Op-Ed: The loss of football led to apathetic crowds
The Santa Clara
November 1, 2018
“Sports were a big deal. People wore fan gear,” describes my father, Paul Tiña, of his experience as a student at Santa Clara in the early 1990s. Today, this utopian description could not be farther from reality.
From women’s soccer to men’s basketball, 20 sports teams compete in the NCAA Division I representing Santa Clara, while football—arguably the most popular sport in the United States—remains absent from this list.
Even with the sports currently participating in the Santa Clara Athletic Department, school spirit is observably sparse.
But why? Other than the women’s soccer team, which consistently ranks among the Top 25 on the national level, Santa Clara athletics has not competed to the degree that seems to attract audiences or television-watchers. Little to no Santa Clara games have been televised nationally. Making inter-program changes to bring more success to the sports teams is one solution. Adding a football program could be another.
From my experience in high school and watching college football games, school spirit is largely fueled by the mere existence of a football team, regardless of whether the team is successful or not. The tailgates and the large crowds football stadiums accommodate often bring a sense of unity among students, alumni and football fans.
I believe that the revival of Santa Clara’s football program can strengthen school spirit.
Current Santa Clara students, as well as those from the last 20 or so years, may not even know that the university once had a football program.
Back in 1896 when it was called Santa Clara College, the institution established an intercollegiate Division I Independent (not affiliated with a conference) football program, and the team played its first game against the Gaels of Saint Mary’s College. The Santa Clara football team’s most popular games attracted 60,000 spectators to their home games at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. The team relocated to campus in 1962 to Buck Shaw Stadium (now called Stevens Stadium, home to Santa Clara soccer).
Santa Clara football moved down to Division II Independent in 1973, and stayed in Division II for the remainder of its existence. Unfortunately, this led to the program’s disbandment.
New NCAA regulations required that all sports at a university be played at the same level. The Santa Clara athletic program had all Division I teams, except for the football team. Instead of the program electing to develop a Division I team, Paul Locatelli, S.J., university president at the time, announced its discontinuation on Feb. 2, 1993.
It seems that with the end of the football program came the dissolvement of school spirit. My dad explained that when he attended Santa Clara, the school’s most popular teams were women’s soccer and men’s basketball, just like they are today.
His experience, however, included a passionate student body. He described football as having the ability to enhance Bronco pride, especially for the students who came from states where football was more popular, such as the East and Midwest.
Jenny Varni, who graduated in ‘91, attended almost all home football games and as many away games as she could.
“The environment at games was fun,” said Varni. “There was always a good student section, and it was a great social activity. The social groups that I knew all went to games. Many of us knew football players, and we all enjoyed cheering them on and supporting the football team.”
Varni agreed that football draws many fans, creating an environment at games that unites people together in support of their school.
“My group of friends were very spirited and loved attending games. Students wore a lot of Santa Clara gear. I still do,” she said, laughing because she was wearing a Santa Clara sweatshirt at that very moment.
Varni also observed that the current state of school spirit appears to be in a downswing.
“This could be in part due to the lack of a football program, or possibly a more serious focus on academics,” she said.
Former Santa Clara running back Ray Wetzel—class of ‘92 and member of the last Bronco football team—provided his perspective of the football game atmosphere.
“When we played teams like Sac State, Portland State, UC Davis and of course, Saint Mary’s, Buck Shaw Stadium was electric,” Wetzel said.
Wetzel confirmed the strong school spirit on campus. He explained that much of the support of the football team was from athletes of other sports, and the football team followed the other sport seasons as well.
The support within the Athletic Department likely attracted students outside of the program, especially friends of the athletes, creating a crowd much larger than you would observe today.
“The Little Big Game generated enough school spirit to justify the program’s existence,” Wetzel said, referring to the matchup between Santa Clara and St. Mary’s—Stanford vs. Cal was known as The Big Game.
He recalled that U-Hauls transported sofas upon which the school’s rugby players sat on the road to St. Mary’s in Moraga. Once they arrived, they set up to tailgate. Then, Santa Clara students did not just show support, but great dedication for the athletes representing their school.
Despite the program’s success and popularity, “the administration labeled Santa Clara football as ‘the albatross’ of the athletic department,” said Wetzel.
When the future of the program began to come into question, Wetzel’s head coach, Terry Malley (‘76)—son of former coach Pat Malley—represented Bronco football at an on-campus debate. Unfortunately, the debate “fell on deaf ears,” Wetzel explained, and just like that, the football program was gone the following year.
When Varni realized she was wearing Santa Clara apparel, she said, “I am a proud Bronco.” It instantly reminded me of my dad and how he has Santa Clara stickers on his laptop, car and notebooks and loves wearing his Santa Clara apparel.
I, too, realized something. The pride that filled once enthusiastic Broncos is a bygone era. While I know there are so many other reasons to be proud of Santa Clara, as a sports fanatic, I associate school spirit and pride with the representation of our athletic teams.
Based on the fond memories of past students, football has the potential to return that same atmosphere.
Contact Annika Tiña at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.