Monday, March 1, 2010

S.O.S. for Spartans football, 2/27/75

With the University of Tampa's football program on life support, a massive effort began to convince the school’s board of trustees not to eliminate the program. The “Save Our Spartans” campaign gained traction as community leaders and local football fans truly realized the urgency of the situation.

With the board’s decision due Feb. 27, 1975, supporters of the football program had less than a week to raise money and rally the troops in the sport’s defense. Billboard space all over the bay area and ads in the local newspapers were purchased to raise awareness. Football players took to the streets, passing out leaflets and pledge cards urging support for the program.

Said Marvin Scott of The Sword and Shield Club, the primary fundraising group for University of Tampa athletics: “I just can’t give up until they absolutely say we’re dead.”

If Scott and others hoped to generate renewed support for the program, they were unlikely to find it in the most likely of places: the university’s campus. A petition endorsing the finance committee’s recommendation to drop football was signed by 80 percent of university faculty. The student government, meantime, didn't show a strong response in either direction. If anything, a feeling of indifference permeated the discussion.

The student newspaper, The Minaret, ran an issue debating the pros and cons of dropping the football program. The front page headline summed up the newspaper's conclusion: "Drop Football Now."

Everyone seemed to agree that even if the program survived, expenses had to be cut. One way to save money, besides curtailing travel, would be to return to NCAA Division II status. The program moved up to Division I in 1971, and thus earned the prestige that accompanies such status. Despite producing numerous NFL players, the Spartans did not have a realistic shot at winning national titles or even playing in major bowl games. But if moving back to Division II meant football would still be played at Tampa Stadium on Saturdays, it had to be considered.

By Feb. 27, nearly $110,000 ($436,000 in today’s dollars) had been pledged to save the program. An impressive number, but still well short of the $200,000 suggested by the executive committee that might buy the Spartans at least one more year on the gridiron.

Jim Metcalf, president of the local chapter of University of Tampa alumni, said the effort to save football was worthwhile despite the long odds.

“The community is rallying behind something that has so long been a part of the University of Tampa,” he said. “The point is we are trying to help what we regard as an integral part of the University of Tampa. We feel that football makes the University of Tampa all the more part of this community.”

He added, however, that “if we can be shown that there simply is no way for football to make it, that it is not worth the money and the effort, then we’ll say so long.”

Late in the afternoon Feb. 27, the board of trustees of the University of Tampa said “so long” to football after 41 seasons.

In a 16-9 decision, the board voted to end the program effective immediately, rather than playing one final season in the fall. University president Dr. Bob Owens called it a “milestone decision at the University of Tampa,” while chairman of the board Harris Mullen called it a difficult and emotional decision.

“Football is a wonderful sport,” he said, “but it boils down to the cost being too great, and the risk being too high.”

Head coach Dennis Fryzel likened the news to the death of a close family member.

“This is an extremely sad day for the city of Tampa,” Fryzel said. “This is a community football team. When you can get 40,000 people to a game like Miami, it shows you’ve got the community, the people on your side.”

Karl Funds, who served as the editor-in-chief of The Minaret in 1975, today looks back at the decision with no regrets.

“The university absolutely could not have survived,” he says. “There was not big enough money in this town 35 years ago to support the program.

There were a few voices – a few – that were loud and had some money and power behind them. The S.O.S campaign was a valid effort, but it was too little too late. They had a right to be heard, but the football program was bleeding. The facts were overwhelming. It really wasn’t a choice.”

Former University of Tampa strong safety Rick Thomas (1970-71) believes that, on the contrary, the program might have thrived if given an opportunity to succeed.

“It was too bad that it happened so quickly,” he says. “Holding on a few more years would have made a huge difference. People forget the University of Miami considered dropping football in the 1970s, too, and now look at them.”

No one will ever know whether the program could have survived beyond 1975, but in a cruel twist of fate, Thomas says players themselves may have helped decide the program’s fate.

“Originally when the board of trustees said they were going to eliminate the program, it was meant to be after the 1975 season,” Thomas says. “The underclassman wanted to leave and go somewhere they had a chance to play or even start. The team captain, Ben Hoover, went in front of the board and told them if they wanted to drop the program, to do it now.

We had recruits and players who transferred to big-time programs all over the country who’d become All-Americans, and eventually go on to play in the NFL. With just a little more patience,” he says, “who knows what kind of national recognition the program would have given us.”

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