Football took one for team at Pacific. Other sports thriving years after program was axed

By Scott Howard-Cooper — Sacramento Bee Staff Writer, 2005

Story appeared in Sports section, Page C1
STOCKTON – It ended in 1995 on a clear afternoon in Logan, Utah. Utah State quarterback Todd Wilson , picked up one yard on first and goal from the 2, and that was it, at 3:05 p.m. in a distant stadium before the trip back to the home they wouldn’t have much longer.
University of the Pacific football bled out in a 38-22 loss on Nov. 18, 1995.

Not necessarily the team itself, which, in a fitting final contradiction, got an 87-yard touchdown on its final offensive play. The entirety of the program, though, had become such a financial groan that a Division I team with a grand tradition and power schedule and professional-bound players dotting even the final roster was given to the ages.

The official announcement came in a press release about a month later:

The Board of Regents of the University of the Pacific voted today, Dec. 19, to not sponsor the University’s football program for at least one year…

“The Board of Regents strongly supports the total athletic program, but with great reluctance we agreed that we could suspend football on a temporary basis,” Board Chairman Robert Monagan said.

Temporary, permanent – same thing.

Nearly 10 years after that final game, Pacific football is no closer to returning. Athletic director Lynn King that there has never been anything beyond casual conversation about a rebirth, let alone actual negotiations to make it happen, since he arrived in March of 2000.

“It’s not a downer that we don’t have it,” said sophomore Adam Ellison, the vice president of the Associated Students. “But it’s something that if we could have it, we wouldn’t reject it.”

It doesn’t seem to be missed beyond nostalgic cravings and some students feeling a void in the campus experience.

The Tigers still have 16 sports, mostly in the respected Big West Conference, and a level of success that included eight individuals being named conference MVP in 2004-05. Women’s field hockey finished first in the Northern Pacific Field Hockey Conference, men’s swimming won the Big West crown, and five other teams at least tied for second place, including the men’s basketball squad that dominated the Big West while going 18-0 before losing in the postseason tournament.

Meanwhile, there is more money, more support staff, more office space and workout space without the giant elephant dominating resources.

Construction is under way on a $5 million baseball stadium, with suites and a barbecue/picnic area, scheduled for completion in spring of 2006 with an initial capacity of 2,500 and the potential for future expansion. The $7.5 million Janssen-Lagorio Gymnasium, to be used as practice courts for basketball and volleyball as well as student recreation, is projected to open in the fall of ’07. Another $500,000 is being invested in the Hal Nelson Tennis Courts to add a clubhouse for meeting space, locker rooms and spectator seating.

“Put it this way,” said Guido Baumann, in his ninth season as men’s tennis coach. “I know some of the alumni want it back. But coaches? Eh.”

Said Joe Wortmann, in his 14th season as men’s volleyball coach: “The playing field has leveled out. There’s a lot more access to the training staff. There’s a lot more access to top strength and conditioning staff and to the facilities.

” … So I do think the quality of the athletic department is better than it was. But I can’t say specifically whether it was because of football or not.”

Indeed, tracing the exact impact of the demise of football on the surviving sports is impossible. The growth nationally of Title IX, enacted in 1972 but needing decades to truly gather momentum, boosted women’s programs by ensuring balance in scholarships. The population increase in the Sacramento-Stockton area expanded the recruiting base.

Michael Olowokandi, living in England, picked Pacific on a fluke and ended up as the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, drawing positive attention to the basketball Tigers that hasn’t ceased.

The success of some Pacific teams might have happened anyway. Certainly, for example, there was a structure in place for women’s volleyball – Terry Liskevych, the coach while football existed, also was the coach of the U.S. national team for 12 years and had a starring cast here that included All-America Jayne Gibson-McHugh, the current Tigers coach. Winning NCAA titles in 1985 and ’86 under John Dunning, led by the dominant Elaina Oden, a future two-time Olympian, was merely an extension.

But life at post-football Pacific has included numerous gleaming moments for an athletic department without the traditional fall anchor sport. Dan Reichert became the No. 7 pick in the 1997 baseball draft. Brad Schumacher won two swimming gold medals in the 1996 Olympics. Jennifer Joines was a four-time All-American in women’s volleyball. The men’s basketball team has reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years, providing a national identity for the athletic department that football no longer can.

The scoreboard:

In the 16 years before the end of football, the Tigers won six conference team titles in two sports and had 29 NCAA appearances.

In the nine years after football, without adding any new programs, the Tigers won 21 conference team titles in nine sports and had 39 NCAA appearances.

“It can’t be just coincidence,” King said. “It’s amazing if you look at the teams. Teams winning conference championships, teams qualifying for the nationals, the number of All-Americans, our position in the NACDA Cup rankings (a points system by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics).

“All those things have gone off the scales. For a school our size – we’re a small private school – to do the things that we’re doing in Division I almost across the board in our programs is highly unusual. We’ve got 16 programs, and in any given year 10 of those 16 are somewhere in the NCAA championships.

“Could we do that with football? I don’t think it’s impossible. But you would have to have at least two more women’s programs for sure (because of Title IX), and now you’re talking about the whole infrastructure beginning to grow. We have done extremely well in the other programs, and part of that is we’ve been able to redirect resources.”

Examples are throughout the athletic department and its budget of approximately $8 million.

Football has always been part of the Pacific tradition, though, only now in death. Amos Alonzo Stagg Memorial Stadium, a 30,000-seat facility, is about 50 yards from the athletic department as the reminder of what once was, a building whose only Tigers tenant is women’s soccer. Stagg Way is about a quarter-mile into campus.

Stagg himself is one of the biggest names in college lore, having coached at Pacific from 1933 to 1946 and 57 years in all. Buddy Ryan was a defensive coordinator there, Bob Toledo a head coach. Pete Carroll played there, and so did Bruce Coslet and Tom Flores. All except Stagg became head coaches in the NFL or, in the case of Toledo at UCLA, prominent in Division I.

No one could ever question the legacy of Pacific football. The 1949 team, the “Black Knights of the Calaveras,” had Eddie LeBaron at quarterback, finished 11-0 and No. 10 in the final Associated Press rankings. Dick Bass led the nation in rushing and scoring in 1958. Flores led in passing efficiency in ’56. A list of others reached the pros or became coaches, some off that final roster.

But tradition couldn’t fill the stadium. The Tigers of 1993 and ’94 averaged 10,415 and 10,378, respectively – good support if they had been Division II but a ghost town at the top level. By ’95, the road schedule included Nebraska, the defending national champion, along with Arizona and Oregon, and interest still fizzled to 8,544 at home. Wins faded, from 6-5 the season before to 3-8, and attendance faded, and soon, so did the entire program.

Coaches moved on. Players were given the option of remaining on scholarship. Fifteen did, while five completed their degrees that same fall, 27 transferred in the spring of 1996 and 10 more relocated in the fall of ’96.

The 30,000-seat bowl and the 77 years of tradition stayed behind, not so temporarily.

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