Debate over community college athletics rages as MCCCD cuts football

The Scottsdale Community College football team runs through tackling drills at a 2017 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

When Maricopa County Community College District decided this year to eliminate the four district-sponsored football programs, including one at Scottsdale Community College, it caused an uproar but players and coaches in remaining sports say they believe community college sports remain a path to athletic success.

MCCCD plans to terminate the football programs after the 2018 season. Community colleges still will provide opportunities for scholarship athletes in other school-sponsored sports.

Scottsdale Community College, for example, offers nine other sports. Men’s basketball head coach and Sports Information Director Mark Bunker said community college athletics still offers a valuable experience for the right type of athlete.

“Typically, guys are at the junior college level because they need that extra attention,” Coach Bunker said. “They need that extra development. They need that extra work in the classroom, or on the floor, or even in their personal development.”

SCC head basketball coach Mark Bunker. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

But Coach Bunker said he doesn’t view the extra need as a flaw. He said athletics at community colleges, more commonly called JUCO or junior college, can be a great launching point for overlooked or under-developed players to succeed later.

“There’s a lot of those type of guys out there,” Coach Bunker said. “That were relatively unknown players in high school that take that couple years in junior college, and really become great players and really become great people.”

In Scottsdale, Coach Bunker said players from his basketball program move up to four-year programs every year.

“Usually 50 to 60 percent of the guys will move on,” he said. “They end up developing and making themselves better players.”

Not all JUCO players find immediate success after spending a year or two at community college. Some NCAA Division 1 programs — especially basketball — view youth as a recruit’s most valuable trait.

“Colleges like Arizona State, big-time Division 1 (teams) in Power Five conferences, don’t really look at JUCO transfers simply for the fact that they only have two years left of eligibility,” Arizona State junior Cole Louderman, who played two years on the Illinois Central College basketball team, said.

“They really just want a fresh, young freshman to come in and play all four years at their university.”

Still, Louderman said he wouldn’t change the route he chose.

“(Community college) just gives you those first two years to develop and gives you more options. If you play for two years in JUCO you can still go Division II or Division III,” Louderman said.

“A JUCO team has more talent. It makes you a better player, so you ultimately want to get to that Division 1 level.”

Despite these perceived positives, MCCCD leaders said they decided to scale back athletics because of budget limitations, forcing them to eliminate four football programs.

“The decision to eliminate the football programs at Maricopa Community Colleges was not taken lightly,” district spokesman Matt Hasson said in a statement. “As an essential resource to the community and businesses, MCCCD must be responsible for the financial resources it has been entrusted with.”

Football programs consumed 20 percent of the total athletic budget — and more than half of MCCCD athletic program insurance costs, Mr. Hasson said.

Speaking from his perspective as a basketball coach, Coach Bunker said he believes budget drives decisions at all levels of college athletics.

“It’s just like every level, everybody has budgets, everybody has resources,” he said. “The bigger schools obviously have an advantage over the smaller schools. That goes for junior college as well.”

Coach Bunker, who played basketball at Scottsdale Community College and later at Arizona State, said this disadvantage actually motivates players when facing a bigger school from their division and Scottsdale Community College players won’t take anything for granted if they get to the next level.

“Junior college — for me — it put a little chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I wanted to prove to people I was better than the level I was playing at. It gave me a very good work ethic moving forward with different things in my career.”

Editor’s Note: Max Kelley is a student-journalist at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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