Alumni group wants to see UMES back on football field

School hasn't had team since dropping sport in '80

July 22, 2005|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

PRINCESS ANNE - Once the stage for budding pro athletes and joyous crowds, the football field at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore now sits as a dormant hole in the heart of campus.

"That represents empty opportunities. Football used to mean so much to that campus and now it's just an empty shell," said Kim Jones, who was a tight end at the school in the late 1970s.

Jones is among a group of alumni who have launched an effort to bring the Hawks back to the field after a 25-year hiatus.

UMES, a historically black campus, dropped its football program in 1980 because of budget concerns, killing a program that won nearly 80 percent of its games, produced nearly 20 pro players including Pro Football Hall of Famer Art Shell, and an abundance of school pride.

Since then, many alumni say that school spirit has flagged because students have nothing to rally around. "Most students go home over the weekend now," said Bryant Mitchell, a former UMES offensive lineman who now teaches at the university.

Alumni have started raising money to pay for new equipment, scholarships and facilities. They recently finished a feasibility study and are starting to raise the nearly $3.3 million they think it will take to restart the program.

"I'm very proud of the school, and I'm very impressed with the progress. If we can bring back the student athlete, I believe that will complete the picture," said Otis Jordan, a 1979 graduate who donated $250 toward the football program.

Stumbling blocks

A return to football won't be easy. The field is far below standard. Thelma Thompson, the school's president, has received the feasibility report but will not make a decision until later this summer. And state officials express doubt that football could succeed, especially because of financial concerns and Title IX requirements, which require schools to spend equally on men's and women's sports.

"When I do the math, that window just isn't open right now," said R. Michael Gill, a University System of Maryland regent.

During the golden age of UMES football (from 1946 to 1970), when the school was known as Maryland State College, the Hawks won 154 games, lost 38, had five undefeated seasons and produced players like former Baltimore Colts defensive back Johnny Sample, New York Jets running back Emerson Boozer and Shell, who starred at offensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders and was the team's head coach from 1989 to 1994.

Five UMES graduates played in the Super Bowl in January 1969 between the Jets and Colts, when the Jets triumphed, 16-7, in a historic upset.

Alumni describe the games as being the epicenter of life, not only at the school but in the surrounding area. Armstead Ward grew up several miles from the campus and would hitchhike there on game day. As a student, he would go to pep rallies on Mondays and Thursdays, dances on Friday night and the game on Saturday.

"It turned almost into a religious activity," said Ward, who graduated in 1968 and now lives in Chicago. "No one told you had to go, you just went."

The program began to stumble in 1971. The powerful coach, Vernon "Skip" McCain, retired. In the aftermath of racial segregation, black recruits who might have gone to UMES began attending other schools that had previously been off-limits.

School officials decided to shut the program down in 1980 because of financial restraints. At the time, UMES administrators said they would try to bring the program back in three or four years, alumni said.

But the program never came back and football facilities withered. In contrast to the rest of the red brick and white columns of the academic buildings and the lush, manicured lawns of the mall, the football field is shabby.

The grass field is surrounded by a chain link fence and flanked by two aging sets of bleachers. "A lot of high schools have better facilities," Gill said.

Alumni say the sight of the empty field and lack of school spirit is painful for them. Most of the school's nearly 3,000 undergraduates go home for weekends, school officials and alumni say. "Friday and Saturday, everyone packs up and goes home instead of being galvanized by the football team," said Jones, who now lives in Bowie.

Money matters

The committee members believe that besides the $3.3 million to start the program, they need about $1.1 million a year to run it. They recommend prohibiting freshman from playing, creating an assistant athletic director for football and starting an academic council to prepare the campus for student athletes.

It's unclear how the return of football would affect other athletic programs, especially because of Title IX requirements.

UMES has 12 varsity sports competing in Division I of the NCAA. If the school decided to fund a football program, it could have to inject a similar amount of money into its women's sports programs. That could mean quadrupling UMES's current $3 million budget, said Nelson E. Townsend, the school's athletic director.

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