Harper College is discontinuing its football program after the recent elimination of conference rivals at Joliet Junior College and Grand Rapids Community College in Grand Rapids, Mich, college President Kenneth L. Ender announced Monday.
The move will leave the Midwest Football Conference with five teams, and only one, the College of DuPage, in Illinois. The decision was made upon the recommendation of the college provost and in consultation with the Harper College board of trustees.
"This is a painful decision," Ender said. "Harper has had a long and proud football tradition. But with only one community college football team left in Illinois and four out-of-state teams in the conference, it became clear we could no longer sustain the program."
The remaining teams in the Midwest Football Conference are College of DuPage, Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa, Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa and North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D.
Operating the program next year, school officials said, was projected to cost the college about $353,338. That money now will be returned to the college's general fund and has not yet been earmarked for any other program or project, spokesman Phil Burdick said.
While budget issues and scheduling difficulties played a role in the college's decision, residency of the players also was a growing concern, according to a Harper statement. Over the past six years, more than 90 percent of Harper's football players came from outside the district, creating significant challenges for student-athletes.
Harper does not have student housing, which means most football players need to find living space off campus.
"Many of these students are 18 and 19 years old living away from home for the first time and they're trying to manage their housing, finances, academics and play football," Ender said. "The dynamic has contributed to low academic performance and a high dropout rate. That was also a factor in our decision."
Mark Williams, a linebacker at Harper the last two seasons. said the football program would probably have continued to be a big draw for other out-of-district players, just as it drew him from the South Side of Chicago.
"I actually feel bad for the people that were planning on coming back," Williams said. "I definitely would have gone somewhere closer to home if it hadn't been for the football program."
But the high percentage of out-of-district players made it difficult for Harper to justify the football team's expense as an in-district program, Burdick said. The team's home games did not generate much interest or revenue from spectators.
"Attendance was very low and there just wasn't a natural affinity group within the Northwest suburbs," Burdick said.
While Grand Rapids Community College dropped out of the conference just a week ago, it was really the withdrawal of Joliet Junior College in November that triggered the decision-making process for Harper, Burdick said.
Football coach Erik Waldstein acknowledged the drop in competition as a result of the two teams leaving the conference, the difficulty with getting in-district players, and the budget problems.
"We kind of knew it was coming," Waldstein said. "... I am disappointed for the kids."
The administration offices of the College of DuPage were closed Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and officials there were not available to comment on the future of their football program.
Harper College plans to conduct a normal spring training schedule for current student-athletes, and coaches and staff will work with colleges to place Harper football players in other programs.
"We are committed to working closely with our football players who are affected by this decision," Athletic Director Doug Spiwak said. "We will continue to offer them support to help them succeed academically should they chose to stay at Harper or help them transfer successfully to another college football program."
Meanwhile, Coach Waldstein said, "I really enjoyed my time here."
The football program, founded in 1971, won the National Junior College Athletic Association non-scholarship championship in 2003, 2004 and 2008.
The decision to eliminate football leaves Harper with six men's and six women's sports teams.