Photo by Michelle Davidson
It was supposed to be a day of happiness for the players. One in which their hard work and dedication to the season would pay off in the form of a playoff berth in the Football Championship Series (FBS) tournament.
It was supposed to be a day in which JU paid homage to a former Dolphin football player that died too soon. A day in which Rico Tillman’s parents were going to receive some form of closure in their son’s untimely and unnecessary death with the retirement of Tillman’s no. 8 jersey. Instead, this ceremony was overshadowed by the clouds of poor judgment.
It was supposed to be a day that 16 seniors got the chance to bask in their accomplishments. A day that these seniors could walk with their parents to the center of the field and stand on the school logo with their heads held high knowing that they had a post season still to play. It was not supposed to be these seniors’ last game.
None of this should have happened on Saturday Nov. 15, but they did.
During the evening of Friday the Nov. 14, the day before the final regular season football game, JU Athletic Director Donald Horner was forced by the poor judgment of past administrations to tell the current student-athletes of the football program that they would not be eligible for post-season play.
Horner felt obligated to clean up the mess of past indiscretions and was forced to look the members of the football team in the eyes and tell them that their last game would be against Campbell University the following day and not in the FCS tournament.
“I’ve given a lot of speeches in my life,” Horner said. “I’m a former Army guy, a battalion commander, a company commander, [in] the conflict in Panama. I’ve had to rise to the occasion on several occasions to give those really tough speeches. This was among the toughest. [It] kept me awake at night.”
In a statement released by the JU President’s Office just minutes before Horner met with the football team, the school announced that, because of improper financial aid benefits that previous JU football teams had received, the administration withdrew the from contention of the PFL title and any possible post-season berth.
“During a recent examination by the University of its overall financial aid practices, the current administration determined there were irregularities with respect to our football program, and we immediately launched an independent review,” President Tim Cost said in his official statement. “The results of that review, which we just recently received, regrettably revealed that previous senior administrators awarded financial aid in the form of scholarships to football players in apparent violation pf Pioneer Football League (PFL) rules.”
None of the teams in the PFL are able to award scholarships or financial aid based on athletic ability and when a department, like the football program, gets awarded a certain amount of money for financial aid, the other programs on campus must be awarded the same amount of financial aid. A survey that JU was asked to complete showed the discrepancies in this area, and the administration was quick to act.
“I hope we’re making it clear that, across the board, JU is going to do the right thing by its students, their families and the people we compete with,” Cost said. “This [decision to withdraw from the PFL championship] falls in that category.”
There are concerns that still have to be addressed for the students and their families, and the first is whether or not their current financial aid will be honored by the school.
“Yes,” Cost said in his statement. “They will continue to receive financial assistance as always. They have done nothing wrong and we will honor our commitment to them.”
That may help ease the minds of some students and parents, especially those that can’t afford the tuition costs. However, questions remain, such as, will there be further sanctions imposed on the team?
“Jacksonville University is cooperating fully with the PFL and are working within their review process,” Cost said in his statement. “They will appoint a committee to review this. Final resolution is expected in the spring of 2015.”
San Diego University had the same infractions come to light in 2013 and proceeded the in the same manner as the JU administration has. There were no further sanctions for the Toreros of San Diego.
Are the rumors true that the school might shut the football program down?
“No,” Cost said in his statement. “We have no plans to discontinue the football program, but we are committed to doing things the right way.”
Closure With a Win
The news came as a surprise to the coaches, the JU community, but most importantly, to the players and their families.
Although it would have been easy to throw in the towel and give up, the Dolphins did not do that. Rather than not giving any effort, knowing that the game against Campbell was their last, the Dolphins came out ready to win and beat the Camels 45-19.
“Our kids have persevered through tough times,” said Kerwin Bell, head football coach. “They’ve been fighters. All we can do in our last game together is just go out and represent JU in a first-class manner.”
On a day in which an athletic and a loss would be understandable, the Dolphins persevered one more time.
No championship was necessary for the Dolphins to show that they have been the best team in the PFL this year. No playoff berth was needed to show the league who the real no. 1 team in the PFL is.
The Dolphins walked onto that field and continued to hold their heads high with confidence. They continued to show the loyalty toward one another. They showed the brotherhood that was created throughout this season in the locker room and they showed that even the beaten can get back up and continue with their winning ways.
They did it for their coaches, their families, the seniors that were playing their last games, the parents of Rico Tillman, but most importantly, they did it for themselves as one.
When asked about how he viewed this year’s football squad, President Cost had but one quick and short message, but a powerful and meaningful one.
“Despite the decision made,” Cost said. “They are champions at our University.”