by Brian Brownfield–
If you walked out to Connor Field in the middle of spring, you didn’t see a football field. You saw a field designated for high school soccer and lacrosse, with students occasionally using it to workout or play pickup games of Frisbee. When autumn rolls around, it still won’t be a football field for Menlo College.
On Super Bowl Sunday, less than an hour before kickoff, students and faculty members received an email from Dr. Richard Moran, the President of Menlo College, stating that the football team had been dropped from the college’s athletics offerings. More than two months after the fateful decision to cut ties with the program that has been a staple in athletics for nearly 30 years, there is still salt in the wounds of students at Menlo College. There is not a student nor faculty member that has yet to hear the story from every possible angle, but some are still searching for an explanation why. Why is it that all of a sudden, a program that had been sustainable for 29 years had to be given the axe? What is going to happen to all of the football players who now do not have a sport to play?
“Misconception number one is that we cut the program because of money, that we couldn’t afford it,” President Moran said in an interview. “Menlo College can afford football, but the decision that I needed to make was do I want to allocate that much of the college’s resources to football? It became a question of ‘what’s best for the college?’ Allocating that much money to football or distributing it to other places? And it became a decision to allocate to make a better college, not a better football team.”
Historically, while the program never was wildly successful on the field, the fact that it existed for as long as it did is significant. While other schools in the area cut ties with football, the last program being St. Mary’s in 2007, Menlo College was the only non-Division I program still playing in the area. When noting that the program has been in existence for 29 years, that doesn’t even include the years in which the school was a junior college, where football was around for several years during that time. As a matter of fact, football was one of the original four sports that were sponsored when Menlo was a junior college in 1929. Perhaps most notable to come out of the Menlo football program was tight end Nate Jackson, who holds the school records for most receiving yards (3,976) and touchdowns (43) in a career. Jackson would later play six NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos, and he wrote about his journey through the league in his book, Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile.
Menlo’s football team had long been a member of NCAA Division III Northwest Conference until 2011, when it left the conference to join the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA. While it meant leaving the only conference it could possibly play in at a competitive level, it did create the opportunity for the school to acquire better players via scholarships. In the four seasons of play as an independent member of the NAIA, Menlo racked up a 17-24 record. This was a considerable improvement for a program that hadn’t had a season of more than five wins since 2003. But the improved record could not make up for the difficult and grueling process of creating a full schedule.
Junior transfer Ashley Becker was not a big fan of the decision to close the program when she first heard the news: “I didn’t like it. One of the factors for me when deciding which school to attend was whether it had a football team or not. It is a great way to get school spirit. And part of the reason why the team was conceived as not being good was because of the level of competition they had to face. They played some really tough teams, so it isn’t fair to label them as not competitive.”
Let’s look at some of the logistics of the decision. After careful examination by the Menlo College Board of Trustees, the costs of travel and hosting football games were determined far too great. Over the past few years, the Oaks football squad had traveled an average of 12,000 miles per season. Not only this, but Menlo is the only NAIA school that had a football program within a 700-mile radius. Having to entice other schools to travel all the way to California to play Menlo was not cheap; in some cases Menlo had to pay other schools $10,000 or more just to schedule a game. Furthermore, the average student attendance at football games during the 2014 season was forty–even though students are admitted into the game for free. This means few students bought concessions and merchandise, which means less money was being made. While athletics at Menlo College don’t bring in much money as a whole, the cost of running and hosting football games was actually losing money at a higher rate than any other sport.
“As I looked at the schedule, I saw that we were going to be playing three teams in North Dakota, a team in Indiana, a team in Florida, and a team in Canada, and it wasn’t even fair to the football players to be traveling like that. So that’s why the schedule, or the lack of a schedule, raised a huge red flag,” said President Moran. “One other thing that’s worth mentioning: in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are sixty colleges, and only three football teams–Stanford, Berkeley, and San Jose State. Those three schools all are considerably larger than Menlo. Menlo’s size makes a football team even harder to sustain. So in a business sense, the decision was the best route to take.”
But there is a harder hit that Menlo takes by deciding to cancel its football program. Football was one of the primary sports the students could come together and root for. It produced tailgating. It produced fan chants. It produced a wave of school spirit that was unparalleled to that of any other event, even though the turnouts for home games may not have been that large. And it still is a sour subject to talk about as the months pass by. Even though talk about the program shutting down has subsided, those who care and were affected are still extremely hurt by the decision.
“I’m lucky I got out,” said senior offensive lineman Jerry Torres-Rodriguez. “It obviously was a tough decision to make, but fortunately in my case, being a senior, it doesn’t affect me too much. My body was telling me it was time to finish anyways.” Torres-Rodriguez did mention that even though the decision doesn’t affect his ability to play in the future, he would have come back for support. “I do feel really bad for the young guys on the team, the ones who just got here. It really hurts them the most because now they have to seek other opportunities. I was looking forward to coming back and watching them play, sort of like a reunion, but now I won’t have that chance.”
Part of the reason why the decision was viewed with such discontent by students was the way in which it was presented. Rumor had it there was some football news that had been leaked earlier in the weekend, but with less than an hour before the Super Bowl, the students were informed via email. This was not the way in which it was planned to be released, with President Moran citing that he “would have spent time with the coaches, [and] with the players. They would have been the first ones to know in an appropriate manner, then we would have talked to the parents and the alumni. But because it was leaked, it had to all be done right then and there because it was all out.” And considering the circumstances that led to its unfortunate release, it caused more frustration than it should have.
“I’ll be the first to admit, and I’ve apologized for this in a million ways, the way in which it was communicated was not well done, but we were running behind the announcement the whole time and not ahead of it.” President Moran commented. “It was based on a board of trustees meeting, and those board of trustees meetings are set years in advance, and that meeting was on a Friday that happened to be before the Super Bowl. I had no idea.”
Senior Jason Charbonneau stated, “I was in the Union getting ready to watch the Super Bowl like so many others were. I felt bad for my friends that were on the team. But at the time, it was a form of rejection and no one likes that. However, I totally understand why the decision had to be made.”
The dropping of Menlo’s football program has opened the door for intramural sports, and Menlo’s first ever Rugby Club to form. The roster consists of several ex-football players, and it still provides ample opportunity for student-athletes to fulfill their gridiron dreams while learning a new and exciting sport. But despite the opportunities, it still just isn’t the same.
“I was set on leaving once I found out the school was dropping football,” said freshman Charles Love, who is now a member of the Rugby Club. “The Rugby Club is definitely a nice commodity to have, but it isn’t football.”
President Moran commented, “We need both intramural and club sports, so let’s get them going, and they are going. Some of them are starting this semester. Ultimate Frisbee and Rugby are starting this semester, and intramurals will probably start if not this semester but next semester for sure.”
The biggest question that remains: is it ever possible for football to return to the campus of Menlo College? President Moran says that somewhere down the road, it is still a possibility. He says, “We’d have to have a bigger enrollment, and we’d have to have a different set of teams to play. So if other colleges set up football programs, I’m open to it. The door is not officially closed but a lot of things need to change for us to have it back.”
While the changes to athletics do not satisfy the needs for everyone, the school is entering a new era of athletics. The switch to the Golden State Athletic Conference, along with the creation of new sports and club sports, ushers in a fresh taste to the athletic environment around campus. Without question, there were many sleepless nights before arriving to the conclusion to cut ties with the football program, and it surely will be missed by a large majority of Menlo College. But as one door closes, another opens, and Menlo Athletics as a whole will hit the ground running.