Joseph’s in terms of the standing of their athletic departments and amount of varsity programs sponsored. Their inability to maintain football at a highly-competitive level, despite some schools having long and storied histories of football, helps show just how high the price of intercollegiate football is.
Canisius College was one of the first schools to drop football in 2002 as a result of the decline in competitiveness caused by the NCAA’s rulings. Located in Buffalo, N.Y., they continue to sponsor 16 intercollegiate varsity programs and have a similar institutional profile as St. Joe’s (Jesuit institution, urban setting, 3,500 undergraduates).
The decision to discontinue the football program at Canisius was part of a larger overhaul of a financially and physically overstretched athletic department in a state of flux at the time. It was one of eight programs cut, along with men’s rifle, men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track, and men’s and women’s tennis (men’s swimming was added at the same time to meet Division I minimum requirements).
The financial necessity of the move was one of the factors that was able to overshadow the history of the program. The Golden Griffins had participated in football from 1918-1949, and from 1975 until its final cut in 2002. In addition to the finances of the situation, the level of the team’s play had dropped off sharply, culminating in a 2-9 season in 2002.
“It was a very difficult decision because football had been here off and on since 1918,” said Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs John Maddock, who has been in his current position since 1997. “It was a tough decision because it not only affected the young men on the team at that point and coaching staff, but it also affected about 350 alumni who had played in the program and who were still following it. It was a tough decision, and it was certainly not taken lightly.”
One such alumnus is current Canisius Director of Athletics Bill Maher. Maher, who was in an administrative position at the University of Buffalo when the decision to cut football was made, played football at Canisius from 1980-1983.
“I was certainly very aware of the decision being made,” said Maher. “While I was disappointed from an alumni standpoint and from a former football player’s standpoint, I certainly understood the decision being made by the college to narrow the focus of the program as an economic reality to become more competitive in other sports.”
The decision at Canisius was heavily impacted by the changes in the college football landscape legislated by the NCAA. Moving up to Division I prevented Canisius from honoring many of its local rivalries with D-III schools. As a result, their schedule became more expensive in terms of travel costs. The overall profile of the program was reduced, leading to a cycle of decreased interest and decreased on-field success.
“There was a ton of Division III football programs in western New York, so we were playing every week against very natural rivals-Buffalo State, University of Buffalo, Rochester, Alfred-all within an hour and a half or two hours of Buffalo,” said Maddock. “So we had a tremendous group of schools within a close proximity that were all natural rivals, so it really, really fed of itself.”
“When we had to go up to Division I, we had to stop playing all those schools, and now ended up playing Duquesne and Iona and Siena, schools that we had never played before,” said Maddock. “So there wasn’t any rivalry, there wasn’t any ‘Hey, the big game this week is â€¦’, because we had never played them before.”
The lack of interest in the team, both for prospective players and fans, led to a decline in play the program was unable to get out from underneath of.
“We couldn’t compete against Division I schools offering scholarships because we were a non-scholarship team, and we had trouble competing against non-Division I schools because the recruiting rules are much different,” said Maddock. “So competitively, we really fell behind all the schools we had become used to playing, and were only competitive with schools within our league, and there wasn’t any postseason to look forward to or anything like that.”
The tough decision to cut football appears to be paying early dividends, easing the sting of the program’s loss on the community. The re-infusion of funds has helped other teams at Canisius to a historic 2007-2008 athletic year.
“The only quantitative way that we have [to measure the results of cutting football] is the improvement of our existing teams within the conference standing and the ability for us to win conference championships,” said Maher. “Last spring, we had three of our teams win conference championships and two of them went on to NCAAs, which was among the most successful seasons we have ever had, and a lot of that is directly related to some of the decisions and strategic investments that were made as a result of the elimination of some of our programs.”
Several month’s after Canisius announced the end of their football program, Fairfield University followed suit, announcing early in 2003 that the previous season had been their last on the gridiron. The Stags also cut men’s ice hockey at the time, but continued to support 20 varsity programs with just over 4,000 undergrads enrolled at the university.
The decision at Fairfield was made largely on financial grounds, as budgetary reductions had become necessary in both the athletic department and the university as a whole.
“The one most compelling reason was the finances of the program,” said Eugene Doris, director of athletics at Fairfield since 1994. “When decisions were being made about the finances, obviously the profile of the program and its ability to exist within the current divisional setup went hand in hand with that decision. We dropped men’s hockey at the same time as well. Both of those were financial issues and financial from the standpoint that if we wanted those programs to be at a level we had our other programs, what would be the additional money to be added to keep them.”
For Fairfield, it became an all-or-nothing decision on which programs to keep, and football was one that was unable to survive the ax.
“Obviously the institutional issue was that there was a required cut within the institutional budget because of some funding that was no longer coming in and every area of the institution had to take a hard look at where those cuts were going to be made,” said Doris. “For [the Athletic Department], the number that was put on the table for the cut wasn’t one of those things where you would look at the budget and say ‘Well, we’ll keep all the sports going and reduce them all by X amount.’ It was one of those that the only way to make it workable was to look at particular sports that were not performing well. And if you have a program already which is not operating as well as you would like within the landscape that football at our level was going, to cut it back further would only make it more non-competitive.”
Despite the strains placed on the team by its ascension to the D-I ranks, it did maintain a modicum of success. Unlike other some of the other schools that discontinued football, the Stags maintained a respectable 11-11 record in their final two seasons. Coupled with the impending collapse of other football teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) and the increasing financial burden of trying to maintain competitiveness, Fairfield was able to get out before the situation became more dire.
“Initially, it worked out until some of the schools that were thrown into what was then I-AA football started to give scholarships,” said Doris. “Once those schools began to give scholarships, it became very, very difficult to put together a competitive schedule that wasn’t going to involve a great deal of travel and even with that, the level of play on the field against other institutions began to become an issue.”
While much of the money saved was funneled back into the overall budget of the university, there were some gains for the other athletic programs.
“If you want to look at an infusion of money that did stay within the program, obviously some of our other programs benefitted from the fact that we had additional trainers, sports information people, some facility areas, locker room space, etc., that actually translated into a better situation for some of our other sports,” said Doris.
In addition to intended improvements for Fairfield’s other teams, one unintentional consequence seems to be an increase in participation in other sports, such as rowing and club rugby, from players who may have otherwise played football for the Stags. These improvements have all helped to decrease the disappointment of the community at the decision.
“Obviously, [the reaction] was fairly negative,” said Doris. “Any time [the players’] classmates end up where they no longer have a sport, there is a certain amount of negativity. The one thing that I can say having gone through it is that once the facts were put out, there wasn’t very much negative reaction after people understood why.”
The collapse of football at Fairfield and Canisius, both members of the MAAC, would soon trigger a domino-effect for the other members of the conference. Scheduling games in a cost-effective manner in accordance with NCAA regulations became much more challenging. These factors all contributed to a reduction in the profile of the conference for prospective recruits and a subsequent reduction of the quality of play on the field.
It became inevitable that more programs would fall victim to this mounting pressure, and the next domino to fall after the 2003 season was Siena.
Unlike the discontinuation of other programs before it, the state of the MAAC became one of the driving forces in the decision to end football at Siena. While Canisius and Fairfield sent multiple sports to the chopping block, Siena was able to cut just football, leaving 18 other varsity programs intact.
“We were in the MAAC, where football was not a sport of emphasis,” said Kevin E. Mackin, O.F.M., former president of Siena College from 1996 to 2007 and current president of Mount St. Mary’s College in New York. “Only three schools had it, so we had to compete outside the league and we would have to play teams that were much better, usually scholarship, teams. As a result, we were losing games. So the question came up, why are we continuing a sport in a conference where it is not a sport of emphasis? And why are we getting negative press for the football team losing all the time?”
The decision at Siena was much more than just an athletics matter and was made with input from all levels of administration.
“The athletic department presented the current state of the program, how it compared to the rest of the MAAC in terms of spending, and discussed the issue with the enrollment management office and the development office to understand how the decision would impact their student recruitment and fund-raising efforts,” said John D’Argenio, director of athletics at Siena. “The review was presented to the Trustee Athletic Committee and various scenarios were discussed: how much would it cost to retain football and be competitive?Â What would be the implications of discontinuing the program? That discussion along with a recommendation was brought to the full Board for a vote.”
The decline in the conference had led to a clear decline in the on-field quality of the Saints, including an 0-11 record in the basement of the failing MAAC in their final campaign.
The reaction at Siena was one of the more negative encountered so far, including a brief and unsuccessful organization to reinstate the program. But the movement of funds within the athletic budget has paid off already, highlighted by success such as the advancement of the Saints’ men’s basketball team to a MAAC Championship and upset win over Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last spring.
“We reallocated funds into areas that would impact our student athletes,” said D’Argenio.Â “We increased our student athlete awards program, we used the money to help fund more full time head coaching positions and we used some of the funds to enhance the budgets in our service areas. Approximately $200,000 of college money was redirected to those efforts.”
St. Peter’s College
It would take several years before another MAAC football team was discontinued, but the ax fell again after the 2006 season with the fall of St. Peter’s football.
The difficulties of the conference had become too great to overcome for the Peacocks. With MAAC football barely meeting the minimum requirements set by the NCAA for its conferences, scheduling became increasingly difficult, as the competitiveness of teams in the league waned. Officially, the university cited “concern for its athletes and difficulty remaining competitive,” as well as issues in scheduling and recruiting.
“We had studied the issue of football, and St. Peter’s [had] a long history of football,” said Eileen Poiani, Ph.D., vice president for student affairs at St. Peter’s. “We were studying it because the MAAC unfortunately was deteriorating in terms of football. As the league changed, the number of teams within the sphere of non-scholarship football teams kept decreasing and decreasing and decreasing. Although we did consider joining other leagues, many of those other leagues are those that grant scholarships. We were not in a position to offer scholarships.”
In addition to the problems presented by the conference, St. Peter’s was hampered by a less than ideal situation with respect to the availability of fields and training facilities.
“We did not have a contiguous practice field on campus,” said Poiani. “We bussed our students to a park nearby where they had a practice field. We do not have a stadium; we had to use the high school stadium. The high schools in the area served by that stadium would have first crack at time of when you could have a football game, so scheduling was also an issue.”
These factors led to poor results on the field, as the Peacocks compiled a paltry 6-24 record in their final three seasons. It was not their first instance of difficulty for the program, which was established in 1971, as it had twice been suspended in 1984 and 1988 while still competing in Division III for lack of players. In the 14 years since their ascension to Division I, they had a total record of 38-103.
The discontinuation of football came at a somewhat awkward time for the university, which at the time was in the process of appointing a new president in Eugene Cornacchia, Ph.D.
The decision was one of the first made by him and his administration in his tenure at the school.
But backlash against the choice was limited by the community’s emphasis on other sports, namely basketball, and the subsequent reinvestment of resources into other programs quelled any negativity.
“Although we have a long tradition of football, it has not been the major sport spectators turn out for,” said Poiani. “People really understood [the decision] was not done lightly and it was done with careful study, and that we really thought about it and tried to engage to community to be aware of it, so it tended to be accepted by the community.”
La Salle University
The cascade of dissolving programs in the MAAC claimed another victim in 2007, with La Salle ending its football program in November.
The program had been in existence for 10 years starting in 1997, when it was reinstituted after a hiatus of 56 years. They were faced with being one of only three teams left in the MAAC with the departure of Duquesne to the Northeast Conference, which failed to meet NCAA minimum requirements for a conference.
This decision was not financially motivated, as the program did show stability on and off the field in its existence, including back-to-back winning seasons in 2001 and 2002 to highlight a 35-76 record over its 10 year existence.
But for the Explorers, as with many of their predecessors, the strain of playing a competitive, financially-feasible schedule against teams in a similar situation as themselves became a virtual impossibility under the current circumstances without putting excess strain on the university’s other 19 varsity programs.
“This was a very difficult decision, and I announce it with a real sense of disappointment,” said Tom Brennan, Ed.D., director of athletics and recreation, in the press release from 2007. “However, the steady dissolution of the MAAC Football League and the changing landscape of collegiate football have negatively affected our program and led us to this decision. This decision was not the result of the performance of our team, nor is it a reflection on the team and the young men who have competed for La Salle.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Associate Athletic Director John Lyons, who stressed that the financial aspect of this decision played only a minor role.
“The main issue in discontinuing football was the lack of a league to play in and anyone to play against to play the level of football we wanted to play,” said Lyons. “It wasn’t done for financial reasons. It wasn’t done because we couldn’t afford football anymore; it just didn’t make sense to continue to play football when there wasn’t anyone to play against. We just didn’t have anyone to play against anymore.”
These studies of colleges that have been unable to sustain football paint of bleak picture of the future for schools that just less than two decades ago were regarded as the “big guys” that others schools needed protecting from. Now those same guys are falling by the wayside with alarming frequency.
Of the 10 MAAC schools that started in 1993, six are no longer in existence. Of the four that remain, Duquesne, Georgetown, and Marist have found new leagues (Marist is listed as an Independent for the 2008 season before entering the Pioneer League for 2009). The other team, Iona, is listed as an independent in 2008 and their future plans are uncertain as of yet.
Assessing the college football landscape: football programs a dying breed at small D-1 schools
by Matthew De George, The St. Joe’s Hawk