Thirteen consecutive losing seasons. Just three winning seasons since 1985. Zero championships since the 1984 and 1985 teams won back-to-back Yankee Conference titles. Zero playoff appearances since the 1985 team lost in the quarterfinals of the NCAA I-AA Tournament.
Its 6,500-seat “stadium” tied with New Hampshire for the smallest in the Colonial Athletic Association. Except for brief streaks in the 1950s and early 1980s, no tradition of winning football going back more than a century to the inaugural campaign in 1895.
All that at an annual cost of about $3.6 million.
It’s time to pull the plug on football at the University of Rhode Island.
Or is it?
Thorr Bjorn, the director of athletics, has heard the call to drop football since he took the job eight years ago but has not wavered in his support.
“My opinion has not changed. Football is very important,” he said when I spoke to him at the end of August. Football brings people to the Kingston campus five or six times a season for events that would not be held were it not for the sport. Last year, despite a one-win season, home attendance was good, he said. In addition, football contributes to the diversity of the student population in Kingston. Are those benefits worth the cost? Bjorn says yes.
That was before the season opener at Syracuse last Friday night, a 47-0 humiliation. The offense produced a gaudy total of 64 yards, two first downs and four yards rushing; fumbled four times and lost three, and had an intercepted pass returned for a touchdown. Ram runners averaged seven inches per carry. Inches, not yards! If you tripped over the line of scrimmage, you’d average more than seven inches per carry.
Rhody’s defense gave up 426 yards and three scoring drives of more than 60 yards. The punt team allowed a 74-yard return for a touchdown on the last play from scrimmage in the first half.
Coach Jim Fleming chose “embarrassing” and “disappointed” to describe that horror show. Unfortunately, it was not an aberration. URI visited Syracuse in 2002, lost the game, 63-17, and lost its quarterback. URI opened at Connecticut in 2006 and lost, 52-7. I could go on, but you get the picture right? And the prospects for this season are grim. Four of URI’s first five games are on the road. The Rams will visit Albany on Saturday and host Ivy League champion Harvard on Sept. 19. They will make the long trip to Maine on Sept. 26 and visit Brown on Oct. 3 for the 100th meeting in the series. The rest of their October schedule includes home games against Delaware and Richmond and a visit to CAA champion New Hampshire. In November URI will face Villanova and Stony Brook at home and close at Towson, the Rams’ only victory in 2014.
Nevertheless, Bjorn and the URI administration are committed to football. A big reason that critics usually fail to comprehend is that football costs the university about $500,000. That’s all. You see, the football operating budget is about $1.3 million, and the athletic department raises about $800,000 of that total. This year the projections are $200,000 from donations and $150,000 from ticket sales. Syracuse paid a $400,000 guarantee. That’s right, the Rams collected $400,000 to travel to upstate New York to get whipped. Next year URI will head to Kansas for $500,000 and in 2017 to Eastern Michigan for $400,000. Boston College and UConn are future guarantee games.
What about scholarships, you ask? URI awards the equivalent of 58 full scholarships worth about $2.3 million to football players, Bjorn said. He agreed that even without a football program, the university would probably use that money for financial aid, unless it wanted to reduce expenses or enrollment.
So, for an outlay of $500,000 from the institution, URI gets a home opener, Family Day, Armed Forces Day, Homecoming, Saturdays are potential crowd pleasers. This year is also the 30th anniversary of the 1985 Yankee Conference championship, the 100th meeting of URI and Brown and the first meeting of URI and Harvard.
Befitting an optimist, Bjorn sees brighter days ahead.
“I have all the confidence in the world that we’ll see progress and growth,” he said. But Thorr, just how do we measure progress and growth? “Wins and losses,” he replied. “We have to win games.”
When? Of all the old Yankee Conference teams still playing football, URI has gone the longest without a championship or playoff appearance. Two former Yankee Conference rivals, Boston University and Northeastern, dropped football in recent years and are thriving. Ditto for Hofstra, a former Colonial Athletic Association rival. And let’s not forget that the University of Vermont dropped football after the 1974 season and has not suffered in the least.
The same could be true for URI. But not now, it appears. And hey, 30 years have passed since Rhody’s last mini-dynasty. It could be time for another.