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Ten years after

BU football's lost generation still feels pain of program's final season

Coach Tom Masella meets the media Oct. 27 after BU said it was dropping football. Coach Tom Masella meets the media Oct. 27 after BU said it was dropping football. (FILE/GAIL OSKIN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Five games into the 1997 season, Boston University's second-year football coach, Tom Masella, was summoned to athletic director Gary Strickler's office where, Masella said, "I was brought to my knees."

Assured by several key members of the BU administration that he would be given the opportunity to rebuild a losing team just two years removed from qualifying for the NCAA Division 1-AA playoffs, Masella instead was given the news that the 103-year-old program was being dropped.

The trustees' formal vote - influenced by former university president John Silber's not-so-gentle coaxing - was followed by Masella addressing his players and their families at the Homecoming game against Northeastern.

On the 10th anniversary of BU's final season, the memories of Homecoming Day are still fresh for the Messier family of Rehoboth, because two weeks after his meeting with Strickler and one week after informing his coaches, it was time for Masella to let everyone know the rumors were true.

"We knew at the Northeastern game that something was going to happen," recalled Chuck Messier, father of BU freshman lineman Dan Messier, an All-Conference player at Bishop Feehan High. "A few of the older alumni in the stands were saying to us, 'You've got to stop this,' and they must have assumed we knew what was going on, but it never dawned on me that BU was closing down the program. It was a shock because Danny was told before he committed that the BU football program was not in danger."

Dan Messier enrolled at Northeastern the following fall, where he was a starting offensive tackle for three seasons and an Academic All-Conference selection.

"I had finally gotten settled in at BU and out of the blue, they said the team was dropped. It was upsetting news," he said. "I felt I had made the right choice going to BU and it took me a while after I got to Northeastern to get back the emotion and motivation for football. I was an 18-year-old kid who had his world turned around."

The season ended Nov. 22 with a 31-14 loss at James Madison - whose fans gave the Terriers a standing ovation at the end - but not before the lame duck team blew out the University of Massachusetts at Nickerson Field, 33-8, in an emotional final home game, its only victory that year.

UMass won the Division 1-AA national championship the following season.

Dan Hart, a junior linebacker from Waltham, wrote an article for the BU Free Press in which he expressed his disappointment. "You literally sweat and bleed for the university and you get slapped in the face for it - that was pretty much what I wrote and it was that emotion we all carried into the UMass game. Everybody in the locker room wanted to go out with a bang," recalled Hart, who later visited AIC on a recruiting trip but felt playing somewhere else wouldn't be the same.

Hart went back to BU part-time and earned his degree three years ago. He is one of three BU players from that team now working as police officers in their hometowns - the others are sophomore running back Tom Dicker in Watertown and junior quarterback Dan Hanafin in Burlington.

Money issues

According to Strickler, the program, including scholarships, was costing around $3 million annually and taking in about $100,000 through ticket sales and alumni contributions. The administration felt the money would be better spent on upgrading the athletic plant and expanding women's sports.

"It was a necessary thing to do, but I felt badly for Tom and the players at the time and I still have that same feeling today," said Strickler, who retired in 2004.

Attendance, up during the NCAA playoff years of 1993 and 1994 when the late Dan Allen was coach, was down after BU temporarily had cut some football scholarships. Because of those cuts, Masella's last BU team had 25 freshmen and 25 sophomores but just 19 juniors and four seniors.

Inexperience and lack of depth resulted in another 1-10 season in 1996, a far cry from Allen's 1993 team that went 12-1 and upset Northern Iowa in the 1-AA playoffs at a well-packed Nickerson Field, and the 1994 team that was 9-3 and defeated Division 1-A opponent Army.

The Prebolas of Sparta, N.J., remember the good and bad times.

Gene, an offensive and defensive end at BU in the 1950s, is a member of the BU Hall of Fame. His son, Kris, walked on to the BU varsity in 1994 and played his final season in '97 with a scholarship.

"The announcement came as a surprise to both of us," said Gene, who coached high school football in Oakland, N.J., for 32 years after a four-year pro career in the American Football League, "but I don't know even when I was there if BU ever made money on football.

"We were a major independent in the '50s and we had some great players, but they stopped recruiting enough quality players to match up against teams like Penn State and Syracuse and they eventually toned down the schedule. Of course I'd like to see BU football come back and I miss traveling to Boston for the games," added Prebola, who played on the 1959 BU team that defeated Boston College, "but I don't think there's much hope."

Despite their own feelings of hopelessness, the Terriers gave it all they had at James Madison.

"People came up to me after that game and said it was amazing how hard we played. I felt our players went out and honored the university that was tossing them aside," said Masella, 48, now in his second season as a successful coach at Fordham. "We were definitely on the right track - UMass was a sign.

"But in the end, I had to tell 24 incoming recruits that there was no team anymore. All I asked from BU when I became head coach was their promise that I would be given the time to make it a good program once again and they said yes."

The James Madison loss was doubly painful for junior tight end and long snapper Charles Johnson of Keene, N.H., who tore his ACL in that game. Now living in San Diego, Johnson, a projected middle-round NFL draft pick who blew his knee out again during a pro tryout, transferred to Northeastern, where he was the Huskies' starting tight end in 1998. He returned to BU, where he completed his undergraduate and master's studies.

"It was an empty feeling to walk off that field at James Madison," said Bob Bicknell, now an assistant line coach with the Kansas City Chiefs whose first coaching job was at BU. "I've never been through anything so emotional. It was a sad time, but I knew I'd go on and coach. It was a bigger loss for the players.

"I still feel it was a major, major mistake to drop that program," added Bicknell, who graduated from BC in 1992 where he played for his father, Jack, for three seasons.

Life after BU

Other players and coaches from the '97 Terriers remain in the game, including defensive coordinator Wally Dembowski, now associate head coach at Northeastern, and Mike Leach, a sophomore tight end, who played at William & Mary after BU and is now with the Denver Broncos as a long snapper. Jason Barnett, the sophomore quarterback, is still playing semi-pro ball in his native New York. Senior punter Brad Costello, junior linebacker James Souder, and freshman linemen Andrew Inzer and Phil McGeoghan from Feeding Hills each had brief shots in the NFL.

Offensive coordinator John McCarthy went a different route - he's now on the BU faculty. McCarthy spent seven years on the Terriers coaching staff and when the team was disbanded he finished his master's degree and doctoral program in sports psychology at BU. He became an academic and life skills counselor for Boston high school football players - while coaching the junior varsity football team at Madison Park High.

Now a professor of coach education at the School of Education, he works with his graduate students in a program at Boston English High School focusing on life skills mentoring and physical training. "My last year at BU certainly helped me understand career transition," said McCarthy, who lives in Chestnut Hill. "A lot of us had to reassess our lives."

There were signs even during the good times that something was brewing. Despite BU's double-OT victory over Northern Iowa in '93 that had fans streaming onto Nickerson Field, the administration turned down the opportunity to host a second-round game that the Terriers lost, 21-14, at Idaho.

"Never could understand that," lamented McCarthy.

Lack of support

A talented group of junior college transfers, including All-American quarterback Robert Dougherty, temporarily had offset the scholarship cuts, but after they left it all caught up to the Terriers and Masella, who had little support at the end.

"We had 2,100 fans for our 1997 home opener against Youngstown State and the problem was apathy on the part of students and alumni, and that includes football alumni," said former sports information director Ed Carpenter. "Having a football program at 1-AA was a financial burden for all of the schools at that level, but the difference at BU was there was little return in terms of attendance or contributions. If there had been better support on a consistent basis, the story may have been different.

"The week after the announcement, a photographer from the New York Times came to my office and said he wanted to know where he could get a shot of students demonstrating and I told him there weren't any demonstrations. He walked all the way to Kenmore Square anyway and still couldn't get a picture . . . and that was the problem."

Masella, an Allen assistant who assumed his first head coaching job at BU when the latter returned to Holy Cross, said he was impressed how the Terriers finished that final season and he credits the administration for honoring all of the existing football scholarships and letting players finish their studies at BU after they had played football elsewhere. Coaches' salaries also were paid through June of 1998.

Carpenter said Masella never has received proper recognition for making sure those commitments were honored, for sending videos of his players to other colleges interested in recruiting them, and for opening up his last five weeks of practice to college scouts even as he pondered his future.

Masella had to be talked into staying in coaching by his wife, Lesli-Ann, after his disappointment at BU. "I applied for head coaching jobs and all I heard was, 'Sorry, Tom, it's not your time,' " said Masella, who was an assistant at UConn, Louisiana Tech, and UMass before his time did, indeed, come.

Masella won back-to-back conference championships as coach at Central Connecticut and has Fordham atop the Patriot League this season. "I never felt I had to prove to anyone what type of coach I was," he said, "but I had to go back to the bottom to move forward again."

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