THE SECOND INSTALLMENT OF THIS THREE-PART SERIES CAN BE ACCESSED HERE.
Why doesn’t Drexel have a football team? It’s the question, even to this day, that Director of Athletics Eric Zillmer gets asked the most.
To this question, Zillmer often gives the short answer: money. But he rarely has the time to fully explain himself. The long, full answer really hinges on two aspects: cost and perception.
“Those football teams have 85 scholarships and a 10-person coach[ing] staff; that would overwhelm our athletic department,” Zillmer said about playing football at the Division I level. “We just can’t manage that.”
Most of Drexel’s athletic teams play in the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA also has football, which includes many of Drexel’s rivals like the University of Delaware and Towson University. Those teams compete at the Football Championship Subdivision level — formerly known as Division I-AA. Aside from the resources needed to compete at the same level as their conference rivals, Zillmer sees geography as a big hurdle.
“Football is perceived [geographically],” Zillmer explained. “The farther north you go, the tougher it is to sell. You go south, people breathe it. You go to Texas, it rules the world.”
He looks at universities like Boston University, who dropped football and have used hockey to create a strong brand for their athletic department. This is also the case with CAA foes Northeastern University and Hofstra University, who also compete at high levels without football. Former CAA member Old Dominion University did the opposite, adding football to try to bolster their national audience, but have struggled across the rest of their athletic department ever since.
Zillmer explained that there is another perception inhibiting the sport: If you decide to add football, then you are playing bad football at the start. To get a program off the ground and maintain interest, there has to be a certain competition standard that would need to be met.
The City of Philadelphia is full of cautionary football tales. Temple University just cut seven varsity sports, a move believed by many to, in part, allocate extra funds to their struggling football program. For a school like Drexel, which has been a respected leader in gender equity, the idea of cutting seven sports to fund one is unsettling.
Zillmer looks to another football program, one that has likely been long forgotten: La Salle University’s. La Salle had fielded a football team for about a decade up until the U.S. got involved in World War II in the early 1940s. The school tried to revive the program in the late 1990s, which again lasted about a decade, but it ultimately got cut in 2007.
But there is more to La Salle’s second foray into football than simply a failed attempt. Preston Plevretes was covering a punt in a game against Duquesne University back in 2005 when he was knocked unconscious by a hit. Plevretes ended up in the hospital with a severe brain injury, an injury that the family contended in a lawsuit was the result of misconduct on the part of La Salle for allowing him to play after suffering a concussion from a helmet-to-helmet hit in an earlier practice.
Plevretes and his family settled with La Salle for $7.5 million in 2009.
Proponents of football at Drexel look toward programs like those at the University of Pennsylvania and Villanova University. Penn plays on a suitable level in the Ivy League and has the resources to cover the extensive football costs. Villanova plays at the FCS level, which still takes tremendous resources to fund, but puts them on a much more competitive level. It’s a matter of finding the right fit for the athletic department, and Drexel does not feel like they have that necessary fit.
Some argue that Drexel could start up football at a lower level, like Division II or even Division III. Zillmer contends that competing at those levels just would not fit with the current plan for Drexel athletics.
“What we’re trying do in athletics is we are trying to compete at the highest level, that’s why we’re Division I,” Zillmer said. “In the sports in which we compete, we’re trying to do the best we can. Field hockey, we’re top 20. Lacrosse, we’re top 20. Squash, we’re top 20. In basketball last year, our women finished in the top 35, which is very good for basketball.”
Even if Drexel were to consider taking a dip in the football pool, the question of money would always come into play. If the cuts at Temple have taught the sports world anything, it’s that college athletics are now more of a business than ever before.
“It’s a really tough challenge,” Zillmer concluded. “At the end of the day, the money just isn’t there. You just have to think of it from a cost-containment perspective.”
There are plans for a Drexel football reunion. It won’t be sponsored by the school, though; this is the players’ idea. It won’t be held at the school either. When meeting with Steve Spagnolo for this story, it was only his second time back on Drexel’s campus since 1975, the other time being in 1994 with the members of football past.
In the coming fall, a handful of former players — including Spagnolo and Barry Cole — will make the nearly 3,000-mile trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to go to the University of Southern California.
The team’s former quarterback, Al Checcio, is now the senior vice president of University Advancement for the Trojans. He invited his old teammates to reunite, play some golf and take in a USC football game.
There will surely be old stories of the Drexel gridiron shared and jokes of still having eligibility left told. It’s the trip made possible by friendships and bonds formed 40 years ago on and off the football field.
As for the days of football at Drexel, only bits and pieces of the history remain. Most of the newspaper clippings, letters and artifacts live in the University’s archives in the basement of the library. Other pieces survive in the possession of the players who once donned the uniforms. The comedy group carries the name in irony.
Drexel University is full of mysteries, some of which are tougher to crack than others. As for the complicated history of the sport of football at Drexel, history is all that remains.