Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Football & The Big East (Part 2)

In part 2 of the review of football at Big East schools, we pause to look at the rest of the conference where football is not established. Was it ever there in the first place?


In fact, every one of the ten Big East schools for 2013 had an intercollegiate football program at one point; of course, only three remain today: Georgetown, Villanova, and Butler.

Providence College had a small college program that was put on hold with the arrival of World War II and never returned, the more prominent program at Creighton met a similar fate after the 1942 season.

Football was also popular at Seton Hall, beginning in 1882 and running through at least 1932. The Pirates reconstituted football as a club program in 1965 and won the 1972 “Schaeffer Bowl” for Eastern club teams, defeating Marist 20-18 before 3,000 at Jack Coffey Field in the Bronx. In 1973, Seton Hall moved up to Division III, but a disastrous run in 1980 (0-9) and 1981 (2-7-0) led the school to drop football as the Big East was taking center stage.

St. John’s has a similar story. From its earliest days as a college in Brooklyn, not Queens, St. John’s was playing football as early as 1884, but  the school was not the match of NYU or Fordham. Games at Ebbets Field rarely drew more than a couple thousand or so compared to as many as 75,000 for the Violets and Rams. The Redmen dropped football in 1932, but returned as a club program in 1965 and upgraded to Division III in 1978. In 1993, St. John’s joined Georgetown and four other schools in founding the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), to which St. John’s went 10-1 in 1994 and was named the ECAC champions.

After seven years in the MAAC, St. John’s stepped up to the Northeast Conference, but the upgrade proved pyrrhic. The Redmen dropped to a 1-9 record in 2001, hastily rejoined the MAAC, then finished 2-8 the following year. Following the season, the now-retiring Rev. Donald Harrington cut football and five other men’s sports to save money and reinvest it in elevating other St. John’s sports. Of course, history shows that any claim to “reinvest” from dropping sports is a complete fantasy—the money always goes elsewhere. St. John’s athletic fortunes soon took a nosedive in the 2000’s, with or without football.

But football still exists among other Big East schools, albeit in the competitive limbo that is club football. Club football was the incubator of programs like Georgetown Fordham, and a dozen other current Division I programs—at its zenith, nearly 100 schools sponsored club football teams at Division I schools, compared to just over a dozen today.  But in this netherworld between NCAA football and no program at all, a football program at Marquette has been underway for 45 years, Xavier for eight years, and DePaul is a new entrant altogether. Each has a story to tell in a sport that has roots on all three campuses.

Of all the Jesuit schools which dropped football, none is there a more glaring absence from the gridiron as was Marquette. From its origins in 1892, football served as a rallying point for the downtown school, and over seven decades the team, variously known as the Hilltoppers, the Golden Avalanche, and the Warriors were the equal of some of the best teams in the nation.

With its 16,000 seat Marquette Stadium, opened in 1924, the Hilltoppers played a national schedule, not only with in-state rival Wisconsin, but opponents such as Iowa, Boston College, Temple, Kansas State, Ole Miss, and Arizona, among others. Marquette would travel, raising money for the program and raising interest in the school. The 1936 Hilltoppers defeated Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ole Miss en route to a 7-1 season, with a 20-6 win over St. Mary’s before 55,000 at Chicago’s Soldier Field. MU was then invited to the first Cotton Bowl, where they fell to Sammy Baugh and the defending national champions, Texas Christian, 16-6.

With the great exodus of Catholic colleges from football in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Marquette remained resolute, as it was still playing before representative crowds against top competition. As losing ways began to eat into the program (the Golden Avalanche was 10-53-4 over a nine year period from 1951 to 1960), Marquette double-downed on the program and moved games off campus to County Stadium, home of the Milwaukee Braves. The crowds did not follow but the deficits did. Despite a 1959 lineup that would include five future NFL stars, among them All-Pro lineman George Andrie, school officials dropped the program in December 1960.

Student reaction at Marquette was nothing like the fearful silence at Georgetown when Rev. Hunter Guthrie dropped the program and dared anyone to dissent. Wrote a history of the Marquette club program:

“3,000 students spontaneously walked out of their classes and marched in protest down Wisconsin Avenue shouting "we want football; we want justice." They lit a bonfire…at the corner of N. 15th St. and W. Clybourne, tied up traffic for blocks on end, and pelted the squad cars and patrol wagons of the policemen who had been called in to quell them.

“John Sisk, a former all-American at Marquette during the glory days of the 1930s, said "the bomb which hit Hiroshima shocked the world. This one was a bomb which shocked alumni and thousands of friends of Marquette." He attempted to organize a fund drive among alumni and local businessmen to underwrite the football program and cover any budget deficits it would incur. But it was all for naught.”

Five years later, as the club football movement begun at Georgetown and Fordham was taking hold nationwide, a group of students began the process to bring back the sport to Marquette. A crowd of 9,000 saw Marquette play a Detroit club which had lost their own team just three years earlier. If any school with a football tradition could have renewed its legacy, it would appear to be Marquette. But Murphy’s law has followed this team since its very start.

The club model of Georgetown and Fordham relied on five components for success: 1) institutional cooperation, if not tacit support, 2) a campus presence, 3) like-minded opponents, 4) coaching continuity, and 5) on-field success. Marquette was able to maintain none of these.

In its six seasons in club football, Georgetown had just one season under .500. By contrast, Marquette did not win a single game for the first seven years of its club program--MU picked up its first win  against a high school all-star team in 1974. Its first winning season did not come until 1989, 22 years after the program had started. Student support vanished.

Support dropped off even further when Marquette Stadium was torn down in the early 1970’s. The Warriors, as they were known by then, became a barnstorming team of sorts, and many students rarely if ever saw them play. Institutional support all but ended after a ill-fated trip to Westchester (NY) Community College when the club’s treasurer left school with an unpaid bill of $4,600 for travel. It took the intervention of athletic director Al McGuire to cover the tab, but the damage had been done and the club football team was largely on their own. A decade later, the program suffered more bad press when much the 1996 team was determined to be students of a neighboring trade school, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, not actual Marquette students.

To its credit, the club program at Marquette soldiers on. The oldest active club team in the nation, its schedule mixes club programs, junior colleges, and junior varsity clubs at regional Division III schools, but is often overmatched—from 2003-08 the Warriors were  a combined 6-37, with three of its wins coming over new club programs at Xavier and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. Beyond the Marquette community and the tiny subset of opponents they play, however, Marquette football is out of sight, out of mind.

The Xavier football story parallels that of Marquette and many Jesuit schools, but on a different timeline. In fact, until the fall of the MAAC, Xavier was the last Jesuit program to drop college football.

Xavier football dates to the turn of the century and took off in college football’s golden era, the 1920’s. It built a 15,000 seat on-campus stadium, Corcoran Field, which served it well through the Great Depression and post-war America. Along with Marquette, Detroit, and Holy Cross, it was one of the few Jesuit schools with any significant on-campus football facilities.

Xavier never achieved the national fame of Marquette or even Georgetown, for that matter. The Musketeers appeared in one bowl game, the now forgotten Salad Bowl, in 1950, defeating Arizona State. With a regional schedule that mixed small college (Centre, St. Ambrose, Quantico Marines) and larger programs (Cincinnati, Louisville, Toledo), Xavier established a small but successful major college program.

But like many teams, losing ways began to corrode the program. From a  6-4  record in 1968, Xavier dropped to 1-9 in 1969, and never finished above .500 thereafter. Three straight 1-9 seasons followed, including the September 1971 game where Xavier lost on the final play of the game to a Marshall program which had suffered the loss of its team in a 1970 plane crash.

In 1973, Xavier lost its opening three games to Temple, Cincinnati, and Tampa, but finished the season winning three straight to Northern Illinois, Villanova, and Toledo and finished 5-5-1. The attendance wasn’t there anymore, with the NFL’s Bengals cutting into the college market and the increasing lack of interest of larger schools to play Xavier. Annual losses were common at a school which was offering 60 scholarships against schools with 100 or more, and student attendance now numbered in the hundreds. TV money was nonexistent, and Ohio State was a bigger draw in Cincinnati than either of its two local Division I schools. While Dayton was able to save its program, Xavier would not be so fortunate.

Football at Xavier remained a memory until 2006, when a club team was launched to rebuild the team. The club even made it to the Xavier athletic web site, something Marquette’s team has never been able to do. But Xavier club football suffered the fate of many club programs, namely continuity. Coaches were largely volunteers, games were played off-campus and not always on Saturdays, and opponents could vary considerably. From 2009 to 2011, home game were played at four different high schools but none on-campus. Rosters varied, so much so that the 2012 season was canceled because of lack of depth—just 30 players started the season, and just 21 were left after week 2.

Of all the Big East schools engaging in football, the least known is DePaul, which added a club team this spring and was approved for funding just last week. The DePaul football story is as little known as any, but yet was an important part of that school’s athletic history.

Football has always been a part of Chicago, none more so than in the early 1900’s when four universities battled for local football supremacy: Chicago, Northwestern, Loyola, and DePaul. The sport arrived at DePaul in 1907 and was repositioned in the early 1920’s, playing a schedule of mostly Catholic schools at nearby Wrigley Field. Coached by future Holy Cross legend Eddie Anderson, DePaul was a local fan favorite on the North Side. Fifteen different players joined the NFL. By 1928, a rivalry game with Loyola drew 80,000 to Soldier Field. Ten years later, both were gone.

Unlike many Catholic schools (Georgetown included) which once pleaded poverty to escape their football obligations, the Great Depression took its toll on Windy City football. Loyola was the first to go in 1929, while DePaul made it nine more years. Where the Blue Demons had once sold out Wrigley Field, less than 1,000 showed for its homecoming game in 1938. By that December, the school announced it was dropping football for financial reasons, which were all too real. Enrollment at the working-class school had dropped 30 percent in five years from 1929 to 1934, and the school was approaching $1 million in debt—not all of it football, of course, but enough to make the athletic folks uncomfortable.

And of course, it was the record. DePaul finished 2-7 in 1938. No one drops a team at the top.

For the next seventy five years, football was forgotten at DePaul. No field, no memory of its better days. In 2013, a  junior named Riley Halligan created a Facebook page and sought interest for students to start a club team. At semester’s end, funding was secured for the Blue Demons to take the field this fall, with the goal of reestablishing the rivalry with Loyola that once captured a city’s imagination.

All three schools share opportunities and challenges in club football, none more so than facilities and visibility. None of the three have an on-campus environment from which to build a program, though there are possibilities. None have the visibility that an NCAA program offers, with the kind of opponents fans are either a) aware of and/or b) interested in seeing. People know names like Princeton or Holy Cross. Playing Maranatha Baptist or the Carroll College JV team doesn’t carry the same kind of interest.

Is there an NCAA future for these teams? In the end, it’s more about the school and less about the team—the schools must make an institutional commitment first  when one has not been there before.

Does Marquette gain anything from upgrading its team? Does Xavier? Does DePaul? In a climate where basketball is the only recognizable sport at three urban campuses, it’s a tough sell to devote upwards of $1 million (even at a Pioneer League level) to a sport that doesn’t bring the attention basketball does. No one remembers Eddie Anderson at DePaul, they remember Ray Meyer.

That’s not so suggest these schools can’t expand athletics. Marquette is adding men’s lacrosse, a sport all but foreign to Wisconsin, to offer something new to its students and serve as a beacon for talented student-athletes interested in Big east level competition to consider attending MU, and that doesn’t come cheap. But could football offer the same, especially without the scholarships?

This has to be an executive level initiative. The days where a school could add football “for the sake of the boys” is obsolete. The political impact of Title IX and the rampant increases in spending attributed to football make an presidential decision to add varsity football justifiable only under two reasonable scenarios: 1) football will increase male enrollment (the driver for the growth in many Division III programs) and 2) football will make money (the driver for such start-ups as Old Dominion, South Alabama, and Georgia State. A third, adding a sport to play in a specific conference, doesn’t apply in the Big East.

Will an extra hundred men make the difference at DePaul, with over 21,000 students? No. Maybe at Xavier, less so at Marquette.

Will it be a money maker? In almost every scenario, no; if for no other reason, there is not a regional conference where these schools can join to drive revenue into football. Having committed to the Big East where football is redolent of its troubled past, it’s not like Marquette is taking a call to play in the Big 12.

The ideal home for these programs would be in the Pioneer League, where Midwestern peers like Butler, Drake and Valparaiso have been able to find a safe harbor for teams that are too established to play as clubs, too big to play outside Division I, but too small to play at the scholarship level. That kind of upgrade is  neither imminent nor under advisement for now, because it takes time to bring any program to the I-AA level, even a club team, without financial commitment and, at the very least, facilities. Marquette could play on the Valley Fields complex that did not exist in a prior era, while Xavier’s Corcoran Field is now better known as a soccer field. DePaul’s field situation is an open question. But one cannot survive in the lower levels of Division I these days as an off-campus entity. It doomed Northeastern, Canisius, St. Peter’s and a half dozen other schools. Kids simply need to play in front of other students for this to work.

But as any fan of football will tell you, there are values and verities to college football that are unique to a college campus, and something that even club football can’t adequately match.  In 1929, the Rev. John McCormick summed it up in a tribute to Marquette football:

The football team is a rallying point for the sentiment that centers around any college. Its contests are dramatic; student loyalty is fired by them; the alumnus feels the thrill of their success, and the public is aroused, as no mere academic achievement could arouse it, to the importance of the institutions participating in them. Certainly the name of Marquette is more widely known than otherwise it would be because of the glory that has come to it on the football field from the victories of the "Golden Avalanche."

Were that the Golden Avalanche, the Musketeers, and Blue Demons get a chance for an encore performance.