CASTINE — Hancock County’s lone college football program is on life support.
Maine Maritime Academy announced Friday afternoon the immediate suspension of the university’s college football program. The decision puts into doubt the future of the sport at the school, which has fielded a football team since 1946.
MMA President William J. Brennan made the decision public Friday in an email to players, coaches and media. In a statement, Brennan cited the “overall financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon programs and the college’s operations” as the reason for the program’s indefinite suspension.
“The football program is our most expensive non-academic program,” Brennan said. “As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are already mounting, and with the prospect of a 10 percent curtailment in state funding, we need to review the program’s overall impact — and the impact of all programs — on our ability to continue to operate the institution.”
As is the case with college athletic programs throughout the state of Maine, MMA’s 2020 season was already a no-go as a result of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. Yet the decision to suspend the program altogether adds a layer of even greater uncertainty as players and coaches await when ― or if — football will return to the school.
“I was a college football player myself; I understand it’s a part of your identity,” Maine Maritime Athletic Director Steve Peed told the Kennebec Journal. “It’s hard enough when that goes away with graduation. To first have your season yanked away by a pandemic and then, on top of that, to find out the program’s suspended and you don’t know if it’s coming back, when it’s coming back, that cuts to the core of who a young person is.”
MMA competes in the New England Athletic Conference along with Catholic University (Washington, D.C), Coast Guard Academy (New London, Conn.), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point, N.Y.), Norwich University (Northfield, Vt.), Springfield College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The Mariners also have a longstanding rivalry with Massachusetts Maritime Academy, with which they contest the Admiral’s Cup.
Recent seasons have been rather difficult for MMA, which has lost 21 straight games since notching a 34-16 victory over Coast Guard on Sept. 14, 2017. The Mariners are 2-34 overall since the start of the 2016 season and just 1-27 in conference play during that span.
In the past, though, MMA has enjoyed spells of significant success at the Division III level. The Mariners had eight winning seasons in the 1960s and also enjoyed noteworthy stretches from 1980-82 (21-5-1), 1992-95 (29-9) and 2005-10 (42-17). The team won conference championships in 1980, 1993, 1994 and 2009.
MMA had three 2019 Hancock County high school graduates, Ellsworth High School’s Ethan DesJardin and Mount Desert Island’s Adam Burdzel and Sam Hoff, on its roster last season. The Mariners were slated to add another Hancock County player, ex-Ellsworth/Sumner standout Connor Crawford, to the team in 2020.
MMA also is reviewing the status of its rugby and wrestling programs, both of which operate as club teams rather than varsity teams under the NCAA banner. Brennan referred to the suspensions of all three programs as “[an] administrative decision brought about by the extreme challenges we are facing as an organization.”
On Sunday, one MMA player, senior Josh Thrasher, created a Change.org petition aimed at reversing the university’s decision. The petition, which had more than 700 signatures as of Monday night, called the decision “unfair” and noted that the football program is funded primarily via alumni donations.
“With the cancellation of our season, there would be minimal expenses this year, making this decision extreme to say the least,” Thrasher wrote. “This program has a rich history that creates leaders who embody exactly what it means to be a Maine Maritime Mariner. We’ve respected the anchor and done our part. Now, it’s their turn.”