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March 04, 2004

Storied Football Program Gets Fired

FROM THE BAY AREA COMES WORD that the steeped-in-tradition St. Mary’s College football program will be dropped. The school first started playing football in 1892, and its rich football tradition included trips to the 1939 Cotton Bowl and the 1946 Sugar Bowl.

During a news conference at the picturesque campus nestled in the Oakland Hills, college president Brother Craig Franz (St. Mary’s is a Christian Brothers college) soberly intoned that this was a purely financial decision.

The timing was particularly awful. The decision came less than a month after 14 incoming freshmen were signed and just a few weeks after hiring three new assistant coaches.

Second year coach Vince White had no prior indication of the decision. The shaken coach said, "I feel betrayed. I have 14 young men, very fine football players. I went into their homes. I promised them a great education and to play top-notch football. To call those kids last night and tell them ... It's the hardest thing I've ever done in 19 years of coaching. To hear mothers crying, fathers threatening litigation. That's the human side.”

St. Mary’s had been woefully uncompetitive in recent years (last year’s record was 1-11), and a whopping 50% increase in the football budget (from $1.2 million up to $1.8 million) would have been required to become competitive. St. Mary’s offered 16 football scholarships; its competitors offered from 30 to 60.

Dropping football is nothing new. Some two dozen schools have dropped football over the past decade for financial reasons.

College football in the Bay Area has withered over the past few decades. All of St. Mary’s competitors dropped their football programs: Santa Clara, USF, Cal State Hayward, Cal State Sonoma and San Francisco State. This forced the Gaels to incur expensive travel costs to fill out their schedule.

The team had some rough going in the early part of the century, including a huge 127-0 loss to the University of California in 1920.

However, the team enjoyed two decades--from 1921 to 1939--of positive notoriety under the leadership of coach Edward "Slip" Madigan, a protégé of Notre Dame's Knute Rockne. In those days 80,000 spectators packed San Francisco’s Kezar stadium for home games, and fans filled trains to attend away games.

In the past decade St. Mary’s competitive gap widened, and the team’s chronic ineptitude did little to remedy the blackening situation. Season ticket sales bottomed out to a pithy 44 in 2000. The Gaels final game last season drew just 1200 spectators—many high school teams do better than that. So it wasn’t like the football team was exactly taking in much revenue.

It’s a long long way from the Division I-A football powerhouses down to the Division III programs. One wonders whether that’s all there will be in the future: the very big and the teeny tiny.

(this excerpt was sourced from the Contra Costa Times of 3-4-04)