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.

  • Cornell football supporter

    A well written article. Cornell’s top administration and the board of trustees should follow the example that Columbia University did to address the long losing history of their football program, by bringing in an outside consultant to examine all aspects of Cornell athletic programs and not just football, from admissions policies, coaching salaries, recruiting budgets, to athletic facilities (or the lack there of such as a indoor practice facility, and the West Stands at Schoellkopf). There’s no reason that Cornell, the largest Ivy League school, should not be fielding a football that will consistently and realistically compete for the Ivy League Championship each year. Fielding a winning football team would do wonders when it comes to attendance.

  • Frustrated alum

    Rather than accepting defeat, or giving up, we need to do what’s necessary to compete. We did not seem that far from winning in Kent Austin’s last 2 years as coach. I agree that Cornell should follow the Columbia example, and hire a consultant. A winning program would generate student, alumni, and community interest, and may pay for itself. I wonder if our recently completed capital campaign, which raised over $6 billion, sought any funds for a Schoellkopf renovation.

  • Tracy

    Why would anyone who has the brains to get into an Ivy, any Ivy, want to see them scrambled on a football field?

    And why would anyone want to sit on the sidelines and watch them do it. Maybe this is the beginning of the end. We just need another reason for the band to march and the rest of us to tailgate.

  • David

    I would find it hard to believe that Cornell would be kicked out of the Ivy League if it dropped its football program. While football may have been the driving force behind the formation of the Ivy League, few, if any, people associate football with the Ivy League in 2016. The Ivy League has come to represent a group of elite schools, which all rank among the best in the country. If you look at the official Ivy League Rules (http://ivyserver.princeton.edu/ivy/downloads/rulesummary/ivysummary.pdf) it says nothing about schools being required to have a varsity football program.
    Cornell is not the only Ivy League school with attendance problems. Even Yale, with a much stronger football tradition, draws relatively small crowds for any games that don’t involve Harvard. For example, I watched the Yale-Columbia game this past year that had an announced crowd of approximately 7,000 in the cavernous Yale Bowl. And even this year’s Yale-Harvard game wasn’t close to being a sellout.
    Most Cornell students don’t care about the football program, and dropping the sport may influence alumni donations, but it would have little to none impact on the caliber of students applying to Cornell each year.

  • Frustrated alum

    This year’s Harvard – Yale game at Yale attracted over 52,000 people. Can only imagine the development potential of bringing so many alums back? We need to get the right leadership and fix football, not abandon it.

  • LGR

    That this is even being discussed as a possibility is outrageous. A string of losing seasons is not a valid reason for abandoning a historic football program. Bump up recruiting, field a competitive team, make it a priority. Also, as a recent grad, the attitude among students regarding athletics is toxic. This needs to change. Bring beer back to games, do whatever you need to do, but frankly athletics play a huge role in the school’s identity and to abandon them would be a huge moral blow to Cornell.

  • George A. Arangio, MD ’65 ’69

    Core values do not change. Excellence is a Cornell University core value. Cornell is excellent and competitive and a winner in areas, academic and athletic. For that faculty and students and alumni are proud and supportive. As our founder said “…it is better to be excellent in a barn than mediocre in a palace…”
    American football has emerged as a most visible team sport. Ivy League football is not big business. All the Ivy’s have made a reasonable cultural and financial commitment to field competitive football teams and all the Ivy’s preserve academic integrity. When Cornell coaches recruit the student-athlete and family, they must assure that Cornell will be competitive and excellent. They must assure player’s moms and dads that the great Cornell University will provide the tools to be competitive and to win. No more and no less.
    It remains for Cornell to commit to excellence and to the “will to win” in football. Cornell is victorious when Cornell does so. It is a laudable core value to study and practice and to win…. WIN BIG RED

  • Brendan Keatinf

    If the Ivy League had a better TV deal for all sports it would benefit all schools in the League. And the previous commenter was right, there’s no reason we can’t recruit a more competitive squad to Ithaca.

    How come we can beat Duke in Lacrosse but not in Basketball? On a level playing field without TV being necessary to getting noticed in a Professional Sports Draft, we compete and often win. Look at the wrestling team or the hockey team. For that matter, attend a game hockey game at Lynah, or Princeton, or Harvard where there is often a sold out crowd at home and a majority Pro-BigRed crowd at away games.

    Cornellians are proud and we love our sports! It’s losing we hate, but giving up isn’t in our DNA. A Cornell education is about challenging yourself and stepping out of your comfort zone. Athletics is a an important part of that experience.

    An Ivy League TV network would allow all member schools to recruit more marquee players in TV dominated sports like basketball and football. Shared TV revenue could be used to upgrade facilities and pay for coaches. It would also help with alumni fundraising as a way to invite donors back up to school for a weekend. Competitive football also helps the local economy with restaurants, hotel rooms, and shopping downtown.

    Let’s face it, college sports is an arms race, and we need to learn to adapt (without abandoning our integrity), not give up.

    • John

      There currently is no market for an Ivy League TV Network. However , the League has done a reasonably good job of marketing some of its sporting events to several of the cable networks. For example, approximately 20 football games were on ESPN and several other cable channels this past season. However this coverage does not generate any revenue. The League’s most significant success in this area has been with the Ivy Digital Network, a web based system that the League began several years ago in conjunction with an outside provider. It covers most Ivy sporting events and can be watched both live and recorded. The cost to use the service is very reasonable and viewership is growing each year. The League has recently hired a marketing firm to sell the Network content to commercial users. There is a significant demand by the cable networks for sports content and the sales could provide the League with a sports based revenue stream.

  • T.J. Scott

    It’s time the Cornell administration wakes up to the current state of the football and the basketball programs. We alumni deserve better, especially if you expect us to continue supporting those programs!

  • The record

    The basketball program has really struggled since the departure of Steve Donahue. After that incredible Sweet Sixteen year, Cornell has gone 26-54 in the Ivies.

  • Alex

    Comment 6: … a huge “moral” blow? Mortal?

    Comment 7: Ivy’s? It’s Ivies. Plural, not possessive.

    Literacy is dropping like a boulder these days. The fact that it’s doing so among people with an Ivy League degree is appalling and reason for more embarrassment than might be caused by a lackluster football program. It may be unpopular to point this out, but when people who have been educated at so-called elite institutions have lost command of the language, we are truly in a downward spiral (football term).

  • Ward

    Someone should look at what Jim Harbaugh did at Stanford:

    1. Get students to attend games … he created a “points” reward program … helped build loyalty and attendance by students

    2. He was SERIOUS about recruiting. How many West Coast and /or Southern kids get recruited to Cornell?

    3. Hire great assistants, and pay them

    4. Become a “spokesperson” for the program … at alumni, student gatherings, etc.

  • bsme1983

    Huzzah to Mr. Wolcott’s suggestion for all to attend a game next Fall. This is *amateur* football, for enjoyment and love of sport.
    Back in the 1980’s, Cornell started Columbia’s record football losing streak, which was broken after relaxing recruiting rules. Perhaps similar action would help the Big Red, if deemed worthy. There is no way and no benefit to try for 1939 performance:
    “CORNELL BARS ROSE BOWL — No Post-Season Invitations Will Be Accepted, Lynah Says”