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More than 20 years later, debate continues at Wichita State
Football was eliminated at Wichita State following the 1986 season and there has been a void on campus and in the community ever since.
Two faculty members who watched the program’s demise offer differing opinions on the subject.
“In the almost 40 years I’ve been around the university, it’s by far the worst mistake the university has made,” said Randy Brown, a professor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State.
Martin Perline, the school’s faculty athletic representative for three decades, does not agree.
“The vast majority of people were just not that interested,” Perline said of interest in the program.
One thing the two do agree on: The program was dropped because it was losing money and games.
The Shockers played at the NCAA Division I level and had the full allotment of 85 football scholarships. Perline said football was a “tremendous financial drain” and estimated it lost in the neighborhood of $1 million in the final season, in which the average attendance was 9,689 at the 30,000-seat Cessna Stadium. The final game drew 4,167.
Wichita State’s final three teams each were 3-8. Following a plane crash in 1970 that killed 31 players, administrators and fans en route to a game at Utah State, the program had two winning records in 16 seasons.
“It was a tremendous financial drain and interest was limited,” Perline said. “When it was dropped, if you were one of the 5,000 people coming to the games, you were probably ticked off (about dropping football). But that’s 5,000 from a community of 500,000.”
Lew Perkins, athletic director at Kansas, was Wichita State’s athletic director when the program was dropped. Perkins, through a Kansas sports information spokesman, declined to comment for this story. But in a news conference at the time of his hiring at KU, he called dropping football at Wichita State “one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make.”
“They’re hard decisions but was the right decision at Wichita State,” he said then. “It was a very difficult time and something that I’m not very proud of. But it was something that had to be done.”
Brown, who worked as managing editor of a Wichita television station in 1986, said he believes Perkins was acting on the orders of Wichita State president Warren Armstrong.
Brown said it was a short-sided decision that has left a void on campus. He said dropping to the I-AA level, like several members of the Missouri Valley Conference, might have been a good move.
But Bob Lutz, longtime sports writer and columnist for the Wichita Eagle, said dropping football seemed like an obvious decision.
“The reaction in the community for WSU football was apathy, and that started long before the program was dropped,” Lutz said. “There weren’t many exciting players and it always seemed as if the program was running uphill.
“I think the decision was well thought out and although it surprised many, I’m sure WSU administrators were calculated and careful in making the decision.”
While there are ongoing movements to bring back Wichita State football, that’s unlikely. The start-up cost, even at the I-AA level, is estimated at several million dollars.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Brown said. “That’s the frustration that continues to this day.”