The call to play ball has returned to Northwest-Shoals Community College.
A dozen years after the school halted its athletic program because of financial issues, NW-SCC is back in action when it comes to sports. The college began fielding baseball and softball teams during the spring of 2023 academic year and plans to add men’s and women’s cross-country this fall, with additional sports to follow in the coming years.
“I’ve talked with so many people across the Shoals area who are excited that our sports teams are back,” says NW-SCC Athletic Director Taylor Franks, who has worked at the school in several roles since 2014 before being name AD last April. “It’s added a layer of excitement to student life and created enthusiasm from the community.”
In the process, the decision to reinstate athletics has brought fresh attention to the school, which is showing up in the enrollment figures. NW-SCC has added more than 900 students in the past year, increasing enrollment by 32% to nearly 4,000.
“We’ve had some record numbers lately, and I feel like athletics has contributed to that,” Franks says. “We want to have the community invested in this school, and sports is a way to do that.”
While the school’s bottom line might be improving now that athletics has returned, that definitely wasn’t the case in 2011 when the decision was made to stop the program. Back then, in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008-09, numerous public schools throughout Alabama were struggling with budget cuts.
At the time, NW-SCC officials said the college had lost more than $1 million in annual funding through state proration and the end of federal stimulus funds. Eliminating the school’s six athletic teams saved approximately $600,000 per year in coaches’ salaries, athletic scholarships, travel costs and facility maintenance.
“It is very disheartening to have to make cuts of this magnitude,” then NW-SCC President Humphrey Lee said in 2011. “However, we must make budgetary decisions that allow us to maintain our mission of providing students technical, academic and lifelong educational opportunities.”
NW-SCC was far from alone in putting athletics on the bench during that economic downturn. Bevill State suspended its program the same year (it was reinstated at the school in 2017), while Jefferson State Community College and Gadsden State Community College kept several sports while eliminating others.
But while the NW-SCC sports were suddenly out of sight, they never were completely out of mind for many people in the Shoals area, according to Trent Randolph, the school’s director of public relations and marketing since 2003.
“Ever since sports was discontinued, it was something the community has wanted back,” Randolph says. “You kept hearing that from people. There was a need and a desire for sports to return here.”
School officials eventually agreed, and in October of 2021 it was announced that athletics would be reinstated for the 2022-23 academic year. Then the hard part began — because rebooting an athletic program after a 12-year hiatus is not a simple process.
“It’s a totally different time (from 2011) as far as recruiting and social media and things like that. So, you’re basically starting from scratch,” Franks says. “When I came in (as AD) it was, ‘Here’s the budget we have. Make it work.’ We had nothing. We were completely starting over.
“We had to get all the finances in order and then the facilities. We had new turf installed on the baseball and softball fields, and now we’re working on the press box, dugout, batting cages. Everything. We’ve been working with the facilities director, architects, contractors, trying to get everything in place and ready.”
Both teams went through nearly a month of their schedule before finally having a chance to play a game at home. Even then, work on the grandstands still was not complete, and there were no restroom facilities.
“We knew there would be a lot of work going into these first few years to get our foundation set,” Franks says. “But we want to get things right in the beginning so it will be a solid program that’s here to stay.”
Then there was the matter of actually fielding a team. Most college sports programs benefit from decades and even a century-plus of repetition. Players are recruited steadily, and an ebb-and-flow of departures and replacements is established. Athletic departments develop continuity. A culture is formed. Sure, things change along the way, but they do so under an established umbrella of experience.
This was not the situation for new NW-SCC head baseball coach David Langston and head softball coach Angel Brown. They both had less than a year to create a team out of nothing.
“We have 29 players, and 25 of them are freshmen who have no college baseball experience,” Langston says. “We’ve had to guide them on what it means to be a student-athlete at this level. There have been some things that have made it difficult, but it’s been fun to watch them grow both on and off the field.”
Brown agrees. Most of her 15 scholarship players are from the immediate Shoals area, and she says during the recruitment process she began to truly realize the benefits to the community of having sports at NW-SCC.
“The impact for our players has been huge. We have some players who if they couldn’t have come here, they might not have gone to college at all,” Brown says. “We’re giving them an opportunity to be a college athlete and play for their local school, and we can help them with things off the field as well. Sports helps give them that support system where they can get an education and be successful later in life.”
And, of course, there is the simple fact that having a sports team to cheer for is fun. It has been a staple of college life since the late 1800s, giving students and members of the local community a chance to come together and root, root, root for the home team.
“I had a faculty member tell me he was excited to see all the T-shirts and signs around campus for our teams,” says Langston, who also coached the NW-SCC baseball team from 2002 through 2011. “I have to admit, our first home game was a little emotional for me. To have sports back here has definitely been a big deal for the community and for the institution itself.”
Cary Estes is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Business Alabama.