By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — How embarrassing.
That is the only thing I could think of on Thursday evening when I received the news that the University of San Diego was withdrawing its bid to win the Pioneer Football League championship this season and, with it, the chance to be the first PFL squad to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Football Championships.
Just two days away from competing for the PFL title at home against Drake (6-4 overall, 5-2 in the Pioneer Football League), the Toreros players and coaches were sucker-punched back into reality before practice on Thursday afternoon.
USD President Mary E. Lyons and Athletic Director Ky Snyder told them that this team with a 7-3 and 6-1 record would be ineligible for postseason play because of questions about players receiving student aid that might not be in line with PFL rules.
“(I feel) just total devastation,” safety and captain Robbie Beathard told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I can’t wrap my head around this yet. I’m so confused, especially because it was of no fault of any players.”
Twenty-One seniors, including Beathard, will be playing their final home game at Walter J. Zable Field, but the 4 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) contest lost its luster like a bronzed statue being oxidized.
After years of trying to earn respect during the Jim Harbaugh-coaching era (2004-06) and during the next six years under Harbaugh’s replacement, Ron Caragher, the Toreros were on the brink of a significant breakthrough for the program.
Under new coach Dale Lindsay, in his first year at the controls, the expansion of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs to 24 teams had finally given the Toreros their first automatic pathway to the postseason.
Snyder told reporters that breaking the news to the team was ”the most horrible thing I’ve had to do with kids.”
With good reason.
“It was a very hard conversation,” Snyder added.
What Snyder didn’t say is that San Diego’s administration is most likely the one to blame for the problem.
The situation has its roots in the archaic way that PFL schools determine financial aid.
It is based on the NCAA Division III model of need-based aid and includes rules that don’t allow the institutions to consider athletic ability when determining how much aid a student is given.
But Snyder admitted that USD may have violated those rules for several players, though he wouldn’t discuss details on Thursday.
Sorting out the details may take more time than San Diego has to figure it all out.
Lyons released the following statement on Thursday evening:
“Dear Torero Family and Friends:
Recently, Torero Athletics identified an issue arising out of the award of need-based financial aid to football players that is incompatible with the Pioneer Football League’s (PFL) rules, but is within the financial aid need-based cap applied to the University’s general student body.
Our initial findings have prompted us to report the matter to the PFL and to assure them of our full cooperation in any additional review. Furthermore and with the endorsement of a special committee of trustees appointed by our Board, and after careful consideration of appropriate immediate sanctions in circumstances such as these, we have voluntarily elected to remove USD from consideration for this year’s conference championship and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) automatic qualifier. This issue is specific to football and does not nor will it affect our other sports.
I recognize the impact that this situation has on our student athletes, Torero Athletics and our entire university community. Our response now and going forward reflects a commitment to our students and to the highest standards of integrity. To that end, complying with applicable rules and regulations in the administration of our intercollegiate athletic programs continues to be our unwavering commitment.
I understand that many of you may have questions and concerns, but at this time we will defer further comment until the conclusion of a review by the PFL and/or the NCAA. Let me assure you, however, that additional information will be shared when any reviews are completed. In the meantime, I ask for your patience, understanding and, above all, your support for our student athletes.”
The news appeared to catch the PFL somewhat off-guard, based on the statement the league released shortly after Lyons sent out her release.
PFL media director Cody Bush send out a release less than a half-hour later that said: “The Pioneer Football League will not comment further on this topic at this time. Additional information regarding the PFL tiebreaker policies and potential scenarios for its automatic qualifier will be released Friday.”
Both the PFL and San Diego seem to be scrambling with the fervor of former Torero great and Walter Payton Award finalist Josh Johnson, one of many ex-USD players who have to be devastated by Thursday’s news, considering how much this Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and others have put into this program.
It brings back memories of the situation at Central Arkansas in 2009, when the Bears were on their way to the Southland Conference football title only to be told they couldn’t be declared “officially” the champion as a team in their final year of transition from Division II to Division I.
To give UCA the championship would have meant, by NCAA rule, that the Southland would have been forced to give up its automatic bid to the playoffs.
The same thing would have applied to San Diego. If an ineligible team had been declared as the league champion, the PFL would have lost its auto bid in its first season of eligibility.
Unfortunately, it probably removes the PFL’s top team from the postseason. San Diego may not have the talent it possessed during the Harbaugh-Johnson days, but the Toreros would have probably given the PFL its best shot at a potential upset in the first round of the playoffs.
With this seismic-like event not too far removed from this pristine, hilltop campus that is surrounded by Southern California earthquake faults, several other PFL clubs saw their playoff hopes increase dramatically.
Marist (7-3, 6-1) hosts FCS newcomer Mercer (9-1, 5-1) at 1 p.m. on Saturday, with both teams sitting near the top in the PFL standings.
That game will close out Marist’s regular season, but with a win, Mercer’s only obstacle to a share of the title would be a home game against another first-year program, Stetson (2-7, 1-5).
Butler (8-3, 6-1) could also earn a part of the crown by winning at Morehead State (3-7, 3-4) in a 1 p.m. game on Saturday.
The PFL will try to enlighten all of us on tiebreaking scenarios on Friday.
But that may be the least of the PFL’s problems.