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Finlandia puts football target back to 2014

April 4, 2012
By Michael Bleach - DMG Sports Writer ( , The Daily Mining Gazette

HANCOCK - In 2009, with the $4 million purchase and renovation of Condon Field, Finlandia University athletic director Chris Salani said the Lions were on target to field a football team for the first time in school history by the fall season of 2012.

They will fall well short of that goal.

"We announced to our regional bodies and peers that we are not going to launch in 2012 for the fall as we wanted to align our facility infrastructure and capital infrastructure to insure that we can launch the program with success," Salani said.

Or in layman's terms, they do not have enough money right now.

Salani said the school needs to still account for $500,000 to $550,000 in start-up costs to pay for coaches' salaries, equipment and other expenses before the first game will ever be played.

In 2008, Finlandia had a projected enrollment in the high 700s for students for 2012. At the start of the 2011-12 school year, actual enrollment was just over 600. By falling short of that goal, football has been pushed to the sidelines.

And with no alumni or football-enthused Hancock resident willing to hand over half a million dollars, relief is not clearly in sight.

"That is a significant cost for a school our size," Salani said.

"There are two models to work from. The first being you go out and find a benefactor or alumni who will write off the cost of a football program. That would be great. That would be a no-brainer. Beyond that, you have to put in a business plan to demonstrate how football can support its own costs.

"Without (private donations), we would have to bring in 35 or more students willing to wait on football - a skeleton crew I call them - whose tuition can help offset the costs and are allowed to practice in spring by the NCAA."

In the most optimistic scenario, Finlandia fans can now look to 2014 for the first time the Lions might don pads and helmets.

But even the deadline for that date is drawing near.

Salani said a new head coach for a start-up football program would need a minimum of 22 months - so by this November, if 2014 is the goal - to properly recruit and schedule. Which means the decision to open up the job and start the interview process will need to be several months before that.

Further, Salani said the Finlandia campus was not "infrastructurally ready to handle a 100-man team, where traditionally at least 50 percent will need residence on campus," by this fall. It is unclear how that fact will change in the coming year.

"I do feel that (2014) is realistic, but I will say that in terms of timing, the closer we get to 2014, the less realistic that becomes," Salani said.

"We are walking some fine timelines."

Meanwhile, the $4 million McAfee Field and its artificial turf and new field lights gets little use for the Lions. The men's and women's Finlandia soccer teams hosted 11 combined home games this school year, but that is it in the way of varsity sports.

Otherwise McAfee is used by Hancock High School, whose graduates can attend Finlandia for free as part of the agreement when Condon Field and the former Hancock Middle School were sold to FU.

Still, Salani does not believe the university currently needs football to justify the 2008 purchase.

"I don't want to say justification," Salani said. "What has been very difficult - and we will have people on both sides of the fence - but for the better part of eight or nine years we had varsity programs on (Michigan) Tech intramural fields, and practiced on Hancock elementary fields. For a varsity collegiate program, the reality was that we weren't supporting our program at all. Justification comes from the fact that we are supporting our programs now.

"Home dates is truly an issue. We may not have gotten our men's soccer affiliation with the WIAC if we didn't have the plans for McAfee. They were not going to play at Michigan Tech's intramural field. That was a requirement of us.

"And we know anecdotally and from actual data that the field has helped with recruiting. That in itself is going to pay dividends for our institution."

But as much as McAfee helps support programs with recruiting and prestige, football will do much more so.

Only three Finlandia athletic programs - both hockey squads and men's soccer - currently belong to a conference. Salani said the addition of football would be the final piece to help the Lions finally earn general conference affiliation.

"We need football to help, if we haven't already gotten in to an athletic conference (by 2014)," Salani said. "We need to have football if it can, provide us that home for all the other sports."

In Salani's office, a full-scale Finlandia football helmet sits on top of a dresser in the corner.

It is hopeful and telling.

The coming months will determine how long it has to gather dust.



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