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A total loss

Roby says rebuilding NU would have cost millions

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / November 24, 2009

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In the end, it was about the money.

In big-time college basketball and football, they talk about the arms race as recruiting tools. They talk about who has a better training room or practice facility or player’s lounge.

You don’t hear that kind of talk much at the Football Championship Subdivision level in college football, where making money is hit or miss. But money was the key factor in Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby’s decision - after a two-year review - to recommend that the school discontinue its football program after a run that dates back 76 years.

It was not about the allocations designated to a program coming off its sixth straight losing season.

It was about the dire need to upgrade the school’s facilities, improvements Roby believed necessary to compete in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Roby decided the risk-reward factor was too great to continue a program that began in 1933.

Discarding the emotions - and there were plenty yesterday as word spread down Huntington Avenue that Northeastern had announced it had joined Boston University (discontinued in 1997) in eliminating football - it was a matter of facilities, or lack thereof.

Roby felt that Parsons Field did not measure up to the standards of the other teams in the highly compet itive CAA.

What was good in 2002 and 2003, the last two seasons in which Northeastern posted a winning record, no longer worked today.

“It’s not about what we’re currently doing,’’ said Roby at a news conference at Matthews Arena yesterday morning. “It’s what we need to do to go forward. It’s going to require multiple millions of dollars on an ongoing basis for us to be successful.’’

Roby said he was not comfortable recommending the continuation of football - which had been running a deficit of $2 million to $3 million per year for several years - without some promise of long-term success.

While Roby was explaining his decision, a few Northeastern players stood outside Matthews Arena and tried to absorb the finality of the announcement.

“We had a meeting [Sunday],’’ said senior offensive lineman Matt Allain. Before that gathering, coach Rocky Hager had indicated he thought he might be fired. “But as far as the program being dropped, I don’t think he knew until half an hour before Peter Roby met with us,’’ said Allain. “He was blindsided.’’

So were the players, who had heard rumors about the program’s future last year but had not heard so much as a whisper of the team’s demise this season - until Friday.

When Roby told the players, the reaction was shock and disbelief.

“And a sense of betrayal,’’ said junior tight end Conor Gilmartin-Donohue, who must decide if he wants to transfer to play one more year.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,’’ said Gilmartin-Donohue. “Who is going to take a player with only one year left?’’

John Griffin is in a similar position, although he has the résumé to possibly find another school. The junior running back was named to the all-CAA first team yesterday. Senior Kevin Newhall, an offensive lineman, was the only other NU player honored by the CAA.

Roby acknowledged the difficulty of trying to defend the decision to those involved. “The reaction was what you would expect to that kind of news,’’ he said. “A lot of emotion, all of it appropriate and understandable.’’

The players were also upset with the way the news was delivered. Last week, Northeastern officials asked parents and friends of the players to donate money to help the program.

“They sent out the letter last Wednesday,’’ said Gilmartin-Donohue.

Roby tried to explain the thought process. “The university has made a tremendous investment in our athletic programs the last two years,’’ he said. “The one area we haven’t seen an improvement in terms of the level of excellence was in football [NU was 3-8 this season].

“As we got to the end of the season it was apparent to me that the status quo was not an option, that change was in order for us to change the fortunes of the football program. As I continued the process of continued evaluation of what it was going to take [to achieve success] it became clear to me that the level of investment was not something I was comfortable recommending to the senior administration. So I made the recommendation that we discontinue the program.’’

Roby was asked if firing the coach could have cured the problem. That would only be a quick fix, he said, repeating that the school’s facilities were not up to speed with the other schools in the CAA.

Roby was asked if downgrading to a nonscholarship level would have helped. “We considered what options we had,’’ he said. “But nonscholarship doesn’t mean nontalent.’’

The reaction from the CAA, which must adjust its schedules, was guarded.

“Right now the issue that is staring us in the face is the 2010 schedule,’’ said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager in a conference call yesterday. “We have eight institutions that have lost a conference game. We need to reschedule and we need to do it with pre-existing dates that are set, like homecoming.

“It will be complex, but it will be doable.’’

Roby said he pondered for several weeks what could be done to save Northeastern football. It came down to a long-term money issue.

“It requires a lot of money to improve those things we need to improve to compete,’’ he said. “Parsons Field is not appropriate for the level we are trying to play, and to continue to play without the appropriate amenities is not appropriate and I was not willing to recommend the kind of investment [we needed] to make that happen.’’

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.