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FCS Football To Return to Vermont?
BURLINGTON — The University of Vermont last played a varsity football game in 1974. The century-old football stadium is now used only for soccer. And the football conference Vermont belonged to has disbanded.
Doug DeLuca knew all of this when he enrolled as a freshman at Vermont in the fall of 2006. A high school wide receiver who did not want to give up the game, DeLuca figured he would just start a club football team at Vermont.
He faced a skeptical university administration, whose permission he needed to use the school colors and logo. He had to raise about $35,000 for equipment. He had to negotiate a million-dollar insurance policy and find opponents, coaches, trainers and a place to play and practice. Oh, and he had to find about 50 football players.
But in a sterling example of the entrepreneurial spirit fueling a nationwide boom in college club sports, DeLuca succeeded in fielding a Vermont tackle football team in only a year’s time.
In September 2007, 50 players wearing pristine uniforms similar to those worn by the 1974 Vermont Catamounts football team ran onto a high school field 2 miles from campus.
About 2,000 fans, some with their chests and faces painted green and gold, the school colors, watched the game. Vermont’s club team of former high school players with no college football experience — led by a head coach found on Facebook — defeated the Vermont Ravens, a semipro team.
“I had a vision and that was it,” DeLuca said in October, looking back on the team’s first home game. “I never understood why we couldn’t do it.”
Vermont is not the only university or college with a club football team; there are many others, especially in the Midwest. But the likelihood that there would ever be football again at Vermont was particularly remote. Vermont is one of two states — Alaska is the other — that does not have a single state university playing Division I football. And after more than 30 years, there was hardly a public outcry among Vermonters to bring back the sport.
The resurrection of Vermont football is a modern-day club sports tale because it used the Internet — a Web site, Facebook, e-mail — and because it revolved around the irrepressible force of one committed individual.
This fall, Vermont’s club football team branched out to play junior varsity teams from New England colleges, along with two games against semipro teams. The step up in talent level led to the club team’s losing its five games against the J.V. squads from National Collegiate Athletic Association-affiliated colleges like Williams, Dartmouth and Bates.
Dartmouth Coach Buddy Teevens was so impressed with the enthusiasm and passion of the Vermont players that he promised to aid their effort by shipping extra equipment and blocking sleds to the team.
Most of this year’s opponents have agreed to play Vermont again next season.
“I admire the Vermont players because they appreciate just being on the field,” Teevens said. “During the game, their kicker kept coming to our sideline to borrow a tee to kick off because he didn’t have one. Finally, I said: ‘Here, take this tee and keep it. We have four or five.’
“You should have seen his face. It was like I gave him a million bucks.”
Starting from scratch
Two years ago, when Robert Corran, Vermont’s athletic director, first heard that a student was talking about reviving football, he thought it would be a struggle.
“I remember somebody asked me if we had any football equipment left,” Corran, a former football player and coach, said. “And I said: ‘Not anything you’d want. They don’t use single-bar face masks anymore.’
“We all figured this is going be pretty tough for someone to pull off. It’s not like starting just any club sport; this is tackle football. It’s costly. But at that point we didn’t know Doug DeLuca.”
DeLuca, who is from Westport, Conn., had been e-mailing students across the campus and attending club and intramural games trying to recruit athletic men who might have played high school football — and might want to play again.
Using fliers and text messages, he promoted and advertised an informational meeting. He was encouraged when 35 men showed up. Now he had allies to help him post more fliers on campus and to talk up the budding club team. The number swelled to 45.
DeLuca applied to the student government, which controlled more than $1 million for various on-campus clubs and activities. He located a list of football alumni and reached out to them for help. He created a Web site so all the interested parties would have a place to communicate. Then DeLuca created a football booster club, whose membership fees paid for a newsletter, promotional materials and season tickets.
The student government promised $11,000 and an alumnus donated $18,000 to pay for new helmets.
“That was huge,” DeLuca said.
Next, DeLuca worked the online social network Facebook and found a coach who had a modern college playbook and was willing to coach Vermont’s team. DeLuca worked out an agreement to play games at a nearby high school on Sundays when the field was not being used.
Practices would be on the university rugby team’s practice area, or on a wide, mostly flat quad behind some academic buildings.
A final obstacle
Everything was moving forward until university officials reminded DeLuca that his team would need a million-dollar insurance policy and certified athletic trainers to attend practices and games. It took a few months, but with the administration’s assistance he negotiated a deal on the insurance and found two recent Vermont graduates who were athletic trainers and would work for a discounted rate, $25 an hour.
Each player was charged $175 for his equipment. A Northeast semipro league agreed to work Vermont into its schedule. DeLuca and his associates arranged for referees, concessions and parking attendants on game days.
Eventually, Vermont’s club team was practicing. They did not have a locker room, so the players often had to bring their helmet and pads to afternoon classes so they could take them directly to the practice field. (They dressed as discreetly as possible behind trees or in the woods.)
At practices, more players were recruited spontaneously because every few days someone would walk up and ask, “What is this?” Some had a football background and some did not, but over time about 55 players paid their $175.
In the week before the first home game, groups of players went from dormitory to dormitory handing out fliers about the new team and its opening game. Shuttle bus service was arranged from campus to the high school field. General admission was $5, and students were free.
“Then we were on the field playing a real game with all these people watching,” DeLuca said. “It was amazing.”
Vermont won 6 of 10 games in 2007.
This season it had a record of 2-5. The team is hoping to lengthen the schedule next year, and will enter 2009 with a surplus of more than $8,000.
Vermont athletic officials, whose varsity teams play in NCAA Division I, have been emphatic that the club team is not and never will be a precursor to varsity football. But they have been heartened by the club’s progress.
“It’s filled a void and been a service to the student body,” Corran said. “We can’t do anything but applaud their efforts.”
Planning for the Future
At a football practice in October, when the sideline was scattered with textbooks and street clothes, and one player had tied his dog to a tree, DeLuca explained how he has planned for the transfer of leadership once he graduates in 2010. Four vice presidents have been appointed, all of them sophomores, to divide the duties DeLuca now handles.
“We needed four guys to replace Doug,” said David Motherway, who was an assistant coach last season and head coach this year. “But I see a bright future for the team he started. There are a lot of Vermont high school football players who leave the state to play college football. If we can just keep some of them with us, we can be competitive.”
Most students on this campus of roughly 9,500 undergraduates seem aware of the club football team. But most have not attended a game.
“I would probably go to their games if they played on Saturdays,” Brian Samuels, a sophomore from Chicago, said as he threw a football around with his dorm mates.
“Most college students get up late on Sundays and then watch the NFL all day.”
DeLuca said he was working on moving games to a site that was available on Saturdays. The players believe that in time the students will embrace the football team.
“It’s like we tell people who ask us, ‘We’re not the club football team on campus, we’re the only football team on campus,’” said Tim Snow, a tight end from Charlotte.
Meanwhile, Teevens said he hoped Vermont’s experience would lead other institutions that once had varsity football teams, like Boston University, to start club teams. Or perhaps other smaller area colleges would do it.
“They could form their own little league and I would play every one of them,” Teevens said.
It was a notion that pleased DeLuca.
“That would be perfect,” he said. “I could come back for a homecoming football game.”
Football returns to Vermont
By Bill Pennington, The New York Times c/o The Rutland Herald (VT)
Photo Credit: Kyle Martel/The Argus Times