The Big Empty

Poets’ Football Tackles Persistent Losing and Scant Support

by Matthew Park

Memorial Stadium, home of the Poets football team.
“Every other team in the conference has some sort of home-field advantage with their fans, and we’re the only team that plays without one, since no one shows up to our games.”

It is a warm October Saturday night and the lights are shining at Memorial Stadium, illuminating the hills at east end of Whittier College’s campus that provide a picturesque backdrop for the Poets’ home games. It’s a perfect setting for small college football game like the one taking place on this night against the Occidental Tigers. This is a huge game for the Poets football team, one steeped in tradition. During the 1930’s, Occidental players stole the shoes of Whittier running back Myron Claxton which were later recaptured, bronzed and made into a trophy. The match against Occidental is known as “The Shoes Trophy” game, a 70-year tradition. The winning team takes home the bronzed shoes every year, but more than a trophy is at stake. This game between the two small, liberal arts colleges is about pride and school spirit.

The Shoes. Will the Poets ever get them back?

The Poets were fired up at the start of this contest but, but things on the field haven’t been as pretty as the game’s setting. As the contest comes to a close, the body language on the Poet’s sideline tells the story of the early season to date. The players look drained, mentally and physically, like it’s the end of a bad season, not the middle. The stands tell another story. Though the game has a storied tradition, there only a scattered couple dozen who came out on this Saturday night to cheer on the home team. Senior running back Josh Thompson says the empty stands are “a disadvantage at home that only we have. Every other team in the conference has some sort of home-field advantage with their fans, and we’re the only team that plays without one, since no one shows up to our games.”

In the world of the early 21st century, football is a cultural phenomenon that transcends the world of sports. There are many who dedicate their entire fall and early winter weekends Saturdays to watching college football on Saturdays and the NFL on Sundays. According to a recent report by CNN, the NFL is projected to generate $13 billion in revenue, which would solidify its place as the world’s richest sports league once again. Football is big bucks on the collegiate level also, generating about $3.4 in 2013 according to Business Insider.

Division III football, though, is a far cry from the Saturday spectacles down the 10 freeway where the USC Trojans play in front of 100,000 rapid fans. This is supposed to be about something else — about epitomizing the student-athlete, or school spirit, or something more pure than the business calculations of big-time college football. Few playing for the right to take home a pair of bronze shoes are dreaming of the NFL. And Whittier College isn’t constructing new academic Taj Mahals on the back of its football team.

As time winds down in the 4th quarter, the scoreboard reads 65–15 in favor of the visiting Occidental Tigers. One of the worst losses of the season is suffered against Whittier’s venerable rival. From the looks of the Poets as they come off the field, Occidental will be taking more than the bronze shoes with them. As a broadcaster not even halfway through my first season in the booth, I found it hard to be optimistic.

Whittier College Sports Network

During Transfer Student Orientation at the beginning of the 2015 school year, one of the student organizations that stood out to me was the Whittier College Sports Network or WCSN. This is a club run by the athletics department that focuses on reporting and providing broadcast coverage for all of the school sports teams. Upon joining, my first assignment was to observe the first home football game and listen to the broadcasters calling the game in order to get familiar with the players and play-by-play commentary.

The first game of the year was a non-conference home game against the Austin College Roos, a visiting team from Texas. I found the lack of attendance puzzling. Isn’t football such an important part of American culture, something most Americans are passionate about? Where was everyone, and what did this say about the football program?

Not that the Poets’ play on the field would generate much enthusiasm. They turned the ball over too much and the defense spent too much time on the field and was gassed long before the game ended. Whittier lost 55–12. It probably didn’t help that someone decided all-black uniforms on a 90-degree day was a good idea.

After the Occidental game, I realized that I would have my work cut out for me as a broadcaster. Our next game, against Pomona-Pitzer was another blowout loss. Attendance continued to drop. Although it’s hard to blame students for not attending games when the home team is getting blown out on a regular basis, it became clear to me that football just wasn’t that big a deal to Whittier College students. As a broadcaster, these shellackings became a test — how could I stay positive for the team and up for the games amidst all this futility.

As the season wore on, a recurring pattern became evident — the Poets looked even worse in the second half than they did in the first. While the defense would be understandably tired in the second half from being on the field so much, the second-half performances raised questions about the team’s inability to make adjustments during halftime or even keep up morale to finish strong.

Up to this point, I had been questioning whether or not the players cared, and it was in this moment that I realized the answer to that question was “yes.”

Attendance for the final home game against Claremont Mudd-Scripps was so abysmal that it could have easily been a season low. The pattern held up — things got out of hand in the first half and the team looked tired and lethargic during the second half. The defeated look of the players on the sideline was unmistakable, it having dawned on them that not only would they not win any home games, but that a winless season was a real possibility. Thompson, the senior running back, who was used to winning in high school, said that the winless season by the Poets “hurt him mentally and took a toll on him.” He said the winless season left him wondering whether he ever wanted to play football again.

Thompson indicated some felt the coaching staff failed to accept its share of accountability and blamed poor execution instead of bad playcalling. “When the play wouldn’t work out as intended,” he said, “the coaches would always place the blame on the players for failing to execute and never admitting to just making the wrong call.”

He also admitted the lack of student support hurt the team’s morale. Though the senior has no eligibility left, when asked if he would play again if he could, Thompson said, “Even with another coaching staff, it would be hard to put myself through that again, because of the lack of respect that the team has from the students and alumni when everyone works their asses off every single week.”

Despite the lack of support from students, boosters and alumni and the seemingly never-ending string of losses, Thompson said that what kept him and his teammates coming back for football every season was the bonding experience. “You will always find something to bond over in football, whether you’re winning or losing,” he explained. “This year we used the frustrations of dealing with the coaches and losing every week as a way of developing closer relationships with each other.”

You will always find something to bond over in football, whether you’re winning or losing.
Newly-hired Coach Mike Neale

After the winless 2015 football campaign, head coach Todd Stratton resigned and the athletics department immediately began searching for a new head coach. The Poets hired Mike Neale who comes from Albright College in Pennsylvania. Neale comes to Whittier with an impressive resume after quickly turning Albite, which posted just two wins the season before he arrived, into a contending program. A full interview can be heard with Coach Neale below as he shares some details about his past experience as well as what steps are being taken to turn Whittier’s program into a winning one. One thing he emphasizes in his interview is his dedication to finding young players who will be able to lead and motivate others.