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Reheating the Gridiron : Chapman University Decides 62 Years Without a Team Is Enough

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time the Chapman Panthers football team ran out onto a field, Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been elected and the New Deal promised relief to a nation mired in the Great Depression.

Sixty-two years later, players will once again don helmets and pads and march onto the gridiron this September. This time, the team will play home games in Orange--not Los Angeles--and will no longer carry its old name of California Christian.

Boosters are quick to mention that the Chapman Panthers will become the only NCAA football squad in Orange County when they battle the Whittier College Poets on Sept. 17.

Just a few problems, though.

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Most team members haven’t met each other yet. A recently ordered scoreboard remains to be installed. And someone’s going to have to tutor the university president on the intricacies of the game.

“I may have to read a rule book,” President James L. Doti said.

But the bigger question is whether the 2,900 Chapman University students--few of whom are aware of the long-lost football heritage--will rally behind the team with the school spirit normally associated with the sport.

“Do we have a school fight song?” Athletic Director David Currey asked himself. “We don’t even have a school fight.”

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OK, so maybe it’s going to be harder than they thought. But team supporters said they’re ready to make Chapman’s first football season in Division III--the NCAA small college category--a memorable one by involving 100 new football players and the rest of the student body.

“Maybe this isn’t the most significant thing in history,” said Coach Ken Visser, “but for a football player, it’s pretty exciting to be a part of something that hasn’t existed in 62 years.”

Sports psychologists said there are several factors that can rally students and alumni behind a team: image, marketing, tradition and, of course, winning.

“Apathy is a function of poor performance,” explained Dr. Robert Schleser, director of the Center for Sport Performance Psychology in Chicago. “An institution with history and tradition can sustain losing better than a new program.”

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If the team doesn’t win, some people think fans will quickly lose interest.

“I have clients who say, ‘Yeah, I hear you got a football team,’ and they smirk and laugh,” said Jennifer Trammell, 23, a hairstylist and English student at Chapman. “They expect them to lose.”

Trammell said she plans to attend the games, which will be free to students and faculty. Tickets for others will cost $5.

“This is not a revenue sport--it’s a participation sport,” said Currey, adding that it will cost the university about $200,000 to field the team. None of the players will receive scholarships.

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“It’s the way it was years and years ago,” Currey said.

As the experts see it, creating nostalgia and spirit is part of football’s traditional role in Americana and college life.

“One of the things that’s distinctive about American colleges and universities is this notion of school spirit,” said Mike Oriard, an English professor at Oregon State University who played football at Notre Dame and for the Kansas City Chiefs. “Here we think of college as a way of life for four years, an experience not just in curriculum but in athletics and its spinoffs.”

Chapman administrators hope to start one tradition by having the football players tap the head of a donated $8,000 bronze panther sculpture on campus before each Saturday game. At some colleges, players tap signs or pray together in special alcoves.

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Chants, events like homecoming, and rituals such as Florida State University’s “Tomahawk Chop” are other customs that help fans identify with a team. Marketing can also help.

But Chapman bookstore manager James Clement said there so far have been lackluster sales of the football-themed shirts he began stocking in late spring. The store also has large red Chapman flags available, “but you don’t find too many people with flagpoles,” Clement said.

He expects sales to pick up when new sweat shirts and other items arrive in the fall.

“The spirit’s already here,” Clement said. “Having a football team’s really going to boost it.”

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Trammell, a member of the Alpha Phi sorority, plans to be a part of any spirit activities that form around the team.

“But (administrators) need to promote the team more,” the Anaheim Hills resident said. “It’s a private school and really well-known, but not for sports.”

On a recent afternoon, Athletic Director Currey had a unique Chapman football item on his desk that may whip up some spirit during the countdown to the opening day.

A black plastic digital watch marked with a red “C"--destined to go to selected people in the Chapman community--lay in its box, but the words on its face were visible: 33 days till Panther football .

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Visser, the coach, thinks location will help the team. “We’re in Orange County, and Orange County loves football,” he said.

Then there’s Doti, Chapman’s president and an economist, who came up with the idea of reviving the sport even though the two schools he attended--the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle--had no football teams.

Doti and other administrators moved the school’s athletics program from Division II, where its teams faced larger schools, to Division III in 1992--much to the dismay of some in the athletic department. That meant no more scholarships, but it also meant that two new men’s sports and five new women’s sports could be added because the department had more money.

“Now we’re the only game in town,” Doti said. Neither UC Irvine nor Cal State Fullerton, the two largest Orange County universities, have intercollegiate football programs.

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Cal State Fullerton physical education professor Kenneth Ravizza said he doubts Chapman will be able to rally large numbers of students to support its team. Cal State Fullerton disbanded its Division I football team in 1992.

“With Division III schools, their quality of entertainment isn’t good,” Ravizza said. “But they’re not there to entertain the fans, they’re there to provide opportunity for a student athlete.”

One sports historian called Division III football closer to the “pristine ideal” of the sport. Currey agreed.

“We want to bring back the days when you studied, and you played for fun,” he said.

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Doti said alumni and others who attend his speeches on economics regularly approach him and “instead of asking about inflation, they say, ‘Are you really going to have a good team?’ ”

Banners soon to be strung throughout campus and in the streets of downtown Orange will remind the community of the first home game on Sept. 24, Chapman spokeswoman Ruth Wardwell said. Those attending are scheduled to get Chapman seat cushions.

Because Chapman moved to its current campus from Los Angeles in 1954, its stadium has never seen college football. The field is set to be striped for the first time this morning by a grounds crew from Anaheim Stadium.

Novelty likely will draw fans to the 3,000-seat stadium at first, officials said. As a precaution, they have rented grandstands used at the Rose Parade and Long Beach Grand Prix in case attendance exceeds the stadium’s capacity.

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On opening day, though, there will not be the horns and drumbeats of a loud university marching band. A pep band of music students from Chapman is still in its formative stages, Currey said, and the recent departure of the school’s cheerleading adviser also has left officials unsure whether a pep squad can be ready for the opener.

“We haven’t built a brand new stadium or fancy chair backs,” Currey said. “We haven’t got fancy brochures or season tickets or deluxe boxes.

“What we do have is a college team that’s going to run out onto the field and play.”

And there will be one nostalgic touch to the game: Ernie Chapman, 84, reportedly the last living player from 1930s Chapman football, will handle the coin toss to determine which team kicks off. He is the son of university founder Charles C. Chapman.

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“How’s that for tradition?” Wardwell asked.


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