May 8, 2016
Long Beach State has been without a football team since 1991 and is doing better financially than when it did have one.
With 1:47 remaining in the fourth quarter, Cal State Fullerton trailed its archrival Long Beach State, 36-31, at Long Beach City College’s Veterans Memorial Stadium on Nov. 23, 1991.
The Titans quarterback, Chad May, drove Fullerton down the field and finished the series off with a 13-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to wide receiver Frank Davis. Fullerton, which was then known as Fullerton State, handed the 49ers a gut-wrenching one point defeat.
Sixteen days later, on Dec. 9, members of the LBSU football team were blindsided when the university announced it was officially dropping the sport.
“When you go through something like that, it is devastating to you because [I] had hopes and dreams of being a head football coach, somewhere,” said Willie Brown, NFL Hall of Fame cornerback and the final LBSU head football coach. “And then they take it away from you like that without even giving you a fair chance to do something.”
A year before Brown took the job, the 49ers finished the season with a 6-5 record under NFL HOF coach George Allen. But, on New Year’s Eve 1990, Allen passed away and since Brown was already an assistant coach, he inherited Allen’s position.
Allen, according to an Los Angeles Times article in 2012, was doused with a Gatorade shower by the players after the 49ers beat the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 29-20 on Nov. 17 1990, which captured the team’s first winning season in three years.
Drenched in Gatorade, Allen stuck around for post game interviews and boarded the bus back to campus in the soaked clothes. Although he caught pneumonia several days later, he actually died from ventricular fibrillation, a variation of a cardiac arrest.
When his irregular heartbeat started to convulse in late December, it led to his death.
Both Allen and Brown promised the athletic department that they would turn the football program around; in turn, the team would generate more revenue support for the financially declining athletic department facing severe budget cuts.
When Brown asked the university why it was dropping football, the administrators said that football was not affordable anymore.
However, Brown told them, “if George Allen was alive I don’t think you would drop football.”
With little support coming from the state and ticket sales on top of a losing record in six of the last eight seasons, the school was in a stranglehold, financially and competitively. On top of that, the team had no stadium on campus to play at Since the team and hosted games at Long Beach City College.
“George Allen had proposed that we put a stadium on campus, because most schools that have a football team have it on campus,” Brown said. “A majority of students that go to Long Beach commit to school every day, and when school is out they go home. But if we had a football stadium, they have a chance to be there all day and go to the game in the afternoon.”
Although the team, according to Brown, drew an average of 10,000 fans per home game in 1991, it still comes short of the NCAA home attendance requirements of 15,000.
After the 49ers finished the 1991 season with a 2-9 record, the athletic department had more ammunition to argue dropping football. On top of that, it was going to have to cut $465,000 out of its budget for the following season., according to a 1992 Los Angeles Times article. The athletic director at the time, Dave O’Brien, told the Times that football would account for $300,000 and for that reason, dropping the sport was logical. With the university coming closer to making the announcement, Brown heaved a last-second hail mary to save the team.
“I had a couple friends down in Southern California that wanted to donate a couple million dollars once they heard that the school wanted to drop football,” Brown said. “But [the school] didn’t believe it so they did away with it.”
Brown said he was so devastated because when he was originally promoted, he got the notion from then-university president Curtis L. McCray and O’Brien that he would have time to turn the program around.
However, both McCray and O’Brien weren’t particularly fond of football, according to Brown, which put him in a 2-on-1 disadvantage.
“You’re butting your head against the wall when you’re going against the President and Athletic Director,” he said.
Once Brown got word of the news, he set up a closed-door meeting with all of the players and recommended his players to transfer if the opportunity presented itself and assured the players which stayed that their “[NCAA scholarships] would be honored.”
The following day, about 30 different football coaches from across the country went to campus to recruit and sign new players for their program. A total of 24 former players from the 49ers roster transferred out to play at a different university. One of those players is HOF running back Terrell Davis who transferred to the University of Georgia and was drafted in 1995 by the Denver Broncos.
Since 1991, LBSU has yet to play a single snap, and that doesn’t appear to change anytime soon.
Twenty five years later, the issue remains the same: no stadium, no money. No money, no football.
Considering how far college football has grown in popularity since 1991, it might be out of LBSU’s range. According to ESPN, it’s the third most popular sport in the nation behind the NFL and MLB.
“I think what hurt this institution back in 1992 is that it didn’t have a place to play,” said LBSU’s athletic director Vic Cegles. “You don’t have resources and the Cal State system isn’t built to provide those resources. You also have to raise a lot of money and that’s a challenge because we don’t have the professionals that schools like [University of California Los Angeles] and Berkeley do.”
Cegles spent time at several universities — Arizona State, Rutgers University and Temple University — that are members of one of the Power 5 conferences — ACC, Big-10, Big-12, PAC-12 and SEC — and he said they have a major advantage over the mid-majors.
“The bigger schools have all the resources, they have all the TV money,” Cegles said. “[They] all have the big TV packages. Every school got $25 million dollars, just for TV before they sell a ticket, before they did anything.”
When ESPN agreed with the Big Ten conference to launch a conference based network in 2006, it set off a chain of events that other Power-Five conferences would follow. In the next year, the Big 12 conference paired up with ESPN and in 2013 the network added the SEC. Every year, ESPN spends billions of dollars to these conferences for television rights.
UCLA, a member of the PAC-12, put up almost $27 million in expenses for football last season but reeled in $44 million in revenue. Unfortunately for LBSU, it does not belong to any of those Power 5 conferences. The Big West, the conference that LBSU is a member of, has only two schools which have football programs: Cal Poly and UC Davis.
Those teams are in the Football Championship Subdivision, which was formerly known as Division I-AA. In the FCS, schools only have 63 NCAA scholarships and have the option to split a scholarship between players. However, Cegles said “you can’t do that at the major college level.”
For FBS schools, each football team must have 85 players on scholarships. Additionally, more student-athletes means the athletic department needs to hire more staff members such as tutors, academic advisors and trainers to deliver the proper support, Cegles said.
LBSU has 473 student athletes making up its 19 Division I sports teams. If football were to be implemented, it would probably result in student athletes from other sports losing their scholarship or some sports being discontinued. That’s why, according to Cegles, the idea of bringing football back to LBSU has never really been discussed among university administrators.
“Plus, if you add 85 men’s scholarships, you better add 85 women’s scholarships and how are you going to do that?” Cegles said. “You’re either going to cut women’s sports or men’s sports.”
Still, the nostalgia persists.
Cegles says he misses game day. While he was at ASU, the 49ers made it all the way to the National Championship game at the Rose Bowl in 1997. When he was at Temple from 2003-2006 he hired Al Golden, who later went on to be a successful coach at the University of Miami.
But in the end, Cegles admits he realizes that there is no realistic point of return for football at LBSU.
“Would it be great for the university? No question about it.” Cegles said. “But can it be sustainable? No.”