Rise of ODU football illuminates discussion in Mason football debate

This is Part I of a three-part series on Old Dominion University’s path to reinstate a varsity football program.

For decades, the Mason community has discussed bringing a varsity football program to the university. The words “George Mason University” and “football,” when used together strike an emotional chord with the school’s students and alumni. Meanwhile, the polarizing topic hasn’t made it passed the early stages of planning.

Mason is the second-youngest university in the state of Virginia behind Christopher Newport University—which hosts a Division III football program—and, alongside Virginia Commonwealth University, it is one of two public Virginia institutions enrolling over 20,000 students without a football program.

Despite resentment between the Mason community and the administration for dismissing the idea of football at Mason, administrators claim the “price has never been right” for the school to realistically pursue this expensive endeavor.  Many factors, including funding, the location of a stadium and the move to the Atlantic 10 conference—where football is non-existent—make installing a program at Mason that ever less likely in the near future.

But, perhaps if the circumstances were right so that the opportunity to field a football program at Mason were a foreseeable option, what comparable examples could the university use as a framework?

To find a successful model for a football program, Mason would need only to look roughly 197 miles south to Norfolk, Va.

In 2009, Old Dominion University reinstated its football program after a 69-year hiatus and is entering its first season of FBS Division I-A football this Fall. The university has become a model of how the proper leadership, planning, support and fortunate circumstances, can make a football program a reality.

Garnering Support

Unlike Mason, ODU once touted a football program in the 1930s when the school was a member of Norfolk Division for the College of William & Mary. Though the program’s existence was short-lived, the legacy football continues to have in the Hampton Roads region has only been strengthened in the years following the program’s demise after the 1940 season.  The impact of World War II and financial issues were key reasons why the team was disbanded and ODU was left without football for 69 years.

In the interim years, students and alumni attempted to bring the program back to Norfolk numerous times, most seriously in the late-1980s. However, issues with the president and most importantly cost were to blame for the program’s continued absence.

That was until 2004 when then-ODU president Dr. Roseann Runte, after much discussion among students and alumni over football, made the goal of bringing football back to the school as a rallying point for both the university and the entire Norfolk community.

“I was asked about football shortly after my arrival at Old Dominion in 2001,” said Runte, in an email. “It actually took quite some time to raise the funds and make all the necessary plans to bring the program back. It was a significant effort on behalf of the entire administration, the students, faculty and alumni.”

Before any fundraising or financial plans could be put in place, the student body and alumni had to express their desire for the reinstatement of the program. The Alumni Association hosted a poll on their website that attracted over 6,700 responses. Of those who completed the survey, 90 percent of them were supportive of reinstating a football team at ODU.

Yet, with the nearly unanimous demand for football, a slew of factors, most importantly money, had to come together in order to pursue the overhaul of reinstating football at ODU.

The Eight Million Dollar Question

Funding was once again the biggest roadblock to the process and when it comes to extensive projects, money is always the end-all, be-all.

President Runte and the Board of Visitors finally green-lighted football and the university established three requirements for proceeding with the football program.

First, a Price Waterhouse Coopers community report was conducted to get a better idea of anticipated support from members of the community, predicting over $1.5 million a year in the combination of student fees, season ticket sales, premium seating and concessions.

Second, new land was purchased from the city of Norfolk for an athletic facility. To comply with Title IX requirements, ODU added softball, women’s lacrosse and later, women’s crew to reach an equal number of scholarships between both men and women’s sports.

But, the third prerequisite of raising roughly $8 million in pledges was by in large the single-most important aspect of the entire process.

The resounding support for a new football program indicated to ODU administration and the athletic department that football was in high demand. The administration believed that the well-established alumni community in the Hampton Roads region would donate to the program.

In order to gain financial support, ODU used the Big Blue Club, the fundraising branch of the athletic department, to encourage alumni and community members to donate to the football enterprise.

After the announcement of football’s return to ODU, an outpouring of support from alumni, of which there are over 100,000 in the Hampton Roads region alone, attributed to over $5 million in donations within the year.

Private donations from wealthy and generous alumni like local businessman Jeff Ainslie ($1 million) and Stephen B. Ballard ($2.5 million), for which S. B. Ballard Stadium was named, proved to be effective for stadium renovations. However, in order to reach the goal of $8 million, multiple smaller donations would have to figure into the overall equation.

A number of fundraising events were held to gain support from members of the community and to grow the fan base. The linkage between the university and the surrounding community have been major proponents in the path to a program and its growing success.

ODU Football Today

As far as revenue goes, Old Dominion has reaped many benefits in transforming the Norfolk campus and community since football was reinstated.

“In our case, we’re doing well for ourselves,” said Debbie White, the senior associate athletic director of external relations at ODU. “I have been at the university for over 30 years and there has been no greater change than adding football. It’s incredible and it has brought the entire campus together, including students, alumni, faculty and the surrounding community.”

White also had a message for schools who were considering establishing a football program: Take a serious look.

“Every case is unique but we are in a major metropolitan area with no professional teams in the area and a large stadium on campus,” White said. “It has been a phenomenal thing.”

“Football provides entertainment options and is great for the campus community, prospective students and alumni,” said current ODU athletic director, Dr. Camden Wood Selig. “It also gives the community something to follow, not just ODU alumni.”

Though varsity football is not in any serious considerations to be established anytime soon at Mason, the blueprint that ODU used to build, finance and rise through the ranks in an unprecedented timeframe could be a useful model to imitate when and if football becomes a feasible option.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated field hockey as one of the women’s sports added to comply with Title IX. The sport added was softball. We apologize for the inconvenience.