JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In a stunning Tuesday morning announcement, Jacksonville University said that it will no longer play football and will discontinue its Division I program, effective immediately.
The university cited “a data-driven analysis” as the reason for the major changes to the athletics program. The Dolphins finished 3-9 this year, wrapping up their season with a 47-28 loss to San Diego on Nov. 23.
“It’s a bigger strategic decision than just financials,” JU President Tom Cost told News4Jax.
Cost said he met personally with Athletic Director Alex Ricker-Gilbert and head coach Ian Shields. The players were gathered together Tuesday morning when they were informed.
“Many of them came. Some of them didn’t. Every single athlete that came was told directly this morning. I think it was very well handled by the athletic department,” Cost said. “All coaches, everyone, was told at the same time -- 9 o’clock this morning.”
Ricker-Gilbert said it was a difficult conversation to have with the student-athletes.
“It was a difficult time for them. It is a difficult time for them,” he said. “It was a difficult decision to make.”
Students on campus seemed shocked and understanding.
“I thought it was really unfortunate that the football players are going to have to find different things to do," sophomore Kay Covington said. “But I thought it was really nice that the school provided different resources and scholarships just in case they wanted to continue or find different places to go.
“I was super surprised. All of my years, for four years, they’ve had football here, and it’s always been something I’ve been a part of,” said student Jake Hunter. "I am part of the marching band, and we always performed at the football games.”
While the final decision to cancel football was decided a few days ago, the future and direction of the JU sports program has subject to debate for over a year.
JU’s football program debuted in 1998 and participated in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League. While it played under the Division I umbrella, it used the framework of Division III to fill its roster out and didn’t provide players scholarships for athletic purposes.
The university will offer full-tuition scholarships to every football student-athlete who chooses to stay at JU until graduation and will honor the employment agreements for all football coaches. Cost said he wants the 102 players to know that, though football games may be over, their future is not.
“I want the student-athletes to know we want them to become college graduates. And we are offering them a full-tuition scholarship, which not one football player currently has today because we don’t play scholarship football," Cost said. “I want them to be great students. Many of them are darn good football players, and if they would like to continue playing football, I’ve got the entire team ready this morning to help them enter the transfer portal. But I think a lot of them want to become college graduates and I hope they’ll stay here.”
The Dolphins had three coaches in their history -- Steve Gilbert, Kerwin Bell and Shields. JU enjoyed its most successful period under Bell, who spent nine seasons there and had a 66-35 record before leaving after the 2015 season.
Under all three coaches, JU became a good landing spot for area high school players. Eleven former area players were on the roster this season.
JU said it will offer enhanced resources to assist in job searches for the coaches and will have a team prepared to help student-athletes with decisions about their future, including financial aid, academic advising, student affairs and more.
“We are doing everything we can to assist in their transition," Ricker-Gilbert said. "We know they have a lot on their mind -- whether they’re going to stay, whether they’re going to play elsewhere, what their friends are going to do. So our goal is to provide them with much support as possible.”
It’s the second major announcement this week of a college in the state discontinuing a sports program. The College of Central Florida said on Monday that it was eliminating its men’s and women’s basketball teams and women’s volleyball program after this season. The cost savings, according to the Ocala Star-Banner, would be $600,000 annually.
Tuesday’s announcement had JU students wondering about other campus programs, but News4Jax was told other sports programs are not in jeopardy.
“I am also an athlete on-campus. I’m part of the sailing team. And I just kind of related that back to me and was, like, ‘Oh, well, what if that would’ve happened to myself?’" JU student Andre Guaragna said. “It would have just been shocking.”
Some JU football players have already received calls from other schools about joining their teams.