The Magic Flutie

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.

"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.

Of course, there are plenty of well-documented downsides -- from academic cheating to point-shaving -- that occur when students and administrators decide that life on the porch is so important they don't bother going inside the house. Perhaps the highest-profile critic of the outsized role athletics play on college campuses has been Murray Sperber, whose books include the self-explanatory Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

While Sperber concedes that football -- and other successful athletic programs -- may increase the quantity of admissions applications to a school, he notes that the quality may not necessarily remain constant. "I'm sure that it attracts the 'beer and circus' crowd," he says. "But at some point a school has to ask itself if it simply wants warm bodies."

For example, Sperber suspects that the average SAT scores of Michigan State applicants have dropped since the school became known for its party atmosphere after winning the NCAA Division I basketball tournament in 1999. Other critics point out that when you go after students who are willing to select their college based on its football program, you usually get exactly what you're after. "What a good football program does is give exposure to the school on national TV, and that might cause an increase in admissions just as any marketing program does," says one college admissions director. "But the only people who will choose their university based on football are more football players. And lots of those never graduate."

Indeed, Sperber has argued that while football and other athletic events (the aforementioned "beer and circus") may enhance campus life, the hoopla is also a calculated distraction. "Many universities," he writes, "because of their emphasis on their research and graduate programs, and because of their inability to provide quality undergraduate education to most of their students, spend increasing amounts of money on their athletic departments and use big-time college sports -- commercial entertainment around which many undergraduates organize their hyperactive social lives -- to keep their students happy and distracted and the tuition dollars rolling in."

Then there's the whole issue of cost. While CSU's administrators insist that a football program there would be capable of supporting itself, and even turning a profit, Sperber questions how likely that really is. "Everybody in Division II is losing money," he says. "It's like a wasteland. You can never make money because you're so far away from the fame and glory of Division I. Plus, in Division II, unlike Division III, you're giving out scholarships--you are in effect paying students to play football."

Yet Sperber is his own best argument against freighting college athletics with too much importance. Even though he is a popular, long-time professor of English at the University of Indiana, Sperber only attracted significant attention to himself through his harsh criticism of the school's volatile -- and highly successful -- basketball coach, Bobby Knight. This past fall, Knight was finally fired after new revelations that he verbally and physically abused students and athletes even more than everyone already knew -- which was plenty.

Since then, it has been difficult to get in touch with Sperber: He is afraid for his life. Soon after Knight's sacking, Sperber began getting death threats from angry students and alumni. This fall, rather than face the hostility, he decided to take an unpaid leave of absence from the University of Indiana. When I reached him during a rare and unannounced appearance in his IU office, the head of campus security was just leaving.

"People don't really know I'm here," he said. Still, he added, his life was improving. "It's moved from specific threats to just general nastiness. But I'll tell you: I've never rooted harder for Indiana basketball."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >