MALONE On the surface, it’s a financial decision made by a university that says it’s doing what it needs to do in a business sense to address a “$2.5 million structural deficit over the next two years.”
For dozens of current Malone players and coaches, as well as hundreds of former players scattered across the area and even the country, its impact is much more personal. News that Malone University would eliminate its football program, effective immediately, sent shockwaves through the roster and local football community.
One of those current players who was caught completely off guard by the news was former Coventry standout and current redshirt sophomore quarterback Jaret Skaggs. Skaggs, who has served as a backup for the Pioneers in his first two seasons, recalled how the process unfolded.
“What happened was they told us we had a team meeting Friday morning at 6 a.m. and they sent out text Wednesday or Thursday just saying we had the team meting Friday,” Skaggs said. “We had a feeling something was up because we usually have team meetings at 4:15 p.m.”
After the text went out, rumors began to swirl; maybe the program would drop back down from Division II to Division III or even NAIA status, or as Skaggs wondered, maybe head coach Fred Thomas was retiring. Either way, he and his teammates had no idea what to expect as they filed into the university’s gymnasium early Friday morning.
However, they quickly began to realize that this wasn’t a typical team meeting.
“We walk into gym, the university president (David King) is there, staff is there … the president told us straight up it was the hardest decision he ever had to make, but that they’re dropping football,” Skaggs said.
He admitted that, in that moment he “had a thousand questions,” but that after the announcement, King left and players were sitting there stunned, wondering why and what it meant for them.
The university’s official reasoning is that it discontinue football as an intercollegiate sport as part of a restructuring process designed to eliminate the aforementioned debt. According to figures provided by the university, the decision will save about $1 million annually and in a statement, King echoed the words he said to Skaggs and his teammates during that meeting.
“I’ve worked in higher education for more than 25 years and been honored to serve as president of Malone for the past seven years, and this is by far the most difficult decision I’ve had to make,” King said in the statement. “We love our students and recognize that this will change elements of the student experience for our football players. This decision aligns our resources more closely with our core academic mission and strengthens our ability to provide a transformational student experience for all students.”
As part of its announcement, the school said it would continue to honor the athletic scholarships of current football players and non-scholarship football players will continue to receive merit- and need-based financial aid.
Those claims aside, it’s clear the impact of the decision goes beyond dollars and cents for the players. Some, unlike Skaggs and freshman offensive lineman Matthew Hollister (Green), aren’t local and came to Malone from places such as Maryland, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia and Florida. They moved to another state in large part to play college football and now, they have to decide between staying at Malone without a chance to play or going through the process of choosing a whole new college and doing so knowing they will be at a disadvantage wherever they go because they’ll be competing against players with roots in whichever new program they choose.
“For me it sucks, but I’m going to be ok because I have some options around the area and around Ohio. For some guys this is all they had … it was their only chance to play or maybe to get away from a bad situation back home by moving a far distance to come here and now, they’re searching again,” Skaggs said. “It’s hard to get yourself established in a program and I don’t know anyone looking forward to having to do that twice.”
After news began to filter out, Skaggs heard from other college coaches who reached out either directly or through social media to see if he would be interested in transferring to their school. The downside, due to the timing of the announcement, is that he and his teammates are in the middle of the spring semester and will have to finish out the remainder of the semester at Malone before making any possible moves.
“Unfortunately, we have to finish the semester here and one thing that’s going to suck is with my next opportunity, I won’t have a spring ball season with them, so whatever school I’m going to, I’m going to have to do a lot of work catch up,” Skaggs said.
At Malone, Skaggs was on scholarship alongside two members of his recruiting class, fellow quarterbacks Cam Ingram and Zane Bunnell. After the team meeting in which they received the news that their Malone careers were over, the trio returned to their dorm room and sat in silence as they digested what they’d just heard. Although they knew that in a couple of years, had the program remained, they’d have graduated and gone their separate ways, they were now facing that reality sooner than expected.
“That’s been one of the hardest things for all of us … we’re being forced to separate from one another,” Skaggs said.
Lake coach Dan DeGeorge, a former Malone team captain and the program’s all-time leading rusher, had a doubly felt reaction to hearing about the decision. As a former standout for the Pioneers, he was sad to see the university cut the program. As a local high school football coach who has seen several former players play for and graduate from Malone, he knows the move closes a possible door for players coming up through the ranks for the Blue Streaks.
“A lot of things went through my mind …the first thing is that it’s unfortunate and sad the way went down. The timing of it timing was real unfortunate for the current players there and the coaches, as well as high school kids who were planning going there to play,” DeGeorge said. “The program has had some struggles, but there has been a lot of positives for a lot of kids over the past 25 years and being a former captain there, it was hard to see.”
After the news broke, DeGeorge received 50 or so texts from former teammates and friends expressing sadness about what had happened. He liked the direction the program was going in its three seasons under Thomas and also had to get to work helping one of his players who intended to sign with Malone find a new college less than a week before National Signing Day.
“Being a head coach in Stark County, having Malone and Walsh as Stark County colleges playing football created opportunities for local kids … we’ve had seven or eight kids the past 10 years graduating from there,” DeGeorge said.
One of those former players, running back Matt Blasiole, finished up his career with Malone last fall and is now part of what will, for the foreseeable future, be the final senior class for Malone football. In the wake of the decision, Malone’s other sports will continue as members of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (G-MAC), competing at the NCAA Division II level.
The school moved to the G-MAC from the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference beginning with the 2016-17 season, jumping from NAIA to Division II. At the time, the university also considered moving to Division III. In three seasons in the G-MAC, Malone had an overall record of 4-25 and 2-15 in league play, including a 2-8 mark last fall.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB