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AMU Football Coach: “We Can Win Right Away”

Barry Fagan has spent most of his life well north of Florida, but he is getting to know the Sunshine State better than most natives. Within just a few weeks of being hired to start the Ave Maria University football program, Coach Fagan has been to Cocoa Beach, Cape Coral, Tampa, Lake Wales, West Palm Beach, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Coral Springs - attending recruiting fairs to find the nucleus of the school's first team.

fagan23"Ave Maria hired me just before the recruiting fairs were starting, so I had no time to waste," he said. "I spoke to 300 coaches in three weeks."

With few Florida schools below Division One offering a football program, there are lots of young men who want to play football and stay near their homes in Florida, he said.

But everyone isn't a fit for AMU, he added.

"I only am seeing kids with a minimum grade point average of 3.0 and a minimum ACT score of 22," he said.  "It's important when recruiting that it's a fit academically, socially, athletically and, here at Ave Maria, spiritually. You don't bring in players who can't handle the academics."

"The number -one priority is to earn a degree and represent the school in a first-class manner everywhere."

Coach Fagan came to Ave Maria from Hillsdale College in Michigan where, he said, it was "proven you don't have to compromise on intellect, character or spirituality" when building a football team. The team at Hillsdale, he added, has the highest level of academic achievement of all NCAA Division II teams.

He said his "prayer was answered," when he was offered the job in Ave Maria. He and his wife have been hoping for years to move to southwest Florida. Now that he's here, he said, "I may be like Paterno - you'll have to kick me out" - a reference to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, for whom Mr. Fagan played college ball.

Coach Fagan and AMU Athletic Director Brian Scanlan said the immediate goal is to bring in about 30 players for the 2010-2011 academic year. Even though the team won't play until the fall of 2011, the recruits will "practice like they're preparing for games" throughout the season, Coach Fagan said. "If we do it the right way, we can win right away and recruiting after that gets much easier."

University founder Tom Monaghan's aspiration to have a football team at the school has been well known for years, but the expense of a football team can strain a start-up institution. That strain was eased recently, Mr. Scanlan confirmed, when the university received a gift of $500,000 from a donor wishing to be anonymous, specifically to start a football program.

Mr. Scanlan said the grant should cover expenses for the first two years, including the money necessary to build the field where the team  will play on campus. It will be located just north of the Golisano Field House, Mr. Scanlan said, and initially will have bleacher seating.

Expenses after the first two years will be covered, in part Mr. Scanlan said, through increased enrollment. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics limits the amount of scholarship money that can be spent on a football team to the equivalent of 24 full scholarships. Since a football team has more than 100 players, he said, the team does not have to be a financial drain.

That has been the experience of Webber International University, another NAIA school in Central Florida which, with 750 students, is somewhat smaller than AMU's projected enrollment by 2011. Webber started its football program eight years ago, and, "It has been a great thing for us," according to the school's president, Dr. Keith Wade.

Although annual operating costs for the program are between $300,000 and $400,000 at Webber, Dr. Wade said that it has been a boost "to the school's development and the bottom line."

"A lot of guys in Florida want to play football," Dr. Wade said. "You instantly get a big group of applicants."

"We've even had one player make it to the NFL," he added, referring to Vincent Anderson, an undrafted free agent currently on the roster of the New York Giants.

Webber football coach Kelly Scott said the school is looking forward to playing Ave Maria, and also said he hoped AMU's move would prompt other smaller schools in Florida - some of which are already considering starting a football program - to field a team.

 "I hope every small school in the state of Florida has a football program," he said.

For the immediate future, Coach Fagan's priorities are recruiting both players and hiring his two main assistant coaches, both of whom must not only know football but also "be Catholics and great role models."

He said he will be concentrating on finding players who fit all aspects of life at Ave Maria University, and expects he can do so.

Dr. Wade at Webber said football can be disruptive if not well managed, but that was not the case at Webber.

"There is no reason that the conflict at many schools has to happen," he said.


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