Stetson's picturesque Palm Court will accommodate a few more students this fall. As part of President Wendy Libby's plan, undergraduate enrollment is up from 2,500 last year to 2,650 this fall. When Libby took office in 2009, enrollment was 2,100. Her goal is to reach 3,000 students by 2016.
There is something in the air at Stetson University in DeLand. And soon that something will be literally thrown in the air—namely a football. For the first time this season and incredibly, the first time in 57 years, the university will have a football team take to the field on Aug. 31. All eyes will be on starting quarterback Ryan Tentler, a rising star from St. Patrick High School in Chicago, where he set records in passing and rushing.
Tentler and his 119 teammates, led by Roger Hughes (former head coach at Princeton), have been given a wonderful opportunity to play football for the venerable university founded in 1883. The bright lights at the Spec Martin Stadium would not be shining were it not for the collaboration and vision from Stetson, the DeLand City Commission and the Volusia County Council. The result: Hatter football is back in an area where it once enjoyed formidable success, compiling a winning record from 1901 through 1956. Stetson, founded originally as DeLand Academy, actually played the first organized football game in the state of Florida, an intramural contest in 1894.
Working together, the university, the city and the county have created a win-win-win situation. This synergy has led to a new Athletic Training Center, a refurbished Spec Martin Stadium and a football team in the Division I (Football Championship Subdivision) Pioneer League that will undoubtedly bring alumni back to the campus in droves, filling downtown restaurants, shops and bars on the weekends.
Call it an economic touchdown.
“I really love college football,” says Stetson President Dr. Wendy Libby, who began her tenure in 2009 as the university’s first female president. “It has to do with competition, spirit and bonding with the students. Here in town, everyone is talking about it.” Libby adds that, as a student, she cheered on the Big Red of Cornell University.
According to Michael Pleus, DeLand city manager, Stetson football is expected to deliver a 12-to-1 return on the city’s $3.5 million investment to renovate its municipal stadium. The university currently generates an estimated quarter-billion-dollar economic impact on the city of DeLand.
“I always thought [bringing football back] would be a good idea even when I was a Stetson student,” Pleus says, pointing out that the former Stetson administration didn’t necessarily see it that way. “But when President Libby came on board, she was looking at ways to boost the university and eyeing football as a strategy.”
The game plan has worked to near perfection.
And Libby is not alone in her thinking. The Hatters’ first game is against nearby Warner University in Lake Wales, which has added football to its sports program for the first time. In fact, in 2013, 12 schools will add the sport, including a record nine new teams joining the NCAA. Also among them is Florida Tech. The Panthers are set to play at the NCAA Division II level.
Libby contends without the city’s involvement, there would be no kickoff. “We could not have done it,” she says. “Building a $40 million to $80 million football stadium was not in the plans.” However, because the city had an existing stadium that could be refurbished to meet the standards of Division I football, returning the gridiron pastime to Stetson has now come to pass.
Pleus explains that the Spec Martin Stadium renovations were made possible through an agreement that Stetson pays an annual rental fee of $80,000 and shares revenue from sponsorships and advertising, as well as a commission on concessions and parking. The agreement is similar to one between the city and the university for the use of Melching Field at Conrad Park by the Hatter baseball team.
The plan to renovate the stadium was further bolstered by a $1.4 million grant from Volusia ECHO, a countywide, voter-approved tax program used for environmental, cultural, historical and outdoor recreational purposes.
To get ready for kickoff, Spec Martin Stadium, built in 1941 with a seating capacity of 6,000, houses refurbished locker rooms; and boasts a three-story press box, new stadium lighting, new sound system and a $445,000 LED scoreboard. The university shared the cost of the scoreboard with the city.
In another city-university partnership, DeLand will run a free trolley service to help offset the anticipated parking shortage during this season’s six home football games. There are approximately 600 parking spaces near the stadium.
“This is a new concoction,” Pleus describes about the new throngs expected in DeLand on Saturdays.
Pleus explains that a mini-bus will loop every 15 minutes to designated off-site lots, starting two hours before kickoff and stopping two hours after the game. Those free lots are located in the downtown area, a fact that excites business owners. People who park for free and take the shuttle will likely patronize businesses before and after games.
It’s not just football, though, that is garnering attention from Stetson and city officials. In what is expected to bring more out-of-state students to DeLand, Libby has also improved Stetson’s Division 1 athletic program by adding women’s lacrosse and sand volleyball as intercollegiate sports. She also recently opened the $6.7 million, 25,000-square-foot Athletic Training Center, which features a game-day field and separate practice field for soccer and lacrosse, and a field house with a strength-and-conditioning center to be used by all Stetson athletes. It also includes two practice fields for football.
Stetson is now home to 18 intercollegiate team sports and 17 club sports, the latter of which Libby believes already helps keep students in town on weekends.
This addition to Stetson athletics is all part of a grand plan to increase enrollment and dollars coming into the university and the city’s coffers. Enrollment is up from 2,500 last year to 2,650 this fall. When Libby took the helm in 2009, enrollment was 2,100. Her goal is to reach 3,000 students by 2016.
Libby concludes, however, that beyond all the hoopla—which she does thoroughly enjoy—athletics is only one piece in her plan to grow the university and support the community in which it resides. She cheers loudest for academic excellence. “Clearly and unambiguously,” she says.
However on Aug. 31, the fans may drown her out. Stetson football is back.
DID YOU KNOW?
Following the 1934 season, Stetson was in need of a new head coach. Among the 49 applicants for the coaching vacancy was the legendary Red Grange—known as the Galloping Ghost for his running exploits. He was the student and alumni favorite to get the job. Ultimately, Grange wasn’t selected because his arrival would put “too much stress on athletics, commercialize the university and draw the school away from its intended purpose and mission.”