By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

NU football and sports journalism

football_20091123Football has never been a big deal at Northeastern. Still, it’s a surprise to see the program canceled just a couple of years after it survived a major review. (Huntington News coverage; Boston Globe story and Dan Shaughnessy column; Boston Herald story.)

From my parochial perspective, I feel bad that aspiring sportswriters in our School of Journalism will no longer have a football team to cover. Yes, there will still be plenty of sports news. But football is a big part of what our student newspaper, the Huntington News, does every fall.

I’m not just an employee of Northeastern; I’m also an alumnus. During the 1970s, when I was a student, I probably went to three or four football games, either as a member of the band or to tag along with the future Mrs. Media Nation, a photographer for the News.

As Northeastern has become more of a residential university, sports in general have become more important on campus. Football, though, could never compete — certainly not with the hockey program.

Ironically, I went to graduate school at Boston University, which canceled its own football program more than a decade ago. (Honest — it’s not my fault.)

I guess the lesson is that football is so expensive that if you can’t do it big, like Boston College, you shouldn’t do it at all.

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  1. Dan….. NU shoudl have pulled the plug when BU did…. still tough to see it go… hope it helps hockey and basketball …. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Mrs. Media Nation.. -Greg

  2. LFNeilson

    My guess? They’re trying to stimulate the checkbooks of some Husky fans. Stay tuned for next month’s story of the rescue.

  3. Al

    Don’t count on any rescue. When BU first tried to eliminate football, the administration run into immediate and vigorous opposition from the student body as well as alumni. It didn’t help that the team went out and had such an outstanding season that pressure kept the football alive for another couple of years until the team faltered. I know it’s too soon, but I don’t see any similar emotion at NU. The support isn’t there on campus, and the alumni…well at NU, they’re not driven by athletic achievements like BC. You don’t necessarily have to do it “big, like BC” to be successful, but it probably does take a lot more than NU is willing to commit to be successful, and with a student body not wild about it, the will isn’t there.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Al: I agree. I think the near-death experience of a couple of years ago was kind of a last-ditch effort to see if football at Northeastern could gain any support. This is the final act.

  4. CAvard

    What was the rationale for axing the program? Costs? Lack of interest?

  5. Michael Pahre

    Harvard (and the rest of the Ivy League) is the counter-example: a school that prides itself on trying to be the top in every single academic field is perfectly content with an athletic scholarship-free athletics program that nobody thinks can mix it up with the big boys (except in a couple of sports, like hockey and maybe swimming). But they are committed to a role for athletics at the university, even if some of the teams keep losing.

    I don’t understand why Northeastern decided that their football program either had to double-down (like Boston College has done several times now, most recently when they switched to the ACC) or disappear completely. There are other options.

    The info in the article made me think that what they really needed to do was hire a new football coach — and they don’t have to get the best guy in the universe, just a solid, competent one for a modest salary. Athletics is good for the soul, even if you never make the top 20 ranked teams.

  6. Newshound

    Recently there was an article in the New Yorker about the dangers of football. There are so many people who suffer later in life from high school and college football injuries.

    Too, the traditional Martha’s Vineyard-Nantucket game is ending.

    Of course this is not a suggestion that Northeastern looks towards Nantucket for direction, but perhaps the beginning of a trend.

  7. Deepak

    Thank God!!!

  8. Neil

    Schools like Tufts, Trinity, Wesleyan and Williams won’t give up football because of costs.

    There are big costs when you run it for tv dollars. There are small costs when you run it the same way you run your other fall sports.

  9. Aaron Read

    The year BU cut their football team they won ONE GAME. I know because it was my senior year there. I still have that year’s football schedule poster framed…and every place I live I hang it in the bathroom because they stunk. (so I’ve got some weird traditions – sue me!)

    BTW, some colleges…especially smaller, liberal arts colleges…keep their football teams around because if they didn’t, most of their “racial diversity” would disappear overnight as the players transferred out. Food for thought.

  10. Local Editor

    Smaller schools can run football programs because they operate as Division 3 programs, and the costs are less.
    My question would be whether a school must operate all its athletic programs at the same division level. Would NU have been able to operate a scaled-down program?

  11. mike_b1

    Local editor: Under Prop 65-1, NCAA schools can compete in different divisions (which really means football, since that’s the only sport that’s not just “D-1”) across different sports. But there are specific rules regarding scholarships that must be followed.

  12. PamAnne

    Someone might want to tell WHDH channel 7 news about the cessation of the BU football program. Their anchors are under the impression that Northeastern is the first and only school that’s ever done that.

  13. Dunwich1

    I see Div.1A football as a rural campus game. Something for the kids to do, and maybe some tailgate parties on alumni weekend for the grads.
    That kind of scenario doesn’t quite work for BU, Providence, NYU, U.Chicago… now Northeastern.

    (And for reasons I’m not clear on, it didn’t at U.Vermont as well.)

    It’s an expensive game and for a private big-city schools, apparently not worth it in the grand scheme.

  14. mike_b1

    Dunwich: Ever heard of USC?

  15. Dunwich1

    Ever heard of USC
    The Pac-10 Trojans mega-locale with perfect weather, make recruiting a piece of cake for the tradional power. Unlike Boston/Ma, LA doesn’t have an NFL team (SC isn’t quite there yet).

    1AA schools in major cities don’t need football quite the way suburban campuses do. Even if some 1A schools (UWashington,Rice,UCLA)have success with it.

  16. @mike_b1: football is the only sport that has D-2 and D-3? Huh?? There are quite literally DOZENS more D-2 and D-3 school sports out there than D-1.

    And for many sports, you CANNOT play cross-division anymore. That was a major reason why Hobart bumped their men’s lacrosse from D-3 (where they were dominant, winning 10 NCAA championships in a row) to D-1, where they’ve been in chokehold from the scholarship rules (we’re a D-3 school otherwise) and we’re lucky to make the playoffs, never mind advance in them; D-1 lacrosse is a vicious, vicious game out here in central NY. Bigger than football by far, and dwarfed only by Syracuse basketball.

    The reason we did it was to preserve the rivalry with Syracuse and Cornell (both D-1 schools) the latter, I am told, is the oldest rivalry in all of collegiate sports.

  17. ben

    First, to answer a question above, UVM dropped football 30+ years ago after the death of a player I believe.

    Second, a school Northeastern’s size cannot compete compete at the Div-3 level. Too great advantage with just “walk ons” from the outsized student body.

    Third, a number of NESCAC types (Williams, Tufts, etc) would likely consider giving up football except the alumni would raise hell (I think they’d get over it). Football is a real problem for smaller, elite colleges because it has such a high number of participants (all male), most of whom were given some break from normal admissions standards. As a result, overall strength of incoming classes is weakened. Swarthmore bit the bullet and canceled the program in 2000.

  18. Michael Pahre

    Reading Derrick Jackson’s op-ed in the Globe today:

    I see that Northeastern was getting by with a true bargain in the cost of their football program: $3 million per year at Northeastern compared to $11.4 million per year for comparable universities. That they have been competitive on the cheap is pretty remarkable — and an indication that, at some level, most universities are over-paying their football programs by a large margin.

  19. Aaron Read

    Second, a school Northeastern’s size cannot compete compete at the Div-3 level. Too great advantage with just “walk ons” from the outsized student body.

    I’m sure school size DOES play a role in what division your football program (or any program) can be in, but I’m also sure it’s not in the way you describe. UConn was D3 football for many years and it’s a lot bigger than NU; in terms of raw numbers of undergrads – NU has 15k, UConn 20k.

    I think you have to be above a certain size before you’re allowed to be in Division 1 football, or any of the D1x subdivisions. Or perhaps it’s a de facto minimum size because you have to have a stadium that holds a minimum number of fans, and it’s a pretty big number…and to justify that capacity, you need a large student body.

    I’m not sure about the “walk-on” level, either. Very few football players, even at the D3 level, are true walk-on’s…they’ve all played in high school and most are at the college on some kind of scholarship.

    I would think that’s especially true for the D1 schools, where most of the kids are effectively auditioning for the NFL, and have had that goal on their minds since pee-wee level.

  20. Aaron Read

    In my limited experience, football is usually killed off at a school because of money. By which I mean in one of two ways: either the program just costs too much money, period (it’s not cheap to move 45 guys around to a bunch of away games, not to mention equipment) or because the school has Title IX issues and it’s too expensive to both keep football going and pay for the equivalent women’s sports.

  21. Sean

    There’s doing it big, and there’s doing it right. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand, or have to. I don’t know a ton about what’s going on at Northeastern, but if the field is hard to get to (a half-hour away?), as this says, then that will play a big factor in attendance.

    I went to a Big Ten school 20 years ago, and the football program there has rarely been competitive. Lately, they’ve had a big problem getting kids to come to the game (the tailgates have been much more popular in recent years) and the stadium there is right on campus. You can’t complain about attendance when the field is a hike for these kids. They just won’t do it.

  22. mike_b1

    Settle down, Aaron. Football is the only NCAA sport where a school can play in a different division than the rest of their sports. Temple is a prime example. It’s a D1 school (basketball being most prominent) but D2 in football (or at least it was).

    Google Proposition 65-1.

    And Hobart is D-3 in lacrosse, not D-1. You got that backwards:

  23. mike_b1

    Dunwich1, I’m still not sure the data point your way. USC has its ups and downs, based on its head coaches. Recruiting is not a slam dunk. UCLA is the same way. Even University of Miami — which is in a major city and shares the other attributes of USC — is sometimes great, sometimes not.

    Just taking the current ESPN Top 25 schools, for example, I see Texas, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Pitt, BYU, Utah, Ohio State and Houston as well as the aforementioned Miami and USC as ranked teams located in cities equivalent to or larger than Boston and which are anything but “rural campuses.”

    But the main problem I see with your hypothesis is that logically it should extend to the HS ranks, too. And it doesn’t.

  24. Mr Punch

    Dan, it seems to me that this is a one-time opportunity for some real explanatory journalism. How was the decision reached? What are the numbers, really? What options were examined? Etc. For instance, the pro media keeps noting that Parsons Field is two miles from campus, but isn’t there a comparable facility actually adjacent (at Wentworth)?

    Oh, and there are other NCAA sports that can be played at different levels. Hockey: RPI, Colorado College (both champs), St Lawrence, Clarkson. There was an attempt to change the rule to prevent this, a few years back, but the Boston media never mentioned it because it wouldn’t have affected BC.

  25. Dunwich1

    USC has its ups and downs, based on its head coaches
    Based on personnel leaving. Underclassmen coming out early makes consistent elite ranking difficult.
    I’d rate Cal,Fla,Tx,Pa,OH as the top talent pools with SoCal best based on the huge JC system in addition to its prime HS talent. And USC doesn’t have admission concerns Stan.,Cal,UCLA have.
    My initial response was about big city schools ( in NY,SF,Chi.,Bo.,Phil.Det.,et al.) not having a pressing need for football, because of other things going on.
    This, and the expense are two factors the Northeastern administration could no longer ignore.

    Div.1 FB is at its best in Norman,Lincoln,State Col.,Ann Arbor,maybe even Eugene! Were little else matters on a Saturday afternoon.

  26. mike_b1

    My god, you’ve never been to Texas, have you? It is every bit the academic institution UCLA is, and cleanliness is next to footballness in Austin. I cite 10 cities larger than Boston: do they all have less “pressing things” than Boston? Austin, to continue the example, is not only the state capitol, it is nearly 2X the size of our fair hamlet. And all schools make exceptions for athletes; if the football team wants you, it is rare the school won’t accept you, regardless of its pedigree.

    Don’t let the facts get in your way, though.

  27. mike_b1

    I should add that the “big cities” you cite are all home to scores of colleges and universities, many of which have football teams.

    So to correctly account for a given metropolis’ interest in college football, one must add up the attendance, etc. at all the local football games on a given weekend. Otherwise, you’re left with the impression that St. Louis citizens like baseball more than Chicago citizens do on the basis that the Cardinals (3.34 million) outdraw the White Sox (2.28 million) or Cubs (3.17 million). However, the combined WS’ and Cubs’ attendance (5.45 million) shows MLB is far more popular — using one somewhat crude measurement — in Chicago than in St. Louis.

    I just looked up the 2008 attendance figures for BYU and Utah. Combined, they averaged 109,000 fans per game, which would rank first in the nation. Is SLC rural?

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