Turn out the lights, the party's over: When Xavier dropped football

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CINCINNATI - Xavier football players were in a festive mood when they gathered with fans at the team banquet after the 1973 season.

In the fashion of the times, players wore big bow ties and collars as wide as a football field to go with long hair and bushy-bushy sideburns. Just like the guest speaker, National League MVP Pete Rose.

John Shinners, Xavier’s only football All-American and a starting guard for the Bengals, was in the house, too – more conservatively dressed, but ready to revel in the occasion.

WATCH a clip from the banquet here:

 

 

The packed house was celebrating Xavier’s 5-5-1 season  - a big turnaround from the previous year’s 3-8 and three straight 1-9s before that.

Xavier football was coming back under 28-year-old head coach Tom Cecchini. Or so it seemed, until three weeks later,  when the Board of Trustees voted to drop the sport.

You could hear the air leaking out of all the footballs on campus.

WATCH WCPO sportscaster Jack Moran interview the Rev. Robert W. Mulligan, Xavier president, here:

 

Xavier’s president, the Rev. Robert W. Mulligan,  said the university could no longer absorb football’s  financial losses. He estimated that the program, which had its first season in 1901, was losing $200,000 per year – a king’s ransom at the time.

"We were not taking money away from academic programs to run the football program," Mulligan said. "There's no correlation between the two."

Most other Jesuit schools had already given up football as too expensive, including Marquette, St. Louis, Detroit, Loyola of  Chicago,  Fordham (say it ain’t so, Vince Lombardi) and Georgetown.

"The big schools are going to make their money as long as they keep drawing  80,000 to their games," Athletic Director Jim McCafferty said. "But the smaller schools just can't do it."

Plus, the Musketeers were having trouble winning and drawing fans.

Even the 1973 season had its black eyes – losses of 40-7 to UC, 49-7 to Temple  and, worst of all,  73-7 to Southern Illinois.

WATCH empty, dark and cold Corcoran Field here:

 

Xavier’s glory days had passed by a long time before.

In its finest era, XU went  35-12-2  between 1947 and 1951 under coach Ed Kluska. The 1949 team went 10-1 and beat Arizona State in the Salad Bowl (forerunner of the Fiesta Bowl). The 1950 team went 10-0 and the 1951 team was 9-0-1, including a 26-0 victory over rival Cincinnati.

Xavier had a resurgence under coach Ed Biles in the 1960s. Biles led the team to a 40-27-3 record between 1962 and 1968 – including three straight wins over UC - but Xavier hit bottom when Biles left for the NFL.

Cecchini, a former Michigan linebacker, was just beginning to restore hope to the program when the  trustees pulled the plug on Dec. 19, 1973.

The Enquirer reported it was a 15-3 vote, with the only dissenting votes from Mulligan, Chancellor and former President the Rev. Paul O’Connor, and Mike Conaton, who earned three football  letters at Xavier in the 1950s.

“It’s like losing an old friend,” Mulligan said at a news conference.

Mulligan said there was some  consideration of dropping down in class to the Ohio Conference or Presidents’ Conference level. That would cut the deficit in half, he said.

“But many people thought Xavier people would not be interested in small-college competition,” Mulligan said.

“Some of the trustees felt it was better to go out in a blaze of glory,” he added, referring to the team’s three-game winning streak at the end of the 1973 season.

Mulligan said he regretted that the players were out of a team and Cecchini was out of a job. Trustees voted to let the players keep their scholarships.

“We were fortunate to have Tom Cecchini and we’re sorry to lose him,” Mulligan said.

Cecchini said he was worried about his players and his assistant coaches.

WATCH Xavier players John Wright and Paul Smith react here:

 

“What I’m most concerned about is that our players get squared away here or elsewhere,” Cecchini said. “I don’t want them to do anything foolish like jump at the first apparent good opportunity.

“And, of course, I want to help my assistants find work. Look, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m Mr. Goody, but I really don’t have to worry about where my next dollar is coming from.”

Cecchini had several offers and took an assistant’s job at Iowa.

Players were caught by surprise. Underclassmen wondered if they could get a football scholarship at another school.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do now,” said running back John Wright, “maybe try to go to  another school or play another sport. It’s going to be a rough decision.”

Even McCafferty was caught off guard.

“We had no indication this was coming. We were talking to people about forming a conference,” he said, mentioning Dayton, Marshall and Akron as interested parties.

McCafferty had seen this happen before when he was a student on a football scholarship at Loyola of New Orleans in 1939.

"I opened the newspaper and there it was: Loyola had dropped football," he said. "I won't forget the date - Dec. 19

"Our decision now leaves only five major Catholic schools left: Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Boston College, Villanova and Dayton."

Only Notre Dame and Boston College are playing big-time football today.

WATCH UC coach Tony Mason talk about losing an intra-city rivalry here:

 

“I think it’s a great traditional loss,” McCafferty said.

So did UC coach Tony Mason, who suddenly had an open date on his schedule after losing his intra-city rival.

“It’s something very few cities have – USC-UCLA and you can’t name very many after that. And here we are with one of the great ones, and it’s a shame,” Mason said. “I feel badly about it. There’s no way to replace that kind of rivalry.

“They won’t know what they have lost until a few years have gone by.”

Mulligan and one of Xavier’s football legends, Dan Tehan, had seen it coming years before.

WATCH Xavier football legends Jack Hoffman and Dan Tehan talk about the decision here:

 

Before  the Bengals started playing  in 1968, after the franchise was awarded in 1966, Mulligan  wrote NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and proposed that the pros share the cost of maintaining what amounted to a free farm system in the colleges.

Rozelle said the NFL couldn’t afford it.

“To sustain the kind of program we had calls for a substantial endowment of $4 million to $5 million,” Mulligan said at the news conference.

“Does anyone here have $4 million or $5 million to donate to the football program?”

Tehan, former Hamilton County Sheriff, said the trustees really didn’t have a choice.

“I think from Xavier’s standpoint Xavier had to give up football. After the war, the president of Xavier called a group of us together to form an athletic board and at that time I told them they should drop football and go big time for basketball because that’s the only salvation financially,” Tehan said.

Mulligan said Xavier would turn its emphasis to basketball.

“We feel we can have a good basketball team,” he said.

Both were right about that.

DID YOU KNOW? FUN FACTS ABOUT XAVIER FOOTBALL

Besides Shinners, legendary Xavier players who had success in the NFL included All-Pros Danny Abramowicz,  Chet Mutryn and John “Socko” Wiethe, Pro Bowler John Martinkovic, and  starters Art Hauser,  Jack Hoffman and  Steve Junker.

Besides winning the Salad Bowl and beating UC anytime, Xavier’s biggest triumphs included:

  • Twin wins over Boston College in Boston in 1952 and ’54. BC was otherwise undefeated in ’54 and ranked No. 8 in the country. The latter game was played at Fenway Park.
  • Back-to-back wins over Miami, coached by Woody Hayes, in 1949 and 1950.
  • The 26-0 win over coach Sid Gillman and UC in 1951 settled a dispute over which team was major and which was minor. The NCAA decided to list team statistics in separate groupings and considered UC "major" and Xavier "minor." When the game was over, Xavier players gave Kluska the game ball and he ran out of the locker room. When he got to the team bus, Kluska yelled, "What's the difference between major and minor?" One of his players, Jack Hahn, answered: "Twenty-six points."
  • A 14-9 upset of Kentucky in 1962.
  • A thrilling 29-28 win over Bo Schembechler and Miami in 1965. Xavier trailed 28-7 in the fourth quarter but QB Carroll Williams ran and passed for three touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Four years later, when Schembechler was coaching Michigan and had just defeated No. 1 Ohio State, he still called that Xavier-Miami game the most exciting he had ever coached.

Xavier was 12-18 against UC, 10-19-3 against Miami.

A Xavier defeat was showcased in a 2006 blockbuster movie. The Musketeers were the villains, not the heroes, of  “We Are Marshall,” about the Marshall team built almost from scratch following the tragic plane crash in 1970. Marshall’s first win in 1971 came against Xavier, 15-13. Xavier beat Marshall the following two years.

See other video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.

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