Citing budget woes, football programs are being cut at Maricopa County’s four community colleges. But players and coaches aren’t going down without a fight.
Ever since students in Parkland, Florida, reminded peers of the power of protest, youth-led demonstrations have increased. It’s the biggest wave of student activism the U.S. has seen since the l960s, according to a University of California at Los Angeles study.
A march in late February that ended at the Maricopa County Community College District headquarters in Tempe seemed different – for the muscle mass of the young people carrying signs (beefier even than the police officers sent in to control the crowd) and their seemingly nonpartisan cause: saving junior college football.
The protest was led by dozens of players voicing disapproval that MCCCD was eliminating the football programs at the community colleges offering them (Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale and Glendale) following the 2018 season, citing budget cuts. At its heart was a cause bigger than preserving pigskin.
“I think it will affect the diversity of the campuses,” says Ryan Felker, head coach at Mesa Community College, who joined Scottsdale head coach Doug Madoski and former Glendale head coach Joe Kersting in the protest. “Our players are 75 to 85 percent minority students, many from disadvantaged backgrounds. Without football, many of them might not be presented a path to college.”
The board didn’t budge. “There was a unanimous consensus from our college presidents that we needed to eliminate the football programs,” spokesperson Matt Hasson says. “They’re feeling the impact from a zeroing out of state support.” In 2009, the district received $59.5 million in state funding. In 2015, it received $7.4 million. In fiscal year 2016, Governor Doug Ducey and the Arizona Legislature cut funding for Maricopa and Pima community colleges, forcing them to rely on funds from grants, property taxes and tuition. “We had to focus on the larger population of students,” Hasson says.
MCCCD says football programs account for 20 percent of the athletics budget and that upgrading facilities would require $20 million over the next three to five years.
“The numbers don’t work,” says Felker, who says the group that evaluated the programs looked at all athletic expenditures – maintenance of gyms, locker rooms and fields used by other sports – and attributed them to football. “They’re not adding the money that the kids bring in… My team alone pays over $300,000 a year in tuition. It only costs $200,000 a year to operate the program.”
Fuzzy math aside, the coaches believe they each could have raised enough money. “I don’t think there’s a coach in the district that wouldn’t have agreed to do more fund-raising if asked,” says Jim Monaco, head coach of Pima Community College. Monaco says PCC, along with the two other football-offering community colleges in the state (Arizona Western College in Yuma and Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher), will now need to go to other states to play the remaining schools in the Western States Football League. He says PCC cut its insurance rates by about 25 percent by asking trainers and players to absorb more of the cost, a tactic MCCCD may have tried.
“As coaches, we have to practice what we preach, and when you preach to your kids to never give up… you can’t just throw up your hands and say there’s nothing we can do,” he says.
Coaches say cutting football will have the most negative impact on lower-income students. Manuel “Manny” Orona, an offensive tackle at Glendale Community College who transfers next year to the University of Memphis, was present at the march and addressed the board before a group of reporters. “You’re stealing someone’s chance to have a better life in the future,” he said.
Even with a death sentence hanging over this last season, coaches and players are refusing to throw in the towel. “They’re fighters, they’re competitors,” Felker says. “What the district has done is just given them another opponent.”
From Juco to Pro
Many athletes use community colleges as a springboard to be recruited by a four-year university, which can lead to a successful career – in sports or an unrelated field requiring a degree. These Arizona community college players went on to bigger things:
The quarterback played at Scottsdale Community College, transferred to Ohio State, was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 1999 and won a Super Bowl in 2000. He now coaches football in Queen Creek.
The one-time offensive lineman at Glendale Community College earned a full scholarship to the University of South Dakota, went on to study law at Michigan State University and is now an attorney.
The new quarterback for the Arizona Rattlers started at Scottsdale Community College before transferring to the University of Colorado, where he played on the school’s Pac-12 Conference team.