February 14, 2014 by Steve "Spag" Spagnolo
Over the last three weeks, The Triangle has run a series of stories looking to answer the question, “Why doesn’t Drexel University have a football team?” It took readers through the history of the team, starting from its humble beginnings in the late 1800s to the ultimate dropping of the sport in 1973 to where the University is today without it. Having been a part of the 1973 team as a junior wide receiver, I think Drexel should consider reviving their football program.
The schedule for the 1973 season consisted of Fordham University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, United States Merchant Marine Academy, Gettysburg College, Long Island University Post, Lafayette College, Albright College and the United States Coast Guard Academy. What makes Drexel in 2014 different from the schools that the 1973 football team played? All of these other schools still play football, and Drexel does not.
Over the last 40 years, Drexel administrators have been handing out the convenient Kool-Aid that cost is the real issue and that football is too expensive a sport to fund. If that’s the case, and the majority of the 1973 football schedule schools field similar sports teams as Drexel, then how could those schools afford to maintain their football programs over the last 40 years?
A little Internet research indicates that Drexel, by far, has the largest undergraduate population of the nine schools, with Fordham having the second most with over 4,000 fewer undergraduates than Drexel’s over 12,000. The USCGA has fewer than 1,000 undergraduate students and can still field a football team.
All of these smaller schools can afford to play football, but Drexel can’t? Interesting.
Drexel administrators did a masterful job of killing off the football program in 1973, using a blitzkrieg-type approach by shutting out all stakeholders from the lightning-quick process — a process that seems eerily reminiscent of what has recently happened at Temple University. For the next 40 years, they further ensured football would never return by putting administrators in place with no football pedigree or, in some cases, no collegiate athletics pedigree at all.
The arguments made by current Director of Athletics Eric Zillmer in the third part of The Triangle’s series revealed the negative bias that Drexel administration still has towards football.
He said, “The farther north you go, the tougher [football] is to sell.” Zillmer has obviously not attended a Pennsylvania State University game recently, as they consistently draw crowds of over 100,000 despite being located in the northern part of the United States.
Zillmer also spoke about the fact that Drexel would be playing bad football if they revived the program. Of course, one could not expect a revived football program to come out of the gates in peak form. Yes, it would take a couple of years to rebuild a program, but I believe the benefits would far exceed the initial growing pains.
The reference he made to the concussion lawsuit at La Salle University related to a football incident in the mid-2000s is also a bit off base. Although it is classified as a club sport, Drexel still supports an ice hockey team, a collision sport that has a higher chance of delivering a concussion. There is inherent risk in every sport, not just football.
Finally, Zillmer referenced a Division III football program not fitting into the current structure of the athletic department. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the current structure. Maybe it’s time to think a little outside of the box. Wouldn’t Drexel be better off rebranding itself as a big fish in the little pond of D-III athletics rather than a little fish in the big pond of Division I athletics?
A move to D-III could offer Drexel the opportunity to compete for national championships, not just conference championships like at the D-I level. Competing for national championships would bring greater attention to the school, and, more importantly, it would rid Drexel of being the ugly stepsister of the Big 5. Plus, on top of it all, the student athletes would be able to live the full college experience with athletics serving as a major enhancement instead of an experience dominated by mediocrity at the D-I level.
So, back to the question at hand, “Why doesn’t Drexel have a football team?” I don’t think the answer is cost, nor do I think it’s perception. I think the answer is a lack of leadership by administration, alumni and the student body.
Reviving Drexel football could be a reality if it’s done collaboratively: students need to lead the charge, alumni need to lend support and the administration needs to change its current thinking. The student body, as consumers of the Drexel education product, could use their considerable influence on campus to mobilize a call to action. The students are the reason football came to be at Drexel in the first place.
Maybe the bigger question is, “Why should Drexel bring back football?”
For students, football is another fun experience to deposit into their bank of college memories. It is my understanding that Football attracts the most spectators per game of any sport at the universities that field a team, and therefore lends itself to being an event as much as it is a game.
From an event perspective, there’s nothing like a football pre-game tailgate on a crisp, cool fall afternoon — I can almost smell the hamburgers and hot dogs cooking on charcoal grills now. The emotional roller coaster ride during a competitive game with all of its ebbs and flows, and the post-game bonding and partying with players, fans and alumni, are all a welcome break from the grind of academic life and provide a lifetime of fond memories.
For players, football is an opportunity to play a sport they love at a high level, while still having the time to enjoy a full college experience, especially in an increasingly energized, vibrant and college-rich city like Philadelphia. The attraction to compete for a national championship would be too compelling to pass up for many athletes.
For alumni, football is another way to feel and stay connected with the Drexel community and the Drexel experience as a whole, especially on a beautiful fall football homecoming weekend. The first part of The Triangle’s series showed what the homecoming tradition was all about and how it can bring Drexel’s past and present together for a memorable weekend.
For administrators, moving from D-I to D-III could improve the University’s athletic brand by putting all sports in a position to play for championships. From a cost perspective, athletic scholarships are prohibited at the D-III level, so costs go down or are replaced with financial aid. From a sports positioning perspective, Drexel would be able to market itself as a school that attracts D-I skill level players that want a full college experience, not just one that is 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year — an only-enough-time-to-play-my-sport experience.
As a college athlete who has now come full circle — not only playing football at a collegiate level at Drexel but also seeing my daughter perform at a high level in collegiate D-III field hockey — I have a unique perspective on both college sports and the college experience. Although she had the talent to play at the D-I level, she chose a D-III school because she wanted a full college experience, not the onerous commitment that her D-I colleagues unhappily endured. She is the kind of student athlete that Drexel should be aspiring to bring into its sports programs.
As an eternal optimist, I am still hopeful that one day I’ll be walking onto the Drexel field for a football homecoming game.
Steve Spagnolo is an alumnus and former football player at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.