January 31, 2014 by Kevin Rossi
THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF THIS THREE-PART SERIES CAN BE ACCESSED HERE.
The 1973 Drexel football season began just like seasons past had begun. Sterling Brown was at the helm to coach the team. Barry Cole, who along with Steve Spagnolo was among the first group of freshmen to be allowed to play varsity football, described Brown as “this little fiery guy who was probably about 3-foot-2 and chewed tobacco.”
Prior to the 1971 season, Brown sat his team down and gave a short speech that Cole hasn’t forgotten to this day: “You guys aren’t here to go school,” Cole said, mimicking Brown’s raspy voice from over 40 years ago, “you’re here to play football.”
Behind the scenes, though, the University did not seem as committed to football as Brown wanted his players to be. The board of trustees had taken issue with the amount of money that football was taking from the athletics budget starting in 1971. They had quietly formed a committee to look into the issue.
Brown and the players pushed on through the 1973 season, not paying attention to the board’s proceedings; they had a tough schedule and needed to stay focused.
The team started off the year with back-to-back victories, the first over Fordham University and the next over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. After dropping their third game of the year to the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Drexel got back on track and improved to 3-1 with a tough win over Gettysburg College in the 1973 homecoming game.
The win over Gettysburg still sticks out in the minds of Cole and Spagnolo to this day. Homecoming festivities were in full swing, students and alumni were back together, beer and spirits were ever-flowing. Gettysburg — one of the tougher opponents on Drexel’s schedule — was trying to ruin the party.
“We were down 21-nothing in the first quarter against Gettysburg,” Spagnolo recalled. “We scored a touchdown before the half to cut it to 21-7.”
Drexel wouldn’t go away, though. They couldn’t fall that easily in their own homecoming game, could they?
“We came back to win it 28-24 on a last-minute touchdown,” Spagnolo said, a twinkle of nostalgia in his eye. “We had some pretty exciting games.”
Their next opponent was Long Island University C.W. Post Campus, in a game that should have served as a cautionary tale for the bad luck that was to come. LIU Post came out “looking like the Green Bay Packers,” as Cole remembered, and proved to be a tough test. Drexel lost the game 16-15 on a last-minute field goal that tipped off of the upright and in to give LIU Post the victory. It was Drexel’s first of three losses in their final four games.
That final win of the 1973 season came against Albright College in their annual Pretzel Bowl. Albright was a strong opponent, and nobody really expected Drexel to hang around with them. Prior to the game, Drexel running back Andrew Stopper, who was from the Reading, Pa., area, not far from Albright, was fielding bets on the game, a majority of which were placed on Albright. He told them that Drexel was going to win, for which he was met with crazy looks.
Drexel pulled off the unlikely upset, winning the game 16-7. Stopper looked like a genius and happily collected his winnings.
The bus ride back from their 9-0 loss to the United States Coast Guard Academy in the final game of the season was sure to be depressing, even without the news they were about to hear. A class of seniors was graduating, including standout linebacker Ed Shubert, who Cole and Spagnolo both said was the best player with whom they had ever played. Shubert went on to try out for the hometown Philadelphia Eagles but didn’t make the cut.
Those who remained saw the hopes of yet another season dashed and a long offseason of training ahead. However, the bus ride back dashed the hopes of the very future of the Drexel football program.
The players were notified that the University’s board of trustees president, William Hagerty, and Director of Athletics John Semanik had cut the football program. Scholarships would be honored and transfers would be granted if so desired, but that was it.
The end of Drexel football came Nov. 19, 1973.
“From our standpoint, we were just totally floored,” Cole said about the cut.
“The coaches were blindsided too,” Spagnolo added. “I don’t think they saw this coming either.”
Spagnolo continued, “We were both finishing our junior years when they cut football, and when you think about it, we were the ones who got screwed the most. If we were freshmen or sophomores, you can still play for a couple more years. If you were a senior, you were done your senior year. But for us, nobody is going to take you for a year, and you’re not going to want to transfer for a year. We got screwed.”
In the press release sent out to make the announcement public, the school cited the budgetary issues with continuing to fund football as well as opening the new Physical Education Athletic Center. The Triangle reported that the new center cost about $8.6 million to build and would cost $250,000 annually to operate. The administration put a fund drive in place to help raise $700,000 per year to make payments on the building. Still, the football program was axed to help fund it.
As people investigated further, more reasons for the cut came out. There seemed to be a growing frustration with the lack of interest in the sport. Hagerty told The Triangle that the low student interest and the sport’s “impingement” on other sports in the athletic department were considered.
“Students at a co-op university are doers rather than watchers,” Hagerty said at the time, trying to explain the low interest.
When football was cut, it was taking up somewhere in the range of 40-50 percent of the athletics budget. The Nov. 30, 1973, issue of The Triangle reported that the overall athletics budget was about $320,000 and football ate $142,873 alone, mostly in operating expenses and scholarships. Students were paying a $30 student activity fee at the time, but football just took up too much of the money in athletics.
Hagerty said in the same issue, “It was a matter of eliminating five or six different sports or football to balance the budget.”
“I got to interview [Hagerty] on about a weekly basis,” former news and managing editor of The Triangle Pat Joy said. “It gave me pretty good insight as to what the administration was thinking, and I clearly remember him discussing the football team. He pointed out — and this would be in the 1965 time frame — that the football team took 50 percent of the total athletic budget.”
Football was already the biggest mouth for the athletic department to feed, and it was about to get bigger as well. The NCAA, the main governing body and rule-maker for college sports, was reorganizing their competition structure. There would now be three divisions — I, II and III — so Drexel would have to make a decision on where they stood athletically.
Division I was for the big boys, the powerhouse football and basketball teams that were a way of life in some parts of the country. Division II, where many of Drexel’s local rivals would look to play, was too expensive for the football team. They would have had to pour more resources into a program that they felt was already overfunded. Division III, though, would have required Drexel to develop new rivals and ultimately take a financial risk that administration was not willing to take.
There were other theories, too. Some thought it was to satisfy the landmark Title IX that was passed as part of the 1972 Educational Amendments Act, which requires gender equity at all institutions of education that used any kind of federal funding. Some thought that football lacked the proper alumni support for long-term sustainability. Some thought that football was cut because of an institutional bias towards basketball.
“Someone was out to get rid of football,” head coach Sterling Brown told The Triangle of the decision.
One of the committee members was a professor, John Savchak, who had played basketball at Drexel as an undergraduate, so some saw that as a conflict of interest. There were rumors floating around that Drexel was looking to use the extra funds left in football’s void to bolster funding of the basketball team so that they could join the Philadelphia Big 5.
The Big 5 was formed in 1954 and consists to this day of La Salle University, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Saint Joseph’s University and Villanova University. Brown didn’t see why it would ever happen.
“That’s a lot of B.S.,” Brown told The Triangle in 1973. “Big 5 schools would never allow Drexel to share the spotlight. If I had a good thing going, as the Big 5 schools do, I would want to cut someone out, not in.”
There was also uproar over the fact that there was no football player represented on the committee; the team felt that their voices should have been heard.
Graduating linebacker Ed Shubert pleaded to The Triangle for football to be reinstated, even though he had just played his final game as a senior.
“A person who has not played intercollegiate football could not understand what the game really does for a person,” Shubert said, pointing out football’s intangible benefits. “The close friendships and the tremendous sense of accomplishment it affords its participants simply cannot be measured in terms of dollars and cents.”
If the voices of Brown and the players weren’t heard, then fans and alumni certainly tried to make theirs loud enough. Letters poured in, some by mail and some by Western Union.
One said that even though Drexel football would be remembered as more of a “doormat” than a “football power,” some of their games were unforgettable. Fans relived memorable comebacks and unforgettable rain-soaked games. “Why take away the ability to relive old memories?” another asked.
The cut of Drexel’s football program would be looked at by the school, students, alumni, athletes and fans from every angle imaginable. But it didn’t change the fact that football was gone and the hopes for reinstatement were reduced to the outside chance at revival.
THE FINAL INSTALLMENT OF THIS THREE-PART SERIES CAN BE ACCESSED HERE.