By Jordan Green
Azusa Pacific University announced football would be no more, ending both a university and state tradition.
In 2018, Humboldt State University (HSU) dropped its football program due to financial constraints. A member of the NCAA Division II-ranked Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC), the Lumberjacks left behind a fellow California GNAC program in Azusa Pacific University (ASU). In fact, HSU’s departure made APU’s Cougars the only remaining California-run DII football program in the country.
Then the coronavirus crept its way through the nation, and the state of collegiate football in the Golden State became even more sparse.
Just in the greater Los Angeles area alone, Occidental College dropped its football program in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. And in December, when it seemed Cougar football was hopeful to return for a spring season, they found themselves all alone at the dinner table.
Last season was a test to see if the program could withstand such seclusion. Certainly, the program was in a unique position since it was the only California DII program — it was an attractive landing spot for recruits. Yet, that unique position was also a very expensive one, and when considering the travel schedule that the Cougars endured in 2019, it became clear that the sport had become a liability for the university.
During their 10-game schedule in 2019, six of them were away contests. For every away game they had, air travel was required, making them the only NCAA DII or DIII program to have to commit to such an arduous travel schedule. And with a potential season in the works for 2021, which anticipated a travel schedule similar to the previous, the university concluded that the financial obstacles were far too daunting.
“This decision will reduce costs university-wide. Funds will be allocated to strategic needs as part of APU’s restructuring process in order to promote institutional financial sustainability,” wrote APU’s Sports Director Gary Pine in a statement to the university. “While costs will be significantly reduced, funding will support other sports or be returned to the university for general operations and needed scholarships.”
While the decision will benefit the university and their efforts of potentially returning students back to campus next fall, it leaves former players in a difficult spot. While the campus’ athletic department has noted they will assist student-athletes from the football program in transferring to other programs if that’s what they desire, the timing of the announcement, along with the current circumstances surrounding collegiate athletics, places players in a rushed transfer process.
With over 100 student-athletes being thrown into that decision and procedure, there was a wide range of conclusions that players reached about their futures. However, the overarching theme was the difficulty of the situation.
Adrian Jump, who was heading into his final season with the Cougars as a senior defensive back, decided that he would not transfer. For students who made the decision, APU would continue to provide financial assistance through their athletic scholarships. For Jump, however, staying put was not a decision based on that continued support, but rather a lack of time.
“As a senior it just didn’t feel worth it to transfer,” he said. “Most schools had already handed out their athletic scholarships and the starting point of the season for several universities was approaching so fast that it just didn’t feel worth it to try and get out.”
Micah Roth is a four-year APU student who has been a part of Cougar football since he made it to Azusa’s campus. Following the news of the program, Roth decided he would like to play football for a different university, but resolved to wait until the summer.
“The main reason is since everyone gets this year of eligibility back, most teams don’t have open roster spots. And a lot of schools aren’t transferring so they can lessen the risk of infection,” explained Roth. “The news came out of nowhere about APU and it came at a tough time, but I’m excited about my future.”
Lee Pitts, another senior defensive back at APU, was one of the rare players to find a school that was willing to bring him in. He transferred to the University of Sioux Falls, a private Christian institution in South Dakota. And while he was grateful to find a new program, he grew frustrated with how Azusa Pacific’s Athletic Department handled the situation.
“The process was difficult for a multitude of reasons,” Pitts mentioned. “The vote to cut football occurred on a Saturday and we were informed that Tuesday. Once there was even talk of possibly cutting the program, it would’ve been nice to have been notified but instead we were all left in the dark and had to scramble to find new homes.”
Nevertheless, despite the unfavorable situation, what must not be lost is that a storied and local California program will no longer be intact. Nearly everyone who was a part of the tradition has raved about its ability to not only win football games but to also build the morale of young men through the process. Former players and coaches will miss it tremendously, as will residents in the San Gabriel Valley.
“The way I hold pride for my family name is the same way I hold pride for Azusa Pacific football,” said the program’s most recent head coach, Rudy Carlton. “My growth as a young man, both spiritually and academically, are all credited to being a student-athlete for this program. And it is humbling to think about all the lives I have been able to impact during my time as a coach here.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the University of La Verne and Whittier College dropped their respective football programs. We apologize for the error and thank the community for alerting us.