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Football Making a Comeback at Villanova After 4-Year Absence

April 06, 1986|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

The Villanova University Wildcats built a 5-0 record last fall, finishing the college football season as the nation's only undefeated and untied team in either of the top two divisions, I-A and I-AA.

Amusing capacity crowds each week, the Wildcats, a Division I-AA entry, beat five straight Division III opponents in an unusual abbreviated schedule approved by the NCAA.

That doesn't sound so hard, but it was a lot better than they did the year before, or two years before, or three.

"Villanova gave up football for four years (1981-84) before bringing it back by popular demand (in 1985)," Coach Andy Talley said the other day. "The demand was overwhelming."

He added, after checking the record book: "I think we've set a record. We're the largest university with the longest (football) tradition to drop football and bring it back since the University of Chicago."

Citing the evils of overemphasis, Chicago quit in 1939, then resumed as a Division III team 30 years later.

Why at Villanova, which had played football for 87 years on its campus in suburban Philadelphia, did the authorities first abolish, then shortly afterward restore the game?

"The perception in 1981 was that this is a sport that has become far too costly to maintain," said Athletic Director Ted Aceto.

Villanova's football deficits reportedly exceeded $500,000 a year in the 1970s.

"Today it's no less costly than before," Aceto said. "It is the university's view of football that has changed.

"Everybody can see now that football is a university's No. 1 activity in drawing the community together," he said, meaning faculty, administration, students and former students. "It's the rallying point. It gets the old grads back and keeps them interested."

The leaders of Villanova's 51,000 living alumni played the key role in changing the administration's stand on football.

"We have 54 (alumni) clubs throughout the country--including three in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego," said Bob Capone, alumni director. "And 52 of the 54 club presidents returned to campus the day we urged (the authorities) to reconsider."

Father John Driscoll, the Villanova president who made the two decisions to eliminate and restore football, remains concerned by the price of the most expensive of campus sports. But he is hoping for the best.

"You simply have to look to the overall benefits (of playing the game) instead of the financial benefits (of not playing)," he said. "Football is a unique college activity that has the strong support of the alumni and the school's other friends. If it's that important to them, it's that important to the university."

At the alumni office, Capone, the former coach who recruited Raider end Howie Long for Villanova, said: "Compared to the total budget at any college, the football budget isn't that bad."

That seems to be the majority view today among the higher-education administrators of the 50 states.

Contradicting a notion that multitudes of financially pressed colleges are abolishing football, there has been a steady rise for 20 years in the number of football-playing institutions.

"We had 667 four-year colleges playing intercollegiate football last year," NCAA spokesman Steve Boda said. "That's 57 more colleges than in the 1960s. A larger number of institutions put intercollegiate teams on the field last year than in any year since 1950 (when the total was 674)."

The peak, 685, was reached in 1948 with the deluge of GI bill federal funds.

"For financial reasons, an average of about one college a year drops football," Boda said. "At the same time, an average of nearly three colleges have been adding or resuming each year.

"In 1981, when Villanova dropped, there were three additions," he said, naming Buffalo State, West Georgia, and Western New England. "In 1985, when nobody dropped, Villanova was only one of six schools adding or resuming football."

The others were small schools without much of a following among sports-page readers: St. Peter's of New Jersey, Worcester State of Massachusetts, New York Maritime, MacMurray of Illinois, and Ferrum of Virginia.

Sports fans generally understand why football seems important to such schools as Michigan, USC and Texas. But in an era of nationally televised major college games, what's in it for MacMurray and Buffalo State?

"Football is a rallying point for them, too," Boda said. "A lot of fans don't know Division I from Division II. Students like to go to a school with a college football program. And their alumni want it."

As a result, few state-supported colleges anywhere exist without football.

Private schools are, however, something different. Large or small, such institutions usually are pinched financially.

"In big-time football, private schools are almost the only ones that have ever dropped the sport," Boda said, naming Chicago, Fordham, St. Mary's, Hardin-Simmons, Marquette, Loyola Marymount and others.

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