Giger: SFU football suffers its biggest loss

Five wins. That’s apparently what the academic integrity is worth for the football program at St. Francis University.


It is incredibly difficult to win at St. Francis, where 2-9 or even worse seasons have long been the norm. The numbers paint an ugly picture:

* The Red Flash’s last winning season was 1992, when they were in Division III.

* They moved up to Division I-AA (now FCS) in 1993 and have never had a winning season, compiling a miserable record of 42-179-1.

* They’ve gone winless five times since 1995.

* And last but not least, they had a 30-game losing streak from 1999-2002.

So, it was quite an achievement the past two seasons that St. Francis had banner years. The Red Flash won five games each year, finishing 5-6.

Honestly, that’s about as good as St. Francis can hope for in football, and it appeared coach Chris Villarrial was doing fantastic work trying to make something out of essentially nothing when it comes to tradition.

The Red Flash even had a couple of players land tryouts with NFL teams a few days ago (safety Jake DeMedal with the Steelers and running back Kyle Harbridge with the Patriots).

It should be a proud time for the SFU program.

Instead, Wednesday brought humiliation.

St. Francis got slapped by the NCAA for failing to reach nationwide academic standards in its football program. The school was one of only nine in the country, out of 249 Division I programs (FBS and FCS), that failed to meet the NCAA’s Academic Performance Rate (APR) standards.

As a result, the Red Flash have been banned from postseason play for one year.

Now, that’s not much of a punishment because there’s virtually no chance St. Francis could reach the postseason in football this fall, especially after losing Harbridge and DeMedal.

The program’s practice time also will be limited to five days and 16 hours per week.

The real punishment, however, is the irreparable harm done to St. Francis’ integrity and reputation. Not to mention Villarrial’s reputation, since this embarrassment occurred mostly during his tenure.

Any credit Villarrial earned for the past two respectable five-win seasons now includes a gigantic, bold asterisk because both he and the university failed at their primary objective of making sure the student-athletes also win in the classroom.

Whether it’s true or not, the relative success the past two years coupled with the APR failure gives the appearance that, in order to finally field a competitive team, the football program cut corners academically.

Villarrial has been head coach for three of the four years accounted for in this APR cycle. The program did meet the NCAA minimum APR standard of 930 in 2010-11 when it compiled a 933 score, but that number dropped the next two years, to 924 and then 916. (See box on Page B2 for more on APR specifics.)

What’s most disappointing is that we’re not talking about some national powerhouse here, a program that lets academic standards slide in pursuit of a championship. That’s not acceptable, either, but it does happen. The UConn men’s basketball program was banned from the postseason last year because it failed to meet APR standards, and the Huskies used that ban as motivation when they returned to the NCAA Tournament this year and won the national title.

But this is St. Francis we’re talking about. There shouldn’t be any delusions of grandeur about the program’s place in college football, and the university should never let its standards slip to this level. Not to win a couple of more games, not for any reason.

Neither Villarrial nor athletic director Bob Krimmel was available for comment Wednesday, according to a university spokesman. Krimmel did address the issue in a university statement.

“While I am disappointed with the fact that our football program did not meet the APR standard for 2012-13, I am convinced that Saint Francis has addressed the factors that led to this situation and we are aggressively moving forward to enhance the educational experience for all of our student-athletes,” Krimmel said.

“We have a proud tradition of academic success for our student-athletes and our 15-plus years with a cumulative GPA above 3.0 is testimony to this as is the fact that we continue to be recognized with Academic All-America selections.”

St. Francis has traditionally been very strong academically when it comes to student-athletes, which is why this situation is so perplexing.

How did it happen?

Who exactly is to blame?

Will there be any punishment for Villarrial, other coaches or academic support staff?

Maybe there’s more to all of this, but unfortunately, Krimmel declined to answer questions and share any of the reasons for what happened under his watch as AD. Hopefully he changes his mind and addresses the issues at some point.

Whatever the answers, everyone associated with the St. Francis football program should be ashamed for letting this situation occur.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.