Sixty-four returning football players. Twenty-one returning hockey players. Ten coaches. As of the 2003/2004 academic year, all 95 of them will become a piece of university history.
After more than 35 years of history at Fairfield, the football and ice hockey teams are eliminated from the university’s athletic program.
“It’s one of the more disappointing things that’s ever happened to me,” said Steve Hadley ’01, former football player. “I was the second class to play football here. We built up a championship team. We had a short program, but a great program. Our biggest fear is that we will be forgotten.”
Football first appeared on campus as a club sport, beginning with the 1966 season. The club team played its first game against Iona College, and finished the season with an 0-5-1 record.
The team reached the club national championship game in 1979, but lost to the University of Lowell 60-40.
After the disbandment in the 1986 season, the club team soon turned into the 20th varsity sport at Fairfield on March 28,1995 and began competition in the Fall of 1996 as a Division I-AA non-scholarship program.
Top-rated Division I-AA defense for rushing (61.7 y.p.g.) and for total yards (213.8 y.p.g.) in 1998, the Stags finished off the 1998 season as MAAC Champions.
In 1999, the defense was ranked second for scoring defense (13.4 p.p.g) and for total defense (237.7 y.p.g.).
In total, six Fairfield players earned All-American honors, and one player received Academic All-American honors.
With such a successful history, many alumni looked towards a brighter future and were crushed by the news.
“I wish they had told us sooner, especially in a recruiting standpoint,” said assistant coach Tom Unger, ’00. “I feel as if I just wasted the last two months on the road getting students that I felt would be an asset to the university academically and athletically.”
Many alumni felt there was a breakdown of communication regarding the elimination.
“A lot of questions are being raised in how the university didn’t notify anyone and were very secretive about the issue,” said former team captain Matt Costanzo, ’01. “One Jesuit priest at Fairfield once told me: ‘Any reputation is earned.’ After this incident, what reputation do you think Fairfield has earned with trust and loyalty?”
The football team does not stand alone. The men’s ice hockey team was also eliminated starting in the 2003/2004 academic year.
“I am very disappointed, shocked and surprised,” said former hockey player John Hanley, ’84. “In the real world, everyone makes tough decisions, but the big problem here is what the decision-making process was. They lacked clarity. They should have given the team one more year to try and raise more money.”
University President Rev. Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J. said that the elimination of both programs would result in significant annual savings of approximately $570,000, not including athletic grants-in-aid. Those funds would be reallocated to support the university’s student financial aid program.
Former hockey player Marsh Richards, ’83, was angered by the news.
“I’m disappointed, discouraged, and embarrassed of the school,” Richards said. “I don’t think they handled it correctly at all. Not much thought went into the process. I feel awful for the players. Schools have made mistakes like this. There’s going to be outrage from students, players, family and alumni.”
Hockey also began as a club sport with a schedule of scrimmages in 1966-67. In its first full schedule of games in 1968-69, the team finished with a 18-8-0 record and joined the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Hockey League (MIHL).
The team posted a 27-0 regular season record during the 1973-74 season and captured the MIHL championship. The hockey program was elevated to varsity status for the 1974-75 season under Dr. John McCarthy and posted an 18-8-1 mark that year.
The Stags were a founding member of the MAAC Hockey League in 1998, and the team’s best record in the MAAC came in 2000-2001 with a 10-14-2 mark. They posted a 275-414-28 record in varsity play, heading into the 2002-03 season.
Many alumni complained they were not notified of the disbandment.
Highly active donors of the football and hockey alumni received notification on Friday.
“It’s definitely hard for a lot of guys to open up the newspaper and find out the news that way,” said former football player Eric Giordano, ’01. “None of us were notified. Next homecoming, most alumni can drive by campus and go directly to the Grape.”
“They kept everyone in the dark. There’s been no effort to try and save the program. The way the university handled it was embarrassing and changed my view of the university,” Hanley added. “We should be spending money for the program, not taking it away. The alumni were never given a change to raise money. If we weren’t able to raise money, we could live with the decision … but we were never given the chance.”
Staff Writer Annie Mullowney contributed to this article.