President Elam, Dean Flot and Director of Athletics Shanda Ness share the news about the program’s discontinuation and the rationale for this difficult decision.
In a year that has already been unprecedented by any measure, we are announcing today that we will be discontinuing the football program at Occidental College. This extremely painful decision comes with the strong support of the Board of Trustees. We make this decision in the context of the major financial downturn the College has experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also as the result of many years’ ongoing study of the football program. Only after very careful consideration and a thorough review of past planning efforts, as well as with the deepest regard for the history of football at Occidental, do we make this decision.
This decision is based on the unique challenges specific to Oxy football and is not a referendum on varsity athletics at Oxy. We maintain an unwavering commitment to athletics as a critical and necessary component of the Oxy liberal arts experience, and we fundamentally believe in maintaining strong and well-supported athletic programs. As difficult as this decision is, we believe it is the right one for Occidental.
THREE YEARS OF RESEARCH AND STUDY
This decision comes now, at this critical juncture in the College’s history, as the culmination of a series of in-depth deliberations that began three years ago, when a limited roster and concerns about our ability to safely field a competitive football team led the College to cancel most of the 2017 football season. After a detailed analysis, in January 2018 a multi-constituent Athletics Task Force recommended continuing the program, albeit with the conditions that it meet certain agreed-upon recruiting and fundraising goals. The renewed program would need to be both safe and competitive. In announcing the adoption of the task force recommendations, then-President Jonathan Veitch cautioned that "we can’t lose sight of the significant challenges that still exist," noting that the pool of prospective football players could be limited by Occidental’s rigorous academic standards and declining participation in youth football programs. He also made it clear at that time that the College would not sacrifice safety or academic standards for football, concluding “for all of these reasons, we will continue to monitor and revisit the viability of the football program as circumstances require."
With the generous support of alumni and parent donors and an increased investment from the College, we were able to continue the program and make much-needed investments in equipment and personnel. However, the competitive gap between Oxy and other SCIAC programs continues to be significant. After considering the larger landscape, we have come to the following conclusions:
A significant sustained financial investment from the College, above and beyond what has already been raised, is required to maintain a safe and competitive football program in the SCIAC. The current football budget already represents almost 20% of total direct expenses for all of our 21 varsity teams. In addition, a sizable increase in the football budget, as well as increases in other indirect expenses, would likely be required to support a safe and competitive program.
We want to offer the best possible experience for our student-athletes, and the College has determined that to do so for football would require a level of investment that is not sustainable, especially relative to other priorities and given the financial impact of the pandemic.
THE PANDEMIC, FINANCIAL AND RECRUITMENT CONCERNS
Beyond the issues raised in 2017-18, the pandemic has posed significant new financial challenges for the College, certainly in the near-term, but also long-term, that have prompted renewed conversations about the College’s priorities. This has placed an additional spotlight on the many challenges surrounding Oxy football. Given the size of the roster and number of coaches, the costs of equipment, training, and travel, football is an expensive sport to maintain, particularly to remain competitive and ensure players’ safety. In addition to these issues, the difficulty of recruitment has figured prominently:
We face substantial challenges in recruiting, given the highly competitive environment that exists in the SCIAC today. We are often at a disadvantage competing against teams that draw upon larger pools of prospective student-athletes, or in some cases, have larger endowments and greater resources on which they can draw. As a result, despite the best efforts of our dedicated coaching staff, we have found it increasingly difficult to consistently recruit at the level we would need to be competitive.
In order to safely field a team roster of adequate depth to withstand inevitable injuries and the rigors of competition, we need to matriculate between 20-25 students a year--roughly 5% of each incoming class.
Oxy is not the first nationally ranked liberal arts college to make this difficult decision, nor even the first SCIAC school to do so. Caltech stopped playing football in 1993. More recently, Swarthmore cut its football program--one of the country's oldest--in 2000; Colorado College discontinued its 126-year-old football program in 2008. Declining participation rates in high school football will continue to pose challenges for institutions like Occidental.
THE OXY FOOTBALL LEGACY
As we take this most difficult step, we recognize and hail the great tradition and the significant role that football has played in the undergraduate experience of many Oxy students and alumni. Notably, Oxy influenced the early development of the sport in Southern California. In addition, Oxy football has produced such distinguished alumni as Jack Kemp '57, Jim Mora '57, Vance Mueller '86 and many others. We are tremendously grateful to all our alumni who have supported Tiger football--not only financially, but with their time, effort and thoughtful and candid advice. This decision cannot and will not erase nor diminish the College’s past achievements in football and the profound impact of the 126-year legacy of the sport at Occidental. We have and will continue to celebrate these achievements. The past glory will not be lost, and will always be remembered.
CURRENT STUDENT-ATHLETES AND COACHING STAFF
We also want to recognize the impact that this decision will have on our coaching staff, student-athletes and their families. Oxy players and coaches were informed prior to this announcement being sent, and in those meetings we have communicated that we will be available to meet and discuss the implications of discontinuing football at Oxy, to provide support, and to address any concerns.
Everyone in the program has been an ambassador for Oxy Athletics. Coach Rob Cushman and his staff have exhibited nothing but tremendous effort, dedication and professionalism and this decision is not a reflection on their efforts or actions. The same holds true for our student-athletes. Some of our seniors worked tirelessly to help resurrect the program in 2018. Others came to Oxy believing they would be part of a rebuild. We are so very sorry for the disappointment this decision brings--and please know that we are here to support them. We fully understand that football was a determining factor for many students and their families in choosing Occidental, and the College and the Athletics Department will support them in any possible way as they consider next steps.
VARSITY ATHLETICS AT OXY
We remain committed to Oxy Athletics, and the 20 intercollegiate varsity sports in which our student-athletes will continue to compete. We have no plans to discontinue any other varsity sport at the College. The opening of Oxy's new De Mandel Aquatics Center and the expanded McKinnon Family Tennis Center are just the latest examples of the College's commitment to athletic excellence. Going forward, we will revisit and update the College's 2014 Athletic Strategic Plan, which assessed the needs of the department and identified potential areas where additional resources could generate a competitive advantage. We will also continue and further our commitment to gender equity and diversity in athletics.
We recognize that for many this is very difficult news to hear. It is news that we are extremely saddened that we have to deliver at this time. With the November early decision application deadline approaching, our timing was intended to give transparency to those considering Oxy football in their application process. We will keep the Oxy community apprised of all future developments.
With all best wishes in these challenging times as we move forward together,
Harry J. Elam, Jr., President
Rob Flot, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students
Shanda Ness, Director of Athletics