The Maricopa Athletics Priority Task Force was established in 2012 by the MCCCD, with the goal of examining the viability of various sports. In May 2017, the task force recommended that football programs be eliminated.

That fall, Maria Harper-Marinick, who was then the MCCCD chancellor, sent an email that asserted it was “not prudent to eliminate football,” but that the district would “reevaluate the football programs” in 2018.

On Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, two days before national signing day, the MCCCD notified the schools via email that they’d be shutting down football at all four colleges.

“Ongoing financial constraints, including leveling off of enrollment growth at a majority of the colleges as well as the zeroing out of state support for MCCCD has led to the need for the district to look at the prioritization of resources to ensure we continue to meet the changing educational needs of the community,” the email read.

Mesa Community College athletic director John Mulhern says he and the MCC football team felt blindsided.

“It was disappointing,” Mulhern said. “Because first of all, (we) never had an opportunity to kind of say, ‘This is my input, this is what I think, this is what we can do.’”

The MCCCD could not be reached for comment on the decision.

Once coaches digested the news, they delivered it to their players, many of whom had only just signed. Steven Weiss, a former assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Scottsdale Community College, gets choked up reminiscing about the moment.

“We had spent the last year putting together a recruiting class, sitting down in homes, talking to parents, talking to student athletes about this wonderful opportunity to come play junior college football in Arizona,” he said. “Ultimately, everything we had told them turned out to be a lie.”

Cozzetto left Phoenix College in 2017 to be an offensive consultant at Oregon State. Watching from afar as the program he worked hard to revitalize collapsed, he felt a mix of regret and helplessness.

Throughout the summer and fall, like dominoes, Eastern Arizona, Pima and Arizona Western announced closures of their programs. By the end of the 2018 fall semester, there were no junior college football programs operating in Arizona.

From an Arizona junior college to the next level

Local coaches and players say it was hard to deny Arizona’s ability to churn out success stories from the junior college level.

NFL stars like linebacker Fred Carr, a member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, and punter Jeff Feagles, who still holds the record for most consecutive NFL games played, are products of the MCCCD.

C.J. Schrimpf was a 5-foot-8 offensive lineman during his senior year at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe. He showed up for an open tryout at Phoenix College, made the team and turned his two years of collegiate game tape into a higher opportunity.

Two weeks before his graduation from Phoenix College, Schrimpf said he got a Twitter message from a special teams coach at Coastal Carolina University, offering a preferred walk-on position as a long snapper.

Nicknamed the “Dust Bowl,” Phoenix College’s home field has hosted many junior college football games over the years. (Photo by Grace Edwards/Cronkite News)

“I was two weeks out from graduating and just hanging up the cleats,” he said.

Two weeks later, Schrimpf said he drove 36 hours across the country to Conway, South Carolina, to be a Chanticleer. His gamble paid off – three years later, he was nominated for the 2021 Burlsworth Trophy, given to the most outstanding college football player who started their Division I career as a walk-on.

Schrimpf saw his Chanticleers ranked 12th in the College Football Playoff poll in 2020 and his team won a bowl game at the end of his senior year in 2021. His life changed dramatically after that Twitter message, and Schrimpf says it wouldn’t be possible without the experience gained at the junior college level.

“Because of juco, I ended up leaving college with a completely paid-for associate’s degree, bachelor’s and a master’s degree,” he said.

Quarterback Karé Lyles was under center for the last Scottsdale Community College team to hit the gridiron. The Saguaro High School product tossed 23 touchdown passes that season and earned a position at Southern Illinois, where he started nine games in 2019 and led the Salukis on a five-game winning streak.

Lyles said that many of his teammates at SCC weren’t able to take the next step to Division I but it was because of academic eligibility issues during their final season, not because they lacked the talent to play at the next level.

The quarterback, who redshirted for a season at Wisconsin before playing at Scottsdale, likened the work ethic and ability of his SCC teammates to his former Wisconsin teammates Jonathan Taylor and T.J. Watt, who were ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in the NFL’s “Top 100 Players of 2022.”

Lyles completed his college career at Jackson State, playing for coach Deion Sanders. Lyles is now working as a production assistant at NFL Network. Looking back, he said he’s frustrated by the stigma that is sometimes attached to junior college football.

“For some reason, there’s an assumption, that if you’re juco, you’re a thug, you’re a bad guy, you did something wrong,” Lyles said. “Not a single one of those guys … are a thug, are a menace to society or are bad guys. They’re great, great humans, and they should have those opportunities.”

Taking legal action

In December 2018, less than a year after MCCCD officials announced that football programs would be shut down, 11 athletes filed suit in U.S. District Court against MCCCD, its governing board, each of the board’s individual members and Harper-Marinick, the chancellor.

The players, represented by attorneys Phillip A. Austin and Richard M. Martinez, argued that the district’s reasoning for cutting football programs was flawed, and they alleged that the decision disproportionately impacted African American students.

The suit alleged that elimination of football programs on the district’s campuses would negatively affect 5.8% or 219 out of 3,797 African American students as opposed to .5% or 139 out of 25,796 of white students, according to the complaint.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Xavier Juniel, was a freshman wide receiver at Mesa Community College during the final season of the school’s football program. He signed with the Thunderbirds on Feb. 7, 2018, two days after the news came that programs were to be cut.

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