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Yes, there’s life after football

 

Northeastern, thriving without it, seen as a model by some schools

 

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

First of two parts

Standing on Parsons Field in Brookline, Alex Dulski revisits his sports hero past. Life after football feels strange.Dulski is a college quarterback without a team, one of 87 players thrown for a loss when Northeastern University dropped its football program last November.

“It’s surreal,’’ said Dulski, who stayed at Northeastern rather than follow football to another campus. “It’s tough. But I’m not going to bog myself down and get mad at the university. I’ll graduate with a degree from a top-100 school, which is more than I could’ve asked for.’’ 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 atten tion 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.

“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.’’

Indeed, college’s big money sport is increasingly viewed and valued differently than in the past, especially at schools like Northeastern, where football was never played at the highest level and where the school’s academic identity wasn’t bound up in gridiron success. Dropping football, at such schools, is now viewed as an alternative thoughtful administrators need to take a long, hard look at.

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.

Northeastern’s decision came 12 years after Boston University dropped its football program, and showed how a school can build its name and excel in other sports in part by stepping out of the costly college football arms race.

“At a well-run institution, you strategize and ask yourself difficult questions about what would be the best investments for the future,’’ said Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby. “People are having those conversations at every level of collegiate athletics and higher education every day. If they’re not having those conversations, then shame on them.’’

After football, life goes on
With his back turned to the sweeping river views from his office window, BU president Robert Brown is happily talking football. The hint of a Texas accent creeps in, a reminder of his Lone Star State upbringing and University of Texas education. He knows big-time football and what it can add to a campus.

He also knows that, culturally, Texas and BU could not be further apart.

“The majority of universities, and Boston University gets put in this bucket, invest in student athletics because it builds community,’’ said Brown. “Once you take football out of the equation, you think about how you’re going to build that community in other ways. It allows you to clarify what you think is important.’’

After dropping football, BU poured $285 million into athletic facilities over 12 years, building a new sports and entertainment complex, a new boathouse, a track and tennis facility and a fitness and recreation center. Alumni giving earmarked for intercollegiate sports has gone up, not down. And student interest has soared, with intramural sports participation up more than 55 percent.

Since BU made its hard choice, in 1997, 28 schools have dared to discontinue football.

Northeastern has reallocated football scholarships and funds to need-based financial aid and other athletic programs, though it continues to pay the scholarships of the 23 players who stayed at the school as well as severance packages for the football coaches. Looking ahead, Aoun said, the university plans further investment in areas with the greatest potential for “excellence and quality’’ and for “the best student experience.’’ That could include money for the hockey and basketball programs, as well as for new academic programs.

His goal, he said, is not to set a standard for other universities pondering the choice Northeastern made, but to set the smartest course for his university.

“My job is not to be a preacher, but to do what’s best for our community,’’ said Aoun. “If it inspires others to follow this lead and say, ‘Yes, the president is not going to lose his job if we discontinue football’ and ‘Yes, the community and the institution is going to thrive after that,’ that’s a good model if people want to use it . . . We are charting our own path.’’

Hofstra University, which dropped football last December, is increasing need-based scholarships and placing greater emphasis on engineering and sciences. Next summer, the university will start classes at its new medical school on its Long Island campus, an initiative Hofstra officials believe makes better use of limited resources.

“For a long time in higher education, people felt in order to be a prominent institution you had to do everything,’’ said Hofstra provost and economist Herman Berliner. “The reality of this economy is that’s no longer going to be possible.’’

For NU, an easy decision
The daunting economics of college football made Northeastern’s decision to drop it easier.

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.

“Do you keep running your kids and your coaching staff out there knowing you’re not really giving them an opportunity to be competitive on a weekly basis and feel that’s OK?’’ said Roby. “Or, do you make a tough choice instead? We tried to make a decision based on what we thought was most fair.’’

It was, as Roby and others expected, a hard choice for some devoted to Northeastern to accept.

Alan Hunte, who lettered for Northeastern football from 1978-81 and watched two sons compete for the university as freshmen last season, saw deception, not fairness, in the decision. He said his relationship with Northeastern is forever fractured.

“You find a way to get better facilities,’’ said Hunte, who saw one son transfer to UMass and one to Delaware. “You cannot get me to believe that a school of Northeastern’s size with the number of athletes that have passed through the doors that they couldn’t find another way to support the program. Dropping football was the easy way out.’’

The cost of college football can strain limited resources at all but the big-time, big-money, bowl-contending schools. A recent NCAA report revealed that just 68 of 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of college athletics, made a profit on football in fiscal 2009. One competitive notch below, in the Football Championship Subdivision where Northeastern and Hofstra played and schools depend largely on ticket sales and sponsorships for revenue, two of 125 football-playing institutions reported a profit on football during the same span.

But profit isn’t everything. There is also the matter of student and alumni morale, for which many still see winning football as the best inspiration. That may explain why 16 schools plan to launch football programs between this season and 2013. And why, since BU dropped football in 1997, 42 others decided to add football, some resuming it after a hiatus. That special connection between college life and football is something Rocky Hager, the last Northeastern football coach, believes the campus may miss.

“It’s hard to imagine a place without football in the fall,’’ he said. “It tends to be the bell cow that pulls people back on campus. Football has a binding effect on campus. I don’t know that its impact can solely be measured in dollars and cents.’’

At BU, an idea fell short
At BU, it wasn’t just dollars and cents, but fans and empty seats.

During its only undefeated regular season in 1993, BU football drew an average of 4,400 fans to 22,000-seat Nickerson Field. The program could never generate enough interest. BU hockey coach Jack Parker and then BU athletic director Gary Strickler talked about drastically cutting costs, about creating a league with fewer scholarships, a cap on the number of coaches and travel no farther west than the Lehigh Valley.

Strickler approached colleagues at other schools with the idea. “Cut scholarships?’’ he recalled them saying. “We need more scholarships.’’ “Nobody wanted to get sane with the sport of football at that level,’’ said Parker. “We should have spearheaded that. BU should have football. It would be a nice thing to have here if there was a feasible place for us to play money-wise. But there wasn’t and we couldn’t create it.’’

This year, 30 BU students started competing off-campus as the Boston Terriers Football Club, a student-run team without university affiliation or funding. But, by most other measures, football doesn’t seem much missed on the BU campus.

Before dropping the sport, BU hired Maguire Associates to survey the university’s applicant pool to determine how the end of 91 years of gridiron history would impact its image. Maguire’s data revealed prospective students were more likely to have attended an opera than a football game.

If an ideal profile exists for schools best positioned to drop football and thrive afterward, BU and Northeastern exemplify it: Geographically far from football hotbeds like Florida, Texas, and California. Close to other entertainment options. Home to other sports teams with large, passionate followings — at BU and Northeastern, hockey. And places eager to bolster women’s sports in compliance with federal requirements.

“I thought football was central to a college experience and I needed convincing,’’ said BU trustee Lance Piccolo, who graduated on a football scholarship in 1962. “It was a very courageous decision they made at the time. One can almost identify it as something visionary. Now, there are many, many schools that are sitting in purgatory with their programs.’’ Northeastern is happy to no longer be one of them, even if its pursuit of excellence after football has had some painful side-effects. Thirty-two players left campus, making hurried transfers to other football programs. Some are thriving; all feel they lost something special.

Alex Dulski, who stayed, feels it both ways, pursuing an education to be proud of but without the game he loves. “Everything has a price,’’ he said.