Many, if not most, Jesuit universities played Division I football at some point during the early to mid-20th Century. And they were good. Marquette played Texas Christian University in the first Cotton Bowl. Fordham, which may be best remembered for Vince Lombardi being one of its “Seven Blocks of Granite,” vanquished Missouri in the 1942 Sugar Bowl. Santa Clara was the dominant western power, beating LSU in both the 1937 and 1938 Sugar Bowl, and the University of Kentucky in the 1950 Orange Bowl. Even Xavier was a power, winning the 1952 Salad Bowl—the precursor to today’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Given this success, then, why do only five Jesuit universities still play football—with Boston College the only school playing in at the BCS level? The easy answer is money.
The more nuanced answer is the growth of the NFL and the NCAA’s early television policies.
Frank Gifford, the Hall of Fame running back who played college at the University of Southern California and in the NFL with the New York Giants, summed it up in a 2009 interview: “I played from 1949-1951 for USC before 50,000 people at the LA Coliseum. I was drafted in the first round by the New York Giants, who were playing before only 8,000 to 10,000 in the NY Polo Grounds. The NFL was just a step above pro wrestling. My salary was $8,000 per year and we heard every week the Mara family that owned the Giants, was going broke. Things started to change in 1956 when the Giants moved to Yankee Stadium. The Giants fortunes really took off in 1958, when we lost in a thrilling overtime game to Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship game. It was the first NFL game to be broadcast nationally. [Former Commissioner] Pete Rozelle used the game to set up network TV packages and the pro game exploded.”
Prior to 1956, Yankee Stadium was reserved for big Army, Notre Dame and Fordham games. The Green Bay Packers played at 25,000 seat City Stadium from 1925-1956, which they shared with Green Bay East High School. The Packers dressed in the high school’s locker room. Average NFL attendance was 25,000 in 1950. Thanks to players like of Gifford and Johnny Unitas, and coaches like Vince Lombardi, average NFL attendance grew to 40,000 in 1960 and 52,000 in 1970. Average NFL attendance has been more than 65,000 since 2000.
The NCAA also did not know how to compete against the television-driven NFL. The NCAA feared, if it broadcast a lot of games, ticket sales would suffer. It showed one regional game each Saturday and an OSU/Michigan and USC/UCLA doubleheader late in the season. This tended to reinforce the existing rivalries at the big state universities. The Big 10 became the “Big 2 (Ohio State and Michigan) and the Little 8.”
The problem was exacerbated in Cincinnati when the Bengals came to town in 1968. The team even played its first two seasons at UC’s Nippert Stadium before the opening of Riverfront Stadium in 1970. Both UC and Xavier struggled with the new competition for the local entertainment dollar, but much smaller Xavier suffered the most, running up a $200,000 annual football deficit.
Nevertheless, it’s a safe bet to think most Xavier alumni like the University’s current policy of focusing on and excelling in college basketball.