Occidental announces end of football program after 126 years

The Bill Henry track in the Jack Kemp Stadium, now closed at Occidental College, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Dominic Massimino/The Occidental

Occidental College President Harry J. Elam Jr. announced in an email to students, staff and faculty Oct. 13, that the college would be permanently terminating its football program. The email cited financial stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the competitive gap between Occidental and other SCIAC teams as reasoning for the termination.

Since the announcement, a petition imploring the college to reinstitute the program has gained 1,530 signatures as of 7 p.m. PDT Oct. 17, and an open letter drafted to the administration was shared on Twitter. 

Elam said via email the college’s decision to cut the football program was not made because of any one challenge facing the program, but a multitude of factors.

“There were a number of systemic issues that all factored into our decision, both long-standing recruiting and competitiveness concerns, as well as the need for increased investment of resources to compete,” Elam said via email. “With the short-term and long-term uncertainties created as a result of the pandemic, we also had to take stock of the program relative to institutional priorities.”

Elam, Athletic Director Shanda Ness and Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot met with team members on Zoom Oct. 13 at 4 p.m. to inform them of the decision, according to quarterback Thomas Mercogliano (sophomore). The campus community was notified via email 90 minutes later.

Multiple football team members voiced frustrations about the way in which the termination of the program was announced to the team. Connor Saludares (senior) said some students did not receive notice of the meeting until up to five minutes before it began — a number of students never made it to the meeting.

According to Saludares and Jackson Caudle (senior), administrators answered few questions before leaving the Zoom call, which angered some team members.

“People started asking questions, and they answered three or four questions and then just left,” Caudle said. “I remember I checked the time for a 4:00 o’clock meeting. They left at 4:15. So we got to talk to the people who made the decision for 15 minutes.”

Mercogliano said many players were forced to mute their microphones and video as they were overtaken with emotion.

“They immediately got into it, the president did,” Mercogliano said. “We were all extremely emotional, we were all devastated, in tears.”

The announcement came as a shock to Saludares and Caudle, two of seven students who have been on the roster since 2017 and weathered losing seasons, the 2017 campaign that was cut short and now the termination of the program.

Above all else, Caudle said he wishes the college would have been more transparent about the criteria for cutting football.

“Was there something mismanaged? Was something mishandled that made Oxy lose its football program and everyone else keep it, or was it a difference in values that people didn’t want to say?” Caudle said. “You just get lost and confused and frustrated at the whole thing, because you’re like, ‘Were we kicking at a moving goalpost?’ Or was it us, that we didn’t do something right.”

According to Mercogliano, who was recruited to be Occidental’s next starting quarterback following the graduation of starter and captain Joshua Greaves ‘20 last spring, the team was blindsided by the decision. Mercogliano said many team members believed the college would be supporting the program through their rebuilding process, following the cancelled 2017 season. 

“The last thing on our minds was getting shut down completely like this,” Mercogliano said. “I came here on my recruiting visit guaranteed four years of football experience, rebuilding the program, working with a new head coach, with a new team and that obviously didn’t happen.”

While players have been devastated by the news, coaches have also been affected.

Former assistant coach Nick Ostlund, who was hired in 2015 and helped oversee the program’s recruiting efforts before his departure in 2019, said the football coaches are in a painful position, since they made promises to recruit students on behalf of the college that were not honored.

“Those players that we sold that dream to, they bought in and they took a chance. And I feel like the college let those kids down,” Ostlund said.

Following the decision to curtail the 2017 football season, former President Jonathan Veitch organized a task force to determine the future of Occidental football. The task force recommended a substantial boost in both recruiting and fundraising in order to sustain the program.

“The task force recommended that the college should continue to field a safe and competitive football program, contingent on current recruiting efforts yielding a viable roster and a substantial increase in alumni financial support for the program,” Veitch said in a Jan. 26, 2018 email.

The Occidental football program met their goals on both of these fronts, raising over $970,000 by April 23, 2018, approximately 85 percent of their four-year goal of $1.14 million, and recruited 25-30 players according to OxyAthletics. However, Flot said via email that the college’s decision to cut the program was informed by concerns about securing resources in the future.

“Due to generous alumni donors and the tenacity of our football coaches in recruiting, we were able to satisfy the fundamental aspects of the 2018 task force’s conditions for the continuance of football at Oxy,” Flot said via email. “However, based upon our review of our current circumstances, we made the decision that the College does not have the available resources to support football in the long run, as we consider the overall fiscal needs within Athletics and elsewhere in the College.”

Elam also included the program’s recruiting and competitiveness as contributing factors to its termination. 

In terms of performance, Mercogliano said he was ready to lead the Tigers this season, and that the team would have excelled on the field compared to past seasons if given the opportunity.

“If they were looking for results such as wins, I’m telling you, with how good the junior class is now and how good my class is now, I guarantee you they would have seen the numbers change.”

Since many team members are first years and sophomores who were recruited to Occidental to play football, Mercogliano said this decision means few players, including himself, will remain enrolled at the college to complete their education.

“I’ve talked to every single sophomore almost, a good amount of sophomores — they’re all planning on transferring,” Mercogliano said. “It’s unfortunate, because I 100 percent would rather have stayed here. I wanted to grow up with these guys.”

With his final year at Occidental coming to a close, Caudle said he wants more transparency before he graduates on why the football program was cut, so that players can find some closure in the fact that their hard work was not in vain.

“I know that there’s a budget, and they portion it up, but if they wanted a football program, they would have had a football program,” Caudle said. “I think it’s what everyone is kind of sitting there with, like, own that you didn’t want it, and that’s fine, but have some transparency with the players so that we know it wasn’t us. It wasn’t something we did, it wasn’t because we didn’t make that tackle that one game, and they scored, you know? That’s something you look back on the rest of your life.”

Elam said the college remains committed to its remaining 20 varsity programs. In the announcement he described athletics as both critical and necessary to the liberal arts education at the college. 

Elam said the college had a responsibility to incoming students to make an announcement as soon as possible, leaving time before the Nov. 15 early decision deadline for applicants to make an enrollment decision.

“We notified athletes once there was a full assessment and consensus with trustees in early October,” Elam said via email. “With the approaching November 15 early decision deadline, there was an ethical responsibility to deliver the news so recruits would have this information and current players who were interested in doing so could enter the transfer portal.”

While Caudle said he is disappointed future students won’t get the same opportunities that he did, he and his teammates are proud to have played football at Occidental, in spite of the challenges.

“I got to achieve every academic goal I ever wanted to achieve, while also continuing to do something that I love,” Caudle said. “I think that’s a sucky thing we forget about, that there’s a lot of kids out there now that might not get the best of both worlds like we got.”

According to a list assembled by the Associated Press, the Occidental football program is one of over 230 NCAA athletic teams to be cut as of Sept. 10.