Joe Kersting helped lead Glendale Community College's football program to multiple national championships. Now, he's leading an effort to save the program he helped build, as well as three others on the chopping block.
"At the end of this season, football’s over in Maricopa County unless something changes. So, we put together a group, a movement to save junior-college football in the state of Arizona, and specifically in Maricopa County," Kersting told ABC15 sports director Craig Fouhy.
Citing financial constraints, the Maricopa County Community College District announced in February that football will be eliminated after the 2018 season. Along with GCC, football is currently played at Scottsdale Community College, Mesa Community College and Phoenix College.
Kersting said over 400 student-athletes will be impacted by the district's decision.
"We’ve got the three major colleges in the state. Not many athletes are going to get recruited by them. And now we’ve got two NAIA schools (Arizona Christian University and Ottawa University), and those are good options, but they’re expensive. They give partial scholarships, but it’s still an awful big chunk of change," Kersting said.
In its February announcement, MCCCD said football accounts for 20 percent of its total athletic budget and over 50 percent of related insurance costs, and it hasn't received state funding for needed capital improvements for football since 2008. MCCCD said over $20 million in improvements would be required in the next 3 to 5 years in order to continue to offer football.
Kersting challenged the $20 million number, as well as the findings of the Maricopa Priorities Athletic Task Force in May 2017 that recommended football's elimination. He said no coaches, athletes or athletic directors of football-playing institutions participated in that task force, though MCCCD said former Phoenix College athletic director Scott Geddis was a member.
A St. Louis native, Kersting coached at Northern Arizona University before guiding the Gauchos to three junior-college national championships, including two as head coach. His drive to preserve football includes an online petition and rallies to educate people on how they can influence MCCCD's decision-makers to reverse course.
But Kersting said the best chance to keep football will come at the ballot box.
"We’re going to change the governing board," Kersting said. "That’s our primary objective right now, is to get the word out, talk about our candidates."
Four of MCCCD's board seats are up in November. Kersting's group is backing four candidates who it believes will work to retain football: Tom Nerini (District 5), Stan Arterberry (District 4), Marie Sullivan (District 3) and Roc Arnett (at-large).
"There are seven positions on the governing board. If we swept all four, we would have four strong people in our corner, plus there’s one or two on the board right now that are pretty good supporters of it," Kersting said.
Active MCCCD board member Dana Saar is an NAU alum and former college basketball player who has announced football games for Fountain Hills High School since 1992. In an email, Saar told ABC15 that he sympathizes with Kersting's position but "very reluctantly" supports the decision to cut football.
"I've witnessed a steady reduction in the number of football participants, especially over the past five years. FHHS no longer has a freshman team, and those freshmen and sophomores who don't play varsity will only have two JV games on their schedule this year," Saar said. "We are also aware that parents are (encouraging) their boys to look at alternatives to football with CTE issues becoming more in the news.
"Our pipeline of talent is and will continue to dry up. Football, as we've known and loved, will not be the same sport in the years ahead."
Saar also reiterated MCCCD's concerns about rising football insurance costs.
"Insurance companies we rely on are hedging with regard to future coverage for CTE or similar disabilities. High schools, colleges and even the NFL are exposing themselves to catastrophic financial risk," he said.
"We will certainly be on the hook for our past football injuries. As representatives of Maricopa County taxpayers, that risk must be minimized. Terminating these four programs does that."
Kersting's decision to speak out came in part because he said the district's current head football programs are under a "gag order" by the district not to speak about it.
"Right now, if you ask the people at the district office, they would say, 'We don’t know anything about a gag order.’ But I’ve spoken to all four of these coaches many times since February, since this decision," he said. "That’s why I’ve gotten involved. That’s the biggest reason I’ve gotten involved. I’m retired. They can’t fire me."
An MCCCD source said no such gag order has been issued, and said the administration simply instructed coaches to pass along media inquiries to the district following February's news.
"There's no gag order and there never has been," that source said.
Junior-college football often provides a bridge from high school to the NCAA and even NFL levels. Some of the NFL's top players, including Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, played at the junior-college level.
"I needed it. I needed that community college because that was the next step for me out of high school. I wasn't quite there, but the junior-college level provided me that extra year that I needed," former MCC and Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman Deuce Lutui told ABC15 in February. "If you're behind on grades if you just need that extra fill-in year, junior college provides that for these kids."
Kersting said an average of 20 MCCCD football players per year go on receive scholarships to play football at universities, and former GCC players alone have received a combined $1.5 million in scholarships.
Beyond that, Kersting's fight is rooted in the life lessons that young men will miss out on with the elimination of football. He cited a study that revealed 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs played collegiate athletics.
"That’s not just by luck," he said. "The lessons they learn -- cooperation, teamwork, sacrifice for one another, dealing with adversity (are important)."
Through his fight to save MCCCD football, Kersting is often reminded of why he became a coach in the first place -- and it's why he'll continue to do everything he can to ensure future student-athletes will have the chance to play football at the junior-college level in Maricopa County.
"Since this whole thing has come down, the positive for me is I’ve run into a lot of my former players and I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback (about) the lessons they learned during their time at Glendale Community College," he said.
"This is really going to affect parents and children of (current) high-school, middle-school and grade-school kids. So, you parents out there: If you want athletes in your schools, you need to do something about it now."