Fort Scott Community College’s once proud football program collapsed amid poor on-field performances, high personnel turnover and a player’s death.
The team’s downfall went from the top-ranked program to nonexistent in 12 years.
Secrecy and unanswered questions surround the decision, which was made after a closed-door meeting of school officials in the southeast Kansas town.
President Alysia Johnston and the FSCC Board of Trustees announced the program’s end Tuesday night. They primarily blamed limited resources, without elaborating on what resources they were referring to.
Cutting the program comes after a season marred by the death of Tirrell Williams, who reportedly suffered a heat stroke during a practice.
The school has yet to release communications related to Williams’ death requested by The Capital-Journal in September under the Kansas Open Records Act. Likewise, local emergency services declined a verbal request for dispatch records of 911 calls connected to the practice where he collapsed.
From No. 1 to nothing
Fort Scott was ranked No. 1 before losing the 2009 NJCAA Football Championship Game in Pittsburg to quarterback Cam Newton’s Blinn College.
The team won one game in the 2021 season before the program ended with a 63-2 loss on Nov. 7 to Independence, the former home of brash and disgraced head coach Jason Brown, who gained fame from Netflix’s “Last Chance U.”
It was the second of two tumultuous seasons with head coach Carson Hunter leading the program.
“We would especially like to thank the current football players and coaching staff who have represented FSCC with honor, pride, and dignity this season in very trying competitive circumstances,” school officials said in a news release.
Hunter’s school biography says he aims “to rebuild the program’s foundation and eventually further Fort Scott’s storied history.” In time, the bio says, following the coach’s expectations “will result in a program the entire Fort Scott community can be proud of and a team that can consistently play great football.”
The fall 2020 season was moved to spring 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After three straight losses to open the spring season, Fort Scott in April canceled all remaining games. Officials cited “low active roster numbers” due to “injury and attrition” that made it “too severe for the Greyhounds to safely compete.”
The team was outscored 190 to 23 over those three games.
Tom Havron, Fort Scott’s athletic director and a school vice president, told the Butler County Times-Gazette after the spring season ended that the program would not be shut down.
“We are not shutting down the football program and do not intent to look into doing so,” he said. “Football is a huge part of FSCC and we fully intend on collectively investing in the program in an effort to positively represent the KJCCC and community of Fort Scott.”
The Board of Trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to terminate the football program. The board had no public discussion on the issue, which was added to the agenda immediately after an approximately 45-minute executive session on “data relating to financial affairs or trade secrets of corporations, partnerships, trusts and individual proprietorships as it relates to athletic programs.”
That line invokes one of 15 possible justifications to hold a secret discussion under the Kansas Open Meetings Act. It is unclear how that exception to open meetings applies to the football program.
College officials — including the president, athletic director, head football coach and chairman of the board of trustees — did not respond to requests for comment.
“A competitive football program at FSCC is not sustainable due to the cumulative effect of limited resources, changes in Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (KJCCC) football eligibility rules in 2016, and the changing ethos of football in general,” trustees and the president said in a news release. “We simply do not have the resources to maintain a football team that would be competitive in the Jayhawk Conference.”
Limited resources for an expensive sport
It is unclear exactly how the 2016 changes in eligibility rules affected the program.
That year, KJCCC eliminated restrictions on out-of-state players, increased the roster limit and allowed full-ride scholarships. The move meant recruiting more athletes from other states and led to fewer opportunities for Kansas high school athletes to play at a junior college.
The conference in 2019 re-imposed a limit on out-of-state players but raised the number. The rule change went into effect in fall 2021.
Havron, the athletic director, told KOAM-TV that both financial and staffing resources played into the decision.
“Football is certainly a very expensive sport,” he said. “It certainly takes a toll on institutions and budgets more than other sports do. … We took a while to be able to look at every single possible situation to see if we could keep this here, and it was just something that was not sustainable.”
Financially, the college has invested in other areas of athletics. In August, trustees approved approximately $474,000 to remodel the weight room and a $1.4 million bid to add turf to the softball and baseball fields.
The program appears to have struggled with player retention. KJCCC rosters show Fort Scott has the fewest sophomores of the conference’s eight football teams.
Meanwhile, the program has struggled with staff turnover.
Trustee meeting agendas show the football program lost at least 11 assistant coaches since the start of the calendar year: three in January, one in April, three in June, three in August and one in September.
Four of those coaches left shortly after a player died after collapsing at a practice.
Fort Scott football player dies after practice
The death of 19-year-old Tirrell Williams looms over the final season of Fort Scott football.
Williams suffered a heat stroke, according to a Facebook page created in support of the teenager and his family.
The college announced the death of the defensive lineman from Gretna, La., and Fisher High School graduate in an Aug. 20 Facebook post.
Havron, the school athletic director, told the trustees of the death during an Aug. 23 meeting.
“We’re anxious to see how everything works out with football this year. … This last Friday we did have a student-athlete who was a football player who passed away,” Havron said. “He collapsed during a workout Aug. 4. He was immediately brought up to — that evening he was brought up — to KU med. He was up there for about two weeks. He made some progress — things were looking good — but he did not make it.”
Havron said the team was “feeling the effects” of the player’s death and the program brought in mental health professionals for counseling.
“It certainly was devastating for us, and we’re doing our best to try to make sure that all the students that we have on campus are taken care of and they’re able to move forward,” he said.
“We have been walking through some dark times these past couple of weeks,” said Johnston, the president. She thanked the college community for its support.
“I know that Tirrell Williams, our young man passed away, his parents, his mother, expressed several times how appreciative she was of our football staff, of Tom and all the people …. who are continuing to help her through this very devastating time,” she said.
Their comments weren’t included in the meeting minutes, but a recording is available on YouTube.
His obituary said Williams hoped to someday play for the New Orleans Saints. Saints defensive end Cam Jordan made a get-well video for Williams before he died.
Havron, the athletic director, told KOAM-TV that Williams’ death did not play a role in the decision to cut the program.
“That was a tragedy,” he said. “We would prefer not to go much into that, out of privacy and respect for the family. This was a decision that was made on the financial end of things and the overall sustainability for football for Fort Scott.”
He also addressed a question from the television station about allegations of a “hostile environment and unsafe conditions for players.” Former players have raised anonymous accusations on Twitter and through a YouTube video.
“There’s a lot out there in terms of social media and … so much that is not factual,” Havron said. “There are things that we have addressed, and then there are things where there isn’t anything to address. We stand behind him (Hunter). He was incredibly ethical and professional throughout this entire process and this season.”
Not the first death connected to college football practice in Kansas
Williams was not the first player to die after a football practice at a Kansas junior college.
Braeden Bradforth, a 19-year-old defensive lineman from Neptune, N.J., died from exertional heat stroke after his second day of practice. Reportedly, former Garden City head coach Jeff Sims withheld water during that Aug. 1, 2018, practice.
The program won a national championship in 2016 under Sims and reached the championship game again in 2018. He then left for Missouri Southern State University, where he was “relieved of his duties” in December 2020 for no stated reason.
Sims was the head coach at Fort Scott when it reached the 2009 championship game.
An internal inquiry at Garden City found no wrongdoing, but an independent investigation determined that a “striking lack of leadership” by college administrators and athletic personnel contributed to the death.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, suggested the report would ensure “no other parent has to suffer what she has, the loss of a child from something that could have been prevented.”
The school later settled a pair of lawsuits from Bradforth’s parents for $500,000.
“It’s always been about them accepting responsibility for what happened to my son and then moving forward to make sure this didn’t happen to any other kids,” his mother, Joanne Atkins-Ingram, told the Asbury Park Press at the time.
The mom and the congressman have since been working to develop best practices and prevent deaths among high school and college athletes.
Capital-Journal reporters Andrew Bahl, Jordan Guskey and Seth Kinker contributed reporting.