The team has no athletic scholarships, pep rallies or marching bands. And the number of fans at most home games couldn't sustain a decent sis-boom-bah. By major-college standards, even by good high school ones, the football program at Montgomery College-Rockville is one of no frills, little notice.
But in the last three years, since Steve Wilson took over as coach at the community college, the football team has became a national junior-college power. In the process, Wilson got himself fired.
"I don't think they want a good program here," Wilson, 35, said last week, the day after a new coach was hired to replace him. "They want a glorified intramural program."
The decision to release Wilson, just two months before the start of summer practice, followed an incident involving out-of-state football players and an unpaid $1,700 bill at a local motel. School officials say Wilson was guilty of poor judgment for his part in that episode. But the officials insist he was not fired on that basis alone.
The case of the unpaid motel bill, say school officials, brought to their attention such other features of Wilson's football program as out-of-state recruiting and a booster club that raised thousands of dollars for the team, independent of school supervision or control.
In essence, the school's academic heads discovered that Wilson had created a football program bigger than they intended. And by virtue of Wilson's efforts and the team's success, it was growing bigger.
"We're not interested in any kind of recruitment outside of Montgomery County," said Cliff Wood, an associate dean who conducted an investigation of the motel incident last winter. "Our football program was never intended to be that way."
The conflict between Wilson and Montgomery College officials was more a collision of philosophies than personalities. Wilson, who was paid less than $3,000 to coach from August through December, worked year round, scouting high school players and conducting voluntary spring practices, to build a nationally competitive program. College officials judged both the effort and money spent on the pursuit to be misguided.
"We have always put our academics ahead of sports," said Tom Kirkland, the public information officer for the Rockville campus. "Our president feels very strongly about that." A press release this week announcing the appointment of Phil Martin, head of the college's audio visual department, as new coach emphasized that football should be "an extracurricular endeavor."
Montgomery College has had an image problem since it opened in 1947 on a shoestring budget in space borrowed from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. The college now has more than 17,000 students on campuses in Rockville, Takoma Park and Germantown. Because most of the students work and commute to school, there is little of the traditional campus life and school spirit associated with a college. Some students at the campus just off Rockville Pike jokingly refer to their two-year school as "Harvard on the Pike."
Ask students why they are at Montgomery College and most cite career goals and timetables. Ask football players that question and many mention football first.
"Basically, I'm here because of Steve Wilson," said Steve Bykowski, 20, a middle linebacker with hopes of parlaying a couple of good seasons at Montgomery into a scholarship at a four-year college. "For a lot of us, this is just a stop along the way."
There was a football program at the school before Wilson arrived, and a pretty good one. From 1970 until 1978, under Coach Al Kouneski, the team had only one season with a below-.500 record. But the league it competed in was low budget and local.
Wilson began pumping up the Montgomery program as soon as he arrived. Each year, he added a game to the schedule. Last season, he joined the Coastal Conference, one of the strongest junior-college leagues in the country, which includes schools from New York to North Carolina. Last year, Montgomery played four teams ranked in the nation's top 10. In the last game of the season, Montgomery upset fourth-ranked Nassau Community College of New York, 21-0.
As the team became more successful on the field, players started having better luck getting scholarships to four-year schools. Last year, six of the team's eight graduating sophomores received scholarship offers. On recruiting trips to area high schools, Wilson and his staff found the job of selling Montgomery College had become easier. High school coaches as far away as North Carolina began sending decent players to Wilson, players who were maybe a step slow, a few pounds light or academically ineligible for big-name colleges.
Some of them showed up without money or a place to stay. Wilson said he was spending almost as much time arranging living accommodations and books for students as he was plotting football strategy.
"I was just trying to do something good for these kids," said Wilson.
Dean Wood said Wilson overstepped his role. "Anyone showing up from out of state like that should be sent immediately home."
Last August, Wilson helped some students arrange a deal with the owners of a local motel that allowed them free room and board until they could find jobs or receive student aid. The students ran up a bill of $1,700 before leaving town. The motel owners went to Wilson and school authorities seeking reimbursement. Wilson said he had only brought the parties together and never guaranteed anything.
After an investigation last winter, Dean Wood did not blame Wilson for the incident except to say he had used poor judgment for getting involved at the start. It was not until five months later that Wilson was told he would not be rehired for the fall season.
"The timing of the thing was just terrible," said Tom Allen, the president of the boosters club that was formed last year. Most of the boosters are veterans of high school booster clubs in Montgomery County and the District. Last year, they raised about $3,500 for road-game expenses. This year, school officials say, the team cannot accept money from the boosters until they are officially recognized. But, thus far, the school has not acted on the club's request for that recognition.
Without their support, say boosters, the recent promise by acting Chancellor Antoinette Hastings that this year's 11-game schedule will not be cut will be impossible to keep. The football budget for this year, including salaries, is $7,900.
Wilson said he would not return to the coaching job at the college now, even if asked. He will continue his full-time job teaching physical education in several Montgomery County elementary schools and says he has had offers to become an assistant coach at Springbrook and Wheaton high schools.
"To tell you the truth, it's kind of a burden off my shoulders," he said of his dismissal at Montgomery-Rockville. "Now I won't have to worry about raising money, arranging bus trips, student housing and meals. But it's funny. You usually hear about a coach being fired for losing. Here, I'm being fired for doing well."