Glendale Community College’s three-time national champion football program is coming to an end.
So are the three other junior college football programs in the Valley.
Maricopa County Community College District announced last week that it will eliminate the district’s four football programs — at Glendale, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa community colleges — after the 2018 season. The district will honor scholarships through the 2019 spring semester.
The announcement shocked and upset many with connections to the programs. Many have sought ways to reverse the decision. A petition to keep the programs has circulated online and the Grand Canyon State Gridiron Club sent a letter to the district chancellor and the presidents of the four colleges with football programs, proposing a plan to keep the football programs alive, largely through private money.
However, the college presidents don’t support the proposal, said MCCCD spokesman Matt Hasson said Monday morning.
“Doesn’t look like it’s something that’s viable,” he said.
The decision, a unanimous vote from the district’s 10 college presidents, came down largely to finances, especially after the state legislature has slashed the district’s budget.
“When you’re not getting state-funded, it’s about access. It’s about impacting as many students as we possibly can with the resources that we have,” Mr. Hasson said.
Mr. Hasson was quoted in the news release sent out by the district Monday, Feb. 5.
“The decision to eliminate the football programs at Maricopa Community Colleges was not taken lightly,” the statement read. “Although this is a disappointment to our student athletes, coaching staff and football fans, it is ultimately the right decision for the district and the long-term success of students.”
Coach Joe Kersting, whose name has become synonymous with GCC football, said he was “very sad” to hear the news. Kersting led the Gauchos to its first two national championships as a head coach in 1988 and 2000 and was an assistant coach for its third championship in 2005. He was with the team for 21 years, 16 as a head coach.
“I started thinking about all the players who have benefited by the opportunity to go to college, get started on their education, obviously participate in football, but also the opportunities to move forward in their lives and their careers.,” he said. “… So many people and families are going to be affected by this. And not just this generation but generations to come.”
The decision will limit the options for high school football players in the Valley wanting to play at the next level.
“With those four schools you’re looking at 250-plus kids who have an opportunity to further their education through sports,” said Glendale High School head coach Rob York. “A lot of kids in our area, especially here at Glendale, the level of their athleticism is right at that junior college level.”
Mr. York said he thought the decision was a “horrible idea.”
The timing of the decision came as a surprise. MCCCD released a statement in October 2017 stating the football programs would survive for the time being. District Chancellor Maria Harper-Marinick said in the news release that the district would reevaluate the programs in 2019.
Instead, the decision was made nearly a full year before that timeline. According to Mr. Hasson, the college presidents said the decision needed to be made now, because there were necessary infrastructure improvements the district needed to put money toward.
The announcement was made as soon as the decision was made to give students as much notice as possible, he said.
“We wanted to give the students that were a part of the program through this next season, and anyone interested in the program beyond that, the information as soon as we had a decision made,” Mr. Hasson said.
The announcement came two days before National Signing Day, the first day a student athlete can sign a binding letter of intent for a collegiate sport. This football recruiting season was the first to include an early signing period in December.
“Signing Day was on Wednesday, (Feb. 7), so we wanted to get it out so that people could be informed and make informed decisions with their families,” Mr. Hasson said.
Dozens of high schoolers signed with GCC Wednesday, but they will only have one season to suit up for the Gauchos.
GCC’s top two coaches will still have jobs at the college, according to its president. In an email sent to the college’s staff, GCC interim president Teresa Leyba Ruiz stated, “I am committed to our coaching staff, (Head) Coach Mickey Bell and (Assistant) Coach JD Sollars, and we will honor their employment at GCC.”
MCCCD used to receive about $69 million in state funding each year. The state began to reduce funding in 2008, until it reached zero in 2015. The district estimates it has received about half a million fewer dollars since the reductions began in 2008.
MCCCD says its football programs account for 20 percent of the district’s athletics budget and is responsible for over 50 percent of related insurance costs.
Mr. Hasson said the football program costs almost $2 million per year and capital improvements for football stadiums and facilities across the district would have ranged between $20 and $30 million over the next three to five years.
“When you can make a decision and spend $20 million on 200,000 students, which is our student population, versus 300, we’ve got to make very difficult decisions.”
Mr. Hasson said football expenses is a detailed list, but mentioned, in addition to stadiums, weight facilities, locker rooms, equipment purchases and travel. He also acknowledged that other sports play on the same fields as the football teams, but said that football leads to higher upkeep costs of those fields because it tears up the fields more.
Aside from cost, MCCCD’s statement and Ms. Ruiz’s email to GCC staff listed several reasons for cutting the program that the Maricopa Priorities Athletic Task Force’s study found in May 2017.
“Football was the lowest performing against key student success metrics including dropout rates, student-athlete GPAs, and course completion. Football also had the highest student loan default rate,” Ms. Ruiz’s email read, citing the task force.
Many proponents of football have claimed the study counted a player transferring to a four-year university to play and continue his education against the graduation rate. Mr. Hasson could not provide an answer to the accuracy of that claim by deadline.
Neither the statement nor Ms. Ruiz’s email mentioned player safety as an issue in cutting the sport constantly linked to head and brain injury. However, Mr. Hasson said it was a factor in the decision and also the reason insurance rates are so high for football.
“All of our decisions are focused on the students, so their safety is certainly a component of our decision making,” he said.
Amongst plenty of backlash, Mr. Kersting was one of few to provide alternatives to cutting football. He said he’d sent a letter several months ago to MCCCD’s board and the presidents of the four colleges with football programs, offering to be a resource to work through the issues the task force found.
Mr. Kersting said the district could require a certain GPA out of high school to participate in athletics, allowing a one- to two-semester probation period for a student get his or her grades up to that mark to show he or she can be a capable college student. To save on insurance costs, Mr. Kersting suggested having district players pay their own insurance costs or allowing coaches to fund raise for those costs. He also suggested capping or cutting off entirely out-of-state athletes.
“Require that every student athlete be from the county or from the state of Arizona, because the ones that have the biggest at-risk problems are the ones that have these high financial burdens, and those are the out-of-state athletes,” he said. “They have to find places to live, they have to pay for their own meals and they have the highest cost of tuition.”
Combining those ideas could resolve a lot of the issues shown in the study, Mr. Kersting said.
“These are simple solutions. They really aren’t that complicated,” he said. “I really believe there are people in positions of power that just didn’t want football to be around anymore and they had the power to do it, and they’ve done it.”
Route to education
“Our core mission is education,” Mr. Hasson said. “We’re here to provide access to higher education to the entire community.”
Several people with connections to MCCCD football argued that junior college football is some kids’ only chance to access higher education.
Mr. Hasson didn’t buy that argument.
“I don’t agree with that, necessarily,” he said. “That basically says these kids have no chance unless they play football. I mean, we’re here to provide access to education. (A football scholarship) is not as much as people might think it is. It’s only $350 a semester. And that probably covers one class. So these kids aren’t getting full rides.”
Manuel Orona, a GCC player who will be transferring to the University of Memphis to play offensive guard in the fall, says he wouldn’t have gone to college without football.
“I didn’t have the coaches in high school to get me the exposure to big colleges. Without GCC, I would have been doing roofing as a full-time job right out of high school,” he stated in an email interview. “I honestly had a 0 percent chance of going to college out of high school until Jason Jewell, my OL (offensive line) coach from GCC gave me the great opportunity that I am truly grateful for.”
Mr. Orona said the opportunity has had a big effect on his life.
“It affected my life by a lot,” he stated. “I am a first gen to go to college in my family, the first to play a college sport. And it’s just opening new doors for me in my career that I most likely wouldn’t have been able to do not receiving a college education.”
One of Mr. Orona’s fellow offensive lineman at GCC, Steven Bailey, is also going to a Div. I school, but staying in state. He’ll be transferring to the University of Arizona to play football in the fall.
Mesa CC safety Gleson Sprewell has committed to Houston and Scottsdale CC offensive lineman Thomas Preston III has committed to North Texas. SCC defensive end Cassius Peat has not signed yet, but has offers from Oregon, Michigan State and Florida State.
The next level
For some MCCCD players, a Div. I program is not the last stop. It wasn’t for former Scottsdale CC punter Nick Murphy. Mr. Murphy left SCC after one season to punt at Arizona State for three seasons before entering the NFL. He appeared in six games for three different teams in the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
Junior college programs allow players like Mr. Murphy to access the next level of play, he said.
“Without SCC football, there’s no chance in the world I ever would have been able to play at a school the size of Arizona State, which probably would have prohibited any NFL shot that I had,” he said. “For people like me who either needed to develop their their talent a little more or for guys to just need to get their grades in order, it’s just such a important feeder system I think to Div. I football.”
Mr. Murphy said he needed longer to develop as a player because he’d only begun punting his senior year in high school. Mr. Kersting said junior college is a place for student athletes to develop in several ways — in sports, in academics and in maturity — before being ready for the next level.
Some junior college products have made it big in the pros. Former junior college athletes currently in the NFL include Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Tyreke Hill, Alvin Kamara and former ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong.
A petition started by GridironRR.com has circulated social media, including several retweets from Deer Valley High School Football’s Twitter account.
“By signing this petition you are therefore stating that you are in favor of Junior College football being reinstated beyond 2018 in Maricopa County, Arizona,” the webpage reads.
The petition has not gained traction. At deadline, it has fewer than 3,000 signatures and a goal of 100,000. Regardless, Mr. Hasson says there’s nothing the public can do to change the district’s decision.
Three junior college football programs remain in Arizona: Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona Western College in Yuma and Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher. Five four-year universities play football: Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, Arizona Christian University and the newly-formed Ottawa University in Surprise, which plans to play its first football season in the fall.
The NAIA schools, Arizona Christian and Ottawa, which have a more achievable standard for football recruits than the NCAA schools, also come with much higher tuition costs than a community college, as Mr. Kersting pointed out, saying not every student athlete can afford those costs. Arizona Christian costs about $24,000 annually, Ottawa costs about $27,000 annually while GCC costs under $3,000 per year, according to information from each school’s website.
Far-away community colleges can present cost challenges for student athletes as well. One of the benefits of community college for many students is the ability to save money by living with their parents while they attend. Mr. Orona said he wouldn’t have been able to go play at a junior college in Tucson or beyond “because my family would not be able to afford me living out there and going to school.”
This change could also complicate things for the three surviving junior college programs in the state. Those schools plus Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, will be the only programs remaining in the Western States Football Conference. Mr. Kersting and Snow College Head Coach Paul Peterson say the change could mean more travel, and more travel costs, for the remaining Arizona schools.
“The remaining ones, they come to us every other year. Now it looks like they’d have to come to us every year,” said Mr. Peterson, who is against MCCCD’s decision. “So that’s a challenge they’d have to face.”
The remaining four teams in the league would likely be required to play each other twice each season, a rarity in college football. Mr. Kersting and Mr. Peterson also said the remaining Arizona schools will also likely need to add more out-of-state schools to their schedule. These would probably be teams in Texas. California junior college teams don’t play out-of-state and Snow College is the junior college program in Utah. There is also only one program in New Mexico.
Another reason MCCCD’s statement listed for cutting football was consideration of the national trend, saying that of 530 colleges in the National Junior College Athletic Association, only 65 sponsor football.