February 23, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Is Big Red Football Sustainable on the East Hill?

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After yet another losing football season and dwindling attendance, many alumni, students, faculty and members of the Ithaca community probably wonder what the future holds for the beleaguered program. Cornell again finished near the bottom of the NCAA Division I rankings and the current scenario is very similar to when Boston University, Hofstra and Northeastern recently discontinued their football programs.  Historic Schoellkopf Field, which turned 100 last year is showing its age and is partially condemned. It costs approximately $2 million per year to operate an Ivy League football program to maintain a roster, coaching staff, equipment, recruiting, travel, facilities and sports medicine. For many years, Cornell football expenses were largely covered by ticket revenue and the occasional television broadcast. Today a significant portion of that budget is covered by alums who may remember the “glory days” of Cornell football. What will happen to the program when they’re no longer around? No doubt it’s an expensive endeavor and even the most loyal Big Red fans like me often wonder: is it worth the expense and commitment to maintain a Division I football program at Cornell?

Cornell’s inability to field a competitive football team is not entirely the fault of the players and coaching staff. The reality is the Ivy League has become a more competitive conference due to increased recruiting, improved facilities and enhanced financial aid packages by our peers.    This past season, non-league foe Colgate, who only beat Cornell by one touchdown and lost to Princeton and Yale, advanced all the way to the Division I FCS quarter-finals. The Ivy League today probably has more former players in the NFL than any time in our history.    

The Ivy League was founded in 1954 due to college football’s expansion into a big time business and our member schools desire to maintain academic excellence and financial aid based on need, but still remain a Division I conference. One of the primary reasons we all applied to Cornell is due to our affiliation with the Ivy League.  Cornell is kind of a “Catch 22” position in that our administration may not want to commit the resources for a competitive team, but our membership in the Ivy League is still tied primarily to the sport of football.

I have a different perspective on Cornell football growing up in the Finger Lakes Region and attending many home games during my youth. One of the traditions of Cornell football and the Big Red Marching Band is that it helps bring together our students, faculty, alumni, and members of the Ithaca community. Even for those who don’t like football, attending an Ivy League game is a great way to see friends and meet new people. The networking opportunities are incredible as many summer internships and post-graduate connections have been made at Schoellkopf Field over the years. For example, in 1971 the East Hill was seething with racial tensions and the Vietnam War. The campus was torn apart by protests and recent the takeovers of Willard Straight and Day Halls. However, during the fall of that year, thousands of students, faculty and alumni packed Schoellkopf Field on Saturdays to watch the Big Red football team win our first Ivy League title. The crowd would sing along with the Big Red Marching Band to many of the ensemble’s traditional tunes. I remember the Columbia game in front of over 23,000 fans when Heisman Trophy candidate Ed Marinaro broke the NCAA Division I rushing record. During the game it was so loud, some of the players were waving their arms to quiet the boisterous crowd so they could hear their quarterback call the signals. It was a very magical time in the history of Cornell football and brought a common bond to our East Hill campus.

Times have changed and Cornell football games may never fill Schoellkopf Field again. Today with the internet, digital TV, Facebook, Twitter and all sorts of other forms of entertainment, Cornell football’s best days may be in the rear view mirror. This summer, the University plans to demolition the West Stands which were constructed in 1947 and the few Cornell football fans who remain will be staring at the parking garage during home games.  Not exactly the image one conveys “High above Cayuga’s Waters.” Meanwhile, Harvard, Yale and Princeton will probably continue to dominate us year after year. Desperate for a win of any kind, we will schedule so called “cupcake” opponents like Monmouth, Wagner and Sacred Heart, even though we recently lost two out of three of those contests.

We must remember membership in the Ivy League is a privilege and not necessarily a guarantee. The college football landscape is changing quickly and the Ivy League may not be immune to the upheaval. What happens if Harvard decides they no longer want to bus six hours to Ithaca to play in a partially condemned stadium with less than 3,000 fans? Maybe they would rather play Duke or West Point in front of 30,000 fans. Meanwhile, there are probably many faculty and students at Cornell who would prefer we drop football and reallocate those resources to other athletic or academic programs. There is no doubt the cost savings for dropping college football is very significant. However, without Cornell football we would probably forego our membership in the Ivy League and the many academic benefits which come along with that affiliation. Songs like “Give My Regards to Davy” would no longer be played by the Big Red Marching Band and spirited alumni would be less likely to travel back to our rural campus. Do we really want Cornell to become another Boston University with no football team? On the other hand, how much longer can we sustain a football program with only one winning season over the past 15 years and very meager attendance? Before we pull the plug, I encourage students, faculty, alumni and members of the Ithaca community to attend at least one home football game next fall. Maybe celebrating our Ivy League traditions at Schoellkopf Field during an autumn afternoon is not so bad after all. Go Big Red!

Mark S. Wolcott is a member of the class of 1983. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.