The Villanova University Wildcats built a 5-0 record last fall, finishing the college football season as the nation’s only undefeated and untied team in either of the top two divisions, I-A and I-AA.
Amusing capacity crowds each week, the Wildcats, a Division I-AA entry, beat five straight Division III opponents in an unusual abbreviated schedule approved by the NCAA.
That doesn’t sound so hard, but it was a lot better than they did the year before, or two years before, or three.
“Villanova gave up football for four years (1981-84) before bringing it back by popular demand (in 1985),” Coach Andy Talley said the other day. “The demand was overwhelming.”
He added, after checking the record book: “I think we’ve set a record. We’re the largest university with the longest (football) tradition to drop football and bring it back since the University of Chicago.”
Citing the evils of overemphasis, Chicago quit in 1939, then resumed as a Division III team 30 years later.
Why at Villanova, which had played football for 87 years on its campus in suburban Philadelphia, did the authorities first abolish, then shortly afterward restore the game?
“The perception in 1981 was that this is a sport that has become far too costly to maintain,” said Athletic Director Ted Aceto.
Villanova’s football deficits reportedly exceeded $500,000 a year in the 1970s.
“Today it’s no less costly than before,” Aceto said. “It is the university’s view of football that has changed.
“Everybody can see now that football is a university’s No. 1 activity in drawing the community together,” he said, meaning faculty, administration, students and former students. “It’s the rallying point. It gets the old grads back and keeps them interested.”
The leaders of Villanova’s 51,000 living alumni played the key role in changing the administration’s stand on football.
“We have 54 (alumni) clubs throughout the country--including three in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego,” said Bob Capone, alumni director. “And 52 of the 54 club presidents returned to campus the day we urged (the authorities) to reconsider.”
Father John Driscoll, the Villanova president who made the two decisions to eliminate and restore football, remains concerned by the price of the most expensive of campus sports. But he is hoping for the best.
“You simply have to look to the overall benefits (of playing the game) instead of the financial benefits (of not playing),” he said. “Football is a unique college activity that has the strong support of the alumni and the school’s other friends. If it’s that important to them, it’s that important to the university.”
At the alumni office, Capone, the former coach who recruited Raider end Howie Long for Villanova, said: “Compared to the total budget at any college, the football budget isn’t that bad.”
That seems to be the majority view today among the higher-education administrators of the 50 states.
Contradicting a notion that multitudes of financially pressed colleges are abolishing football, there has been a steady rise for 20 years in the number of football-playing institutions.
“We had 667 four-year colleges playing intercollegiate football last year,” NCAA spokesman Steve Boda said. “That’s 57 more colleges than in the 1960s. A larger number of institutions put intercollegiate teams on the field last year than in any year since 1950 (when the total was 674).”
The peak, 685, was reached in 1948 with the deluge of GI bill federal funds.
“For financial reasons, an average of about one college a year drops football,” Boda said. “At the same time, an average of nearly three colleges have been adding or resuming each year.
“In 1981, when Villanova dropped, there were three additions,” he said, naming Buffalo State, West Georgia, and Western New England. “In 1985, when nobody dropped, Villanova was only one of six schools adding or resuming football.”
The others were small schools without much of a following among sports-page readers: St. Peter’s of New Jersey, Worcester State of Massachusetts, New York Maritime, MacMurray of Illinois, and Ferrum of Virginia.
Sports fans generally understand why football seems important to such schools as Michigan, USC and Texas. But in an era of nationally televised major college games, what’s in it for MacMurray and Buffalo State?
“Football is a rallying point for them, too,” Boda said. “A lot of fans don’t know Division I from Division II. Students like to go to a school with a college football program. And their alumni want it.”
As a result, few state-supported colleges anywhere exist without football.
Private schools are, however, something different. Large or small, such institutions usually are pinched financially.
“In big-time football, private schools are almost the only ones that have ever dropped the sport,” Boda said, naming Chicago, Fordham, St. Mary’s, Hardin-Simmons, Marquette, Loyola Marymount and others.
Many of them are still without punts and passes on the intercollegiate level, but many have brought football back--and they have typically come back with Division II or III teams.
“St. Mary’s and Santa Clara are playing in Division II now,” Boda said. “Fordham, Chicago, Georgetown, Buffalo, Washington & Lee and most of the others are in Division III. Villanova’s Division I-AA status is the highest for any college that has resumed football after once dropping it.”
For all, the fall sport is a money-eating loss leader.
“Maybe some of the major football programs are self-sustaining,” said Villanova’s President Driscoll, naming Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska. “Most aren’t.”
In Divisions I-A and I-AA, scholarships eat up much of the football budget. Well over half of Villanova’s budget of $500,000-plus for football goes to scholarship funding.
Division III teams, by contrast, issue no scholarships.
Even so, football is expensive there, or anywhere.
Said Boda: “Receipts in the lower divisions don’t match expenditures for coaches’ salaries, players’ uniforms, travel, publicity, promotion, etc.”
So why bother with football?
At Villanova, particularly, why bother?
For years, haven’t the Wildcats been a national power in both track and basketball?
They sure have. Villanova basketball teams, for instance, have made the Final Four three times and won the national championship a year ago.
Why does Villanova also need football?
“Nothing takes the place of football,” said a Wildcat alumnus, Charlie Johnson, an industrial sales company vice president in York, Pa.
“It’s in the fall that your thoughts go back to your old college. The leaves are turning, a frost is in the air, the familiar sound is a punted ball. Or a roar after a touchdown. Old students miss all that when you don’t have football. Nothing the rest of the year takes the place of a long football weekend.”
To most schools and their alumni, the principal attraction of football, as compared with other sports, is indeed that long weekend.
“When the football team is playing at home, a lot of alums come back for an overnight,” Capone said. “Many others arrive by 10:30 Saturday morning and spend up to seven or eight hours on campus, talking with old friends, meeting key alumni, visiting the bookstore, tailgating, cheering the home team. Alumni donations and contributions grow out of all that.”
After keeping track of alumni homecoming visits in the 1980s, Capone said:
--Nearly 20,000 Villanovans were on campus in 1980 when their football team upset Boston College in Doug Flutie’s freshman year. The game was a 13,400 sellout in the school’s small stadium. Before Flutie graduated, Boston College was in a major bowl and Villanova was out of football.
--By 1983, with football in limbo, only 700 of Villanova’s most loyal former students were there for homecoming.
--In 1984, when the school was gearing up for football again with 85 walk-ons, 20,000 were on campus, and, for the first intra-squad game of Talley’s regime, the stadium was sold out at $10 a head.
--Last fall for the first homecoming of the new era, the campus crowd exceeded 25,000, and a record 14,000 were in the stadium for the kickoff.
What’s more, said Craig Miller, Wildcat sports publicist, “Season ticket sales are up from 800 in 1980, the year before we dropped football, to 7,000 now.”
The emphasis on the sport isn’t unanimously endorsed at Villanova, whose pastoral campus adjoining the village of Bryn Mawr is a showplace on Philadelphia’s suburban Main Line.
Although a recent poll suggested that some 98% of Villanova’s students were in favor of restoring football, another poll showed that two-thirds of the faculty were against it.
Expressing a view held by many professors east or west of his campus, Villanova’s Dr. Michael Burke said: “The football players are taking up 50 to 100 (dormitory) beds and classroom seats that might better be filled by students chosen on an academic basis.”
Villanova can accept only about 1,000 of several thousand freshman applicants annually.
“Football does create an end-of-the-week social focus for students and alumni,” said Burke, who heads the school’s honors program. “But I’m not sure that that’s helpful to the academic process, and moreover it leads to a lot of alcohol consumption. How do you balance that out?”
President Driscoll, commenting on faculty opposition, said: “I think the restoration of football has the general support of our faculty and student body.”
But as a one-time top-division participant in football, will Villanova indefinitely suit its supporters in I-AA competition?
“I don’t know why not,” said the Raiders’ Howie Long. “Division I-AA football is respectable, and we’ll be in the Yankee Conference starting next year. That’s a prestigious conference in the East.”
Said Villanova publicist Eugene Ruane: “One thing we like about it is that there’s a greater respect for academic values in I-AA football.”
Talley, the only undefeated I-AA coach in the country, said: “What I like about it is that this division has a national championship game every year. We’ll be shooting for it.”
That isn’t a bad goal for a football coach who didn’t even have a team 12 months ago.