Athletic Director Dave Martin plopped into his white Toyota Camry on Sept. 15 and was too exhausted to even think about what he had just witnessed.
The addition of a football program is something Martin had spent many years working on – six to be exact. He had explored the possibilities many times only to find the effort thwarted. 2006 wasn’t the right time. 2008 wasn’t, either. But 2010 was, and after two years of building, planning, recruiting, training and managing, freshman running back Robin Custodio made history by rushing straight ahead for a five yard gain on the first-ever play from scrimmage at Gettysburg College.
Martin was in the bleachers at Shirk Field at Musselman Stadium that day, but it wasn’t until after week three of the inaugural season when it all began to sink in.
The crowd was gone, the game was over, and the car was silent as Martin headed home to Dunmore. His thoughts were loud, loud as the screaming cheers from the standing-room-only crowd on that historic day when the Cougars ran out of the tunnel for the first time. “Everyone was gone and I got to (Interstate) 81 and I thought, holy cow,” a wide-eyed Martin said. “We just played football. How cool is that?”
The process of adding football as a varsity sport, which started in 2008 with President Michael MacDowell asking Martin what the University needed to do to start a program had come to fruition. Suddenly, the infamous satirical shirt, created in protest by alumni, that reads “Undefeated Since 1924” was no longer correct.
An all-women University founded by the Sisters of Mercy on Aug. 15, 1924 is now a school where 29.1% of its students are male, including over 70 football players. A school that prides itself on its charisms of mercy, justice, service, and hospitality had added one of the most aggressive sports in the nation.
“I have some wonderful trustees and they are the greatest people in the world,” University President Michael MacDowell said. “They care deeply about this place. Some of them were opposed to football because they thought the culture would change and wouldn’t be as “Mercy-like” if we had football.”
The addition of football was welcomed with open arms by some and with closed eyes from others. Vice President of Student Affairs Sister Jean Messaros was slow to hop on the football bandwagon. She gradually changed her mind as the process went on, thanks in part to head coach Mark Ross.
Finding a coach with the right “fit” to lead the football program was the key to the success of the undertaking, and Coach Ross stuck out during his interview with a hiring committee like a sports car in a lawn mower race.
“I liked the way he approached people. I heard him speak about the mission and how he was concerned about it,” Messaros said. “I did hear it from the other candidates, but I felt Mark was more sincere and genuine.”
It wasn’t an easy charge for the former defensive coordinator from Ithaca College. He was coming from an established program and with no prior experience as a head coach.
The players on the field for the Cougars were much younger, much slower, and much smaller than the opposition. The roster consisted of mainly freshmen, while the competition consisted of mostly juniors and seniors.
The team’s linemen look to be mostly clean-shaven 18-year-old boys fresh out of high school, while Albright College’s team, for example, looks like a group of tenacious men competing for the title of “best looking beard”.
There was no opportunity for players to get their feet wet. There was no developmental year. There was no junior varsity season or spring practice with pads. The pads went on for the first time in early August in contrast with every other team in the Mid-Atlantic Conference.
The competition was fierce in week one against nationally-ranked Gettysburg. The Bullets showed no mercy as they defeated the Cougars 70-0.
With the first game came the first loss. With the second game came the second loss.
The trend continued until the season ended with a 38-0 loss to Lycoming College on November 10.
“It’s the hardest and most enjoyable thing I have ever done,” Ross said immediately following the final game of the season.
No time was more frustrating than mid-season for the first-year head coach. Despite it being the team’s inaugural year, Ross felt his players could compete with teams such as Stevenson University, Wilkes University and Kings’ College.
“I thought we could do better,” Ross said. “And when we didn’t, I was a little frustrated. I had to take a step back and remind myself we have only had these kids for seven or eight weeks.”
The roster began to dwindle as some key players left the team and others were injured. The circumstances had Ross praying his team would make it to the bye week.
He didn’t like where the team was headed. Kids were playing positions they weren’t necessarily suited for, but Ross had no choice but to fill the gaps. At one point, defensive end Greg Zotian had to serve as the team’s punter when Corey Wall sat out a game due to violating team rules.
Mid-season seemed to be Murphy’s Law for the Cougars as they suffered injury after injury to key players. Star wide receiver Shannon Johnson returned from a concussion earlier in the year, only to suffer a second concussion in his very first game after returning.
“It’s no secret. This season has been rough,” Johnson said. “I felt like I couldn’t win. I was finally healthy and then boom, I go down again. It was brutal.”
The setbacks had their head coach wondering if he would have enough players to finish the season.
“A couple of weeks ago I was concerned we wouldn’t make it to this day with enough healthy bodies to actually put a product out here that folks can appreciate,” Ross said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for each and every one of these guys on this team.”
The football program was a great risk, with the possibility of a great reward – or great trouble.
Misericordia is a different place than most. The only way you will ever open a door is when you’re alone or if you hold it for someone else. It’s just one example of the type of person the institution attracts.
Loss of that inherent kindness and compassion for others was a real concern for Messaros. It was her job to make sure the overall student welfare, the very culture of the school, wasn’t at risk. In other words: Would the big, scary football player still hold the door for his fellow student?
The question was answered from the first day the team stepped onto the practice field for training camp.
“You know it’s funny, because everyone thinks of football players as big, aggressive guys,” Messaros said with a chuckle. “But the first day they were on campus multiple people, especially the food service workers were saying, ‘Wow, these football players are such nice boys.’”
Like Messaros, MacDowell also had student welfare on his mind. However, another big thing loomed above: Was this financially good for the University? MU was making its football debut at a time when its neighbors were struggling. Unlike their neighbors, however, MU welcomed its largest incoming class in fall 2012, and officials say it is on solid financial footing.
According to an article published in the Scranton Times-Tribune on October 6, King’s is suffering millions of dollars in debt, while LCCC had to make financial adjustments to make up for a 2.37 percent drop in enrollment. Wilkes, too, is seeing decreases in enrollment.
“We live by our wits, and a few mistakes can cause some problems. There was great anxiety,” MacDowell said of the University’s decision to add football. “It was a very tough decision and we spent a lot of money. However, we are getting a lot of it back.”
MacDowell credits good timing. Throughout his tenure, the institution has gone from being College Misericordia to Misericordia University. The school has also switched athletic conferences and is now in the much more competitive MAC.
These accomplishments came as a result of three other tough decisions made at the right time.
“It’s maturation. Everything is timing, and this was just perfect timing. We are in the MAC, we needed to grow, and we needed to expand in numbers in majors,” MacDowell said. “We were just ready, and when we joined the MAC, they asked us if we wanted to play. We waited a few years and we said, ‘yeah.’”
Nobody could have known if the timing was right if it were it not for the countless hours of research Martin did before presenting to the football task force, the body investigating the feasibility and adoption of a program.
In his research, Martin found football players tended to select majors in which MU had room to grow. With limits on the number of students accepted to the physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology majors, it was important to grow other programs on campus.
“We had made a decision a number of years ago to kind of focus on the health sciences as a key major and those health sciences can only grow to a certain size. We were saying no to a heck of a lot of good students who wanted to come here, and at the same time we had an excellent series of undergraduate majors in other areas,” MacDowell said. “If you look at the data on football, many of the players major in more of the traditional majors. history, biology, business, etc.”
With the first season in the books and four home games played on Mangelsdorf Field, MU football is young but no longer new. The group of players who come in next year won’t be the first to don the blue uniforms or the white helmets. They will just be the next ones to wear them.
The only difference is next season’s goal: Martin may get into his Camry and think, ‘Holy crap. We just won a game.’