JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Shock, disappointment and disbelief.
The announcement on Tuesday that Jacksonville University was shutting down its football team was painful for former members of the program.
It also wasn’t totally out of nowhere for those with ties to the school.
“I wasn’t really surprised. Any time a university is making decisions, it’s going to be in the best interest financially,” said former JU player Lin Shell, a member of the Dolphins football hall of fame who went on to play professionally.
“Especially when it’s a financial institution. JU wasn’t really known for football, as far as sports-wise. They’re known for academics and it’s a financial institution. So, it kind of stung. But at the same time, it’s not something that’s hugely surprising.”
Steve Gilbert, who was hired in 1997 from Ursinus to build the program at JU, said that he was sad to see the school decide to call it quits playing football and wished that something could have been done to balance the sport with its other Division 1 athletic programs.
“There were a lot of good kids that came through there, a lot of really outstanding coaches that coached there. A lot of memories were made. We’re very disappointed to see it come to an end,” he said.
Gilbert coached Jacksonville from its inaugural season in 1998 until 2006. Kerwin Bell was hired after that and led the Dolphins to new heights for the program. But not even Bell’s success on the field and in recruiting could spark JU to take the next step. He left following the 2015 season. Ian Shields replaced Bell and was JU’s coach through this season’s 3-9 finish.
“I was shocked very disappointed, and again, my first thought was to reach out to Coach Shields and let him know we were praying for him and his family and certainly his assistant coaches and the players that are affected by this decision,” Gilbert said.
“I think when you make a big decision like this … this took a lot of sleepless nights, I’m sure, because it affects a large number of people and a large number of families. Hopefully things work out for the best with those folks that are involved.”
Micah Ross, the first JU football product to reach the NFL, said he loved his tenure with the Dolphins. He was a two-sport star (he’s also in the JU basketball hall of fame) but said things could have been better in football had the school put a bigger emphasis on it.
“Football is king here. It was a unique situation,” he said. “Other than [Edward Waters], this was the only type of program in the area, for the most part. We were unique. Everyone who played there thought there was room for growth. It never developed.
“We always thought it would be developed a little bit more. Football got me to where I am today. Everybody wanted it to be bigger than it was. None of us know the finances. If they made the move to full FBS, they could play those money games.”
The knock over the years on JU from a football perspective was that it never took steps forward in the sport to become more visible. The school joined the Pioneer Football League in 2001 and elected to stay at the Division I-AA level, and what eventually became known as the Football Championship Subdivision.
JU played as a member of the FCS but opted for the NCAA Division III framework of the PFL, which was non-scholarship.
That was often the rub for players and those close to the JU football program over the years. There was a built-in ceiling by staying non-scholarship.
Translation: It often cost a lot of money to play football at JU.
Students who played football at JU didn’t get scholarship money from an athletic standpoint, often using a blend of financial aid and student loans to go there. JU’s other Division I sports like basketball and baseball receive athletic scholarships. Basketball teams are allowed 13 scholarships. Baseball is permitted 11.7 scholarships.
According to the school’s most recent data, JU’s traditional student tuition is listed at $38,140 a year, although 94% of students receive some form of financial assistance to go there.
“It kind of cuts out kids from having a local option of a school to go to. After being a head coach over here at Ribault, I have kids that really want to go play ball on the next level and JU was a very viable option,” Shell said. “Beautiful campus and a beautiful school, so it kind of hurts because that’s one less option that these kids have and you want every kid to have an opportunity to go to the next level.”