BACK IN THE 1970S—WHEN a concussion was getting your bell rung, and getting your bell rung made you tough—Robin Baker was a high school quarterback in Arizona who took one particularly character-building hit. "Coach runs out, puts ammonia in front of my nose, asks me if I can count to three," says Baker, who is now the president of George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. Two plays later the QB was back in the game. When friends hear that story, they "look at me and go, 'We knew there was something wrong with you,' " Baker says, laughing. "That may be true."
There's evidence to support the claim. Given the negativity surrounding the sport on and off the field at all levels, why would anyone start a football program in 2014—especially the head of a Division III school with 2,219 undergraduates and an athletic department budget of $2.2 million?
To Baker, the answer is simple. "Football's part of the American fabric," he contends.
George Fox isn't alone. Seven schools, from NAIA up to Division II, introduced teams this year. According to the National Football Foundation, that brings the number of college teams across all divisions to 767, an alltime high. From his bright third-floor office overlooking the quad, Baker sees an endearing tableau: college football that looks like the idea of college football, with student-athletes reading books and pursuing real majors and, maybe, wearing letterman sweaters. The preferred nomenclature is "cocurricular," not "extra." Everything on campus is part of the university's educational mission.
The Bruins last played in 1969, after which football was axed due to cost and difficulty finding enough players. When Baker moved from school provost to president in 2007, bringing back football became a "passion." At that point the biggest events on the George Fox athletic calendar were home soccer games on Saturdays. Baker says he loves soccer, but he wanted a sport that created more campus atmosphere on fall weekends, providing greater engagement for current students and attracting new ones.
George Fox set a fund-raising goal of $7.2 million, an ambitious figure, but more than 90% of it has been raised. The school has at least 120 more men on campus this fall than it did two years ago (half the team arrived in 2013), which will help balance a male-female ratio that had grown to 62% female.
Concussions? A concern, but they are for all athletes on campus. Amateurism? That's a richer school's fight. Agents? C'mon. Insurance? "They're more than willing to cover us," Taylor says. It just costs more than volleyball.
Back in Baker's office, talk turns to crisp fall days, to families and friends mingling with students and alumni—to football. Not the sport so hotly debated these days, but the one that makes millions dig ratty sweatshirts from the closet each September.
Why start a football team in 2014? Because the game won't be a minor league ATM at George Fox. It'll be a sepia-toned piece of genuine Americana. Because 3,659 people showed up on Sept. 6 to watch George Fox lose, 30--27, to NAIA start-up Arizona Christian, and almost no one left unhappy.