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"The main thing we found out was that it would increase enrollment at the college," Pannunzio says. "It would get the university growing again. That was the main thing."
College admissions officials cite many ways in which football makes their job easier. For starters, coaches, who must recruit to be successful, act as off-the-books admissions counselors. Every time an assistant line coach travels to some podunk town to convince a 275-pound high-school senior who runs a 4.5 forty that he ought to consider State U, that's a plug that the college wouldn't have gotten without football.
Then there's the exposure that football games bring. Jacksonville University, a private college in Florida, began fielding the fighting Dolphins in 1998, hoping to pump up enrollment. "In addition to locals, a lot of our students traditionally are snowbirds from New York and New Jersey," says David Lesesne, Jacksonville's director of admissions. "Our football team plays teams in Long Island. We know we're not going to get very much ink in the Long Island newspapers without football."
In the past three years, enrollment at Jacksonville University has jumped by more than a hundred students. "I'd say the majority of them are here because of football," Lesesne says. "A lot of parents and students, particularly in the southeast, don't really consider you a college until you have a football team. Last year, one of our teachers here was named national Professor of the Year. But we probably get more exposure from a single football game."
Other schools report similar experiences. The Oregon Institute of Technology dropped football (and four other sports) in 1994 as a result of a TABOR-like property-tax reduction. In the years following, according to athletic director Dan Miles, OIT enrollment plunged from about 2,600 to 1,600. Today, the school is considering bringing back the gridiron program to save itself.
"We're trying anything we can to get enrollment up," Miles says. "And we figure there are two to three kids who will come to a school for every athlete who decides to enroll. Last year, we had eleven kids on our baseball team, but we estimate there were thirty more kids who also attended the school because of them."
A football program can be a tool to make an even more specific fix. Just like morning-drive radio programs, some schools find themselves chasing the world's most desirable demographic, the 18-to-25-year-old male. Hartwick College, in Oneonta, New York, was struggling with an imbalance in its student body -- about 60 percent of the students were women. Several years ago, after considering many strategies to attract more men, the school settled on reviving its football program, dormant since the 1950s -- this despite the fact that the tiny (1,500 students) private school already boasted one of the country's top Division I soccer programs.
"We figured there was a good shot at getting men who might have glossed over Hartwick if there had been no football," says Karyl Clemens, former director of admissions and now executive assistant to the president. The strategy worked: Today, Clemens says, half of the student body is male.
Illinois's Rockford College, also facing a 60-40 female/male student ratio, this year fired up the Rockford Regents. Although the team finished a dismal 1-9, the admissions office is looking like a winner. The gender ratio already has begun to right itself, says admissions director Bill Laffey. And general enrollment is climbing, too. Sixty football players enrolled at Rockford this year; Laffey estimates that about three-quarters of those students wouldn't have considered the college without the football program. Better still, he says, applications to the school have shot up 40 percent. So, even if the school decides not to grow, it will become more competitive. Rockford is now looking at building a new football stadium. "A lot of students assume you have a good academic program, otherwise you would've shut down by now," notes Laffey. "So they're looking for the amenities."
Belhaven College, a small Christian school in Jackson, Mississippi, added football in 1998. In 1997, the year before the program started, enrollment at the college stood at 1,076. This fall it was 1,625. The football team itself has figured heavily in the new student body. In 1998 there were 65 players on campus; this year there are 107. The team's coach, Norman Joseph, insists that his players contribute positively to campus life, from holding leadership positions in student government to a public performance put on by the "Beginning Ballet for Athletes" class.
Georgia's LaGrange College is toying with adding a football program to attract more students. Christopher Newport University, in Virginia, is starting football next year. "We do anticipate additional applications," says admissions director Patti Cavender. "In fact, we've already seen an upswing in interest." Enhanced enrollment isn't the only reason the school decided to tackle football, she adds: "We're trying to become more traditional, more residential. Football is a complement to an overall campus lifestyle."
Bear Bryant, the storied football coach of the University of Alabama's dominating Crimson Tide teams of the 1960s and '70s, used to defend the almighty football program by describing it as the university's "front porch." While football may be what you see when you first approach the school -- and might even be what made you stop by in the first place -- it's still what's going on inside the house that matters, he pointed out.