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Football returning to the University of Vermont after 33-year hiatus

Category: America East Expansion & Realignment, Featured News

Football is back at the University of Vermont.

That statement should send tremors through your mother’s preserves, after more than three decades without one of America’s most popular collegiate sports at UVM.

But for the first time since 1974, University of Vermont student/athletes will don the green and gold uniforms and represent the college on the gridiron.

There’s somewhat of a hitch, however.

It’s not Division I-A or even I-AA football. It’s not NCAA football at all, but club football in the semiprofessional Northeast Independent Football League.

“I really don’t care if it’s a club team,” said Darren Haynes, who will serve as the Catamounts’ head coach. “Finally football, in some form, has come back to UVM.”

Since UVM axed the football program, citing a series of woeful seasons, the high cost of running the program and a renewed emphasis on academics, there have been attempts to bring back the program.

Those who have questioned why the football program has not been reinstated point to the fact that there are only two state universities in the United States that don’t support a football team, UVM and the University of Alaska. All the state universities in the rest of the lower 48 states and Hawaii support football programs.

And while there have been attempts to restore the program the cost seems to be the major drawback. UVM Athletic Director Bill Corran is reported to have said that the cost could be tens of millions of dollars. UVM would be required to play a Division I-AA schedule, hire an extensive coaching staff, award scholarships and build a multi-million dollar stadium to pass NCAA muster.

Even with a renewed emphasis on athletics and the upgrading of several of UVM’s athletic programs, the obstacles remain formidable.

But when UVM hosts its first football game on Saturday, Sept. 8, it won’t be a rabid band of alumni, or a groundswell of the Vermonters, or some wealthy and prominent citizen who is responsible, but a 19-year-old freshman student.

Doug DeLuca doesn’t even hail from Vermont but from Westport, Conn. He played football at the Hopkins School in New Haven, Conn., and said it was “a great experience.”

“I’ve been playing football since I was 12 and I was pretty much into it in high school,” DeLuca said in a telephone interview. “And I wanted to play in college.”

But there was a problem when it came to college choice. He wanted to go to a university with a good business school. He liked the feel of UVM, the size was right and the business school suited his needs, but it had no football program.

“I got here and had an idea: Why can’t we start a club?” he said. “They have club football at the University of Maine. They also have it at UNC (North Carolina), Clemson, Xavier and Marquette. After I got settled, I began to make inquiries as to how to start one up.”

He called several meetings to gauge the interest, wrote up a business plan and had T-shirts printed up that read: “UVM Football Undefeated since 1974”. He approached the Student Government Association in January to seek official recognition of the club and requested $26,000 to help with start-up costs.

Ultimately he received recognition and the SGA supported the club with a grant of $11,000. He then held another meeting to see how many people would join — it costs each participant a $150 club fee — and begin the process of finding a coach.

Naturally there were detractors and they tried to convince DeLuca that his scheme wouldn’t work. He felt that the biggest hindrance to his plans were money and safety concerns.

“Hey, football is played all over the country, why not at UVM?” DeLuca said. “The money thing will work itself out and when we got the safety concerns straight, I figured that this was the right time and the right place.”

DeLuca estimates that it will cost around $50,000 for this football season and that would include $33,000 for equipment for 60 players — full sets of pads, game jerseys/pants and practice gear, helmets and footballs. Then there is game-day expenses and travel.

What he has now is the money granted from the SGA, $7,500 from club fees and some “generous donations” from alumni. He is approaching community groups and individuals and has developed a sponsor’s kit on the team’s Web site.

“I expect to make a profit,” said DeLuca, who estimates he could clear as much as $14,000.

DeLuca took on doing the legwork to start it up, is serving as the president of the club and actually administering the club, all because he wanted to play football in college. So on fall Saturdays, he will cast off the figurative business suit of the executive and don the pads and a No. 81 UVM jersey and run onto the field as a wide receiver.

“It’s a little bit of a balancing act between work and football,” he said. “Coach Haynes is a great help. But this is really a lot of enjoyment for me and on Saturdays it will pay off because I get to dress.”

Haynes is an equally interesting story.

He came from a football factory Brother Martin High School in New Orleans and made the Louisiana State University team as a walk-on quarterback in 1987, spending most of the year running the scout team. But big-time college football was overwhelming and he claimed it skewed his priorities.

He went on to play semipro football in Louisiana and had terrific success, throwing 30 TD passes in one season, while going to college and working toward a degree.

In 1996 he moved to Vermont and teaches in South Burlington. He became involved as an assistant coach at Champlain Valley Union when the Redhawks started up their football program and was associated with the Vermont Ice Storm during their inaugural season of 2001.

Haynes assembled a coaching staff, wrote the playbook and organized six spring practices. Because UVM football has club status it is guaranteed two practices a week on a university field. The UVM club will open fall practice Aug. 13 at the UVM rugby field.

The team’s Web site lists a roster of 50 players already on board, including several Vermonters.

It will play in the N.I.F.L., a seven-team Class A semipro loop in the second year of its existence. The league spun off the highly successful New England Football League, which includes Class AAA, AA and A teams.

The N.I.F.L. includes the University of Maine Black Bears, a collegiate club team like UVM. The Catamounts will play in the league’s Western Division, which includes the Vermont Ravens, another startup team, and the Northern Berkshire Kings.

At this point, it’s uncertain where the UVM team will play its home games. DeLuca said he has verbal commitment from Burlington High School to use the newly renovated Buck Hard Field and ideally that is where the Catamounts would like to play this season. They have already received the go-ahead to use Essex High School, Rice Memorial and South Burlington High School and if Buck Hard Field is not made available, they may use a combination of those fields for their home games.

“We would love to play at Centennial and that would be a tremendous coup,” Haynes said of the field off Colchester Avenue where the original UVM Catamounts played home games.

Both DeLuca and Haynes said that the team has stirred considerable interest and buzz in the Burlington area and the UVM community. Some alums have stepped up with donations and others have promised support.

Could a successful run of the UVM Catamounts football club ultimately prompt the university to reinstate the football program?

“That’s totally out of our hands, that’s up to the Trustees and the Athletic Department,” Haynes said. “But it has generated a lot of excitement; some people have told us that it is like a breath of fresh air. It could be a win-win situation for the community and the university if we do really well. And the athletic department can look at us objectively without having to risk anything.”

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