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Originally published Friday, January 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Sad day as Western drops football for money reasons

The meeting had been scheduled for several weeks. Western Washington football coach Robin Ross wanted to talk to school president Bruce...

Seattle Times staff columnist

The meeting had been scheduled for several weeks. Western Washington football coach Robin Ross wanted to talk to school president Bruce Shepard about recruiting procedures.

Ross had recruits coming to campus this weekend and wanted to know what the president thought the administration's role should be in these visits.

In other words, when Ross walked into his 8:30 meeting Thursday morning, he was thinking about the future. In fact, he was optimistic about that future.

He had worked hard on budget-cutting issues with the football program. He had cut travel, scheduling five home games for 2009. He had a "money" game scheduled with Eastern Washington.

Ross believed he had the program headed in the right direction. The Vikings, an NCAA Division II team, won six games this season. They won the first bowl game in school history, beating Colorado Mines in the Dixie Rotary Bowl. He felt good about recruiting.

"Then I got into the meeting and I saw it was heading in a different direction," Ross said by telephone Thursday afternoon.

Instead of talking about the future, Ross learned that his program had no future. He was told by Shepard and athletic director Lynda Goodrich that Western Washington was dropping football. It was eliminating a program that had existed since 1903.

Ross said he felt blindsided.

"It was not something I foresaw," he said. "It was not something we had discussed. Of course, there's always budget constraints, and this is kind of a sign of the times. But it was never brought up, how we could raise more money or anything like that."

Later that morning, Ross met with his staff, then met with his players. He said it was the most painful meeting in his 32 years of coaching.

"That's where it got real emotional," he said. "It was tough seeing the expressions on the faces of the guys in that room. That was the toughest part of everything that happened today.

"I explained to them the transfer rules. I told them the school was honoring all of their scholarships until they graduated, but I also told them that this is like a tough loss. You have to bounce back. But it was a shocker for everybody. There's a lot of disappointment out there. I know there's a lot of unhappy people."

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People like Jason Stiles, a quarterback at Western in the 1990s.

Stiles still remembers his first day at school, the first meeting of the football team.

"Look around the room," then-coach Rob Smith told his newest Vikings class. "You might not know anybody in here right now, but the guys in this room are going to become some of your best friends and the friendships you make in this room will be with you for the rest of your life."

Some 16 years later, Stiles understands precisely what Smith was saying. He says the friendships are part of the ancillary value of playing college football; part of the experience that can't be measured in dollars and cents, something intangible that, he believes, is necessary at Western.

"I'm furious," Stiles said. "It's been a brutal, brutal day of news. Cutting a program that is the cornerstone of the athletic department cannot be an option. It's unacceptable. Other schools like Western Oregon and Humboldt State have had budget problems, but they've found a way to keep the program going.

"I feel terrible for the kids on the team who are having their careers cut short. There are 90 kids in that program, and not all of them are going to find another school to play for."

Something had to give at Western. The crashing economy and statewide budget cuts are forcing college presidents and athletic directors to make difficult decisions.

Programs are getting re-evaluated. Sports are getting cut. Administrators are being forced into making calls they never thought they'd have to make.

Goodrich called the confluence of economic disasters that forced the university to make this decision "the perfect storm."

She said endowment cuts were so severe they were "underwater."

Some sport, or sports, had to go. By eliminating football she could save all the other sports. By dropping football, she could keep Western's athletic programs afloat in Division II.

"This was the most difficult decision I've had to make in my 22 years here," Goodrich said. "It's absolutely the toughest day I've had to go through, and I've been around a long time."

The hurt in Goodrich's voice was obvious. She understood the domino effect this would have on the coaches, the players and recruits. She was braced for the anger from alumni and people in the community.

Western's football history is rich. The school played 797 games. It made five national playoff appearances in the 1990s and made it to the NAIA Division II championship game in 1996.

Former Viking Michael Koenen is the punter in Atlanta. Dane Looker, who later transferred to Washington, is a receiver in St. Louis. And linebacker Shane Simmons was an undrafted free agent with Oakland.

"It's a really sad day," said Central Washington coach Blaine Bennett, whose football team is the state's only remaining Division II program. "It's always hard when a school loses football. I was at Chico State right before they dropped football, and it's tough.

"We've lost a great, great rival. With the Battle in Seattle at Qwest Field every year we'd developed something really special for the kids at both schools. I feel really bad for the kids and the coaching staff. I'm hoping we can find places for some of the players on their team."

As costs escalate and revenue drops, other schools are making similar difficult decisions. In Western's Great Northwest Athletic Conference, Humboldt State and Western Oregon are facing financial problems. There only are four football-playing schools left in the league.

"I'm concerned about the trickle-down effect this is going to have for the rest of the conference," Stiles said. "And I hate the fact that they made a permanent decision based on temporary economic conditions that ultimately are going to get better.

"And I don't like the fact that we weren't notified. Nobody reached out to us to let us respond. To not give the alumni and family a chance to respond is beyond me."

Ross, who has been an assistant coach at five Division I schools and in the NFL with Oakland, is 54 and says he believes he has 10 to 12 more years of coaching left in him. He also has two years left on his contract with Western.

But for Ross the grief he felt Thursday was for his assistants and his players.

"We play a good brand of football here, and I think people were starting to realize that," he said. "I just don't think it's a good answer to the [budget] problem to eliminate possible options for kids. It's a sad day, but we all have to move on."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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