Jim DeStefano and Ed Hottle are trying to see who is crazier. It's neck and neck.
DeStefano, the athletic director at Gallaudet, has this wild idea: Let's bring back varsity football to the world's only liberal arts university for the deaf and hearing-impaired. Never mind that it's been 11 years since the Bison last played as a varsity team. Forget that -- with the exception of an outstanding four-year run in the late 1980s -- Gallaudet football has not had a winning season since 1930.
Hottle makes a strong challenge: He can hear, and had never before communicated with a deaf person. He applied to become Gallaudet's football coach.
"Why not?" said Hottle, 32, who coached last season at Calvert High in Southern Maryland (where his team finished 1-9), and was previously an assistant at three small colleges. "It's challenging. It's unique. You've got to remember: Football is football, no matter where you go."
That sold DeStefano. On June 30, he hired Hottle to be the 33rd coach since Gallaudet began playing football in 1883, and enlisted Hottle in a two-hour daily sign-language tutorial that began July 18. Tomorrow, Hottle will run his first practice at Gallaudet with an eye on 2007 -- when he and DeStefano hope to return the Bison to full varsity status, playing in Division III.
The administration "made it very clear they wanted to keep football," DeStefano, who is deaf, said through an interpreter. "But it was very hard to maintain at the club level because a lot of kids weren't interested in playing if it was at the club level."
DeStefano said the varsity program disbanded following the 1994 season because of what he termed "lack of interest" from the student body. As a club program, Gallaudet did not subsidize the football team, did not play other varsity teams, and did not employ a full-time coach.
DeStefano said it would cost at least $200,000 annually to fund the program. This is in addition to a fundraising campaign DeStefano launched to purchase field lights and bleachers for the field on the school's Northeast campus.
DeStefano has not entirely sold the rest of the administration on football just yet. He thinks a varsity football program will attract more students, not only those who want to play football, but also from the program advertising the Gallaudet name.
"The bottom line is we need to get the numbers," DeStefano said. "If we get kids to the school and get enrollment to increase, everyone will see. If we hired a football coach, it would help us in recruiting kids from all over the United States."
Hottle said, "In the minds of some people, they see it as the big, bad football monster."
In fall 2004, Gallaudet had an enrollment of 1,833 undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduate tuition last year for U.S. students was $9,630, with room and board another $8,270. By those figures, it would take at least an extra dozen students each school year to offset the costs for the football program.
"While I don't anticipate a big change in enrollment," Gallaudet Provost Jane K. Fernandes wrote in an e-mail, "I expect that some students who might have opted to attend another university will enroll at Gallaudet now that we have varsity football and a full-time coach.
"The desire by student-athletes and alumni to bring back Division III football has been expressed since football was changed to club status several years ago. Most compelling to me were those comments from future students indicating that they wanted to enroll at Gallaudet for our academic programs and to play Division III football."
Hottle said he expects 57 players at practice tomorrow, and has a list of 80 high school seniors nationwide he intends to contact in the coming weeks, as well as several players at junior colleges.
Because Gallaudet can only recruit deaf players, Hottle will have the benefit of seeking talent from a nationwide pool -- a factor that sets the program apart from others at the Division III level and was a key part of the job's appeal, Hottle said. But that doesn't mean landing players will be easy.
Since the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, was passed in 1990, DeStefano said it has been tougher to recruit deaf athletes. An increasing number of deaf students are staying at their local high schools rather than going to deaf-only schools because the ADA provides interpreters for deaf students if they prefer to go to a non-deaf school. DeStefano estimates only about a dozen deaf high schools play 11-man football, about half as many as 20 years ago.
One of them, though, is the Maryland School for the Deaf, which has won 24 straight games -- many against non-deaf schools -- dating from October 2002. It would seem a perfect recruiting spot for Hottle.
"I've heard kids have had a resistance to coming here," Hottle said, "because there's no recent history of success. We're going to change that."
He might want to talk to MSD Coach Andy Bonheyo, who has won eight national deaf championships at three schools, including Model, which is located on Gallaudet's campus. According to a source, who did not want to be identified because the matter was sensitive, Bonheyo was Gallaudet's top choice for the job, but the two could not agree on a deal. Bonheyo and MSD Superintendent James E. Tucker declined to comment for this story, and Gallaudet officials also declined to discuss other candidates for the job.
If Hottle has any second thoughts, he need only make a call to Bob Westermann.
In 1977, a 25-year-old Westermann saw a newspaper classified ad for a high school football coach. Model wanted to begin a football program. Westermann, a chatty extrovert from New Jersey, was not deaf and could not sign. He took the job anyway.
After leading Model to four national deaf prep championships in eight seasons, Gallaudet asked him to revive its program in 1985. The Bison had not won more than three games in a season since 1930, and just five years earlier, did not field a team when only 18 players came out. Westermann still took the job.
"All my coaching friends said, 'You're out of your mind. You've got a good thing going at Model. You're going to go over there [to Gallaudet] and get killed,' " said Westermann, who now manages retirement communities in Washington state. "But [the administration] wanted to infuse pride and excitement on Saturday afternoons. They wanted kids to have the full college experience."
In Westermann's four seasons at Gallaudet, the Bison never had a losing record, and went a combined 27-13. The 1987 team went a school-best 9-1, including a 21-8 victory over Georgetown, and narrowly missed the Division III playoffs.
Westermann believes Hottle can do the same.
"He has to hold fast to the idea that this group can win at this level," Westermann said. "The Xs and Os part can all be overcome. The issue is, does he have the support of the administration to go out and recruit?
"I think he's got a great opportunity in front of him. The key to success at Gallaudet is submerging yourself in the deaf community. You have to be a part of it.
"We had a happy campus. It did a lot for the pride of the student body."