Adding Football Saved One College. Dumping It Boosted Another.

January 3, 2020

This article is from the New York Times. 

PAXTON, Mass. — On a sunny Saturday this fall at Anna Maria College in central Massachusetts, 100 football players charged onto a campus field in front of cheering students and alumni.

It was a traditional autumn scene, except, in Anna Maria’s case, it was a fairly new one. Ten years ago, the college added a football program. Ever since, officials at Anna Maria have gleefully watched enrollment balloon, tuition revenue swell by almost $2 million a year and campus morale spike as pregame tailgates flourish.

“We’re not just a sleepy little school,” said Mary Lou Retelle, Anna Maria’s president. “There’s life.”

On the same afternoon, 60 miles away in Boston, what had been the football stadium for Northeastern University was idle and unoccupied. In 2009, months after Anna Maria began playing football, Northeastern stopped, eliminating its 74-year-old program. In the decade since, Northeastern has basked in its success, with applications nearly doubling, research funding almost tripling and the institution’s ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s best colleges list jumping to 40 from 96.

Football is hardly missed.

How could both experiences with the sport, at schools so close to one another but philosophically so far apart, be true?

This weekend, the national semifinals of the College Football Playoff, featuring Clemson, Ohio State, Louisiana State and Oklahoma, are at the center of this universe. But the story that most accurately reflects the state of the game can be found in Massachusetts, where the dichotomy of thought about football’s place in higher education is evident.

The disparate experiences of Anna Maria and Northeastern reflect many of the arguments occurring on campuses over whether to drop or continue football.

America has a long, complicated relationship with college football, which can be hailed as a panacea for flagging revenues and gender imbalances at one college and shunned as an unwanted headache at another. By certain metrics, football is in decline. High school participation nationally has dropped 10 percent in the past decade. During that time, 23 colleges across all divisions have dropped football.

But in roughly the same period, 66 institutions have added football, including several in Division I. Seven more will begin programs by 2022. The number of schools playing college football, in fact, is at a high: 775, according to the National Football Foundation, with 39 percent of the new programs in Florida, Texas, Michigan and Georgia. Still, every region of the country, from the Pacific Northwest to the Carolinas to New England, is well represented.

“To students deciding whether to apply here, having football makes Anna Maria a real college,” Retelle said earlier this year at a home game, which typically draws about 1,000 fans.

On the bustling Northeastern campus in Boston, football is a memory never revived.

“Honestly, I’ve never heard anyone asking to bring back football,” said Joseph E. Aoun, the president of Northeastern since 2006. “No one.”

For Kevin Supan, a tackle at Anna Maria, football is the only reason he is in college at all.

“I would be back in my hometown mowing lawns right now, if not for Anna Maria football,” Supan, a junior from Monroe, Conn., said.

Like many Anna Maria players, he had never heard of the college until he got an email from Dan Mulrooney, the head football coach. Supan eagerly drove the two hours to Anna Maria’s campus, outside Worcester, with his father, Jim, a middle school custodian, and his mother, Joann, a school secretary.

“I was heartbroken that my high school football career had ended,” Supan said. “But here was this place that could fix that.”

The fact is young men like Supan who are leaving high school will pay to keep playing the game. Earning a college degree becomes a substantial bonus. Not insignificantly, they also boost the institution’s number of male applicants.

In 2008, Anna Maria’s enrollment was 800 students. Although it began admitting male students in 1973, nearly 70 percent of the student body remained female. The first football recruiting class was 75 players for the inaugural season in 2009. The team did not win a game that season and has had 11 losing seasons in a row. Yet the number of male applicants rose immediately, even when football recruits were excluded. Enrollment is now roughly 950 students, and the campus is virtually 50 percent male.

From year to year, there are 100 to 110 football players on the roster who, after need-based financial aid from the college, pay an average of $20,000 in tuition and board. The football program expenses, including coaching salaries, equipment and staff, is roughly $425,000. The math of football’s worth is simple: a net gain for Anna Maria of $1.5 million to $1.8 million. Since Anna Maria plays in Division III, the N.C.A.A.’s lowest, and largest, level of competition, athletic scholarships are prohibited.

Also, more than half of the team is African-American and enhances Anna Maria’s diversity, which makes it easier to recruit more students of color.

Supan, who is 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, acknowledged that the team had an outsize role on campus.

“Obviously, you can’t miss us,” he said. “We’re active; we want to be visible.”

An important goal for the football program was to induce more students to live on the 190-acre campus and remain there on weekends to help foster a greater sense of community. It’s working.

“Everybody stays on campus for Friday nights before games, which are pretty crazy,” said Alice Yokabaskas, a freshman from Boothbay Harbor, Maine. “There’s a buzz all weekend with alumni coming back and setting up tents to barbecue. Imagine if the team was undefeated or something?”

Football’s documented association with brain trauma is not a regular topic at Anna Maria, but it has not been disregarded.

“I would expect as the decades go on that the landscape for football will change,” Retelle said. “For now, we take every strict precaution to make sure our students remain healthy for the short term and the long term.”

Standing outside the Anna Maria locker room last month, Supan, 20, said his only concern about the sport is that one day there will be no more football for him. “There’s a lot of talk about head injuries, and I’ve seen neighboring towns where I grew up shut down youth football programs, which truly makes me sad,” he said. “Some of us owe so much to football.”

Supan is a fire science major, preparing for a career in fire and emergency services.

“My G.P.A. in high school was a 1-something and my G.P.A. right now is a 3-something,” he said. “I’m going to be the first in my family to get a college degree. That’s amazing to me, and that’s because of football.”

On Nov. 22, 2009, Peter Roby, then Northeastern’s athletic director, entered a room occupied by roughly 70 football players. Security officials stood watch. Roby, a former Harvard basketball coach, never needed the protection, but his announcement left many players crying and others cursing in his direction.

“There is not a script to follow for dropping football,” Roby said last month, reflecting on the decision 10 years ago. “We’re socialized to appreciate the fact that football is a big deal. It’s usually the king of the campus.

“Afterward, plenty of people sent emails saying: ‘How can you expect to be a great university if you don’t offer football?’”

Other college presidents overwhelmed Aoun, the Northeastern president, with phone calls and emails. “Everyone wanted to know how we did it,” said Aoun, who wrote about the experience for an education magazine, “The Presidency.”

In some quarters, abandoning Northeastern’s Division I football remains a sore spot, even a decade later.

“It felt like a betrayal; we had been reassured we would finish our careers there,” Conor Gilmartin-Donohue, a junior tight end in 2009, said in an interview last month.

Gilmartin-Donohue transferred to North Texas, and after one final year of football, returned to earn his Northeastern degree (the university paid for any football player choosing to finish his studies). He has not been back since.

Roby, who retired last year, understood the bitterness. But he insisted he had acted in the best interests of Northeastern in an era when the supremacy of college football is being questioned.

He pointed to the University of Connecticut, which in recent years invested heavily in football to compete at the highest level in the N.C.A.A. The program has struggled to attract fans and is 11-45 in the also-ran American Athletic Conference since 2013.

“They can’t draw anybody to games, they have no natural rivalries and they’re not very good,” Roby said. “Is that what people want?”

Northeastern football was 8-26 in its final three seasons. It had long been overshadowed by more prominent programs, such as Boston College’s, and average home attendance had dropped to about 1,500.

To Roby, the athletic director for 11 years, and Aoun, the decision to drop the sport was not directly about winning and losing. The university was reviewing every academic, extracurricular and athletic program. Future investments would be conferred only to programs that the university believed could achieve and sustain excellence.

Football did not make the cut. The university projected it would have to spend as much as $25 million to build a new football stadium to be competitive in recruiting. In the 10 years since, pioneering head trauma research has roiled the sport, although in 2009, the dangers of playing football were not a primary concern.

But the institutional review did become the genesis for a renaissance that focused on Northeastern’s strengths — a cooperative education program integrates classroom study with professional experience — and allowed it to concentrate on new ones, the most visible representation being a 220,000-square-foot science and engineering research center that was completed two years ago.

Since 2009, applications to Northeastern have increased to more than 62,000 annually from 34,000. The average SAT score has risen to 1,457 from 1,288 and research funding has grown to $178.6 million from $63.9 million.

In athletics, the $3.5 million saved annually from eliminating football has been used to beef up recruiting and coaching salaries, primarily in men’s basketball and men’s and women’s ice hockey. The men’s basketball team has twice qualified for the N.C.A.A. tournament since 2015, and both hockey teams have surged, helping to bond the community.

“I love football, but the benefits outweigh the costs; hockey is what we rally around,” Martin Kelly, a second-year student from Salt Lake City, said. “When I was applying to colleges, I knew Northeastern didn’t play football, but it was still my top choice.”

Even some former football players seem to have come to peace with the decision.

“Seeing the success of so many of the other sports programs makes dropping football O.K. with me,” said Mark Salisbury, a standout safety from 1989 to 1993.

So which route is the best one for college football — all in or all out? Like everything else in America these days, it depends on your perspective.

The sunny fall afternoon at Anna Maria College that began with pregame pageantry and players sprinting across the gridiron resulted in another loss for the home team. The tailgate party nonetheless blared unabated. Fans encircling the field were in no hurry to leave.

Much later that night in Boston, bright lights illuminated Parsons Field, the old Northeastern football stadium now renovated to accommodate multiple sports. The men’s soccer team held a three-goal lead over nationally ranked James Madison. A smiling, if meager, crowd of students in Northeastern sweatshirts roared in full throat.


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