College football in Rhode Island ended Saturday with Brown losing at Columbia, 24-6, and finishing 2-8, its worst season in more than a decade; URI losing at Towson, 29-10, and concluding a 3-8 season, its 16th consecutive losing campaign, and Bryant pulling out a 38-29 victory over Duquesne, giving rookie head coach James Perry a 6-5 record.
Salve Regina, the state’s Newport-based Division III program that seems to be ignored except on Aquidneck Island, wrapped up another winning season on Nov. 11, finishing 6-3, but losing a chance at another post-season appearance with its last-game loss to Curry.
That’s the overview. The rest of this space is devoted to Brown and coach Phil Estes, an Ivy League contender as recently as 2012 but this year a 0-7 cellar dweller. Brown last sank to that depth of futility in 1992, 25 years ago.
A down year is to be expected every now and then in programs accustomed to winning, but this is four consecutive seasons without more Ws than Ls for Brown. The Bears were 5-5 in 2014 and 2015, slipped to 4-6 in 2016 and fell to 2-8 in 2017, matching the 2-8 finish of 2002, until now the worst since Phil Estes took over the program in 1998.
Brown lost its first eight games in ’02 but rallied for victories over Dartmouth and Columbia. This year Brown beat Bryant and URI early and then lost seven straight.
Do Estes and his staff have reason to worry about job security? I hope not. Only Edward North Robinson coached more seasons (24) and won more games (140) than Phil, who just finished his 20th campaign and has 114 victories. But I have seen job security disappear beneath too many losses. John Anderson, as energetic and enthusiastic as any coach I met in covering sports for 40 years in Rhode Island, came down from Middlebury in 1973 and revived a Brown program that was a national joke in the 1960s and early 1970s. By 1975 Brown Stadium was packed for the nationally televised Harvard game. A year later, Brown was 8-1 and Ivy League co-champion with Yale.
Anderson’s teams never reached that peak again but were competitive until the early ‘80s, when they faltered. Losing seasons in 1981 (3-7) and 1983 (4-5-1) bookended a 5-5 season in 1982. Anderson was eased out after the 1983 finale, a 42-36 triumph over Columbia, the victim of a small group of influential alumni/benefactors, the story goes. He stayed at Brown in another capacity for a brief time and then left for an administrative position at New England Tech.
Estes told me in September that he is familiar with John Anderson’s rise and fall and that Brown’s recent slide is not good. He also mentioned that he has three Ivy titles to Anderson’s one, has been at Brown longer and has more victories than Anderson, who lasted 11 seasons. Phil said he can still coach and win in this league. With a new locker room this season, a sparkling athletic training facility, excellent practice fields for several years now, new office/meeting space coming this winter and perhaps a greater assist from admissions, he may be right.
The simple truth now, however, is Brown does not have the talent to compete for the football championship. The Bears used to rule the Ivy League and showed up near the top of national standings in passing, receiving, scoring and occasionally even rushing in the 2000s. This season Brown finished last in the league in total offense. Mediocre quarterbacks, running backs and receivers will do that. Usually respectable and occasionally great on defense, Brown finished last in the league in total defense as well.
Consider this from the first quarter of the Columbia finale on Saturday: two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties; two dropped passes; three three-and-outs, the third after Brown recovered a fumble. And in the second quarter, a face-mask penalty; two dropped passes; a blocked field goal attempt; a false start; a blocked punt for a touchdown; and another unsportsmanlike conduct. Columbia’s offense gained only four yards in the second quarter and still led, 14-0, at the half. Brown scored its touchdown in the third quarter, but Columbia blocked the PAT attempt. No surprise on this particular day. That play-by-play reads like the Bears couldn’t wait to get on the bus back to Providence.
Brown did redeem itself, a little, on its final possession. The Bears ran 20 plays from their 8-yard line to the Columbia 6. Thomas Linta’s last pass fell incomplete. 2017 in brief, I’d say.
Not to be overlooked in the wake of this sorry season is attendance. Brown is not Alabama or Boston College or UConn or even Harvard when it comes to putting student and alumni bodies in the stands, but this year was an alarm bell. Look at these numbers: Sept. 16, Bryant, 3,770; Sept. 30, URI (Night), 3,191; Oct. 14, Princeton, 3,028; Oct. 28, Penn, 2,008; Nov. 10, Dartmouth (Fenway Park), 12,297.
Brown Stadium holds 20,000, and the 2017 football team couldn’t fill one-quarter of the stands? Last time I checked, renting portable lights was expensive, and Brown drew only 3,191 for the URI game. Brown filled just 10 percent of the seats for Penn, an Ivy League rival. Given that trend, you know that if the Dartmouth game had been at Brown instead of Fenway Park, attendance might have fallen short of 2,000.
Despite those gloomy stats and disappointing trends, athletics director Jack Hayes for now is standing by his coach.
“ I’m going to work with Coach Estes to turn this around,” Hayes told me Sunday. “We have got to figure out how to turn it around.”