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Rubbing Shoulder Pads with Elites
Students from a small for-profit institution in Connecticut will soon lace up their cleats alongside players from Ivy League universities and regularly meet on the gridiron in an unusual brand of varsity football beginning next fall.
Post University, which was purchased by a private equity firm and became a commercially operated institution in 2004, will join the Collegiate Sprint Football League, a tradition-rich athletic association whose members include three Ivy League universities and two military service academies. Sprint football is a unique spin on the familiar sport; all players must weigh 172 pounds or less to participate, but otherwise, the rules are the same as traditional college football. Off the field, the CSFL prohibits its member institutions from off-campus recruiting and offering athletic scholarships. Given these and other league restrictions, sprint football is a much cheaper alternative to its traditional counterpart.
Still, Post is not starting its own sprint football squad to save any money. It did not have a football team to begin with, even though it sponsors 15 sports in Division II, the partial-scholarship level of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. (There are at least two other for-profit institutions in the NCAA, including Grand Canyon University and Salem International University, though neither plays football. Both of them, like Post, were formerly non-profit colleges.) Post is also not doing this to make any money. As a non-scholarship sport, sprint football will nearly pay for itself with the tuition and fees of its participants. Additionally, none of the league’s member institutions charge fans to watch games.
To hear Ken Zirkle, Post’s president, tell it, starting a sprint football team and affiliating it with those from a handful of highly selective institutions will help the university in ways more valuable than the initial start-up investment of around $400,000 and the eventual annual cost of around $150,000 to maintain the team. Like a number of presidents who consider adding a traditional football team to their institution, Zirkle hopes Post’s sprint football team will help bolster the enrollment of male students, which he believes is lacking. More than that, he hopes the addition of the team will foster a greater sense of community at a university that educates more than four times as many students from around the country online as it does local residents at its main campus in Waterbury, Conn.
“A lot of online colleges don’t have a campus to call home,” said Zirkle, who presided over the addition of a traditional football team at Becker College, in Massachusetts, when he was president there in 2005.
“We have about 3,000 online students, and we even offer them a stipend if they want to come join us on campus here for graduation. A lot of them take us up on that offer. Online students want to take pride in their university. I expect that adding [a sprint football team] will do nothing but enhance that. We already have alumni clamoring for a homecoming event, and a football game is a natural venue for that. Football has a certain mystique, and I know the benefits of it, having experienced them firsthand at other institutions.”
Anthony Fallacaro, Post’s athletics director, said he believes the sprint football team will complement the existing sports offered, further contributing to a sense of community on campus. Those students who take classes at the main campus, both athletes and non-athletes alike, have expressed interest in the sport, he added.
“The excitement on campus is there,” Fallacaro said. “I’ve already talked to students who are checking their weight to see if they’ll be able to play. The existing teams and coaches of them are being supportive of it all. Also, I’ve had inquiries about tickets and home games, not just from students but from people in the Waterbury community.”
For Zirkle, however, the idea of joining the CSFL and garnering all of these fringe benefits did not come out of thin air. It came from another institution that broke the league’s elite Ivy and service academy mold last fall to great interest from the national press.
Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, a small institution in Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, received attention when it added a sprint football team and joined the league last year, at least partially because of the novelty of students from a small state college competing against students from the likes of Cornell, Penn, Princeton, Army and Navy. Though most officials from around the league agree that the university has been a good fit, Mansfield officials are honest about their initial anxiety when they asked to join the league.
“I was feeling a bit self-conscious when I made these trips to talk about starting sprint football,” said Steve McCloskey, director of athletics operations and sports information at Mansfield. “I thought some members would think that we’d tarnish their reputation or something. That was my main concern. I asked [someone with the league] about the voting process and the possibility of our being accepted. I said, ‘We understand who is in this league. Is this going to be a problem?’ Ultimately, after calls were made and folks reassured, we were unanimously let in. The survival of the league, which was feeling weakened, was more important than the prestige factor of the sport.”
Stephen Erber, the football league's commissioner and associate director of athletics at Cornell, also described the addition of Mansfield to the elite football league as a benefit to both parties.
“The thought of expansion had been around for a long time because the league had been stuck with five schools for quite a number of years,” Erber said. “Given the make-up of those five schools, the thought was that the service academies are solid – intercollegiate athletics is a mandate at Army and Navy, as all cadets and midshipmen have to compete in something – but that if one Ivy decided to discontinue the sport it might lead to a domino-like situation with other institutions deciding to leave. When Mansfield came around, they were in a tough spot, and it was a situation where the move was of great mutual benefit to both parties.”
In 2006, Mansfield found itself in a “tough spot” when, after citing severe financial difficulties, it dropped its traditional Division II football team, which had been around since 1891 and was rich in tradition and history. (For instance, it was the first institution to host a night football game, in 1892.) Like Post officials after them, however, Mansfield officials saw great benefit in associating themselves with the elite league.
“I was in a meeting with our president and a group of football alumni who were trying to resurrect the team right after I’d discovered sprint football,” McCloskey recalled. “And I remember saying, ‘What if I told you there’s a league out there that would allow us to bring back our football team in as soon as one year, was far cheaper than playing in Division II but had all of the other benefits of it … and we could play Princeton for homecoming?’ The president took her head out of her hands and immediately asked, ‘We could play Princeton for homecoming?’ ”
In the end, the members of the CSFL voted unanimously to add Mansfield last year and Post this year. Erber noted that discussion of their statuses as a small state college and a for-profit institution, respectively, never fully entered the conversation among the other members.
“It was something that crossed my mind as commissioner,” said Erber, noting he would like to see the league add at least one more team to bring its total membership to eight. “I wondered if that would be an issue or how it would be perceived by the existing members. I guess I was a little concerned that some level of elitism would be brought into the conversation, but that wasn’t much of a discussion. Maybe it was the way I presented it to [Mansfield and Post] saying, ‘This is obviously a great opportunity for your institutions. You will put yourself in what’s generally considered good company.’ I think the league felt, as evidenced by its vote, that we’ll be in good company, too.”
Equals on the Field
After two seasons in the league, Mansfield officials are ecstatic about the reception sprint football has gotten on its campus and the way they've been treated by the other members of the league. Since Mansfield recently had a Division II team, McCloskey explained, the culture of football still pervades its campus to the degree that some 3,000 fans typically show up for a home sprint football game – something the other member institutions can't boast, since they have Division I sports teams that compete for attention. One Penn alumnus who played sprint football even wrote a letter of gratitude to Mansfield officials, expressing his surprise and delight that the university was able to host a game with so many fans and all the accouterments of a traditional football game, including a pep rally, fireworks, a homecoming parade and a marching band.
McCloskey and Erber both say that sprint football might be the low-cost option for which many of the institutions who have recently had to cut traditional football teams -- including Northeastern University and Hofstra University -- have been searching.
“For us it’s been a great success,” McCloskey said. “Financially, it makes sense; it’s 75 percent less expensive than Division II football. It’s a great concept, and it was the way to find a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. Now, we look like we’re ahead of the game.”
And though there has not been a single snap at Post, officials there are also optimistic. Zirkle said he wants Post to be the “go-to school” for any high school football player in New England who still wants the opportunity to compete despite not even being able to play in Division III, the non-scholarship level of the NCAA, due to his weight. He also dismissed the thought that Post’s status as a for-profit made a difference to his new competition.
“I’ve never had any indication of that being a problem,” Zirkle said of his university’s status as a business. “When I met with representatives from Cornell, once their season was over, they couldn’t have welcomed us with any more enthusiasm. Maybe that’s because they think we’ll be an easy team to beat. We are scheduled for their homecoming, after all.
"But in all seriousness, these folks live and die with sprint football. I see this as a way to spread the sport into New England. As for everything else, it’s all perception, and it’s all relative. This is football the way it’s supposed to be played and we’re excited to be a part of it.”