The Return of the Pirates

Chances are you've never heard of Southwestern University. It's a small liberal arts college in Georgetown. It's the oldest college in Texas, founded in 1840. Today the beautiful central Texas campus is home to just over 1,200 students. Southwestern is ranked as one of the top 100 schools in the nation with a 94% job placement rate compared with a 51% national average.

What you probably don't know about Southwestern is in the early 1900's the university was a founding member of the Southwest Conference. The Pirates played Baylor, Rice, Texas, and A&M along with college footballs big boys. That period lasted all of two seasons before the Pirates dropped out. The football team soldiered on, literally in some instances, for the next 35 years or so until the squad disbanded in 1951. During World War II the Pirates were composed, at times, of players from Texas and Baylor who were training with the Navy in a Southwestern sponsored collegiate military program. The high water mark came in 1943 when the Pirates were No. 11 in the country, lost only one game, and won the Sun Bowl. 

But it didn't last and Pirate football went the way of disco - until now.

In Need of a Few Good Men

The Pirates are back, this time as a Division III school and no they don't have expectations of the BCS or even a return trip to the Sun Bowl. Jerry Brody, Southwestern's Vice President for Student Life pegs the Pirates aspirations a bit lower, "People often think football, and they think of UT and Texas A&M. UT's stadium holds 100,000-plus. I'll expect we'll have between 500 and 2,000 (seats)."

So what's the point then? Why add the expense of a football team if you're expecting a few hundred fans on any given Saturday? Simple, they want men at Southwestern.   

Last year, only 38 percent of Southwestern's student body were male.

"All liberal arts colleges are working hard for male enrollment," Athletic Director Glenda Munt said. "We added men's lacrosse 2 1/2 years ago, and this is another step in the process of improving the gender balance." "Football is a powerful sport in the state of Texas. There are many kids that flat want to go to a school that has football."

You can add anywhere from 100 to 120 males to your college by adding a football program. In a world where enrollment is 1,250, 100 males makes a dent. Southwestern President Jake B. Schrum isn't hiding the Pirates pursuit of the male student, "There are many bright young men who want to play football in college who find NCAA Division III appealing. It is important for us to be back in the game."

The Pirates have been looking into a football program for about 15 years now. They've seen what adding a program has done to the enrollment of other universities. Mary Hardin-Baylor has seen increased male enrollment as well as an increased overall enrollment of between 32% and 40%.

Minority male enrollment could see unprecedented growth at Southwestern as it has at places like Mary Hardin Baylor.

The Money

It costs money to start a football program. Pads, helmets, shoulder pads, a coaching staff, and uniforms don't come free or cheap. Southwestern is willing to risk the initial investment for the long term pay off.

The conventional thinking used to be that football was a money pit for smaller schools and that the influx was jocks disturbed the academic apple cart and put universities into financial hardship. That thinking has changed, especially has universities and colleges hunt for the elusive male student. 

Brody said he expects football will boost alumni support and engagement with the university and also help boost its visibility. Athletic Director Munt said economics is one reason so many small universities have added football recently. “Once fully functioning, Southwestern football not only should be able to sustain itself financially, it should generate a surplus that could be used for other university priorities,” she said.

“Football will add an additional social opportunity for students and provide another reason to stay on campus on weekends,” Brody said. “It also will provide another vehicle for students, parents and alumni to come together during parent and homecoming weekends.”

That's code for fundraising opportunities. And that's not a bad thing. Schools have become brands, just like Coke or Pepsi. Athletic events give a college the opportunity to expand the brand like few other events. Bawcom College saw its name recognition take off with the inclusion of football. And you don't have to sacrifice the academic integrity of the school.

Not Just Dumb Jocks

When you're a top 100 ranked institution, the goal isn't to lower the bar so football players can block and tackle on your campus. Southwestern is committed to not sacrifice its academic standards in exchange for grid iron glory.  

Student athletes at Southwestern have GPA's in line with their non-sport playing peers and a 7% higher graduation rate. Nationwide NCAA athletes have higher grades and better graduation rates than non-athletes.

 Folks are excited about football at Southwestern.

Folks are excited about football at Southwestern.

Southwestern will be targeting a very specific type of student athlete. The Pirates hired Joe Austin, a coach familiar with success in the non-scholarship, Division III world. Austin comes to Southwestern from Hanover College in Indiana, with stops at Augsburg and Concordia College in Minnesota. Never heard of those places? It's probably because they put the Student in Student Athlete.

Austin has been the hardest working man in show business, selling his program to anyone and everyone who will listen. For now it seems to be working. Enthusiasm on campus is high and the Georgetown community seems to be buying in as well.  

On the Field

 Opening night crowd.  

Opening night crowd.  

The opener, played at Georgetown ISD's Birkelbach Field was delayed an extra 40 minutes due to lightening. I'm sure when you've waited 63 years, 40 minutes is nothing. The crowd and the environment exceeded the Pirates' expectations. The result was to be expected as the new kids lost to Texas Lutheran 44-14.  

Almost 10,000 fans were in attendance last Saturday night as the Pirates were introduced to just what they'll be facing as a new, growing program. Texas Lutheran jumped out early, building a 17 point lead. The Pirates then made history with a 68 yard touchdown pass from Dante Smith to Colton Shea. Shea and Smith would make one more connection on the evening and a 30 point loss never felt so good for students and alums of Southwestern.  

The Pirates will continue on their first voyage back in competitive football in 63 years. They travel to Bacone this week for their first road test in more than half a century. Regardless of the outcome, Southwestern expects to reap as many rewards off the field as on it.  

Posted on September 13, 2013 and filed under Sports, Southwest Round-Up.