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Changes put UNH sports in tough spot
On a Saturday afternoon in 2002, a sportswriter walked into the office of University of New Hampshire Athletic Director Marty Scarano and asked a simple question: Is football still relevant at UNH?
Earlier that afternoon less than 1,500 fans had turned out to see a Wildcats team that had been struggling for a few years. People were already wondering if Sean McDonnell, who succeeded Bill Bowes as head coach in 1999, was the right man for the job.
Although the question was the last one Scarano wanted to hear that day, he admitted it was a legitimate one. Football is a huge expense for a school like UNH, the proverbial “1,000-pound gorilla,’’ as Scarano put it in an interview last week.
The current football budget tops $2 million and the 63 full scholarships the school needs to stay competitive in its conference have huge implications for the rest of the athletic program.
Because of Title IX, UNH needs to balance the football scholarships throughout its women’s programs. And because the total enrollment at UNH is 55 percent women, women must get the same percentage of scholarships to stay in compliance.
Other schools, including former UNH opponents Vermont, Boston University, Northeastern and Hofstra, decided the costs of football outweighed the benefits and dropped the sport.
Was UNH headed toward the same decision? Scarano is a self-avowed football guy who began his administrative career working events as his alma mater, Penn State. At Penn State football not only pays for itself but generates enough revenue to keep the entire athletic budget afloat.
That wasn’t going to happen at UNH, and Scarano knew if the football program wasn’t successful, fingers would be pointed in its direction.
“If we were 2-9 and not drawing good crowds,’’ Scarano said, “I’m not sure how I would defend it.’’
It’s easy to speculate about what might have happened to football at UNH, but one man wouldn’t let it happen.
It might be too simple to say McDonnell saved football at the school. He would no doubt deflect much of the praise to his assistant coaches and players who helped him turn the program around. The support of Scarano and others in the administration was also a key factor.
But the bottom line is McDonnell has been the guiding force behind a team that has made seven straight post-season appearances, more than any school in the country in its division. After going 23-33 in McDonnell’s first five years, UNH is 47-25 since.
On the field, football is alive and well at UNH. The stadium and other facilities are among the worst in the country for a Division I program, but McDonnell has certainly made the program relevant to both UNH students and alumni.
When the Wildcats played the University of Massachusetts at Gillette Stadium last fall, 32,000 fans showed up, more than half of them supporting UNH.
There’s no question McDonnell can coach. There’s no question he can recruit, selling the school’s academic reputation and his program’s success, while asking prospective players to overlook the stadium and creature comforts at competing schools.
“We’re very fortunate that he’s still here,’’ Scarano said. “I’ve gone on record saying Sean is irreplaceable. He understands the place like no one can and found, miraculously, a way to make it work here.
“I think I’m a pretty good athletic director, but I would be hard pressed to find someone to replace him.’’
But there are problems with UNH football that McDonnell and Scarano can do nothing about, like finding enough nearby opponents. When Hofstra and Northeastern both dropped the sport following the 2009 season, it was a blow to the Wildcats because each was an opponent in the Colonial Athletic Association within driving distance.
A few weeks ago, longtime rival UMass announced that it was upgrading its program to Football Bowl Subdivision status, ending years of speculation that it would do just that.
Another traditional UNH rival, the University of Rhode Island, is heading in another direction, moving down to the 40-scholarship Northeast Conference with the likes of Bryant and Sacred Heart. Villanova, another “Northern’’ CAA member, is attempting to join the Big East.
All the movement leaves UNH with a lot of long road trips, if it chooses to stay in the highly competitive, but more and more Southern based, CAA. So far, Maine remains in the CAA, but you have to wonder about its future plans if the nearest school, besides UNH, turns out to be Delaware in a couple of years.
While New England schools break from the CAA, two other Southern schools, Georgia State and Old Dominion, are about to join. The bottom line is, the CAA is coming unaffordable for teams like UNH and Maine.
Scarano says it costs, on average, between $35-40,000 to take his team and staff, about 90 people, to a road game in a Mid-Atlantic state, where much of the current CAA schools are based. But costs continue to rise with the price of air fares.
When UNH’s football future was in doubt 10 years ago, one very ambitious coach was able to turn things around. The current dilemma facing the Wildcats is a lot more perplexing.
“We talk with Maine all the time,’’ Scarano said, “and we’re very like minded. We have work to do, but we want to stay in the CAA and rebuild the Northern Division. We just need to find teams.’’
If it can’t, would UNH consider shedding some scholarships and moving down to the Northeast Conference? They would, in effect, be giving up any realistic chance at a national title. Then you’d have to wonder if the Northeast Conference, which schools like URI joined in part to stay competitive, would welcome UNH.
The budget crunch
While the school’s football future is a big challenge, so is paying the bills. Scarano says the state’s current financial crisis, which will likely affect his budget, is nothing new.
“I came in 2000 and we had to cut budgets,’’ Scarano said. “There have been cuts every year since I’ve been here.’’
The most painful came five years ago when four sports – men’s and women’s tennis, women’s crew and men’s swimming – all lost varsity status.
But fund-raising efforts have allowed the school to make improvements in tough times, including the renovation of the indoor track and Lundholm Gymasium and the installation of field turf in Cowell Stadium.
While the dream is still to find the $25-35 million necessary to completely rebuild Cowell Stadium, just adding lights and additional bathroom facilities would make it possible for UNH to play night games and, a Scarano priority, host NHIAA football championships.
“Our objective is to have every NHIAA football championship here,’’ Scarano said.
Proud of his programs
While football and men’s hockey draw most of the outside interest in UNH athletics, Scarano likes what’s happening in other sports and in his program in general.
Scarano still believes Bill Herrion, about to enter his seventh year as the men’s basketball coach, is the right man to build a successful program. His teams have gone 69-107 so far.
“Bill is doing a hell of a job, slowly, and it’s glacial, changing the culture,’’ Scarano said. “We didn’t have a culture here, now we do.
“Without injuries, they would have challenged for a league title last year.’’
Scarano is very happy at what he’s seen, so far, from women’s basketball coach Maureen Magarity, who was the youngest Division I coach in the country, men or women, when she took over the job last winter.
But when it’s all said and done, Scarano believes, it all comes down to football.
“The fact is, it drives a lot of things culturally,’’ Scarano said. “A successful football program sets the tone for the entire athletic program.
“When it comes to mobilizing alumni, friends and benefactors, nothing duplicates it. Hockey doesn’t duplicate it.’’
On the field, UNH football couldn’t be stronger. Off the field, UNH would love to control its destiny, but there are limits. Because it is a football-only member of the CAA, it can’t ever vote on which schools are allowed to join the league.
And it’s what’s happening off the field that has a cloud hovering over Cowell Stadium.
By GARY FITZ, Nashua Telegraph