Stetson football program returns to DeLand in 2013; ending half-century hiatus

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Courtesy photos / Not since 1956 has Stetson University fielded a football team as shown here. That's about to change in less than three years. Women's Lacrosse has been added as well.

DELAND -- Are you ready for some football?

Well, then get ready for the return of Hatter Football.

Stetson University is starting the process to join the prestigious Pioneer Football League with the first game in fall 2013. Long ago considered a pigskin powerhouse in Florida, Stetson has not had a football team since the 1956 season.

Following approval by the Stetson University Board of Trustees last month, the next formal step toward a new football program was to establish a partnership with the City of DeLand for shared use of Spec Martin Football Stadium at Earl Brown Park.

The DeLand City Commission approved that partnership in a special meeting today.

Monday's agreement calls for the city to finance capital improvement needs for the stadium in return for an annual rental fee from Stetson and an agreement to share revenue from sponsorships and advertising, as well as a commission on concessions and parking.

Stetson has a similar agreement with the city for use of Melching Field at Conrad Park for baseball.

"We are thrilled to work together with the city on the prospect of re-introducing Hatter Football," Stetson President Wendy B. Libby said. "The city and Stetson have been bound together since the late 1800s, and our health and vitality go hand-in-hand."

A new NCAA Division I program in Women's Lacrosse - which has become wildly popular since it started a year ago as a club sport at Stetson will also be added at the same time.

The university currently has 15 intercollegiate sports, with most of those played in the Atlantic Sun Conference Following approval by the Stetson University Board of Trustees last month, the next formal step toward a new football program was to establish a partnership with the City of DeLand for shared use of Spec Martin Football Stadium at Earl Brown Park.

Stetson's interest in beginning a non-athletic-scholarship football program began in the fall of 2009, with the reports of a number of on-campus committees suggesting that such a program along with NCAA Division I Women's Lacrosse would:

*   Help meet Stetson's strategic goal of enrolling 3,000 DeLand campus undergraduates by 2016;

*   Allow the university to join the prestigious Pioneer Football League;

*   Help Stetson attract students from outside Florida;

*   Make the campus environment more vibrant; *   Increase the number of students staying on campus over weekends and contributing to life on campus and elsewhere in the City of DeLand; *   Strengthen Stetson's ability to attract and retain students;

*   Enhance alumni engagement. Increasing enrollment and retention would help strengthen finances at the DeLand campus of the university and provide funds to be invested in support of Stetson's highest strategic priorities, Stetson officials said. Several strategies have already begun, including the dramatic improvements in classrooms and landscaping done this past year.

In addition, a new Student Success Center to increase retention opened in fall 2010; that same fall, the university's recruitment and financial aid strategies were revamped in ways that anticipate an increase of approximately 10 percent in the entering class for fall 2011.

Over the past year and a half, much work went into exploring feasibility and costs of re-introducing football. After a study by NACDA Consulting, Stetson staff worked to assure that the pro forma's estimated revenues were financially conservative and that the expenses fully stated the cost of the programs.

Based on those numbers, Stetson anticipates a significant revenue stream that would be devoted to the university's highest priorities. The goal of a renewed Stetson football program is join the well-respected Pioneer League.

Stetson will now make application to be accepted by the league. League officials have made it known that they enthusiastically look forward to receiving the application.

The Pioneer Football League is comprised almost entirely of private universities that play at the NCAA Division I level in their othe sports competitions.

The league includes: Butler University, Campbell University, Davidson College, University of Dayton, Drake University, Jacksonville University, Marist College, Morehead State University, University of San Diego and Valparaiso University. Football players in the league do not receive athletic scholarships, but are eligible for the types of academic scholarships awarded to most Stetson students            

"The other institutions within the Pioneer League are similar to Stetson in size, academic rigor and integrity," said Stetson Director of Athletics Jeff Altier. "Joining the league will create a continuation of athletic rivalries with schools such as Jacksonville, Mercer and Campbell, all of which are currently fellow members of the Atlantic Sun Conference."

Bringing football back to Stetson will end a 57-year hiatus of a program that was tremendously successful in its early days.            

"We are excited to see football return to Stetson after a 57-year hiatus," Altier said, adding, "We believe it would generate excitement on campus, as well as among alumni and the community of DeLand."