In 1889, Bowdoin students took part in the College’s first intercollegiate football game, losing to Tufts 8-4. Since that time, the program has had a few periods of modest success but has mostly endured prolonged periods of futility. In 126 years of football, no Bowdoin team has ever logged an undefeated, untied season. The 2017 squad was the first to lose nine games in a single campaign and didn’t register a lead in a game until the 7:55 mark of the second quarter in its fifth game of the season, a 28-7 home loss to Hamilton.
While it might be convenient to conclude that this past season was Bowdoin’s worst ever, one would first need to examine the eight other Bowdoin squads that also suffered through winless campaigns (most recently in 2016), or the 14 that won only a single game. The current all-time record for Bowdoin teams stands at 394-525-44, and only three teams have had winning records since a 5-3 mark in 1985, my senior season. I played center and was a two-year letter winner.
But this is not going to be one of those “back in my day” screeds from a grumpy old alum. I have spent the better part of my professional and academic career involved with and in the study of issues pertaining to intercollegiate athletics, and Bowdoin athletics in particular, and I can say without reservation that the future of Bowdoin football is very much in doubt. While Bowdoin’s football past is largely grim, the future—like that of many other similarly profiled rivals (Bates and Colby were a combined 3-15 this year, with two of the three victories over the Polar Bears)—will likely be worse. Youth football participation rates are down across the country and are decidedly lower in the regions and at secondary schools from which Bowdoin recruits prospects. Increasingly, private secondary schools are shuttering their football programs due to this decline, and those struggling to maintain programs are doing so with greatly reduced rosters. One can debate the reasons for this decline (fear of concussions being primary) and whether they are reasonable, but the numbers don’t lie.
Additionally, more colleges in the region have added football to attract male students. This means more schools vying for fewer qualified prospects, which has also forced Ivy League programs to entice prospects formerly targeted only by Bowdoin and its NESCAC rivals. One school that has recently added football is Endicott College, from whence current Bowdoin head coach JB Wells came. Wells, a Trinity grad, built a strong program at Endicott. I witnessed the evolution of that program in my capacity as the football PA announcer at Western New England University, where I teach. When Wells was hired, I thought it was an inspired choice. I’m pretty sure Wells hasn’t forgotten his football knowledge since he arrived in Brunswick. So what does that mean? Would it take hiring Nick Saban to guarantee wins at Bowdoin? Bill Belichick, an Andover and Wesleyan alum?
As NESCAC athletic policies are, for better or worse, controlled by school presidents, there are three possible solutions to Bowdoin’s football quagmire. First, the presidents could collaborate to create an environment in which perennially poor performing programs might benefit from restrictions such as limited recruiting of prospects by stronger programs. A similar collaboration occurred in the late 1990s, which was described to me by former Bowdoin president Bob Edwards at the time. “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,” was how Edwards portrayed this situation then, with Bowdoin playing the role of the grass. Sounds familiar.
This will be a tough sell, especially at Amherst, where president Biddy Martin has just emerged from a bruising nickname change process, earning her the enmity of many alums who have responded with reduced annual fund giving. If she were to deemphasize football next, that could well end her tenure. Outlandish, you say, to posit that a NESCAC president would be fired over athletic issues? There is precedent, given what happened at Williams in 1998 when then-president Hank Payne denied his women’s lacrosse team the chance to go to the NCAA tournament because the schedule conflicted with exams. Parents, coaches and trustees were outraged, and a year later he was gone.
The second option is for the presidents of Bowdoin, Bates, Colby and likely Hamilton (whose three wins this season came over, yes, the CBB schools) to craft a joint statement announcing the creation of a separate football conference and to make overtures to other programs to join them. Macalester College, which once lost 50 straight games, made a similar move from Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference football play in 2014. Given the extreme discrepancy in outcomes in that conference this year (Carleton College and St. Olaf College lost to perennial national power College of St. Thomas by a combined 181-0), it is clear that other schools are facing a similar dilemma and would eagerly consider such a realignment, even a cross-continental one.
The third option is to drop football entirely. President Clayton Rose should be asked if losing 36 out of the last 41 games, as his school’s football teams have done, can in any way be seen as a positive educational experience, especially since most every other athletic program at the College annually competes for NESCAC (and in some cases NCAA Division III) championships. He likely would respond with a statement lauding the nature of competition and all the things that can be learned from the game and decline to place import solely on the outcomes of contests. If so, someone should ask him if any of his children or grandchildren played football, and if not, why?
The future of Bowdoin football is in doubt, and Rose and his colleagues need to act if they want to preserve it. I’ve fought the urge to use a football analogy to the end, but here it is: the presidents can’t afford to punt here, because there isn’t much time left on the clock.
Daniel Covell is a member of the Class of 1986 and was a member of the football team.