The Magic Flutie

USC may again tackle a football program -- hoping to score more enrollment.

College admissions directors are well aware of a phenomenon known as the "Flutie Effect." The Flutie in question, of course, is Doug Flutie, the slippery bantam quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. (He also has his own breakfast cereal, Flutie Flakes, sold regionally, whose digestive "Flutie Effect" is another story.) The effect that interests higher-education administrators dates back to 1984. That's when Flutie, then the senior quarterback for the Boston College Eagles, heaved a last-minute, Hail Mary touchdown bomb that beat the top-rated University of Miami Hurricanes in a nationally televised game. The win made Eagle football an instant contender, and even today, nearly two decades later, BC carries a reputation as a dangerous opponent.

Yet Doug Flutie affected more than just college football scouts. He also made life a whole lot easier for BC's admissions officers, whose job is wooing top high-school students to Boston. In the year following the Eagles' dramatic victory, applications for admission to the private college jumped an astounding 25 percent. Potential students, it seemed, liked the idea of attending a school with a high-profile jock culture -- particularly one like Boston College, whose students had proven that they knew how to celebrate a big win.

The Flutie Effect -- the term is credited to Murray Sperber, author of several influential books on the impact of big-time sports on universities -- did not go unnoticed by other institutions of higher learning, which created their own campaigns to emphasize athletic programs.

The strategy didn't work for everyone; the University of Buffalo spent a lot of money to move its athletic teams into the higher-profile Division I, only to become a permanent doormat and have admissions fall. In fact, many schools have added up their figures for college football -- a gruesomely expensive and labor-intensive endeavor -- and opted simply to walk away. In the past fifteen years, more colleges and universities have dropped their gridiron programs (forty, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association) than have started them or resumed one after a hiatus (29).

Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that a modified Flutie Effect is enjoying a renaissance, particularly among smaller colleges whose very survival may depend not on building, but simply maintaining, their enrollment. Football is similar to Internet access, spacious suites, gourmet food and nicely tended tennis courts: it has become another campus amenity.

The University of Southern Colorado's gridiron program was shut down in 1985 as part of a sweeping cost-cutting program at the Pueblo school. But three weeks ago, USC students agreed, in principle, to assess themselves a $6-per-credit-hour fee to support the return of Division II football. The possibility of bringing back the program will next be addressed by the state Agriculture Board (USC is part of the state's ag school system), and then the Colorado Board of Higher Education.

USC officials are doing their best to present the "bring football back" campaign as a grassroots, student-led effort. But only 25 percent of the students even voted in the election. "The whole backbone of this thing has been Butch Perchan," says Victoria Esquibel, USC's student-body president. Perchan is the university's athletic director -- a position that, without a football team, is like being a general without tanks. Indeed, Perchan succeeded in bringing back football at his previous post as athletic director for Tri-State University, a private Indiana school that's less than a third the size of USC.

The campaign has also received crucial support from a local organization called "Friends of USC Football" that is headed by Nick Pannunzio, USC's last quarterback before the program was mothballed. Today Pannunzio is one of the area's largest home builders. About a year ago, his group conducted its own feasibility study and concluded that football would attract new students to the university and re-energize the campus. USC's president, Tito Guerrero III, is a cautious supporter of the effort. He's said that he would welcome football back, but only if it doesn't take money away from academics.

He has also demanded that the school's athletic department comply with Title IX -- Perchan has promised to introduce women's track and field, golf and cross-country teams -- and that the money for the first year's football team be raised upfront. So far, Pannunzio says, his organization has collected about $1 million of the $2 million it will take to jump-start college football in Pueblo. The money would be used to cover the cost of new uniforms (the old ones were sold at auction), hire coaches and make stadium upgrades at the 12,000-seat Dutch Clark Stadium, where Pueblo's four high schools play. In fact, Pannunzio adds, bringing football back to USC would provide entertainment for the entire city. "Pueblo is a football town," he says, pointing out that the biggest high-school game of the year, between Central and Centennial, draws about 14,000 spectators. Less important games still attract up to 9,000 fans.

Yet the main argument for re-introducing the game is the Flutie Effect. After having seen USC's enrollment plummet from 4,900 in 1984 to 3,600 two years later, university administrators are eager to do whatever is necessary to bring back paying students. And even though USC's enrollment has inched back up to about 4,000, officials envision as many as 6,000 young men and women filling USC's classrooms.

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