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Division III Occidental College cancels the last four games of its football season

In the end, mathematics shut down the Occidental College football team.

With only 30 healthy players — only six alon g the offensive and defensive lines — coach Rob Cushman had no choice.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve been through in my career,” the veteran coach said. “You get to the point where it’s just not safe.”

The cancellation of four remaining games — announced this week — came as a jolt for a small but storied program that dates back more than a century.

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The Tigers, who were previously called the Presbyterians and the Highlanders, debuted with a 5-0 record in 1895, defeating USC along the way.

Playing in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with schools such as Whittier, La Verne and Cal Lutheran, they have won 16 league championships since 1942, the most recent in 2008.

“A decision of this magnitude was not made lightly,” university President Jonathan Veitch said in a statement. “No one wanted or expected the season to end this way.”

The college has vowed to make fixes before next fall, but current players are frustrated.

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“Everyone is extremely upset with the administration because they have neglected us to the point of failure,” said Christopher Garcia, a senior linebacker. “Everyone else has better equipment than us … the coaches can do only so much when they’re not backed up by the people above them.”

While no one enrolls at Occidental to become a sports star — competing on the NCAA Division III level, the school does not award athletic scholarships — Garcia said he and his teammates arrived at the liberal arts campus north of downtown believing football held a place of honor.

They knew a handful of Tigers alumni had reached the NFL, including the late Jack Kemp and former Raiders running back Vance Mueller.

But with the program in decline, only about 50 players showed up for training camp this season. By late August, football alumni created an email chain to share concerns.

“We saw this problem a while back,” said Paul Finchamp, a player in the 1970s who has been a leader of the booster club.

Critics insist recent administrative missteps scared away recruits and caused existing players to quit. Through September and early October, injuries took a toll on an already thin roster.

The Tigers suffered one-sided losses to Puget Sound, Redlands and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. They couldn’t even field a team for games against Pacific University of Oregon and La Verne.

“Sometimes in practice, we had to switch jerseys, offense to defense,” Garcia said. “There were times we couldn’t practice at all because we didn’t have enough offensive linemen.”

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It was a tough situation for Cushman, who left a similar position at the University of Minnesota, Morris, to take over Occidental’s program last summer.

Meeting with administrators in recent days, he pushed for a quick resolution, knowing that with only three games played, his athletes would have an opportunity to petition the NCAA for an additional season of eligibility.

“We wanted to be ethical,” the coach said. “This year goes as a mulligan.”

The big question: Where does the historic program go from here?

“With regard to the future of Tiger football, this decision allows us to turn our full attention to next season as the college works toward rebuilding the roster,” Veitch stated.

Asked about the rebuilding project, Cushman gave a short laugh.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” he said.

There hasn’t been enough time, he said, for official decisions on bolstering equipment, facilities or staff. The coaches face two immediate challenges.

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First, they must build numbers by recruiting high school seniors to a teetering program at a college with demanding admissions standards. Second, they must convince at least some of the players from this fall’s roster to stick around.

That could be a tough sell.

“When I got here as a freshman, it was decent. Then it was crazy, the downfall,” Garcia said. “I know a lot of guys are thinking of transferring.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

charles.schilken@latimes.com

Twitter: @chewkiii


UPDATES:

6:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with more details and quotes.

This article was originally published at 12:35 p.m.


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