Similar programs died out due to cash woes and urban handicaps
August 27, 2011 4:00 AM
Rooney Field on the campus of Duquesne University serves as a symbol of how far the football program has come.
By Craig Meyer Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Perched atop a hill in the heart of the Duquesne campus, Arthur J. Rooney Field not only offers some of the best views of downtown and the South Side, but the complex itself also is symbolic of the school's football program.
To begin with, at a capacity of 2,200 seats, it's the right size to accommodate a program that competes on the Division I level.
Towering high above much of the city, it also symbolizes a football program that has survived and progressed while many other programs of its kind at private, urban universities have been phased out of existence in recent years.
"We've had success in the conferences that we've been associated with, there's an institutional and alumni commitment from people who are willing to support our program and we've just got a really solid combination of football and academics -- that's a great package that any student-athlete is looking for," said Duquesne athletic director Greg Amodio.
"They want to know they can go to a university and the assets are going to be in place for them to try and win championships. That's a win-win for everyone."
Though Duquesne has fielded a football team since 1891, the program today stands as something of a relic as many private urban institutions with similar space concerns and athletic budgets have discontinued such programs altogether.
In 2009, Northeastern University announced it would be dropping its football program after 74 years of competition. La Salle University did the same two years earlier.
Boston University made headlines in '97, when it discontinued its program four years after the Terriers completed an undefeated regular season. Football programs at similar schools like George Washington University and DePaul University were unable to make it through the 1960s and '30s, respectively.
For Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby, it was a tough decision that came down to the simple fact that the program was no longer able to compete.
"The cost of competition is really key," Roby said. "We felt like we could compete academically, we could compete in terms of the attraction of a major city and the reputation of Northeastern -- we could check all those boxes off, but the one place that we couldn't compete with respect to our competition in football was from a facilities standpoint.
"We didn't feel like it was fair to allow the team to keep going out there without having a realistic chance of being competitive year-in-and-year-out, so we decided that the status quo wasn't an option and that we were going to discontinue the program."
Duquesne faces many of the challenges that ultimately plagued programs like Northeastern's, but through the work of Amodio and many others, the program has been able to overcome them. An obvious hurdle for any urban campus is space, be it for fields, locker rooms or facilities, and it is a situation that the school's athletic department has had to address frequently.
"That's the biggest thing, that we're landlocked as an institution, so we don't have a ton of space," Amodio said. "We've had to go ahead and make sure that we capitalize on the space that we have available."
Amodio and Duquesne athletics have done that. Although it came before Amodio's arrival, the completion of Rooney Field in 1993 allowed the Dukes to play on campus for the first time since '29. The stadium is undergoing a $4 million renovation that has included the construction of permanent stands, a new artificial turf field, new locker rooms and new football offices.
The physical structures are not the only things upgraded in the past decade -- the nature of Duquesne football also has undergone a fundamental shift in the way it operates.
After having captured 11 of the previous 13 league titles, Duquesne left the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 2007 and moved to the Northeast Conference, a move that required the Dukes to offer athletic scholarships. The team has 28 scholarship players and will have 32 next season as the program moves towards the conference maximum of 40. Additionally, when Amodio arrived in '05, the team only had one full-time assistant coach; now there are five.
The athletic department and coaching staff take what some might see as disadvantages and turn them into competitive edges.
"We promote the fact that we are right here in the city of Pittsburgh and all the benefits of a big city are available to them when they're this close," said Duquesne head coach Jerry Schmitt.
"I always say [to recruits] that, 'You're going to be able to play football in what is arguably the best sports town in the country,' and the fans always support their teams here, so we use it as a positive."
Even within the athletic department, the football program has survived major cuts, as the school dropped four men's teams -- baseball, swimming, golf and wrestling -- at the end of the 2009-10 school year in a move that Amodio said at the time was part of "an effort to maximize financial resources and ensure sustained athletic success."
As the namesake on the field indicates, the football program receives financial support from the Rooney family, which Amodio describes as "active participants in helping us move our program forward."
Yet, despite that support, operating a profitable Division I football program is hard to achieve, according to Roby.
"When you factor in the cost of buildings and all that it takes to support that program and then think about what the revenue is, I don't think anyone in [Division I] is making any money -- that's not why you're in [Division I] football," Roby said.
"It's not about making money -- it's about providing opportunities for young people, bringing the campus together, and creating a source of pride and a source of community."
But even if it may not be feasible for Duquesne football to be a financial success, the team and program continue to improve.
The Dukes struggled in their first two seasons in the NEC competing against teams that had been under the athletic scholarship model for years, but they went 7-4 last season and have been picked to finish second this season in the NEC preseason coaches poll.
And while others like it have been phased out, those within the school insist that Duquesne football is here to stay and will continue to make significant strides.
"We're absolutely committed to fielding a top-notch football program at the [Division I] level," Amodio said.