Saying no to football paid off for one small Texas college thanks in part to the Cowboys
Six years ago, Michael Sorrell made a decision that threatened his reputation and maybe his job.
His tenure as president of Paul Quinn College started in 2007 and, shortly thereafter, he opted to cut football in an effort to save money.
The response on campus was not pleasant.
"Predictably, we had folks who were, I guess, the reaction was loud," Sorrell says.
This was in football-nuts Dallas, only seven miles from the heart of the city. Sorrell was not anti-sports, either. He played basketball and loved football. He just felt the sport was "something economically we could not justify."
Sorrell made an offer to the angry defenders of the sport: Raise $2 million to save football, and he would match it.
"To date," Sorrell says, "no one has raised a dollar."
College football is dealing with an emerging financial crisis. It's plaguing programs as large as the University of Tennessee, which was a reported $200 million in debt over the summer, and as small as Grambling, which is begging alums for donations after poor facilities led to a player mutiny earlier this month. Escalating coaches' salaries and declining attendance have led to real concern that the entire college football complex will become insolvent, leaving only a few schools with thriving programs.
"We are standing on the precipice of an economic day of reckoning in higher education," Sorrell says. "I think there will be more schools to do this. I think we're just early."
Football was eating $600,000 of Sorrell's budget, and Paul Quinn is a tiny school of only 250 students. How could he continue to educate when so much funding was going to something that wasn't building an academic reputation?
He simply couldn't. So the field sat vacant.
Sorrell moved on to a much bigger issue: his school is located in a food desert with neither a restaurant nor a grocery store nearby, and many of the students at the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi are poor. Eighty percent of the students at Paul Quinn are Pell Grant-eligible. (There's a "clothes closet" on campus where students can get business casualwear for free, and money had to be raised so students could afford eyeglasses to read.)
A year after the end of football, Sorrell was meeting with a real estate investor named Trammell Crow. They bandied about the idea of devoting a tract of land to producing food for the community. But where?
Sorrell joked that they should just build a farm on the football field.
The jest quickly turned into a reality, and the school's future was changed for the better.
Some of the produce grown in full view of the scoreboard would go to local food banks and the surrounding community. Some of it, eventually, could be sold.
Crow helped fund the farm, and slowly crops began to yield produce: kale, sweet potatoes, herbs, cilantro. In 2009, two years removed from the end of Paul Quinn College's football life, a rather famous client struck a deal with the school for its food.
Legends Hospitality is now Paul Quinn College's largest buyer for the "WE over Me Farm," and the school has run a surplus of six or seven figures in four of the past five years. The money budgeted for football now goes to academic scholarships. This is a school that had one month's worth of cash when Sorrell took over in 2007.
A potential disaster has turned into one of the most inspired decisions made at the college level. It's not like Paul Quinn is SMU – the NAIA school is smaller than a lot of Dallas high schools – but it shows life after football isn't necessarily bleak.
"We turned our football field into an organic farm," Sorrell says. "It's made us a national leader on this issue. There are no regrets. We didn't have the resources necessary to change and really build a football program in the way we wanted to do it. This is what was right for us."
Students who work on the farm are paid $10 an hour for overseeing the project, which will produce 17,500 lbs. of food for Cowboys fans this season.
"I'm in love with what we're doing with the field," says Shon Griggs, Jr., a legal-studies major who played football at his Atlanta high school. "It's exciting and I've learned so much. I've personally gotten more out of the farm than the football field."
Griggs spends 12 hours a week on the farm, and he considers it "a workout" that has benefits beyond sports.
"When I played football, I was able to strengthen my body," he says. "Here, we're impacting community, changing lives, teaching kids, and learning about nature."
Griggs says the only downside is the coyotes that come around at night and try to break into the chicken coop.
The goalposts are still up at Paul Quinn College, and so are the scoreboard and the ticket booth, but nobody misses the sport much anymore. The treasure everyone guards most is that farm. Asked what would happen if those two acres were razed again, Griggs doesn't hesitate.
"We would have a problem," he says. "There would be a revolt. This is big."
It is big. Those who work on the farm not only have experience and some take-home pay, but a built-in connection to one of the most famous buildings in America. The director of food and beverage at Legends Hospitality at Cowboys Stadium is George Wasai, who went to Paul Quinn College. He played football there.
We all know about fields of dreams and if you build it, they will come.
Sometimes tearing it down works just as well.