Monday, May 19, 2008

UT Football Program Peril, 5/17/63

Although the University of Tampa Spartans would not play their final football game until November 1974, the school's board of trustees made a decision on May 17, 1963, that foreshadowed the demise of the gridiron program. The university, 45 years ago this week, reached a decision to stop awarding scholarships, or "grants-in-aid," to football players. The decision put an immediate cloud over the 1963 season.

University of Tampa president Dr. David Delo said that the Spartans would play in the fall, but beyond that made no guarantees. The uncertainty threatened to send the team's best players scrambling for other programs. Athletic Director Sam Bailey expressed hope that a deep pool of recruits could sustain a roster possibly bereft of scholarship athletes.

William C. MacInnes, the chairman of the board's executive committee, cited financial concerns in his explanation for the decision.

"We discovered that football scholarships were out of proportion to academic scholarships and we saw no way that the sport could pay for itself," MacInnes said. "The receipts have just not carried the program, yet nobody really wanted to give it up."

MacInnes added that other sports at the university could possibly benefit from the new policy. Skepticism prevailed on campus and elsewhere around the city. Nash Higgins, the first football coach in the school's history, felt "distressed" at the news.

"I don't think there is a full appreciation of the educational value of sports and athletics on the part of many educators," Higgins said.

J. Crockett Farnell, the Hillsborough County Superintendent of Schools and a former Spartan football player, called the move a "sad mistake" that would have a great impact on the university. Farnell could not have been more correct.

For years, big-time football programs refused invitations to play the Spartans in Tampa. Why? The football team's stadium, Phillips Field, closer resembled a high school field than the home of a legitimate college program. Factor in a limited seating capacity with an outdated stadium and it's not hard to see why the university elders doubted the football program's economic viability.

The possibility existed of building a new, permanent home for the football team. A stadium would once again allow the university to attract big-time opponents, and maybe host an NFL exhibition game in the summer. The idea that had gathered some steam among the movers and shakers in the business community would become a reality in 1967.

Rather than a blessing, however, life in Tampa Stadium and as an NCAA Division I program created even more expenses and threatened the long-term financial stability of the university. On February 27, 1975, university trustees decided once and for all to end football at the University of Tampa.

The football program, today extinct with little chance of ever being revived, still managed to survive a full decade beyond its projected expiration date. In fact, the program thrived during its final seasons. From 1968-1974, the Spartans never had a losing season and sported a .722 overall winning percentage. A victory in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl over Kent State capped a 10-2 season and proved to be one of the program’s finest hours.

No one close to the team in those dark days of May 1963, however, could have predicted a future filled with winning seasons, bowl triumphs, and the likes of John Matuszak and Freddie Solomon bringing the university one final taste of gridiron glory.

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