The Wichita State University football program was terminated Tuesday by a somber President Warren Armstrong, who blamed financial problems and an apathetic public for his decision.
Speaking in a room packed with reporters, faculty and WSU athletic boosters at the Campus Activities Center, Armstrong said the school, which also is facing cuts in academic areas, had no choice but to discontinue the football program.
“The time has come for me to accept the painful fact that I have done my best over three years to sustain a program which does not have broad support in the community and that now I must do what my head knows is right … even though my heart is not in it,” Armstrong said.
The Shocker football program, which began with a one-game season in 1897, endured 30 losing seasons since 1945 and survived a devastating plane crash in 1970 that killed 31 players, coaches and boosters, could not overcome the mounting financial problems in the WSU athletic program.
Armstrong said that the financial picture, discouraging conversations with WSU supporters and a consultant’s report, mandated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, that said “there is no other alternative but to drop football at Wichita State” convinced him to act.
Armstrong received the report Saturday from Synergos Inc. Keeping a football program, the report said, “could be considered reckless and irresponsible fiscal management.”
“If I had any ambivalence then, that solved it,” Armstrong said of the report.
Armstrong said he made his final decision Tuesday morning. But on Monday, the school’s administration had scheduled a news conference on athletic department deficits for today. Immediately, speculation began that football would be dropped.
Meetings with key figures associated with the athletic program scheduled for Tuesday were canceled. University officials then announced Tuesday morning that a news conference would be held that afternoon.
An hour before his news conference, Armstrong met with the Shocker players and coaches to tell them of his decision.
“What happened to me today and what happened to my kids is the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” said an emotional Ron Chismar, head football coach, who has two years remaining on his contract.
Chismar, who is paid $57,000 annually, will be retained in an administrative position in the athletic department, athletic director Lew Perkins said. The contracts of Chismar’s eight assistant coaches, set to expire Dec. 31, were extended until March 31.
“Well, for me to say that we’ve been given enough time would be a lie,” Chismar said of his efforts to restore football prominence to WSU. “No, we haven’t been given enough time; I don’t think there’s any question about that. However, it’s just like President Armstrong said, it isn’t a matter of whether you can give it or not, it’s a matter of whether you can afford to.”
Perkins said, “I’m frustrated, there’s no question. I think we gave it a hell of a shot. Maybe football was not meant to be at Wichita State.”
Most players declined comment after leaving the private meeting with Armstrong in the locker room at Cessna Stadium.
“It’s a real sad thing, but I guess it’s part of life,” said Doug Maxwell, a defensive tackle who just completed his eligibility. “It’s just a corner that everybody got backed into and couldn’t get themselves out of.”
Players with eligibility remaining will be able to transfer to another school and will be able to play immediately, according to NCAA rules. Those who stay at WSU will retain their scholarships, Perkins said.
The decision comes at a time when financial pressures, brought on by a stagnant state economy, have forced public and private institutions to re-examine their budgets. The poor showing of the area’s three prime economic resources – oil, agriculture and the lightplane industry – have made fund-raising efforts, for both athletic and other functions, difficult.
“It is critical from my point of view to address the financial problems that face the university on another front rather than to expend any more energy in pursuing this particular problem,” he said. “We have got critical problems in our academic programs … I’ve got to focus my attention on the central mission of the university.”
“It’s a question of how much of a loss you can live with,” said John Gaston, a professor of minority studies at WSU and chairman of the executive committee for the Intercollegiate Athletic Association Inc., the athletic department’s financial corporation. “The line has to be drawn.”
Said Jim Hershberger, a longtime WSU supporter: “Just like we’re cutting down in the oil business, there are decisions that have to be made.”
Armstrong said it was possible that football could return to WSU. He said he will appoint a task force “which will study the role, if any, of football at WSU.” The task force, which Armstrong expects to name by the first of the year, will report to the president in 1989.
“I can’t see that far into the future,” Armstrong said when asked about the possible return of football. “I don’t want to hold false hope … nor do I want to hold out no hope.”
WSU finished its final season 3-8. But Armstrong said a winning season probably would not have saved the Shockers.
The key statistic for WSU this season was a deficit of $839,000, according to Armstrong.
That loss will contribute to an overall deficit in the athletic program of $400,000 this season, university officials said. ICAA Inc. will show a cumulative debt of $2.5 million at the end of the 1987 fiscal year, university officials said.
By funding football at its current level, the university projected ICAA Inc. would have a deficit of $3.6 million by 1990.
Armstrong said athletic department officials, in an effort to salvage the program, tried to solicit $3.6 million from supporters of the athletic program. No portion of the money was raised, Armstrong said.
“There simply wasn’t much response,” Armstrong said of the fund-raising effort. “… The many conversations I have had with numerous friends and supporters of the program have convinced me that support at that level simply does not exist in Wichita.
“We (the city of Wichita) haven’t quite reached the point where we understand what it costs to be competitive as a major university in sports across the board.… I think it’s a sad day for the city.”
As recently as Nov. 22, Armstrong said WSU would field a football team.
“I did believe at that time there would be a team,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong also said he did not consider moving the program to a lower level, such as Division I-AA or Division II. The financial savings from such a move would be minimal, he said.
Only one of the WSU’s 16 varsity sports – men’s basketball – makes a profit. Football was sacrificed because it had the largest deficit and because the school’s minor sports are funded by student fees.