|Birmingham-Southern restarts football after 68 years in Division III and without scholarships|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 20 August 2007 12:08|
The private, liberal arts school is returning to the gridiron this fall for the first time since 1939, when players still wore leather helmets. These Panthers, however, won't have scholarships.
School leaders added football after deciding last year to ditch NCAA Division I athletics in favor of non-scholarship Division III sports.
The change meant the temporary shutdown of Southern's basketball and baseball programs as scholarship athletes left. Some even marched across the hilltop campus to protest the decision.
But freshman enrollment is up 55 percent this year largely because of football players, and alumni giving is on the rise, too. Enrollment stands at 1,319 students - an increase of almost 10 percent from last year.
Working both in his small office in the recreation building and in the locker room at nearby Legion Field, Jones is going down the unending list of things a coach must do to get a program off the ground.
He met high school coaches and recruited 125 players. Check.
He helped design a new football stadium and athletic complex. Check.
Now, if he can just finish installing his spread offense, perfect the four-man defensive front and get stickers on helmets in time for the first game against Mississippi College on Sept. 6.
``I'd say 99 percent of the players here just love it,'' Jones said. ``They're paying to play.''
Count Tony Myers in that group. A former high school quarterback from suburban Birmingham, he gave up a football scholarship at The Citadel to move closer to home and will be a wide receiver on Jones' first team.
Myers knows startup programs can struggle, but he's not expecting to lose every game.
``I think we're going to surprise a lot of people,'' he said.
After dropping football prior to World War II, the school competed and won championships in NAIA for nearly 50 years before jumping to Division I in 1999. It was an odd fit from the beginning: A small, Methodist church-affiliated school playing in the NCAA's top division.
David Pollick became president of Birmingham-Southern in 2004 and began wondering if its Division I athletic status fit with its reputation as a high-quality, regional school known best for academics. The school gave out 117 athletic scholarships and only one purely for grades.
Trustees began an internal review and found that the numbers didn't add up: The college was spending nearly half of its $6.5 million athletics budget on scholarships, and enrollment was foundering. College football is a religion in Alabama, yet Southern wasn't in the game.
So the board voted in May 2006 to switch to non-scholarship sports. Members took the headline-grabbing step of adding football, and they also decided to start lacrosse and track teams.
With enrollment already on the rise at Birmingham-Southern, Pollick said the goal is to increase the student body to as many as 2,000 in a few years. Division III athletics makes more financial sense because players are paying at least part of their own way, he said.
Besides the added enrollment and money that football can generate, Pollick said there's just something about having a football team, particularly in the South.
``Football within an athletic program generally is the anchor or the measure of success of the program, rightly or wrongly,'' he said. ``In our case it will play the same role, plus it adds to the fun of the campus, which is a legitimate value.''
Athletics director Joe Dean Jr. initially questioned the move away from Division I, but he doesn't anymore.
``I think it's been a very good decision,'' Dean said. ``It creates new support for men and women coming to school here, and football gives our whole athletics department a shot in the arm.''