Football controversy: Sudden end of declining program in 1977 vexes Whitman community

Pamela London

On any busy fall weekend, students on Ankeny Field see trailing flags pulled from the waists of eager flag football players dressed in tie-dye and sporting bright orange mouth guards. A pulled flag stops the panting players for a moment before the game starts up again to the cheers of a few dozen fans. Thirty-four years ago, however, a huge yellow flag was pulled out on the Missionaries meaning much more than ending a play. It did not just cost them 15 yards and an automatic first down. It cost them their football program.

Controversy falls on Whitman:

Although varsity football at Whitman had been flagging during the last decade, players finishing their 1976-77 football season had no concept that it would be their last. The problems surrounding football had finally come to a head, but few knew the future of the program until it was too late.

On Saturday, March 26, 1977, coach Ken Woody received a call from the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin requesting an interview regarding the rumor that Whitman planned to cut its football program. Whispers had been circulating for the past couple of days, but Woody had not been formally told anything. Then-Whitman-President Robert Skotheim and Woody both denied the rumor when asked by the U-B. Skotheim told the U-B that an announcement regarding the football program would be made Monday.

At 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 28, Skotheim announced to the public that he and an administrative group (made up of himself, Provost Kenyon Kopf and Divisional Chairmen Vic Keister, Don King and Pat Tyson) proposed to the Board of Trustees that the Whitman intercollegiate football program be cut. This was the first that Woody had heard of the decision.

Shortly after hearing the news, nearly 500 outraged students gathered in Cordiner Hall, attempting to make sense of what had just happened. Although promotions of drastic protest somewhat died down by their evening meeting with Skotheim in the Jewett main lounge, the majority were “angered at the way the decision had been handled” and “felt students had been undermined in the process and that it could and would happen again on other issues” (Neil Strother, “Student Reaction Negative” 3/1/77).

John Blackmon ‘79 was a member of the College Athletic Committee during the 1976-77 academic year and, like the majority of students, Blackmon recalls the decision as catching him completely off guard.

“At the time I was not supportive [of the decision] as I viewed a football team as an important part of college and the college experience,” said Blackmon, now a member of Whitman’s Alumni Association.

Needless to say, the most outraged response to the decision came from members of the football team.

“This is not really news and this is really not a surprise to anyone who has watched Whitman football in the past years,” said Skotheim in Strother’s “Football Players Protest” 3/1/77.

However, players such as then-junior Scott Renderer remained staunchly opposed to the decision.

“They’re taking away part of Whitman,” said Renderer.

In light of the events, The Pioneer published a special edition of the paper in which President Skotheim contributed a letter.

“Whitman College is experiencing a rapid growth in sports participation by students, which has resulted in plans for a major reallocation of resources in the College budget,” Skotheim wrote.

Skotheim cited increased student participation in IM sports, a resurrection of the wrestling team and the promotion to varsity status of women’s soccer as primary reasons behind the decision. At the same time, the maintenance of football required huge support. “Intercollegiate football has become more specialized, more technical, and more costly in money and staff time,” said Skotheim.

“The administration will recommend to the Trustees of the College that intercollegiate football be discontinued,” Skotheim wrote.

The Vote

The lack of communication from Skotheim to the student body carried out through the Board of Trustees’ meeting two weeks later. Representatives had mixed reactions to the proposal, as dropping football at Whitman also meant an economic loss for the eight other schools in the Northwest Conference (NWC).

In the end, a decision was reached despite lingering doubts by some.

“The Board of Trustees adopted a motion from President Robert Skotheim to discontinue intercollegiate football. The vote was not unanimous,” wrote Strother in “Board Dumps All-American Sport” 3/17/77.

Many people within the Whitman community continued to express concern following the Board’s decision, including many alumni.

“I am afraid that dropping football may have a very serious effect on the future of Whitman and that the generous giving of the alumni toward its support may drop considerably,” wrote alumnus W.E. “Bill” Berney ’15, in a Letter to the Editor of The Pioneer.

Others remained firm in their belief that dropping football was for the best; some people, including Blackmon, changed their opinion after the confusion died down.

“It was a sound fiscal decision,” Blackmon said recently, reflecting on the events of over thirty years ago. “But, it was a very emotionally wrenching decision for those who either were playing football or those who had played football.”

The Aftermath

In the years following the decision, Whitman suffered a dip in alumni donations. The college is just beginning to see donations consistently return to the level matching pre-1977 totals. Though on the mend, the effects can still be seen today.

Whitman held its first football reunion in Oct 2008 with an event that was well attended by former players.

“I believe it was a very good move by President [George] Bridges to begin the healing process by inviting football players back to campus to acknowledge and honor them as an important part of the college’s past,” said Blackmon.

Despite the recent efforts at recognizing this turning point in Whitman’s history, questions still linger: Why was there such a blatant lack of communication between the administrative group and the Whitman community? Will alumni donations ever reach the level they were at before football was cut? Why did it take so long for the healing process to begin?

In many ways, the controversy is still manifested at Whitman. We may not have a football team to cheer for every Saturday like a major university. But the competitive spirit that drove Whitman football for all those years lives on today.