Photo | Submitted
Former USA soccer player Ron Brill (right) has been leading an effort to start a club team at the university, which hasn’t had a men’s soccer program since 1999.
It’s a date many soccer fans at the University of South Alabama (USA) will never forget. On Feb. 5, 1999, Director of Athletics Joe Gottfried announced the Jaguars were dropping the men’s varsity program.
It had nothing to do with the team’s success. USA was the defending Big South Conference champion. The Jaguars had previously won five straight Sun Belt Conference titles, from 1991 to 1995, before the league discontinued its schedule.
“Because of our financial concerns, gender equity and the stability of a long-range men’s soccer conference, we have made the decision to eliminate men’s soccer as one of our intercollegiate sports,” Gottfried said that day. “With gender equity and our NCAA peer review report, there is a need to provide moneys to improve the women’s sports as well as the existing sports.”
One individual who has not forgotten USA’s decision is Ron Brill. A New York native who attended high school in Florida, he came to Mobile and played soccer for the Jaguars from 1985 to 1989.
Brill remained involved with the local scene, having started the soccer program at Spring Hill College for men in 1992 and women in 1993. After playing for the Mobile Revelers squad, he became a renowned youth soccer mentor.
“The Title IX legislation changed everything back then,” Brill said of the civil rights legislation that prohibited discrimination in all federally funded education programs. “Not many schools had women’s soccer at the time. When Title IX came to be, it made sense to drop men’s programs and start women’s programs to balance scholarships.”
Since then the women’s team has definitely made its mark. They have won six Sun Belt championships and advanced to the NCAA Tournament five times.
“When we had soccer reunions, Joe Gottfried would come,” Brill said. “He was really supportive of the program. He wasn’t blamed for it. It is what it is.”
While Spring Hill and the University of Mobile have soccer for both genders, the lone NCAA Division I men’s program in the state is at UAB. In fact, the only Southeastern Conference schools that sponsor varsity teams for men are Kentucky and South Carolina, which must compete in Conference USA.
Club team taking shape
However, the chance of seeing a men’s team playing again at USA is fast becoming a possibility. Brill is part of the movement to form a club team at the university.
“I left Mobile for awhile, but ended up coming back, getting married and started a family,” he said. “Once my son was older, I started coaching in the CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] leagues. I coached the group from the second grade through high school.”
Many of his players formed the core of the McGill-Toolen Catholic High School team that finished second in the state in 2016. Some of them ended up as students at USA, and they reached out to Brill for advice on forming a club team.
“I encouraged them to start a program,” he said. “Then one of the boys called me again and asked me about coaching. I didn’t think that would be the case, but the guys just want to play and not deal with the coaching.”
During the 2018 fall semester, the Student Government Association (SGA) was approached for support to start a club team. USA student Mohamed Amine Mahhou of Morocco wrote a constitution and submitted it to the SGA in January. After approval, it will take three semesters of building the club before the SGA will fund the program. Until then, USA’s intramural program will give the club team $300 per semester.
“I believe that re-establishing a men’s soccer club at South is a great opportunity to connect generations of the Jaguar community,” said Stephen Newhouse, USA’s competitive sports specialist. “Already in its infancy, the men’s soccer club has found a following from past and present supporters.
“We want the club to be a beacon of community for all South Alabama supporters in addition to giving the students an outlet to be leaders while spreading their love of soccer. This philosophy aligns with the rest of our club sports in our department and we are excited for the men’s soccer club team to take the pitch and represent Jaguars new and old.”
Hungry for action
Students’ response has been impressive, Brill said, with about 50 players turning out for the first practice session at the new USA intramural fields. No one interested in playing will be cut from the roster.
The current women’s stadium — known as The Cage — opened during Brill’s senior year at USA. He took one of his Spring Hill teams there, and has played on the pitch for a few alumni games.
He said the men’s club team mostly will play on the intramural fields, but there is always the chance a big game against club teams from Alabama or Auburn could take place at The Cage. Brill said women’s coach Richard Moodie has been very supportive in helping to get the men’s club program rolling.
“We will be training on a regular basis, getting the process started,” he said. “We will be working on organizing and finding a system of play, and deciding which guys will be first team and which will continue development on the reserve squad.”
Since this is a club sport not supported by the athletic department, fundraising is underway. “We have gear to buy before we can play a match,” Brill said. “The old South boys are excited about it and plan to help out.”
Brill said he is hoping to schedule for matches with Spring Hill and Mobile, and matches with AFC Mobile and Gulf Coast Rangers FC squads are a possibility. Brill said a marquee game with Alabama or Auburn, though, would make a splash in the local soccer community.
The team’s goal is to eventually join the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA). South would play in Region 2, which includes teams from throughout the southern region.
During the next fall semester, USA will not be eligible for the NIRSA tournament and will only play provisional matches. In 2020, the team can compete regionally and will be eligible to earn its way into the nationals.
The one question that hasn’t yet been answered is whether this club team could eventually turn into a varsity sport once more.
“I would be very proud if that happened, but that is not what these guys are thinking about,” said Brill, who has started a Facebook page (WeAreSouthSoccer) to provide updates on the squad. “They just want to play soccer.”