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Jacksonville University shutters once-promising football program

With little or no warning to players and fans alike, Jacksonville University announced yesterday that it will shutter its once-promising football program, effective immediately.

JU, which has been competing in the NCAA Division I Pioneer Football League — a non-scholarship conference in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) — since shortly after the program’s inception in 1998, is coming off back-to-back losing seasons, finishing 2-8 overall last year and 3-9 this past season. 

The Dolphins were 1-7 in conference play both seasons.

“This was a difficult decision,” said Athletic Director Alex Ricker-Gilbert in announcing the school’s plan to discontinue its football program.  “Our student-athletes and coaches in the football program are talented, tenacious and hard working.  We respect them immensely.  Reinvesting these resources into our other Division I programs better positions us to enhance the experience for all 450 student-athletes.”

Administration officials said that they conducted a more than year-long, data-driven evaluation of their options before deciding to discontinue the school’s football program.

“We took a comprehensive approach, examining how we invest across the entire department,” said Ricker-Gilbert.  “All options were on the table through this process and we made a commitment to hold off on any premature conclusions until we had a complete picture.  Ultimately, one option stood out as the best path forward for Jacksonville Athletics as a whole.  When you consider all that we commit to coaching, recruiting, advising, facilities, conditioning, nutrition, and academic counseling, it’s clear the resources required to support our football program outweigh the benefits to the overall Athletics Department and the University.”

According to school officials, the cost of maintaining the football program ran in the “multi-millions.”

In abruptly ending its football program, the university said that it is offering full scholarships to every football player who chooses to stay at the university until graduation.

Unlike many FCS programs, Jacksonville has never scheduled any so-called “buy” games, which can often be quite lucrative for smaller schools, against Div. I teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision. 

That’s primarily because FBS schools, while gladly slating FCS opponents that offer football scholarships, won’t schedule games against non-scholarship programs. 

There were 114 such matchups in the 2019 season. 

That’s too bad because a couple of the PFL’s current members have actually defeated major college opponents in years past.  Morehead State, for example, defeated a couple of FBS opponents — then known as Div. I-A — long before the Pioneer League was established in 1993, defeating Wichita State 36-35 in 1986 and upsetting Cincinnati 13-10 three years later, and Dayton once tied Miami (Ohio).

There was also little mention in the school’s official statement yesterday or in the pursuing local media coverage of the extraordinary travel expenses of competing in the ten-team Pioneer Football League — the only truly national college football conference in the country.  The PFL has teams in no fewer than eight states, stretching from coast to coast and sprinkled throughout the nation’s heartland.

In addition to Jacksonville, the league’s current makeup includes the University of San Diego (San Diego, California), Marist (Poughkeepsie, New York) — the league’s lone northeast school — Drake (Des Moines, Iowa), Butler and Valparaiso (Indianapolis and Valparaiso, Indiana), Dayton (Dayton, Ohio), Morehead State (Morehead, Kentucky), Davidson (Davidson, N.C.), and Stetson (DeLand, Florida).

The fact that the PFL ranges geographically from San Diego to Florida to upstate New York makes travelling difficult — and much more expensive than most of the regionally-based conferences in the Football Championship Subdivision, the majority of whose teams are accustomed to traveling to most away games by bus.

The Pioneer Football League, which became an automatic qualifier in 2013 when the playoffs expanded from twenty to twenty-four teams, is one of ten conferences that receives an automatic bid to the 24-team FCS playoffs. 

The San Diego Toreros, who have won thirty-seven straight conference games — the second-longest conference winning streak in FCS history — have captured the PFL championship in each of the past four seasons.  San Diego lost to Northern Iowa 17-3 in last week’s opening round of the playoffs.

San Diego defeated the turnover-plagued Dolphins 47-28 before a crowd of 1,203 at 5,000-seat D.B. Milne Field on the Jacksonville campus on Nov. 23rd — the smallest home crowd of the season — in what will now, sadly, be the final game ever played by Jacksonville University.

That’s a shame.  Jacksonville had a once-promising football program, especially during former head coach Kerwin Bell’s nine-year tenure.  The 54-year-old Bell, who is currently the offensive coordinator for the University of South Florida after leading high-scoring Valdosta State to a Div. II national championship in 2018, led the Dolphins to a couple of conference championships, most recently in 2010 when JU finished 10-1. 

A third championship in 2014 — a year the sensational Kade Bell-led Dolphins went 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the Pioneer League while outscoring their opponents by nearly 18 points a game — was forfeited due to financial aid improprieties.  The school was also placed on a league-sanctioned, one-year probation.   

JU, which won seven straight games that season after dropping its season opener to FCS powerhouse Southeastern Louisiana, defeated Pioneer co-champion San Diego 35-18 in Week 2 and, based on the league’s tiebreaker, would have won the conference championship and a spot in the FCS playoffs. 

Instead, San Diego represented the PFL in the playoffs, losing badly to perennial power Montana in the first round. 

Coach Bell, who wanted the school to begin offering football scholarships, believed he could build the Dolphins into an FCS powerhouse by possibly transitioning to, say, the storied Southern Conference or a similar scholarship football conference, but administration officials refused to renew his contract in 2015.  Unfortunately, that was the beginning of the end for Jacksonville University football. 

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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