Hofstra cut more than football team
When Roger Williams ran off the field at James M. Shuart Stadium on Nov. 21, he already was thinking about his future.
It had been a tough season for the Hofstra place-kicker. Williams -- a redshirt junior who co-owns the school record for the longest field goal, 54 yards -- suffered a hamstring injury early on and lost his starting job. But midway through the season he was kicking off again and hoped to win back the field goal-kicking duties in 2010.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, he already was working toward that goal, joining his teammates in the start of their offseason running and weightlifting program. And that's what he was doing on the morning of Dec. 3 -- weightlifting with his teammates -- when they all received an identical text message on their cell phones.
Mandatory team meeting. 10 a.m. sharp.
The players had no idea what was going down. Perhaps a coaching change? The team was disappointed with its 5-6 record on the season, but it had won its final game 52-38 over UMass, had beaten No. 7-ranked James Madison and had suffered close losses to nationally ranked New Hampshire and Delaware.
The players gathered nervously in a room in Margiotta Hall. And that's where athletic director Jack Hayes broke the news.
They no longer were teammates.
Hofstra no longer had a football team.
When I saw the news on my computer screen that Thursday morning -- that Hofstra was eliminating its football program -- I winced. Not because I have any affiliation with Hofstra -- I have none, other than the fact that I live in the New York metropolitan area. I winced because I know the pain Roger Williams and his teammates are going through. Well, not quite.
When I attended the University of Pennsylvania, I played on Penn's junior varsity basketball team (something I've written about before). In the middle of my time at Penn, word spread that the JV basketball team was on its last legs. The athletic department was making some budget cuts, and the JV hoops team was an easy target.
I was devastated at the thought. By that time, I'd really settled in at the school. I had made some fantastic friends, and I had charted the course of my studies. I absolutely loved Penn -- but I couldn't imagine my life without basketball. The JV team was one of the primary reasons I'd decided to go to school there. As painful as it was, I seriously contemplated uprooting myself and going somewhere else.
Thankfully, the JV team ended up surviving after all. I was able to play a full four years and even got to suit up for a varsity game my senior season in front of my parents.
Hofstra's football players won't be as lucky. "Everyone kinda just broke down, in a state of shock and disbelief," Williams said when asked about the players' reactions to the news in that team meeting. "A lot of guys just stayed outside, and talked, and cried. I went to my car and cried, and called my dad.
"It was the worst day of my life."
The timing was particularly cruel. Just the day before the announcement, the team had held its annual offseason draft -- splitting into smaller groups that would compete against one another during the course of the next several months in competitions ranging from weightlifting to pizza-eating. It was a way for the players to stay motivated and continue bonding until the next season.
"It's like a dream, that I'd always had -- to play [football] at the college level," Williams said. "And then, in a five-minute meeting, they pull the rug right out from under you, on something you've worked for since you were 7 years old."
There are two sides to every story, of course. Hofstra's on-campus stadium seats 13,000 people and offered students free tickets to every football game. Yet students showed little support for the team. An average of only 500 attended the games last season out of a student body of 12,500.
Overall, the team averaged only 4,260 fans per game. This despite the fact that the program has produced a bunch of NFL players, including four currently playing in the league, headlined by New Orleans starting wide receiver Marques Colston.
In addition, football is an extremely expensive sport to operate at the college level. Hofstra was spending $4.5 million per year on its football program.
"The cost of the football program, now and in the future, far exceeds the return possible," Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz said in a statement. "Given that, along with the low level of interest, financial support and attendance among our students, our alumni and the community, the choice was painful, but clear."
Rabinowitz and Hofstra's board of trustees probably did the right thing for the school in the long term. But they did a wrong thing to the 84 student-athletes who were ambushed with that news that morning.
"We felt by doing it when we did, we gave as many people as possible as many options as possible," said Hayes, the athletic director. "If we had waited until after final exams, we would not have been able to do it face-to-face."
The football players on scholarship were told they can keep their scholarships if they remain at the school. And if players transfer, they won't have to sit out a year, which players normally must do under NCAA rules. That's nice and all. But what about Williams, who chose Hofstra over several other similar schools primarily because of the opportunity to play football there? What about the guys like him?
At the least, Hofstra's players should have learned their fate sooner than Dec. 3, nearly two weeks after their season ended and after their offseason workouts had begun. Better yet, maybe they could have been given one more season? After all, Hofstra isn't banking the $4.5 million it will save by cutting the football program. It will spend that money in other areas of the university.
"Yeah, I think that's tough," Hayes said. "If everyone knew the next year was going to be the last season, I think some of these kids would have begun to transfer already. I do understand the human side of it, but the reality is a lot of those people would make a move right away."
But what about the kids who wouldn't? Or couldn't? One more season would have given them a chance to savor one of the most memorable and meaningful experiences of their lives. One more season would have let them run off the field after the final game of the year and know it was the final game.
The past two weeks, since the hammer came down, Hofstra's football players have been scrambling. Many already have received interest from other schools -- some even have accepted offers to transfer. But then there are the players like Williams -- players who weren't highly recruited and don't have a lot of other options.
On top of writing term papers and studying for finals, Williams has been sending out his highlight video everywhere, calling coaches all over the country and scouring team rosters on the Internet, trying to find any potential opening where he could conceivably be a candidate.
But no solid offers have come his way as of yet. "No one's really looking for a kicker this time of year," Williams said. "I'm kinda hoping, maybe after spring ball, someone will need a kicker."
Williams has two years of athletic eligibility remaining. If another school does give him an opportunity, he'll face a very difficult decision. He's made some great friends at Hofstra outside of the football team. And he had his course of study worked out -- he's a political science major with a history minor. But he has heard that a significant chunk of his credits may not be accepted at some other schools he might transfer to.
"If I got a great offer, it would be tough to turn down," Williams admitted. "I still really want to play."
I really hope he gets an offer. I know how he feels. Well, not quite.
"I don't want to go out like this -- not knowing my last game, not being able to go out on Senior Day with my family there," Williams said. "I envisioned it over a different way."
He had every right to.
Kieran Darcy is a general editor at ESPN.com. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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