It has not been a happy season for Pomona College's football team. While accumulating only two wins this year, the Sagehens have endured several injuries on a roster that includes only 37 players, far fewer than usual. Perhaps because this year's outcome seemed especially disappointing, students and athletes began whispering that the college is thinking about getting rid of the program. The gossip culminated in a student newspaper editorial calling on administrators to save the football team.
But officials at the selective four-year liberal-arts college say that the football program does not face the axe, and that the team has been facing only a short-term problem with admissions.
“It’s assumed by everyone in the program that football is being removed because the number of football players has been so small,” said Clayton Leonard, a senior who plays defensive end.
“Last year was anomalously bad,” said Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions, who said that only 10 freshmen came to play football this year . Normally, the college would recruit close to twice that number and the team would field 50 to 55 players.
Poch said that several factors have constrained the campus’s ability to admit good players. For one thing, the college is highly selective so any potential athlete has to come prepared for tough academics. Secondly, while students from nearby Pitzer help to fill out the roster, Pomona students make up three-fourths of the players. So any problems recruiting football players at Pomona have a profound effect on the team’s makeup. Third, Pomona does not allow a “slot system” in which coaches are granted a set number of athletes (as is the case in the admissions processes of many small private colleges) that they can be assured of receiving every year.
Finally, Poch said that recruiting has become more difficult with the gradual decline of multi-sport athletes coming out of high school. “Students are being groomed for a specific sport and a specific position from a very young age,” he said.
“It’s upset the kids who are here,” Bernard Walker, the Pomona football coach, said of the rumors. Walker said that the team has also dealt with inconsistent leadership, noting that he is the team’s third coach the last three seasons. But he was assured before taking the position that the college was committed to football.
Walker said that Pomona creates both difficulties and benefits for recruiting. The need to find athletes who can also compete in the classroom automatically excludes many quality football players from consideration. But there is an upside. “The plus of being a good academic institution is that we can recruit nationally,” he said.
Walker said that he has submitted 14 names to the admissions office for early admissions and plans to submit another 30 names in January for regular admissions. Walker said that the admissions office gives no guarantee that these students will be admitted, but he hopes to bring in at least 20 players next season.
Poch said that the problems experienced by the football team have been particularly acute in the last couple of years, but he noted that sports teams always face constraints when recruiting to a small college like Pomona. Pomona admitted 385 freshmen last year and the college fields 20 different sports programs. “Every coach tells me, ‘We need at least 15 students for our program this year,’ ” he said. “Well, if you add that up, that’s 300 out of 385. The math obviously doesn’t work out.”