Occidental not giving up yet

More news about: Occidental
They will never get two games back, but the Tigers hope they still have four more to play in 2017.
Photo by Ronnie Glover, d3photography.com

By Adam Turer

There are only four weeks of the regular season remaining. Four more chances for seniors to play the game they love in front of their families who have supported their passion for this game for so many years.

Unfortunately for players at Pacific, La Verne, and Occidental, this season has unexpectedly reduced the number of those precious few opportunities. The Tigers canceled their Week 2 game against the Boxers, then canceled their own homecoming game that was supposed to be played yesterday against the Leopards. A series of unexpected and unfortunate events led to the cancellations, and now the Tigers are hoping they can cobble enough players together to finish out the season.

“You work 11-and-a-half months of the year for nine Saturdays in the fall,” said Tigers sophomore linebacker Billy Grossman. “To have two of them taken away is a travesty. I feel bad for my teammates.”

“You work 11-and-a-half months of the year for nine Saturdays in the fall. To have two of them taken away is a travesty. I feel bad for my teammates.”

- Occidental sophomore Billy Grossman

There are about 32 Occidental players healthy enough to play. But only one defensive lineman is healthy. An injury in practice this week to another defensive lineman was one of the main causes of the late cancellation of Saturday’s game. The Tigers held their Friday morning walkthrough at 7 a.m. and expected to play their home game the next day. Later that morning while in class, the players were informed via text message that, for the second time this season, Occidental cancelled a home game.

“It’s a challenge, for sure. They’re frustrated, their parents are frustrated,” said Tigers first-year head coach Rob Cushman. “That’s the hard thing: they’re not the ones preventing us from playing. There’s just not enough of them.”

The short-term depth problems arose when Doug Semones retired as head coach in late July. Cushman was named as his replacement less than a week before camp started. The coaching uncertainty led a handful of players, including a few expected returning starters, to quit.

“That was completely unexpected, getting the e-mail that Coach Doug decided to retire three weeks before my senior year started,” said senior captain Chris Garcia. “Honestly, it was heartbreaking. Once Doug quit, people saw that as a way to get out. They just didn’t see the benefit of being in Oxy football anymore.”

Cushman and his staff did not have enough time to recruit new players or to sort through the expected returning roster. He anticipated having a roster in the 50’s, still small but manageable. By the time he arrived, the roster was already down to 47. Training camp brought more injuries, including some season-ending ones.

After a season-opening loss at Puget Sound, Cushman’s alma mater, the Tigers’ roster was decimated.

“We came out of Puget Sound with more injuries than we could handle,” said Cushman. “The lack of depth on defense really hurts. Whatever we couldn’t afford to happen, did happen.”

That led to Week 2’s game against Pacific being cancelled. Ultimately, Occidental president Jonathan Veitch made the decision after consulting with Cushman, athletic director Jaime Hoffman, and other administrators. The players understand that their coaching staff has been put in a precarious position.

“Coach Cush is a great guy. No one questions him as a person. The situation he’s put into is pretty rough. You can’t really coach a football game with under 35 healthy guys,” said Garcia. “We’re constantly having one-on-one meetings with people, constantly developing relationships. Our coaches tell us what’s going on. It’s always something that we appreciate.”

“Coach Cush is a great guy. No one questions him as a person. The situation he’s put into is pretty rough. You can’t really coach a football game with under 35 healthy guys.”

- Occidental senior Chris Garcia

At the same time, the players feel that football has been placed on the back burner at Occidental. It’s not just the low roster numbers. The Tigers feel that their equipment, field, facilities, and support all lack in comparison to other SCIAC programs. Alumni relations have been strained, which leads to less fundraising earmarked for the football program. It’s a cycle that the current players hope they can reverse.

“Everyone loves football, loves relationships we’ve all developed. At the same time, people are starting to feel ostracized,” said Garcia. “We did really well in recruiting last year; we have a really good freshman class, but a lot are thinking about transferring. We’re trying to encourage them to not give up. Our mantra is to keep grinding.”

Not playing on homecoming weekend hit the players hard. Especially considering that as of Friday morning, they believed they would be taking the field.

“We had a banquet [on Saturday] with alumni from all over the country. We walked past the field at 1:00 p.m. when we were supposed to kick off,” said Grossman. “It was definitely emotional for the guys.”

The coaching staff has done all it can to get the team back on the field on Saturdays. They have reached out to the rugby team and invited former players who quit over the past couple of seasons to give football another try. But several former Tigers decided that they no longer want to risk injury.

“It’s tough. It’s Division III football, there’s not much to offer,” said Grossman. “You really play football because you love football. The guys who have stayed, it shows our resolve.”

Cushman has been part of program turnarounds before. He took over a program at Minnesota-Morris that was coming off of an 0-10 season and led them to four wins in his first season, then a 6-4 record last year. He knew Occidental would be a similar challenge, but not to this degree.

“I didn’t expect to find myself in this situation. You’ve got to stick with it.,” said Cushman. “All these years, I’ve been telling kids to fight when you’re down, to overcome adversity. This is the ultimate test of that.”

He understands that in addition to getting his football team back on the field, he will now be tasked with repairing relationships. The SCIAC is frustrated with Occidental, as are alumni, parents, and current players. There is much healing to be done, both physically so the Tigers can get back on the field, and emotionally, so Tigers players past, current, and future can believe that the administration has faith in the football program.

“I want to play football if there’s any way, shape or form, we can.Our kids have done a great job hanging in there and trying to. We’re standing in there, trying to do the right thing. It’s such a life lesson about adversity,” said Cushman. “We can’t make a foolish decision and risk the players’ health. Playing guys out of position is not safe. Looking at a variety of ways that we can fix this as fast as possible. I’m concerned about the future. We’re doing everything we can to try to bolster the numbers. There’s still much to be done. Every waking moment, I’m working on all those fronts.”

Tomorrow morning will bring another meeting between Cushman and the administration. He’s spent more time in meetings than probably any coach in the country this season. He’s done his best to be open and transparent in communications with his players. This is a unique challenge, but there are still four games on the schedule and the Tigers players expect to be on the field each of the next four Saturdays.

“I always feel like I can do the job. I made the right decision [coming to Occidental],” said Cushman. “We’re going to fix this and when we do, it’s going to be special.”

Questions and answers

Can we talk about football?

In a minute. Between Albright and Occidental, this week has been exhausting for all of the wrong reasons. The Lions’ drama continued to unfold while the school is on Fall Break and the football team is on a bye. Two more players were dismissed by the team because they failed to fully kneel during the coin toss. Then, the college president issued a statement designed prevent any more players from being dismissed based on their actions during the national anthem, admitting that the program’s actions contradicted the college’s core principles. I have nothing else to add, other than that I hope the Lions and Tigers bear down and get back to playing football as soon as possible.

Is it too early to consider individual awards?

So much is going to happen over the next four weeks, but this weekend’s performances got me thinking about potential regional players of the year. Who is carrying their team to new heights? A few names immediately popped into my head. Where would Lake Forest be this year without running back Joey Valdivia? Where would Shenandoah be without quarterback Hayden Bauserman? Husson without running back John Smith? Those three teams are a combined 16-2. Wooster is 4-2, led by quarterback Gary Muntean, who surpassed 7,000 career passing yards and is just 223 yards away from breaking the Scots’ career record. Consistency has been key: Muntean now has games with 362, 363, 364, and 365 passing yards. Brockport’s Joe Germinerio has led his team to the top of the Empire 8.

I expected Mount Union’s offense to put up its usual impressive numbers, but we didn’t know who would be leading the offense. I expected UW-Oshkosh’s experienced offense to build on last year’s success. It’s no surprise that Mount Union’s D’Angelo Fulford and UW-Oshkosh’s Brett Kasper are ranked one-two in the nation in passing efficiency while remaining undefeated in 2017.

Will Week 8 be more exciting than Week 7?

There were a few fun games and exciting finishes this weekend. Heidelberg defeated Otterbein, 45-42, in an overtime thriller. Ohio Northern defeated John Carroll in double overtime. Plymouth State dealt Framingham State its first loss of the season in overtime. St. John Fisher finally earned its first win of the year in a dramatic five-overtime victory over Utica. Texas Lutheran scored the final 21 points of a 41-34 victory over East Texas Baptist, including the game-winner with a minute left. Millikin needed a field goal with 1:01 to play to maintain its momentum and hold off Augustana, 28-27. Williams used up every possible second, scoring on the game’s final snap to defeat Middlebury, 27-26. And of course, there were a pair of Top 25 upsets that came down to the wire. Ohio Northern blocked a field goal to hold off No. 20 Wabash, 16-13. Cortland picked off a pass in the end zone in overtime to seal a 20-17 win over No. 17 Alfred.

A few big showdowns with conference title implications are on the horizon: the NWC battle between upstart George Fox and perennial conference champ Linfield, and the NCAC battle of unbeatens between Wittenberg and DePauw. Union will try to prove it belongs atop the Liberty League standings when it hosts Hobart. Franklin travels to Rose-Hulman seeking revenge and the top of the HCAC standings.

And before we get to Week 8, the Little Brass Bell game, suspended at halftime, will resume on Monday night. North Central leads Wheaton, 13-7. The Cardinals had to settle for two short field goals in the first half, as Wheaton’s red zone defense buckled down. This should be a great finish with CCIW and national implications.

On tap

Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.

Today-- new Top 25 poll released.

Monday--Around the Nation podcast with Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan. Also, Play of the Week. Submit nominations today if you haven't already.

Tuesday/Wednesday--Around the Region columns.

Thursday--Around the Nation column. This week, I will be re-ranking the conferences. Prepare to debate.

Friday--Quick Hits.

Saturday--You know what Saturdays are for.

We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team.

If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or adam.turer@d3sports.com.

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his second season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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