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"Fragile" College Football: Life After Football - Terrible, Or Just Not So Great?

Yesterday, I attempted to expose one myth: about the supposed guaranteed riches and benefits that await a school like Montana should receive if they go to FBS and a WAC that's currently on life support.  If they want to roll the dice and go ahead, that's fine with me: but do it for the right reasons, and don't intimate that the FCS playoffs system is dying and blame it for all your financial woes.

Today I'm going against the other threat to Football Championship Subdivision: the schools that pick up their ball, their tradition, their scholarships for a bunch of kids who just want to get an education - and pull the plug on the entire program. That's exactly what happened at Northeastern University and Hofstra University this past offseason, and was recently applauded by a reporter at the Boston Globe.

Whenever the subject matter in the larger world of college football turns to TV contracts, larger and larger athletics programs and out-of-control spending, the reaction of some college presidents is to wish to pull the plug on the entire program.

Starting with the actions of one audacious, outspoken college president - John Silber, formerly of Boston University - too many college presidents have followed his lead and pulled the plug on their programs. Not huge college football programs that are the real cause for the issues that plague FBS today, mind you. Pulling the plug on modest sized FCS programs that do a whole lot more educating than creating NFL prospects. (more)



Silber's decision to pull the plug on football happened in 1997, but a worrying number college presidents today clearly subscribe to the same philosophy of strangling their small, FCS-sized football programs. This Boston Globe article from last week does a great job of perpetrating the same Silber-era fiction of the "savings" and "reintroduction of moral fiber to the institution" that football, apparently, introduced to their campuses:

For Northeastern, life after football is good. Very good.

There has been little or no blowback from alumni or students, as money once spent on football now serves other campus goals. In fact, the number of donors is up (from 19,559 to 21,797) as is the number of applicants (37,693 for 2,800 spots), and the stature of the university continues to rise.

No one is claiming these advances are happening because football is gone. But what is drawing the attention of other institutions across the country is how painless it proved to do what once seemed out of the question — eliminating the one sport that, for many colleges and universities, is considered key to catalyzing school spirit, motivating donors, and building a winning identity.

How the Globe or anyone else can make a judgement on how the "stature" of Northeastern has "risen" in the nine months since dropping football is beyond me - and "reporting" that an increased number of donations during a time when Northeastern still had football (it would have to be, if their unnamed "numbers" are from the 2009-2010 school year) would simply be funny if folks weren't reading this trashy, unsubstantiated crap disguising itself as reporting and accepting it as fact.

Unfortunately, this is just yet another case of folks getting the facts wrong about the costs of football and its impact on the university.

*****

Flash back to November 1997, and this gem from Sports Illustrated: Boston University's lame-duck football team shows its lame-brain chancellor true grit"

Boston University played football for 91 years before some astute administrators discovered two very disturbing facts about the game:

1) It costs money.
2) Women don't play it.

Armed with such damaging revelations, high-ranking school officials suggested last month that the board of trustees eliminate the sport. A vote was taken. The plug was pulled on the football program, and part of a university died. On Oct. 25, immediately following a 28-7 loss to Northeastern in BU's homecoming game, the Terriers' players and their parents were told that football was dead. The 1997 season would be the last for the Division I-AA BU, which was 12-1 just four years ago. "Basically they looked at the bottom line and made a coldhearted business decision," said Terriers strong safety and co-captain Randy Smith. "College football isn't supposed to be just another coldhearted business."

While it has enjoyed considerable success over the years, the Boston University football program couldn't escape the crosshairs of chancellor John Silber, an arrogant little despot who can't handle the fact that Howard Stern is BU's most accomplished alumnus. When Silber arrived at the school in 1970, he wanted to eliminate the football program. Last month, as the Terriers struggled (they are 2-18 in the last two seasons), he finally succeeded. "University of Paris, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge have gotten along remarkably well and never had football," Silber was quoted as saying in the The Daily Free Press, BU's student paper.

Silber became Boston University's president in 1970, and almost from the outset he wanted to disband the Terrier's then-62 year old football program. From the man himself, thanks to a PBS Newshour transcript:

In 1973, I thought that football was finished at Boston University. I would ask every incoming class: How many of you have seen a football game? A certain number would hold up their hands. How many of you have gone to a concert? More hands would go up among freshmen at Boston University who had seen a concert, or seen a theater production, a professional theater production, than had ever seen a football game. Now, that wouldn't be true if you asked a freshman class at the University of Texas or at Ohio State or at Michigan. But that's true of Boston University.

There were more subtle, less obvious ways Silber tried to kill football. Boston University's football team used to play at Nickerson Field, once the home of MLB's Boston Braves, the AFL's Boston Patriots, and even when the Pats became a part of the NFL, they still used the field as a practice home. But after two major upgrades to the field in 1968 and 1969 - where Nickerson field became only the second field in America to install artificial turf and four light towers from the Boston Braves days were dismantled - Nickerson field was largely untouched from 1970 until the program was disbanded.

Every quote you find from Silber, like the one above, seemed designed to cheapen football, while coming up with ridiculous exercises like the one above to gauge public interest in the football team. (For example, why not make an anonymous survey instead of a public Q&A?) Another misleading statistic was about the perceived greatness of the hockey program over the football program:

We have to pay attention to where the fans are. Eighty thousand fans see our hockey games in a year. Ten thousand see a football game. So why should we be devoting all of that money to a sport that interests so few?

What he neglected to mention was: hockey has eighteen home games during the regular season, and the Boston Beanpot local tournament as a part of that metric. Granted - hockey was, and is, more popular than football at Boston University. But when you compare attendances to five, maybe six, home football games a year (with many of them being, presumably, season-ticket holders), and any fool can tell you that hockey will outdraw football. Given those rules, I'd be willing to bet that Boston College hockey "outdraws" their ACC football program, too.

And - of course - Title IX was also floated as a reason to drop the program as well:

When you consider that you've got to have 63 scholarships for football and very expensive equipment and every expensive facilities, it skews the entire athletic budget unless it's a money-making program. If it's not a money-making program, if you're losing $2.9 million a year on it, where are you going to find the $2.9 million to put into women's athletics? It's not in the cards. So it's better to be able to spend that money by creating more scholarships in the women's sport.

It is here - in this seemingly innocuous statement - that Mr. Silber's poison has truly taken hold. It is the ill-conceived idea that athletics needs to be a "money-making program" to be worthwhile to the student-athletes. It's an idea that has been warped for all sorts of bad ends - to college presidents who dream of their teams being money-making operations to college presidents who abhor the idea - and thus, kill their small, cost-containment football programs that haven't ever dreamed of chasing BCS money.

(It's amusing to think what other collegiate endeavors might apply to the "money-making" criteria. The philosiphy department? The English department? By these metrics, they should be dropped since they're not "making money". "Why should we subsidize these students that just end up as roadies at Phish concerts?")

For Mr. Silber, it was a long, hard, 27-year fight, but after years of pushing his anti-football agenda, he finally succeeded. And by announcing the decision in the middle of the school year, kids left the program, leaving the team severely short-handed, with about 40 players to finish the season:

Boston University played its final game against James Madison severely short-handed. Several players left the team soon after the decision to drop football was announced. So when quarterback Dan Hanafin left the game with an injury, Coach Tom Masella had no choice but to send in a wide receiver, Damon Mickel, to run the team. The team's effort was valiant. Down twenty-four to nothing at half-time, the BU Terriers rallied for two touchdowns in the second half. However, in the language of sports cliches it was too little, too late.

The Boston University student newspaper adds more:

After the announcement that the team would be cut, the players reacted with anger. The next game, they covered up all the BU logos on their uniforms and wore blank jerseys — donated by alumni — in protest.

Before the [final home] game, former Director of Athletics John Simpson addressed the team and worked them into a frenzy. Simpson read from a Free Press interview with Silber in which he called the players “small boys” for wanting to cover up the BU logos on their uniforms. Cox said, if not everyone, a strong majority of players were crying during Simpson’s speech.
On the second play of the game, BU running back Roger Harriott broke a 67-yard touchdown run, and the Terriers went on to win, 33-8, their only win of the season, against the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

None of the seven players interviewed for this story believe the official reason for cutting the football team was ever announced. All spoke of a betrayal by BU.

“I know why they said they cut the team,” Roundtree says. “There’s a big push for women’s athletics. I’m not going to mince my words. Who at BU cares about sports except the other athletes? How many students at this school go to sporting events? There isn’t much interest other than hockey here.

“It’s depressing. They said there’s a lack of student interest. In that case, why not cut every sport except hockey and men’s basketball? I don’t look at books. I didn’t notice that many changes. There were no new teams. Some teams got more scholarships. I don’t think they were up front about it. Now that I’m leaving, I’ll say it. I think it was someone’s agenda.”

“I can see the way money plays a part in the way BU does a lot of things, and I think that was a big reason,” Ceballos said. “I think [Chancellor John] Silber has some of his own motives. BU makes enough money to support itself. I think football is something you should have in any Division I college.”

Once football was out of the way, Boston University did indeed spend money to get into Title IX compliance. Matter of fact, they spend an eye-popping $7 million on women's scholarships in 2009 - way more than they needed to get into compliance.  It could have been a result of the fact that they were one of fifteen schools sued by a Title IX activist group in the mid-1990s, but nobody will ever call them out of compliance now.  (Matter of fact - they could probably reinstitute football tomorrow and still, quite possibly, be in compliance.)

Some of that money for scholarships, certainly, is generated through a $275 per-semester student fee, and a $350 "sports pass" that gives students a chance to attend Terrier sporting events for free. But there's institutional support - a whole lot of it - coming from the university, unless you believe from the EADA reports that women's athletics are generating $9.5 million dollars in revenue last year. From a school that made the definition of a successful sports program that it had to "make money", it's especially rich.

It's not like to other use of that money was to put it in a "lockbox", either - they instead splurged on real estate, creating a brand-new athletics center and luxury dorm project, called the John Hancock Student Village. Called "perhaps the most opulent residence hall to ever grace the local college landscape" by the Boston Globe, this gigantic project, including the 7,200 seat Agganis Center hockey and basketball arena, named after Boston University graduate (and former Red Sox star) Harry Agganis, cost $225 million dollars. Phase II, which was rolled out at pretty much the height of the real estate boom, finished finally in 2009, with the last phase still to come.

(If Silber thought that funds from football were going to pay for this pricey palace of a dorm - which can cost graduates more than $3,000 extra per semester to live there - he was wrong. Despite getting a check for $40 million from John Hancock Insurance to name the student village, the loans to create the center, in the form of bonds, are still not paid off.)

The irony of Agganis, a two-sport star in two sports (football and baseball) that are no longer played at Boston University, naming an arena primarily dedicated to hockey is lost on no one. What is lost on a lot of people is that the piddly cost of maintaining football at BU over this time - generously estimated by me at $2 million a year, or a whopping $26 million for 13 years - only would have been a tiny fraction of the cost of this endeavor.

If the "students should have beauty" - the words of Kenneth Elmore, dean of students at BU - that's one thing. But it's quite another when Silber, the guy, remember, who killed football at BU, got a golden parachute from BU that might make some Wall Street banker jealous. Called "deferred compensation", he cashed a check for $6.1 million for a variety of incentives. Aside from a bevy of other goodies - for example, rent-free accommodations in his $300,000 home in Boston - in addition, he made $1 million per year the two previous years - after he had already retired.

To think. Some of that cash could have gone towards, say, allowing some kid that plays football to attend Boston University. On the one hand, your money goes towards giving a kid an opportunity to get a great education. On the other, your dough gets President Silber another ivory backscratcher. Your call as to the better choice.

Better yet, with a football team they wouldn't even need to construct a stadium to play games.  The John Hancock Student Village already overlooks it.

*****

Apparently, it's the Silber playbook that Northeastern president Joseph Aoun has been pulling from when he made the decision to drop Husky football this year.

“Because we had clarity of vision, we dropped football,’’ said Northeastern president Joseph Aoun. “The community has ultimately been better off because we are seeking the best in terms of the student experience. And with respect to football, it was not optimal.’’

(Excuse me - better off? Remember, it's been less than ten months since Northeastern dropped football.  I don't think there's a human being alive that can make that judgement this early.)

But let's continue:

After Northeastern ended its 74-year football tradition, Aoun received calls and e-mails from several university presidents congratulating him and saying they were considering the same course. Aoun recently penned an article describing the process for The Presidency, a magazine aimed at college presidents, because other institutions wanted a playbook for discontinuing football and saw Northeastern as a possible model. As Northeastern did, those schools spend between $3 million and $5 million annually on the sport for equipment, scholarships, travel, coaches’ salaries, and facilities and their teams generate little interest on campus or success on the field.

Oddly enough, my subscription to The Presidency must have been cancelled, perhaps after I fired this angry rant after Hofstra's program followed Northeastern into non-existence.  (I can only dream what articles this magazine must have: How To Still Use Your Lear Jet - And Still Claim You're"Green!"  Getting By On Only $800,000 A Year!  Selling Austerity - How Galas Get By On Domestic Champagne!)

But this broad paragraph, while technically true, lies by omitting certain key facts.

FCS schools do spend $3 million to $5 million on their football programs. But the expenses are not divided equally between scholarships, travel, coaches' salaries and facilities. The great majority of the money goes towards scholarships. For example, Hofstra's $4.5 million "expense" for football was mostly $2.5 million of scholarship "expenses" - in other words, more than half the entire expenditure of the program. And these scholarships are going partially or entirely to the education of students - some of whom couldn't afford going to the school otherwise. (Isn't this the mission of universities - to educate?)

So let's say that this money instead is put back into the main scholarship pool. This money will go towards all students now - unless the goal is to replace the one hundred or so football players with more well-to-do, less diverse (since, frequently, the football team is the most diverse athletic team on campus), less needy students.

If it's all about saving money, the plan has to be to make the student body less diverse and less needy - the only case in which there is significant scholarship cost savings in dropping football, since "needy" students would be replaced with "not-needy" students (probably students that are whiter and richer, too). Either that, or else the university will use those funds to target diverse students that need financial aid - in which case there will be no savings.

In Hofstra's case, after subtracting the $2.5 million in scholarship money, the remaining $2 million in expenses were not simply a check made out from the university, either. There are revenues - sponsorships, ticket sales, athletics partnerships. Perhaps they don't total the $2 million - but they don't total $4.5 million per year as far as the eye can see, either.

That doesn't include the "indirect giving" that occurs because alums return to campus during homecoming, when they make their subconscious decision to donate back to the school that they love.  It fosters a connection to the school - an afternoon, or an entire day - where alums are connected once again to their alma maters.  It just doesn't happen at a lacrosse game, no matter how many college presidents would rather that be the case.

Not all revenue generators are obvious.

Back to the world of Northeastern:

In a two-year review of university athletics started in 2007, difficult questions about football kept surfacing. The status quo $3.5 million spent on a team that, in its final season, won three games and drew an average of 1,600 fans for home games was not an option. To be competitive in recruiting and retaining talent, the university determined it needed to either upgrade Parsons Field or build a new stadium.

The price tag for better facilities: $20 million to $60 million. Was such an investment in one sport in the best interest of the broader institution? For Roby and others immersed in the issue, the answer that emerged was no.

On its own, sure, Northeastern couldn't get the funds to get better facilities on its own very easily. However, they could have had it easily had MLS owner Robert Kraft had gotten his wish to create Revolution stadium right next to Northeastern's campus:

Following the lead of other Major League Soccer clubs, the Kraft family wants to build a 20,000- to 30,000-seat soccer stadium - possibly in an industrial no man's land that Somerville leaders want to turn into a vibrant commercial and residential district - and move the Revolution from Gillette Stadium, also owned by the Kraft Group, said Stacey James, a Kraft spokesman.

The stadium in Somerville would be a perfect place for the MLS' Revolution to play - in a town where soccer is a big deal - but it also is fairly close to Northeastern, who could have entered an agreement with Kraft to use the venue for football and soccer games. (According to a more recent article, the Kraft group is still pushing for a stadium here.) But reportedly another site that was considering this stadium was none other than Northeastern, which would have given a big-time stadium close to campus.

This inconvenient truth really throws a wrench in the Globe's article that athletic director Peter Roby is trying to run up the flagpole - that it was a choice between Northeastern paying $3.5 million every year as well as $60 million extra to spruce up their field (admittedly, their field, Parsons field, was one of the worst in all of FCS), and dropping football. That's false. With Kraft reportedly ready to build an MLS stadium - and apparently, also, willing to let Northeastern rent out the facility in a total win-win for both parties - this was about something else entirely.

But these facts didn't stop Joseph Aoun for patting himself on the back for having the "clarity of vision" to drop football. (Too bad I didn't forget any of those facts).

*****

Unlike the Montana issue, where an athletic director oversells the benefits of chasing the money, the problem the other direction comes from overselling the costs of having a cost-containment program.

Critics tend to look at the EADA report, and read: "Expenses: $5 million. That means if we stop football, we save $5 million!" But life is not so simple.

The lion's share of that money is for scholarships to educate kids on the most diverse team on your campus. Boston University might like having an African-American enrollment rate of 2%, but you might not.

While revenues don't always equal costs, it's not to say there are no revenues.

And it's not like those schools are in this to become the next Boise State and crash the BCS. Most of these kids know what they're getting into: they're getting good educations paid for in order to play football. They graduate, and don't play on Sundays. Some might - to the shock of folks like John Silber, who would rather have another ivory backscratcher - even become productive members of society.

And there are interesting methods in order to get the benefits a football program can provide - a rallying point for alumni, a richer undergraduate experience, bands playing at halftime, the works - that with a little patience, creativity, or both, can materialize.

Football is worth saving - especially at the FCS level, where costs are contained to a very large degree and it doesn't break the bank. And despite what anyone else tries to sell you, it's a worthwhile experience on your campus, especially at the cost-containment FCS level. Boston University's and Northeastern's campuses are poorer because they don't have football.

Comments

Matt McSorley said…
You clearly have never been to Boston and don't understand the landscape BU and NU exist in.
First off, Somerville is not "close to campus." In Boston terms, it's nowhere near campus. Two miles in Boston is a damn sight different from two miles in rural Pennsylvania. Few BU and NU students keep cars on campus because of the expense, the hassle, and the fact that public transportation is so available. To get from NU's campus to the Somerville site would take close to an hour and a change of subway trains. Students simply would not trek out to Somerville to watch football games against Rhode Island, New Hampshire, etc., just as they didn't trek a mile out to Brookline to see games at Parsons Field.
Second, Boston is a pro sports market. The average fan pays no attention to any of the college teams (BC seldom sells out for football or basketball, and is NEVER talked about on local radio) and especially not second-level football. That leaves students and alumni to fill the seats, and frankly most New Englanders would rather spend their Saturdays with the family, doing yardwork, etc. and then watch the Patriots on Sunday.
FCS football might be a great thing in a lot of places, but in Boston it's simply a waste of resources. I'm a BU grad and wasn't pleased when BU dropped its program, but the decision made sense. In a market like Boston, the university would have had to go to the FBS to make football viable, and there really isn't the appetite in Boston for another FBS program in the way of ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, etc.

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