It was a Thursday night, not that long ago (on October 8, 2009), when former Hofstra University head football coach Dave Cohen joined my Football Reporters Online colleagues and I as a guest on our weekly “FRO Show,” just four days after one of the biggest victories in the history of the Hofstra football program.
Coach Cohen was looking forward to a homecoming game against Maine after his team’s 24-17 upset win over then seventh-ranked, defending Colonial Athletic Association champion James Madison, a program rich with success over many years at the I-AA level, whether under that label, or more recently, under its current moniker, the Football College Subdivision.
“Certainly, we’d like to emulate some of the success they’ve had from winning a national championship to being a regular in post-season play,” Cohen said of JMU.
Sadly, neither Cohen nor any of the players he coached this season at Hofstra will get that chance.
On December 3rd, exactly seven weeks after Cohen made that comment on The FRO Show, the Hofstra board of trustees backed Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz’s recommendation to drop the Hofstra Pride football program after 72 proud (pun appropriately intended) years of existence.
Although JMU had a disappointing and rare, 6-5 non-playoff season this year, the Dukes still stand at 29th in the latest FCS Coaches’ poll, and the Pride’s historic win over them was something that Cohen believed would not only propel his team, but the following of Hofstra’s football program.
“Hopefully it’s added confidence and excitement and enthusiasm around campus,” he said.
It should have, but unfortunately, it didn’t.
Only 2,751 fans attended the JMU game at Hofstra’s 15,000-seat James M. Shuart stadium, and while attendance more than doubled to 5,433 the following week in a disappointing 16-14 homecoming loss to Maine, only 3,386 and 2,549 fans showed up respectively, for Hofstra’s final two home games of 2009, a season in which the Pride averaged just 4,260 fans per game.
Last year marked the bottom of a steady decline in attendance, with an average of just 3,604 coming to cheer on the Pride. That was a drop from averages of 4,955 per game one year prior, 5,101 in 2006, and 5,263 in 2005.
As a result, Hofstra’s attendance drop-off directly led to the dropping of its football program.
Or, at least that’s the only picture that the Hofstra administration wanted to paint for the general public.
Many skeptics believe that Rabinowitz simply never liked football, and ever since he took over for Shuart (the former Hofstra football player and university president for 25 years, who Hofstra’s stadium is named after), he was aiming for the day when he could cancel the program, in part to fund Hofstra’s new medical school set to open in 2011, and other worthwhile academic endeavors.
And, since I personally trust no exclusive group when power and money are involved, I have my own conspiracy theory, that perhaps the CAA might have worked out a backdoor deal with both Hofstra and Northeastern University, which dropped its 74-year-old football program just ten days earlier, on November 23rd.
Consider the circumstances: Northeastern just completed its sixth consecutive losing season; the Huskies and Pride again ranked as the bottom two in CAA attendance for the third time in as many years, ever since the CAA took over the Atlantic 10 operation in 2007; the CAA has its league offices based in Virginia; and, southern schools Old Dominion and Georgia State (each, CAA basketball schools) will be joining the conference over the next two years.
Given all of those conditions, it’s quite possible that it would have been in the best interest of the CAA to have made on an offer to Northeastern and Hofstra to prevent the CAA from becoming too crowded with the additions of ODU and Georgia State football, while giving the CAA more of the southern flavor to match its roots as a conference before it began expanding northward.
Maybe, it was something along the lines of “Since you’re not very profitable, here, take this money and go away quietly. Northeastern, you can fund your other programs, and Hofstra, you can build your med school and fund whatever else you like, while we keep CAA Football primarily down south.”
I realize that could all be extremely far-fetched. Yet, perhaps there’s some truth to one or both of the aforementioned conspiracies.
Terence Thomas, of College Sporting News, who covers the entire CAA football conference very closely, was a guest on The FRO Show hours after the official word came down about the canceling of Hofstra football, and he seemed to back me up on my Oliver Stone-like thoughts about the CAA and its willingness to sp easily lose its biggest market in New York.
“You wonder if they are concerned with markets,” he said, “Or if they’re trying to move the league south and have a Virginia-based league, because all of their offices are down there. You don’t really know where the loyalties lie.”
Until proven otherwise however, let’s stick with the facts, which by themselves, still don’t show Rabinowitz nor the 22-member Hofstra board, of which only 12 are Hofstra alumni, in a very positive light in this matter.
Ultimately, Rabinowitz cited the high cost and low interest as primary reasons for the sudden and abrupt canceling of Hofstra football.
Certainly, there’s no denying that those two factors existed. We’ve already gone through the poor attendance figures above, and the cost for running the Hofstra football program, with its minimum of 63 required NCAA Division-I scholarships, stood at $4.5 million per year.
However, there’s more to the Hofstra administration’s verdict than what appeared on the surface.
To back Rabinowitz, the board’s vote was officially a unanimous one to portray a unified front to the public, but those who have closely followed Hofstra athletics and Rabinowitz’s tenure at Hofstra know that many members of the board must have voted against their will to cancel an institution which had been around since Hofstra’s founding in 1937, without so much as a warning to anyone else who had been in or who still remains a part of the Hofstra community.
And, it could hardly be something that Hofstra athletic director Jack Hayes argued for vehemently.
The decisions to drop football at Northeastern and Hofstra came after each school’s two-year cost/benefit analysis of their entire athletic programs.
The difference though, was that Hofstra had at least attained a level of success which Northeastern had failed achieve, and unlike Northeastern, Hofstra also had the infrastructure in place (and still does), having poured millions of dollars into stadium expansion and upgrading Shuart Stadium’s surrounding facilities, beginning in 1996.
The problem with that however, was that Hofstra while believed in a “build it and they will come” mentality, the reality was that the local area interest paralleled that of Northeastern’s football program.
And, when Shuart, one of Hofstra football’s biggest proponents was out of the picture, the push to generate interest lagged even more under Rabinowitz.
Let’s go back to the cost/benefit review.
A two-year study, and yet over that entire time, there were no public calls on behalf of Rabinowitz’s administration to save Hofstra football.
No letters sent out to Hofstra alumni or season ticket holders in support of the program.
No reaching out to National Football League Hofstra alumni like Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach Raheem Morris, New Orleans Saints’ star wide receiver Marques Colston, defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steeler and starting offensive tackle Willie Colon, New England Patriots’ cornerback Kyle Arrington, Dallas Cowboys’ defensive end Stephen Bowen, or former eleven-year New York Jet Wayne Chrebet, for either financial assistance or at the very least, public relations support which might have helped greatly.
And certainly, there was a severe lack of any earnest attempt to put out an effective marketing effort in order to increase attendance and fan interest enough to save Hofstra football.
As Thomas pointed out, that type of pledge from Hofstra to its football program existed marginally at best.
“It starts with the administration being committed to football,” Thomas said. “If the commitment is there, they will go out there and they’ll publicize the game. They’ll have Band Day, they’ll have Pop Warner Day, they’ll have all these advertisements to get people to come to the games. You had JMU up at Hofstra, which should have been a sold out game. I mean, I admit the weather was poor that day and there may have been other things going on in New York, and New York is a hard sell, but then you have to be that much more aggressive to get people to come out to your games.”
Instead, Rabinowitz and the Hofstra administration basically sat idly by and watched a more than seven-decade-old program quietly die behind a secretive two-year study.
Morris, who played at Hofstra from 1994-97, called the move a “sad state of affairs.” He added, “It was weird because it kind of happened out of nowhere.”
Colston said, “I am both saddened and shocked to hear the news that the Hofstra University football program has ceased. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the university, my coaches and my former teammates and I am sure that they share in my disappointment.”
Chrebet said he “was shocked” at hearing the news.
Dr. Bill Chachkes, the managing partner of F.R.O. and the main host of The FRO Show, who covered the JMU-Hofstra game with me, put the announcement about Hofstra football’s cancellation in perspective. “We were at that game, both Jon and I,” he said. “That was a thrilling game and we were talking to Jack Hayes, and you would never know that not even two months later, we would be talking about Hofstra closing the program down.”
And, one of my FRO Show co-hosts, Bill Carroll, from Consensus Draft Services, said during the same segment on which Thomas appeared, “I was not shocked about Northeastern. I had heard at least rumblings… Hofstra was more of a surprise because although there were issues in terms of drawing crowds, the product seemed to be solidified. The kinds of kids they were getting, the level of play seemed to be on the upswing. That seems to be almost disconnected from their other issues.”
Another disconnection is Hofstra’s public statement about what an integral part Hofstra athletics supposedly plays at Hofstra, juxtaposed against the reasons Rabinowitz gave for dropping football at his school.
On Hofstra’s own website, a statement reads “The exciting action and competitive spirit of Pride athletics is a significant part of campus life at Hofstra University.”
But, who’s kidding who? If any sports programs at Hofstra were a “significant part of campus life at Hofstra University” it was two: men’s basketball (which still is) and football (which was, until it was unceremoniously shoved out the door like an unwanted house guest which overstayed his or her welcome).
Rabinowitz and some of the spineless board members who voted in step with what the president wanted regarding Hofstra football claimed that the football program had to go because of its cost relative to the financial return brought in by the program.
While it’s true that Hofstra football cost far more than any of the remaining seventeen athletic programs at Hofstra, by that same criteria, the other seventeen Hofstra sports combined, are as much of a financial drain as football, yielding as little in return, as what football provided.
Low interest in football? Really… No disrespect to the great student athletes and coaches who play or coach the following sports (and I sincerely hope that none of them are the next to go at Hofstra), but who exactly is stepping over themselves to buy tickets to see Hofstra baseball, tennis, golf, cross country, or field hockey?
That’s just one way in which this decision was hypocritical on the part of the Hofstra administration.
Another is the failure to realize that most FCS programs don’t make money, yet they can still provide significant value to a school. In fact most Football Bowl Subdivision programs, and even most college athletic programs in general, lose money.
So, why do they continue to exist? Because there’s something inherently valuable to maintaining them, not only for the life lessons gained and opportunities created for student athletes and their coaches, but also for the identities created by such programs with the schools that run them — which ironically, all leads back to money, anyway.
In that regard, Chrebet clearly mentioned how Hofstra football helped Hofstra University, “We got to be a ranked team. We got a couple of guys in the pros. Hofstra got to be a well-known school.”
Instead, Hofstra was unfortunately known just as well in a negative way.
At one point, just a few hours after Rabinowitz’s announcement, Hofstra was listed as the top Yahoo! search on the internet, and two days later, ESPN’s college football preview show had Hofstra dropping football as a main story of the week after not long after a story on the SEC championship game between No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama, and another on other bowl selections.
Addressing the poor attendance leading to the Hofstra football program being dismissed, one Hofstra football fan at the popular CAA message board CAAZone.com, summed up the situation well, saying “I am sure you don’t go over your (insert old relative here)’s house every day, but when she is gone you probably aren’t going to say good riddance, her medical bills were expensive, why were we even keeping her alive, now I can spend that cash on some books and a new PS3.”
Yet, that was pretty much the stance taken by the Hofstra administration.
Perhaps the biggest reason though, why that position was egregiously insincere was that many of the same Hofstra board members who voted Hofstra football out based on financial reasons, previously irresponsibly voted to approve expensive football facilities upgrades before the football program was truly ready for them.
A huge project was put into place (in fairness, mainly before Rabinowitz’s tenure began, but tweaked and continued under his watch) including the expansion of the seating capacity from 7,000 to 15,000; the installation of a network-quality lighting system for television broadcasts; an Athletic Department office building, which includes a press level and a club suite level; two entrance plazas on the south and west sides of the Stadium; a facade around the outside of the Stadium; additional parking and landscaping; a pavilion in the southeast corner of the Stadium; concession and souvenir areas; two locker rooms; the installation of a state-of-the-art scoreboard in the south end zone; a new scoreboard in the north end zone; and new FieldTurf.
The price tag for all of that?
A cool $9 million, which ironically equals the same cost of the Hofstra football program that was deemed too high by many of the same board members, over their secretive two-year cost/benefit analysis.
How’s that for being hypocritical?
Additionally, let’s look at the current high tuition at Hofstra. At about $46,000 per year for a full-time undergraduate student, it would have taken an increase of 98 such students annually to cover the cost of maintaining Hofstra football.
That’s only an 0.81 percent increase of the 12,100 total student enrolled, or a 1.33 percent increase on the 7,327 full-time undergraduate students who currently attend Hofstra.
I’m obviously not in the business of doing anything with a university budget, but I would think small percentages such as those would be realistic targets for a decent-sized private school to shoot for on and annual basis, and if it can’t achieve those seemingly relatively small increases, they might not be managing their money well across the board (or should I say, across the board of trustees?)
Moreover though, it was the initial planning with grand visions (nothing wrong with that in itself) combined with either the unwillingness or incompetence to see that through which unfortunately led to demise of Hofstra football.
There’s nothing wrong with shooting for the stars. Go ahead, have a great stadium, great facilities surrounding it, all while improving your academic status and having a medical school. In fact, it can be agreed even among the most staunch Hofstra football supporters, that the latter two are probably significantly more noble and more important undertakings.
However, if done right, Hofstra could have had it all.
You don’t pour $9 million into a program costing $4.5 million per year before you have any clue that the interest was there to justify the $9 million upgrades.
What would have been so terrible with gradually building in small steps, having some success, building upon that, then slowly funding smaller expansion, and having further success and further growth, in football, or in all areas?
Rabinowitz can blame Long Island fans for not showing up all he wants, but this was years in the making. Hofstra’s constant need to rush and push itself beyond what it’s ready for, ultimately caused the end of Hofstra football.
Well that, and once the decision was made to go that route, the lack of effort placed on effectively marketing what Hofstra created. With nice facilities, and no team, they’re basically now, all dressed up and nowhere to go.
And, the accountability for that?
Good luck finding it at Hofstra.
Cohen and his entire staff lost their jobs. Some of them were even on the recruiting trail when they found out. And, Hofstra football players who trusted that they would finish out their four years playing college football in the best FCS conference in the nation, near the greatest city in the world, have to scatter and quickly hook on somewhere else.
Let’s be realistic for a moment. Many kids who want to, can’t attend college at all, and Hofstra’s former football players still have the opportunities to keep their scholarships and finish out school should they choose.
Still, they’re in a lot tougher position than they needed to be all because of a president and his board.
If they’re lucky, those players will all learn a new system quickly and compete all over again for playing time in a foreign environment, while having to develop the level of chemistry. And, that’s just the athlete part of “student-athlete.” The strain of having to adapt in a new school academically will be added pressure.
But, the members of Hofstra’s board of trustees who voted for the football facilities upgrades rolled the dice big time with some bad miscalculations which worked out terribly, yet those same board members still have their jobs, and they’re free to keep spending or “reallocating resources” as they see fit.
It’s funny how the word “trustee” begins with “trust,” yet that was the thing which Hofstra’s football players couldn’t rely on in the end.
If it truly came down to finances, what that board or president Rabinowitz didn’t consider is a possible ripple effect.
Take a program like Hosftra basketball, for instance, the only athletic program left that’s realistically still “a significant part of campus life at Hofstra University.”
Dropping a football program, even to prospective athletes in other sports, could make Hofstra appear small-time.
The next great basketball player to come to Hofstra, maybe the next local budding star to follow in the footsteps of Hofstra star Charles Jenkins (the 2009-10 CAA Preseason Co-Player of the Year), might look at the decision to drop Hofstra football and wonder just how strong the Hofstra athletic program really is, or if Hofstra’s board or president has other future agendas, such as deciding to drop the basketball program in favor of future academic scholarships.
The possible net effect that the Hofstra board or Rabinowitz probably didn’t count on in a case like that?
That player goes somewhere else, and Hofstra basketball fails to generate possibly even more revenue over time, in missed NCAA or NIT tournament bids (plus the national attention and public relations boon that go along with something like that), than the amount it would have cost to keep Hofstra football alive and strong.
Oh, but that’s right. That’s why most universities have a men’s basketball and football programs to begin with, to make money for the school in other areas, not to make a return on those programs themselves.
To truly appreciate the saddest thing in this whole situation, you have to look back one decade.
Yes, the 1999 season, when Hofstra was played under the great Joe Gardi, eight years before joining the CAA in 2007.
As hard as it is to believe that Hofstra football was no more just 61 days after its win over JMU this past October, it’s even more difficult to fathom all of the schools Hofstra beat, all in that same 1999 season, and where those football programs are today, relative to Hofstra’s newly ceased program.
The following isn’t meant to depress Hofstra football fans (and that’s my official disclaimer), but it’s interesting to note who Hofstra defeated during their 9-3 season which ended with a I-AA playoff berth:
Hofstra opened the 1999 season with an easy win 56-17 win at UConn, which is now a thriving program at the FBS level in the Big East. Speaking of current successful Big East programs, Hofstra also won at South Florida, 42-23, that year. They won too, at Buffalo, now an FBS member of the MAC. Throw in a 21-9 victory that year over Elon, which is currently ranked eight in the FCS coaches poll.
And, then there are the schools that were all former CAA conference mates only weeks ago, and mostly, very good ones. JMU? Yup, beat them that year at home, just like this year, and handily (34-16). Perennial FCS and CAA contender UMass (except for this year)? That was a comfortable 27-14 win on the road. Former CAA foes Maine and Rhode Island? Beat them both on the road, defeating the Black Bears, 27-19, and the Rams, 28-13.
Even one of the losses looks good today: a 31-21 defeat, in which Hofstra led 21-14 after three quarters, against current CAA member Richmond, last year’s FCS national champion.
So many good programs that went on to much bigger and better things while Hofstra’s football program was allowed to just casually fall by the wayside by an administration that did little to save it, let alone make a real attempt to match any of the programs Hofstra beat soundly just ten year ago.
There’s always the possibility that Hofstra football could still return, perhaps in a conference like the Patriot League, one that would be befitting at least, of the types of academic institutions that Rabinowitz aims for Hofstra to become.
However, as Thomas says, that might be difficult once a decision is made to cut a program. “If Hofstra does try to bring back football in a couple of years,” he said, “I have a tough time believing that the alums, and others who supported Hofstra Football would buy into it, because you’ve broken their hearts, and you broken their trust. Especially. because they are capable of going to the playoffs. This year they lost some close game that they could have won, and they could have been there. They were a good program and they had all the makings of a team on the rise, they just had some bad bounces.”
Still, such a comeback is not without precedent. Hofstra need look no further than its own former conference, and to a team which has a very close relation to Thomas, himself.
On Friday night, at 8pm EST, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Villanova Wildcats (who lost to Hofstra in 2003) and Thomas’ son of the same name (playing linebacker, as his farther did at Whittier College), will be competing in the 2009 FCS national championship game against Montana (another team that Hofstra beat on the road several years ago).
Ironically, the day before Hofstra officially dropped football, Chrebet was named as the inaugural ambassador of Friday night’s title game. That’s about as close as Hofstra will get to the title game now.
However, Villanova’s situation offers hope through action, though it took some time.
In 1981, Villanova’s board of trustees, also citing economic reasons, discontinued the Villanova football program. And, that was a football institution which had been around since 1894, making Hofstra’s long tradition look young by comparison.
Less than a year later, Villanova’s student government released results from a student survey indicating that over 96 percent of students who responded to the survey, wanted football to return.
Just 41 days later, the Villanova board agreed to review its position on football, and almost one year to the day after that, Villanova’s president announced that the board elected to restore football at the university.
In 1984, Villanova hired head coach Andrew Talley, who last year, in his 25th season at Villanova, became the all-time winingest head coach in CAA history.
Along the way, Villanova returned to the I-AA playoffs in 1989, 1991, 1992, and 1996 out of the small Yankee conference, before joining the Atlantic 10 when Hofstra was there. The playoff loss in 1991 was a narrow 17-16 first-round decision against eventual national champion Youngstown State.
By 1997, Villanova recorded its first I-AA playoff victory, and the Wildcats won two playoff games in 2002. They joined the CAA with Hofstra in 2007, going 7-4, then 10-3 last year, and are now 13-1, on the brink of reaching the FCS pinnacle, with just one more win standing in their way.
Viewing Villanova’s rise to success is the shame of it all for Hofstra. The Pride was already well on its way toward making the climb that Villanova has made in the past few years of its 25-year journey since coming back from the abyss.
But instead, if Hofstra is ever to attain what Villanova has thus far, it will have to start all over again from scratch, as Villanova did in the 1980’s.
Would it take as long for Hofstra? Maybe not. But, as of now, it may not happen at all.
The problem from a football standpoint this past season was Hofstra’s offense, which struggled to help a defense that was solid for most of the season.
Cohen opened things up though in Hofstra’s final game of the year, perhaps its final game ever.
For one day, it gave hope in a lost season.
Senior quarterback Cory Christopher went out with a bang, passing for a career-high 484 yards, while junior wide receiver Aaron Weaver, from nearby Freeport, NY, caught a career-high 15 passes for 191 yards.
A team that was averaging just 18 points per game, erupted for a thrilling 52-38 shootout win over UMass.
It should have been a game to build on for next year.
But, in one ten-minute press conference, Rabinowitz changed everything.
“Hofstra has a nice victory in their last game… and they get the rug slipped out from underneath them,” said the more senior Thomas.”
Instead of hope for next season, Hofstra football fans and alums simply wish Hofstra football can someday return.
And, rather than seeing how lessons learned from that final game can be used for next season, Cohen just hopes he can find a new job.
He’s currently rumored to have defensive coordinator offers at Western Michigan, Georgia Southern, and Bowling Green. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” the still-disappointed 43-year-old coach said. “I’m just sitting on [the offers] right now.”
In the meantime, an effort on the part of some former Hofstra football players who are seeking reinstatement of the program, has already taken shape.
Once such player leading that charge is Dave Gerstman, who played Hofstra football from 1986-89.
Today, Gerstman is a high-powered lobbyist who has posted the following on his Gotham Government Relations website, at http://gothamgr.com/save-hofstra-football:
“I am deeply upset about this decision, As an alumnus, former football player and a member of this community, I will personally seek clarification and details on why this occurred. I hope that the University will reconsider this irresponsible decision that ultimately will impact the region in a very profound way, from Long Island high school football players to current Hofstra football players and fans, and many others.”
“The University is part of the fabric of Long Island and I believe this is damaging to Long Island and the reputation of the school.”
Will actions such as Gerstman’s ultimately help to re-establish Hofstra football?
Time will tell, but if you’d like to hear what Gerstman has to say, he will be a guest on The FRO Show this Thursday night, December 17th, at 9pm EST.
All episodes of The FRO Show can be heard live, weekly at that time, and replayed at any time, at:
Though an administration showed little pride in Hofstra football, there may yet be a significant movement to restore football to the Hofstra Pride.