Cutting football was the best move this college ever made
Six years ago, Michael Sorrell made a decision that threatened his reputation and maybe his job.
His tenure as president of Paul Quinn College started in 2007 and, shortly thereafter, he opted to cut football in an effort to save money.
The response on campus was not pleasant.
“Predictably, we had folks who were, I guess, the reaction was loud,” Sorrell says.
This was in football-nuts Dallas, only seven miles from the heart of the city. Sorrell was not anti-sports, either. He played basketball and loved football. He just felt the sport was “something economically we could not justify.”
Sorrell made an offer to the angry defenders of the sport: Raise $2 million to save football, and he would match it.
“To date,” Sorrell says, “no one has raised a dollar.”
College football is dealing with an emerging financial crisis. It’s plaguing programs as large as the University of Tennessee, which was a reported $200 million in debt over the summer, and as small as Grambling, which is begging alums for donations after poor facilities led to a player mutiny earlier this month. Escalating coaches’ salaries and declining attendance have led to real concern that the entire college football complex will become insolvent, leaving only a few schools with thriving programs.
“We are standing on the precipice of an economic day of reckoning in higher education,” Sorrell says. “I think there will be more schools to do this. I think we’re just early.”
Football was eating $600,000 of Sorrell’s budget, and Paul Quinn is a tiny school of only 250 students. How could he continue to educate when so much funding was going to something that wasn’t building an academic reputation?
He simply couldn’t. So the field sat vacant.
Sorrell moved on to a much bigger issue: his school is located in a food desert with neither a restaurant nor a grocery store nearby, and many of the students at the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi are poor. Eighty percent of the students at Paul Quinn are Pell Grant-eligible. (There’s a “clothes closet” on campus where students can get business casualwear for free, and money had to be raised so students could afford eyeglasses to read.)
A year after the end of football, Sorrell was meeting with a real estate investor named Trammell Crow. They bandied about the idea of devoting a tract of land to producing food for the community. But where?
Sorrell joked that they should just build a farm on the football field.
The jest quickly turned into a reality, and the school’s future was changed for the better.
Some of the produce grown in full view of the scoreboard would go to local food banks and the surrounding community. Some of it, eventually, could be sold.