Sunday, January 10, 2021

Starting Over

What's that saying about a tree falling in the forest, but makes no sound? Such was the case with the Patriot League's indifferent announcement of spring football.

The PL was the last conference in America to decide on the spring, Heck, even the Pioneer League had a plan before the Patriot did. In the end, outside the Allentown Morning Call, it received no coverage outside the league offices and the six schools affected.

Six. Not seven.

To no surprise to anyone familiar with Washington, DC in this annus horribilis, there will be no spring football at Georgetown. The school is effectively shut down, even to the 500 of so seniors who will wander its grounds without a senior class auction, a senior week, a senior ball, and perhaps, a second year without a senior commencement. Athletics, save the grind of the men's basketball season, is a non-starter as well. There was no good reason to bring in 100 more kids to campus, meet DC regulations, and put people at risk to play a four game season before five or six people in a socially distanced press box.

The causes for the PL's late release aren't well known. Surely, they knew of Georgetown's situation. Maybe they were hoping for a change of heart. The release notes that " If conditions allow and within permissible local and federal guidelines, the Hoyas will work to bring football student-athletes back for training in the spring in preparation for the traditional fall 2021 football season." That's not happening, either.

But even in this period of interruption, there is effect, and that's worth discussing. This is a different team, a different program, that will take the field this September, and we ought to prepare for that.

In different, safer times, the 2020 Georgetown Hoyas would have been a fun team to watch.  Georgetown would return seven starters on offense and ten on defense, with the kind of depth it has lacked for much of the past 20 seasons. A winning season was within reach. And that's all gone.

Gone too,  is the seniors of 2020, the graduating class of 2021. The 20 man senior class will be succeeded by 20 signings announced in last month's signing period. While no eligibility was lost this season, the names Hoya fans know (Khristian Tate, Duval Paul, Xavier Reddick, Owen Kessler, etc.) are taking the next steps forward in their life. Some are graduating early, some are pursuing grad transfers, some are just going to get a job. If someone comes back as a fifth year senior, great, but of those 10 returning starters that played in the Holy Cross game on Nov. 23, 2019, as few as one - junior Ibrahim Kamara - will be on the team in the fall of 2021.

Barring a fifth year, we've seen the last of Joe Brunell, expected to lead the team at quarterback. Receivers Max Edwards and Skyler Springs, and running back Jackson Saffold are all scheduled to graduate before the fall season kickoff. The interim 2020 roster noted the apparent departure of the two top freshman 2019 quarterbacks, Tyler Knoop and Martin Butcher, as well as a pair of linemen. Of the 93 players on the roster at the 2019 finale, just 45 will be there this fall. Of the 45, just 29 played more two games all season.

On the flip side, that means that half the team enters this fall with no college experience whatsoever; namely, the 28 freshmen from 2020 (more or less) and the 20 from the December 2020 signings , plus any additions next month in the former recruiting signing period. The last two recruiting classes have been promising but the jump up in competition is no small challenge to any player at any level.

And, again, through no fault of GU, it's possible that these players do not come together in one place until as late as August, marking the first practices for some since the fourth week of November 2019 (some 20 months ago by then) or for others, the first since their high school games ended. That's a huge effort by the staff to train and retrain an entire team to get up to speed, figuratively and literally. And don't forget, six other PL teams and as many as four other non-conference opponents (some of whom didn't go virtual this past fall), will have a month of winter training camp and as many as five games of experience this spring before returning in the fall.

Just 17 of 240 schools in Division I are not playing in 2020-21, either in the fall or spring. They are as follows: Connecticut, New Mexico State and Old Dominion in I-A/FBS, and Bethune Cookman, Georgetown, Hampton, Sacramento State, Towson, St. Francis, and the entire Ivy League in I-AA/FCS.

This team starts over in the fall in a big way, and not necessarily in a winning season. You can't teach gameday experience on Zoom. But there's another restart to consider.

The fall of 2021, God willing, returns the residential campus to Georgetown. To two classes, fully half the student body, it's a completely new ballgame. Three thousand students  enter without the preprogrammed student pessimism that football at Georgetown isn't worth the time, three thousand kids that never knew a Saturday afternoon on the utterly hapless temporary stands of Multi-Sport/Cooper Field and all that it represented. They'll return to a completed Cooper Field and, perhaps, a new outlook on this program, and decide whether it is something they'll support, or shrug off and ask when basketball season starts.

As the old television commercial says, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." The opportunity, and perhaps the imperative, is for Georgetown to make the September 4 season opener at Cooper Field against opponents TBA (probably Marist) a one in a decade chance at elevating a football game to a campus event.

It is now over 20 years ago that former coach Bob Benson made the case for what a football game could be like at Georgetown, but one which the temporary facilities never did.

"Build a new facility with all the tradition of the past in mind," he wrote. "Place it in the center of campus. Create a new school spirit among our students, faculty, and the community, and bring an environment with a wonderful aura of history and tradition to the Georgetown campus... bring back an atmosphere that perhaps only the game of football can bring to a college campus."

That's not going to take place by treating that opener this as just another game. A poster in front of the bookstore and an article in the HOYA won't cut it. Over the next few months, this blog will outline a series of  strategies not just to renew football at Georgetown in the fall of 2021, but reboot the fan experience. Twenty years of apathy doesn't have to be the watchword for football going forward.

Ina  time of darkness and distance, better days are ahead. Let's prepare for something better, emphasis on prepare, literally, to "make ready". Rob Sgarlata's team will certainly be ready, and with a little effort, so will we.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Reconsidering The Patriot League, Part 2

 To better understand why William & Mary (or for that matter, any college or university) would consider joining the Patriot League, take a look at the landscape of NCAA Division I conferences. When teams move between conferences, there are usually four issues:

1. Money; a factor largely among the top conferences. When Maryland and Rutgers moved to the Big Ten, for example, it wasn't about tradition.

2. Location. Some schools find that, over time, the conference they joined isn't the conference they remain in. When New Mexico State joined the WAC in 2005, they played alongside Boise St., Fresno St., Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, San Jose St., Utah State,  Nevada, and Idaho. Fifteen years later, none of these other schools are there anymore.

3. Competitiveness. As a school changes competitively, a new conference offers more opportunities to grow and to succeed. TCU could have never joined the Big 12 without its growth from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West.

4. Opportunity. A sudden spark on the national scene can draw a lot of interest to make a move, even if it does not prove altogether successful. George Mason's move to the Atlantic-10 is one, Butler to the Big East is another.

As it relates to this discussion, forget the money. There isn't a financial incentive in the Patriot League the way there is in the Big East, plain and simple. But the other categories offer some clues as to why this may be in the consideration set for a school like W&M:

Location, Location, Location. When W&M joined the CAA, it was, for the most part, a compact group of schools in the Mid-Atlantic corridor: American, George Mason, Richmond, Old Dominion, JMU, East Carolina, UNC-Wilmington. Today's CAA stretches from Boston to Charleston and while the PL isn't exactly compact either, three of its all-sports schools are within three hours of Williamsburg and three more are within six hours--not an inconsequential number when the costs of travel for sports other than football and men's basketball start to add up.

There's another factor here. As a state-run institution, W&M maintains about two thirds of its admissions spaces for students from the commonwealth of Virginia. Of the one third from out of state, nearly half (230 of 505) come from just five states: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts - the PL's corridor. Admissions- wise, having the Tribe compete where the applicants are can't hurt.

Competitiveness. There's also the issue of competitiveness, and things haven't been good for the Tribe over the years. In 2019, a strategic planning document issued by the College declared that by 2025 it seeks to "win at least 35 [CAA] championships, including a combined total of five championships in the three key community building sports,  football and men’s and women’s basketball." Even the most loyal of Tribe fan would see this as a major challenge in the CAA.

The most successful of the three "community building sports" is, football, averaging 8,622 per game or fourth in the CAA behind JMU, Delaware, and New Hampshire. 

It last qualified for the NCAA I-AA/FCS playoffs in 2015. Recent renovations to Zable Stadium, the former Cary Field, make it one of the best in the region and while W&M isn't welcoming the University of Virginia to Williamsburg, it's still strong enough a program to play at Charlottesville in 2021 and 2023.

The story isn't as strong for the W&M men's basketball team. The Tribe has never qualified for the NCAA tournament, nor have the women. (Ever.) The men's team has appeared in nine conference finals dating back to their days in the Southern Conference, and lost all nine. In 2019-20, the Tribe entered the CAA tournament with a 21-10 record and a second seed, and lost in the quarterfinals.

If there is any possibility of the Tribe winning five conference titles in these sports by 2030, much less 2025, it may not be with the current CAA alignment and this is why the Patriot League has a possibility in future strategic thinking: the path to the NCAA tournament is easier in the PL, and the cost to compete proportionately less. That doesn't mean W&M has to leave the CAA, and there are good reasons why it would like to stay where it was a charter member. 

A backstory behind W&M's recent troubles around the planned reduction of seven sports was an effort by then-athletic director Samantha Huge to reallocate more money from so-called "Olympic" sports (namely, volleyball, men's and women's gymnastics, swimming, men's indoor and outdoor track and field) to better support football and basketball. Huge's departure and the resultant outcry from students, faculty and alumni will likely save all or most of these sports, but still does not address a financial path to better compete for conference championships and the resultant NCAA tournament revenue that could be afforded the school, win or lose.

"If all these efforts result in more championships in the ‘Burg (without compromising our ethics and academic standards), we’re all for it," wrote the independent W&M Sports Blog in 2019. A year later, it wrote this about the PL: 

"Through following a similar model and having stated goals for success in both the classroom and on the playing field, W&M leadership has made it publicly known that they intend to become what we’re calling the Stanford of the FCS. But is this actually a doable goal? Especially as it relates to the three sports that the school has chosen to prioritize: football, men's basketball, and women's basketball. Although rare, programs boasting both elite academics and “successful” athletics (defining “successful” here as sustained championship-caliber sports) do exist at the FBS level...To us, the two [FCS] leagues that stand out most in this regard are the Ivy League and the Patriot League."

For football at the very least and likely for all its sports, the Patriot League stands as a viable consideration. And there are others, too, if you scratch the surface. 

The Real HU (And The Other One, Too): For the Patriot League to break out of the guilded cage it has found itself in, it needs to consider schools who meet three criteria: 1) strong academics, 2) a good regional fit, and 3) those to whom their current conference membership is not ideal. Add a fourth, a century-old rivalry, and two schools stand out.

The next battleground of college realignment is not the Big 12 or the SEC, but in the fraternity of schools known as the HBCU's, historically black colleges and universities. Until 2017, all but one Division I HBCU belonged to one of two conferences: the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), stretching from Texas to Alabama, and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), from Maryland to Florida. (The outlier is Tennessee State, of the Ohio Valley). The conferences enjoyed a friendly rivalry in football, with the lucrative Celebration Bowl bringing large crowds to Atlanta for a de facto black college football championship. The MEAC enjoyed four decades of relative stability, but no more.

In 2017, Savannah State University opted to drop to Division II. A year later, Hampton University announced it would join a non-HBCU conference, the Big South, to better support its football program. Within the past year, North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, and Bethune-Cookman have all announced plans to leave. By 2021, the MEAC will be at the NCAA minimum six schools for football, with no logical candidates with which to expand, and certainly not in today's economic climate. Just this past week, Norfolk State University's board set a December call to discuss the viability of staying in the MEAC, to which it has belonged since upgrading from Division II in 1997.

Here is the gambit for the Patriot League: only two HBCU's can conceivably fit the PL academic model and complete in the same mid-Atlantic footprint: Howard University in Washington, DC and Hampton University in the Tidewater, three hours south. The 95 game series between the two dates to 1908 in football, while its academic profiles each place in the top three among Division I HBCU's nationwide. 

HBCU pride is strong at these schools but the MEAC is coming apart and not every school has a lifeline. Would a unified Patriot League bring them back together? 

Regionally, the opportunity for additional cross-region rivalries in such a scenario is no less apparent: W&M and Hampton are 30 miles apart, Georgetown and Howard just four miles. And while no one expects a commensurate level of interest in Hampton versus Holy Cross or Colgate, the regionalization of a PL schedule with William & Mary, Howard, Hampton, and Georgetown opens the door for future divisional play. 

It also sets the table for something the Patriot League has lacked since its founding: acknowledging rivalry games outside the Lehigh Valley. The PL has protected the Lafayette-Lehigh game at the expense of longtime rivalries like Colgate-Holy Cross and, to a lesser extent, Fordham-Holy Cross and Fordham-Georgetown, as these games no longer carry any particular gravitas in the final week of the season.  A 10 team arrangement sets up at least four rivalry games for the final week of the calendar: Lafayette-Lehigh, Howard-Hampton, Colgate-Holy Cross, and Georgetown-Fordham, leaving the door open for W&M to continue to play Richmond in the oldest football rivalry in the South, dating to 1898.  

Another Football-Only Member? While we're talking about it, there's always been a line of discussion that the Patriot League's affection for William & Mary, Richmond, and Villanova is unrequited. 

Much like William & Mary, Richmond has steered clear of the Patriot League over its scholarship policy, its redshirt policy, and the perception that the Patriot League was a declining league in terms of football. The Patriot League also suffered from a perception of a deemphasis of football, or "where programs go to die". Trading Towson for Georgetown in the early 2000's didn't change this perception. 

When Richmond officials left the CAA for the Atlantic 10 in 2005 and sent up a trial balloon of moving football to the PL during the presidency of William Cooper, it set off an alumni revolt. Cooper backed off the plan and left the UR presidency two years later. In 2008, Richmond won the I-AA national championship, something it would never have done in a non-scholarship Patriot League. Scholarships aren't the issue anymore, but any move by W&M would be watched closely at Richmond. 

The Spiders aren't looking to pull up stakes for now, but it's worth watching down the road if a move from the Tribe brings success.

A ten team Patriot League in football is a tall order, but a tempting one: Colgate, Holy Cross, Fordham, Lafayette and Lehigh on the northern side of the ledger; Bucknell, Georgetown, Hampton, Howard and William & Mary to the other. In basketball, a 13 team setup might seem a bit unwieldy, but tailor made for divisions, with Army, Boston U, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh to the north,  American, Howard, Hampton, Loyola, Navy,  and William & Mary to the south. 

Whether it's one, two, or three schools, now is an optimum time to discuss expansion. And with this is mind, one more point.

The Georgetown Question: For all the incongruity between Georgetown football and the Patriot League, the PL has been a gracious host. It accepted a school in 2001 whose budget for football wasn't competitive with the other schools, and still isn't. It accepted a loose plan for a new stadium in Washington that arrived 20 years late and at half the size of any other PL facility. It renews the membership of an associate member that doesn't offer football scholarships and has no interest in doing so. And, the obvious-- it has rarely  been a serious factor in the football race, with a combined record of 23-92 in league play.

A larger and stronger Patriot League has a little more leverage to encourage Georgetown to be more competitive. It doesn't mean that the PL has to call the question on football scholarships at Georgetown, because the answer hasn't changed. It may mean, however, that the PL expects Georgetown to increase its commitments in financial aid equivalencies to bring it closer in line with the scholarship thresholds at other PL football schools, where every program but Georgetown has eligibility to schedule games with major college teams. It could expect better in scheduling, such as avoiding games with Division III schools and perhaps assist in identifying opportunities against more established I-AA/FCS opponents. For its part, Georgetown could do more in promoting the Patriot League outside the campus gates and within Washington, and to schedule opponents with a measure of local interest.

Eight, nine, or even ten teams can be good for a stronger Patriot League. That alone should be an opportunity for a football future which might surprise some people.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Reconsidering The Patriot League, Part 1

Good luck was once defined as when preparation meets opportunity. And over the years, the Patriot League hasn't seen much of either.

"We have created a model for others to follow," proclaimed Rev. John Brooks S.J. of Holy Cross, but even he added the rejoinder: "So far, no one has followed." And why would they? The PL has stood as a bastion of a form of academic-athletic conservatism that has kept schools at a distance for most of the last three decades. It aims to be the spiritual cousin to the Ivy League, but it's not the Ivy and never will be. 

But while the Ivies can follow a mantra along the lines of Yale graduate William F. Buckley's definition of conservatism ("it stands athwart history, yelling stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so"), the PL cannot, though it certainly has tried.  Independent efforts to participate in the football playoffs, playing 11 games, or even adding football scholarships have not elevated the PL, but only further illustrated how far it is removed from member schools to excel beyond the playbook written at Princeton.

Or as Buckley also observed, "Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive."

"The timing may be just right for the Colonial League, a new football confederation of six colleges that seeks to be a model along philosophical and pragmatic lines," wrote the New York Times on September 14, 1986.  "In the first Colonial League game here yesterday, Holy Cross played Lehigh at Fitton Field for only the second time and for the first time in 62 years. The Crusaders won the game, 17-14, before a crowd of 15,781."

"In 1983, Howard Swearer, president of Brown and then the chairman of the Ivy League presidents' group, sent Anthony Musuca, vice president of public affairs at Princeton, on a mission," it continued. "The Ivy presidents, having little confidence in the N.C.A.A.'s efforts at reforming college football, were looking about in the East for colleges that shared their belief that good football can be played with good football players within a high academic framework.

"The Colonial sextet, all Division I-AA colleges with problems about whom to play, emerged after two years of meetings. The carrot was the Ivy [League] promise to provide at least 16 [non-conference] games a season, many in Colonial League stadiums. ''Yale Here Saturday'' would be more exciting in Lewisburg, Pa., Bucknell's home town, than Towson State."

As the years have progressed, the Patriot League's stature has inexorably fallen. It is increasingly less competitive with the Ivy League. The Northeast Conference, once considered as a collection of schools with the MAAC passed up on in 1993, is also stronger. In 2003, Colgate played for the I-AA national title and no PL team has come close since. Two PL teams have been ranked in the top 10 in the last eight seasons combined, and in the last three seasons the conference champions have been the only teams that finished above .500.  But despite all this institutional inertia, especially in football but not exclusive to it, the Patriot League has an opportunity to reconsider and rechart its course in the 2020's. 

But are they prepared for it?

In 2011, I cited another old quote to reference the Patriot League,  noting "present opportunities are neglected, and attainable good is slighted, by minds busied in extensive ranges and intent upon future advantages." A decade later, the tectonic plates underneath its offices haven't moved much, but they are always moving--imperceptibly to many, but not to others.

The storm of COVID-19 is felt in schools coast to coast, and athletics is not immune. The business model of Division I athletics is taking a beating, particularly in non-revenue sports which rely on football and basketball to float the boat. When Clemson University announced last week it is dropping track and field as an intercollegiate sport, it's not some sort of SEC gag that it can't afford it--schools are increasingly measuring individual sports on a basis it didn't have to before. 

Despite it all, the PL's model of geographic and academic consistency is garnering some quiet interest. (OK, not so quietly.)

"Talk of Patriot League membership for William & Mary is topical again as the school navigates through issues that caused an evolving plan to discontinue four sports and a re-examination of athletics objectives," wrote the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"I do hear the Patriot League conversation quite a bit,” Jeremy Martin, W&M’s interim athletic director, said Wednesday."

The College of William & Mary checks off nearly every box that Peter Likins and John Brooks envisioned in 1986: academics, history, and athletics...and, of course, it did when W&M was a charter member of the Colonial League in 1986. But W&M soon withdrew over the football scholarship issue and instead became a charter member of that other conference which wrested the Colonial title from the Pennsylvanians, and which later absorbed the former Yankee and Atlantic-10 football conferences under its aegis in 2007. In fact, W&M is one of just two original members of the former ECAC-South alliance which once included Georgetown, Villanova, and West Virginia before it formed a full-fledged basketball conference which once included Baltimore, Catholic, Towson, Old Dominion, Navy, George Mason, James Madison, and Richmond.

The CAA has a changed a lot since then, with an all-sports lineup which now includes Charleston, Delaware, Drexel, Elon, Hofstra, Northeastern, and UNC Wilmington. JMU, once a rural outpost with little significance in the Commonwealth, is now the sixth largest institution in Virginia, twice the size of W&M and with eyes on a possible move up alongside that of Old Dominion.

"As W&M charts an athletics course during a turbulent time, it will be looking for a road to success," the Times-Dispatch continued. "Football competition has become more challenging in the CAA with large state schools such as JMU and Delaware increasing commitments. W&M has never advanced to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. According to W&M, it has the third-lowest spending per student-athlete ratio in the CAA...“roughly half of our team athletic budgets fall below the median compared to the CAA peers."

And don't underestimate that clause on basketball. W&M is one of five Division I schools that have never, ever qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament and that is a point of irritation in Williamsburg. Neither the PL or CAA are multi-bid conferences, but, much like American, a path through the PL  might provide W&M the  opportunity (and the post-season revenues) the CAA would not.

But is the PL prepared for serious interest? Not unless it addresses three key factors:

The Need For Three. If the Patriot League is a legitimate suitor for schools like William & Mary, it must address an anomaly from the 2013 decision to award football scholarships.

Division I-AA/FCS schools are able to offer up to 63 scholarships for football. If you're playing in the Ivy League, the Pioneer, or Georgetown, that number is zero. If you play in the Northeast Conference, it's 40. Everyone else in the subdivision allows up to 63, except for the Patriot League, which allows up to 60, instead of 63.

What's the big deal, you ask? The 61st, 62nd, and 63rd scholarship isn't going to be in the two-deep, and it saves PL schools roughly $250,000. But football coaches don't want to have less than their competition, and it's the equivalent of a basketball team with 12 scholarships instead of 13. If you need that player off the bench, he's not there.

No one among the Patriot League football coaches opposes 63 scholarships, and some would suggest the 60 scholarship total was a presidential compromise of sorts so as to soothe concerns that the PL was not going all-in on football. But if there are candidates like a William & Mary who will give the PL an honest look, they're not dialing back competitiveness to do so. The league must readdress the ability to award 63 scholarships, even if a school wishes to only award 60...or even for that school that awards none.

The Math Doesn't Work. The second biggest obstacle for prospective PL entrants is the arcane Academic Index, a byproduct of the PL's unrequited love with all things Ivy. 

For new readers who haven't heard me complain about it before, the Index (AI) as originally created by the Ivy League segregates prospective student athletes (but not students at large) into "bands" of eligibility based on a ratio of GPA and SAT scores. Schools cannot admit beyond a fixed number of recruits per band based on the school's own GPA and SAT range. A school like Fordham, for example, has bands that Georgetown cannot even touch.

The index is arcane and borderline discriminatory. Soon, it may be irrelevant.

The winds of COVID-19 and declining admissions has laid bare the standardized test industry. A majority of students won't even take the SAT or ACT tests this year, and many schools struggling to adapt to declining numbers of eligible applicants have moved to test-optional, test-flexible, or, in some cases, no testing at all. 

Georgetown isn't one of those schools. The same university that still sends admissions decisions in the mail isn't abandoning the SAT. But in the PL, Holy Cross has during COVID, as has American, Boston U, Bucknell, and Loyola, with Fordham, Lehigh and Lafayette dropping test requirements for 2020-21.

William & Mary still trusts the SAT and it has the ranges (1300-1490) that every school outside of Georgetown would aspire to. But as test scores go the way of required class ranking, the PL must realign test scores out of the Index, short of disbanding it completely. 

If The Shirt Fits, Wear It. Of 255 NCAA Division I football programs, 240 offer the ability for players to redshirt; namely, to take five years to complete four years if eligibility. From Alabama to Marist, everyone offers this except for 15 schools: eight Ivy League schools and seven Patriot League schools.

The Patriot League views redshirts as a means of identity with the Ivies, but also a matter of concern to two of its schools. To redshirt, a student would either need to take five years to graduate or, more likely, to graduate in four and do a year on a graduate program. Two of its schools, Holy Cross and Lafayette, are colleges with no graduate options. These schools would contend that they are at a disadvantage against schools with graduate programs, like Lehigh or Fordham, for example. 

Any serious attempt at PL expansion must address redshirts. The colleges may not like it, but it is a competitive fact of life in college football. Can a Lafayette player take five years? Sure. Could they transfer for that fifth year? Unfortunate, perhaps, but true. But in either case, the PL is not jeopardizing its academic reputation if there is a fifth year wide receiver out there, especially since the PL already allows medical redshirts. 

Add redshirts, and the competitive level of the PL takes a decided step forward. Is this what is holding the presidents back?

In part 2, a closer look at William & Mary and some other schools to which the PL model might be transformative this decade.

Monday, June 22, 2020

2020 Scheduling: Subject To Change

While not unexpected given the turbulence of the last thee months, the announcement of scheduling restrictions by the Patriot League hierarchy is going to scramble a lot of schedules out there, and not jsut on the Hilltop. 

"In recognition of the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, the Patriot League Council of Presidents announces the following principles, which will guide the development of a Patriot League Fall 2020 Athletics Plan that makes the health and safety of our communities its highest priority," it reads. What does it mean for Georgetown...and other teams?

1. The release notes that "student-athletes will return to campus at the same time as other students." This would preclude August training camp for PL schools. While Georgetown has not yet announced a start date for the fall semester, it would put pressure on the staff to get the team ready to play in any suitable manner with its first scheduled game on September 5, just two weeks after the arrival of freshmen to campus (the usual arrival of freshmen is the third week on August.) 

In the past, Georgetown teams have completed four weeks of training before the first game; were it to follow a similar cadence, the Hoyas may not be ready to open the season until as late as September 26 versus Columbia, negating games scheduled at Marist (September 5), home versus Dayton (September 12) and at Harvard (September 19). If the Ivy league adopted a similar "no early arrival" calendar, the non-conference season would be wiped out altogether and would not begin until October 3, at Colgate.

2. The release announced that "non-league competition will not begin prior to Friday, Sept. 4." Not a problem at GU, but two PL schools have major early season openings; namely, Stony Brook at Fordham on August 29, and Lehigh at Villanova on September 3. Both could theoretically move to September 5 but unless Lehigh and Fordham open early in August, neither team will be in optimum physical shape to meet a CAA school.

3. "No Patriot League teams will fly to competitions and, with rare exceptions, regular-season competition will exclude overnight travel.". Let's examine each of these.

The PL is nominally a bus league but a handful of games this year demand air travel, two of which are so-called "guarantee games" where PL schools are (or were) expected to pick up a six figure check to play a Division I-A opponent: A September 4 trip from Colgate to meet Western Michigan, and a first -ever game that Fordham would travel to Hawaii a week later. Fordham has already cancelled alumni travel packages to the game, and a cancellation of that game will hit the Rams in the wallet. 

Overnight travel isn't an issue from Lehigh to Lafayette, but Georgetown's Oct. 3 game at Colgate is a seven hour bud trip. Do you leave at 2:00 am to arrive in time for a 12 noon game? Will Holy Cross do the same to travel to Washington for a 12 noon start on Nov. 14? perhaps there's a waiver for these kind of games, but it adds uncertainty, something that coaches (and their universities) don't need any more of these days.

Speaking of airplanes and overnight travel, Georgetown was scheduled to fly to San Diego on the Nov. 21 season finale, only the second time Georgetown has flown to an opponent in over a decade. If the PL rules are to be followed, it is likely to be dropped as a result. Does Georgetown find a replacement opponent, and whom, and where?

The scheduling temblors have a domino effect. One team starts to cancel games, other teams scramble. FA number of  neutral site "classics" in the SWAC have been scuttled, leading Southern University to start its season three weeks late, picking up Division II Florida Memorial University to get up to a nine game schedule. Its crowning game, the annual meeting with Grambling State at the Superdome, is at risk. A press release announced, well, that it's not guaranteed.

"While statements have been made about the future of [the] Bayou Classic and its location of play in 2020 and 2021, those statements were unofficial," it read. "Decisions about the Bayou Classic will not be made until after The Southwestern Athletics Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors have a late June meeting where matters related to Fall sports will be discussed."

Last season's game between the two schools drew 68,341 and was nationally televised on NBC, two factors that is vital to the the two HBCU programs. No Bayou Classic isn't just a lost weekend, it's a financial knockdown to a pair of schools with a combined endowment of just $17 million, or 1% of the Georgetown endowment. 

We're in uncharted waters here, but it's not the first time. The 1918 Georgetown Hoyas played during the "second wave" of the Spanish flu pandemic at the close of World War I. Its season opened Nov. 9 and ended November 28. Just five opponents ended up on the calendar, four of which were military teams. Very little was ever printed in newspapers about the pandemic so as not to encite panic, even the Georgetown recap in the College yearbook cited "the unsettled condition of the country" but mentioned "influenza" only three times in the entire book, one in an obituary of a fallen classmate. 

That's all we know...for now. The next five months are subject to change. In fact, you can count on it.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Scheduling Blues

The off-season is but one month old and six of the seven Patriot League schools already have their schedules all but set. Here are the out of conference schedules for Patriot League teams in 2020:

09/04 - at Army
09/12 - Villanova
09/26 - at Princeton
10/03 - Cornell
10/10 - TBD

09/05 - at Western Michigan
09/12 - at William & Mary
09/19 - at Syracuse
09/26 - New Hampshire
10/17 - Cornell

08/29 - Stony Brook
09/05 - Bryant
09/12 - at Hawaii
09/26 - at Monmouth
10/10 - at Wagner

Holy Cross:
09/05 - at Boston College
09/19 - Yale
09/26 - TBD
10/03 - at Harvard
10/10 - Brown

09/05 - at Sacred Heart
09/12 - at Navy
09/19 - William & Mary
09/26 - at Pennsylvania
10/17 - Harvard

09/05 - at Villanova
09/19 - Columbia
09/26 - LIU
10/03 - at Yale
10/24 - at St. Francis

And Georgetown? Just one announced game, a September 26 home game with Columbia that marks the last home game in the eight year series between the teams which ends after 2021. It's likely Georgetown will play none of the other 21 opponents Patriot League schools have secured for next season.

Yes, they will find opponents. No, they will not be of any interest by the casual Georgetown fan. The lack of scheduling foresight by Georgetown continues to be an impediment to program growth.

Earlier this season, we wrote about the logjam Georgetown faces in scheduling, a confluence of low budget, low aspirations, and bad timing. Georgetown is not willing to spend money on road games beyond a bus trip, it is reticent of games against scholarship opponents, and those remaining low-wattage Northeastern teams that are in the cohort are all scheduling up--that is, they don't need to play Georgetown in September.

The blinders of non-scholarship football at Georgetown cannot be ignored in scheduling. When once there were as many as 30 non-scholarship opponents in the Northeast to choose from, in 2020 there are just nine, of which eight do not play for the first three weeks of the season. Outside of the Ivies, there are just two non-scholarship Division I teams within 450 miles of the Hilltop, and GU already plays them both--Marist and Davidson. But there are five non-conference games a year, and therein lies a problem very much of Georgetown's own choosing.

How about some of the other non-conference foes already on PL schedules in 2020? Let's skip past the BC and Syracuse's of the world as a practical matter.

Example #1: Wagner (October 10 at Fordham). The Seahawks were on Georgetown's schedule from 2010 to 2014, a reasonably competitive series. Would they be a suitable opponent for Georgetown in Week 2 (Sept. 12), assuming Georgetown opens Cooper Field II with the likes of Davidson or Catholic?

No chance. Wagner is taking a payday to play the University of Miami, with a likely guarantee game in the $300,000 range. That's certainly not in the ethos and culture of Georgetown, but it's not like Miami called Georgetown, either.

Example #2: William & Mary (Sept. 19, hosting Lafayette). If there was ever a CAA team which looks good in the Georgetown football mirror, it would be W&M. The Tribe isn't too big, it's situated in a colonial village all its own, already plays PL teams, and is a two hour bus trip away.  Check, check, and check.

But since Georgetown got thumped by Richmond by a collective 97-10 in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, CAA teams haven't returned to the schedule and with two PL teams already on the 2020 W&M ledger, they certainly don't need another one.

Washington is not in their plans. Palo Alto is. W&M opens its season at September 5 at Stanford in a matchup of two teams that used to be called the Indians but have little else in common. No one in Williamsburg is arguing that it should be playing Georgetown instead of a recruiting visit to Northern California, a trip paid for by an opponent whose athletics endowment that pays out as much in a year in returns as is Georgetown's entire annual athletic budget.

Example #3: LIU (Sept. 26 at Lehigh). Remember C.W. Post, that Division II school just north of the Jericho Turnpike? Would they play Georgetown, much like Stony Brook once did and give New York fans a second local game for the Hoyas in 2020?

Post has since rebranded as Long Island University and jumped right into I-AA football last year, taking advantage of a loophole that LIU's Brooklyn campus was already in Division I. To no surprise, they finished 0-10, but are not scheduling from a position of weakness. Once known as the Pioneers, the newly rebranded Sharks (I was hoping for the "Railroaders") travel to Montana State, Delaware, and Lehigh in 2020.

On the future schedules for LIU? West Virginia, Toledo, Miami (OH)  and the University of Ohio - four losses with a check attached to each.

Example #4: Villanova (Sept. 12 at Bucknell): While the Wildcats haven't front-loaded on I-A opponents, they certainly can get them, with an upcoming visit to Penn State in 2021. But Villanova has still been able to schedule the entire PL save Holy Cross over the past decade, but can't find their way to dial the 202 area code. This past season, the Wildcats were 3-0 over Bucknell, Colgate, and Lehigh en route to the NCAA playoffs.

While Andy Talley has moved on, the same business model applies at it pertains to Georgetown: it's a no-win proposition for the Wildcats. Playing the Hoyas in football is the equivalent of Georgetown playing Holy Cross in basketball: wins, and it's expected, lose, and someone is going to be on the hot seat. A trip to and from Bucknell is 150 miles each way--beat the Bison and be home by dinner. Giving up a short trip in each of fans to play in Washington, even with the promise of Cooper Field II, is a non-starter for now.

If Georgetown and Villanova still aren't on speaking terms, how about the other Big East I-AA football team? Butler checks the boxes (no scholarship, not likely to overwhelm their opponents, no guarantee required). But they fail the bus test. Since 1980, Georgetown has traveled just once to an opponent west of Pittsburgh.

Not that it hasn't stopped the Bulldogs from going on the road themselves. They'll open the 2020 schedule at Target Field in Minneapolis versus perennial I-AA power North Dakota State. The remainder of their non-conference schedule features a first ever trip to Princeton and two home games against small Indiana colleges because, well, the Butler Bowl isn't exactly the Yale Bowl, and it's not even a bowl anymore.

In September, we wrote that "Ivy schools don't schedule any opponents in the first three weeks of the season and are themselves increasingly looking beyond the Patriot League for who they do play, though not at the same competitive levels as the PL and NEC.  But as PL and NEC schools fill their schedules, Georgetown either has to go further away from the Northeast to find opponents, something they have not shown they are willing to do, or load up on fan-agnostic opponents that are regularly among the 10 or 15 worst teams in the nation by statistical rankings."

That hasn't changed.

If I had to pick one Patriot League school to copy a non-conference schedule over in 2020, give me Bucknell. Show me the excitement of fans to see Georgetown travel to West Point, to host a game  with Villanova, and bookend the first month of the season with Princeton and Cornell. Instead, Davidson, Marist, Catholic and Columbia put the fan base to sleep and continues the soft bigotry of low expectations around a program which deserves much better.

"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Week 10 Thoughts

Some thoughts following Bucknell's 20-17 win over Georgetown Saturday.

1. Hey, What Happened To...Yeah, we missed a few weeks. Too many in fact. I'll take some time in the off-season to retrofit some comments on those games, but they follow a trend that this article will hope to tell. 2019 hasn't been disappointing or discouraging, but, ah, missed opportunities.

Missed opportunities were all over this one. One could not have drawn up a better defensive stand in the first half for Georgetown--or any team for that matter. First five drives:
  • 3 plays, 3 yards
  • 3 plays, 2 yards
  • 3 plays, -5 yards
  • 3 plays, 4 yards
  • 3 plays, no yards

 And despite that, Georgetown was no better than 10-6 at the half.

Turnovers and penalties abounded, some more foolish than others. Personal fouls, late hits, the kind of things that make teams lose games... and they did. And yet, the defense stopped four drives inside the red zone that would have put the game well out of reach.

As is the case, the offense was late to the party. Georgetown managed one scoring drive, a field goal, that started in its end of the field. An depleted line made it unlikely that Gunther Johnson had enough time to find receivers against a Bucknell pass defense averaging 266 yards allowed per game. Georgetown only gained 199 in comparison. By quarter: 
  • 1st: 95
  • 2nd: 29
  • 3rd:  47
  • 4th: 28

Georgetown held the ball just 4:45 in the fourth quarter. That just isn't enough.

2.  Player of the Week. I had to think about this one for a moment.

Brad Hurst is a fine young man with a great career and family ahead of him. Saturday was not his finest hour. An onsides kick is great, but a horizontal field goal and yet another blocked punt illustrated the chronic flaw in Hurst's kicking motion that the Georgetown staff has not corrected after four years. But Hurst as player of the week was almost as head-scratching as the face that Isaaac Schley was named an all-PL running back.

The staff likes Hurt, I understand it. But like Oliver Hill before him, Davis Walker didn't add anything to the kicking calculus this year, and Georgetown will be starting back at square one next fall trying to get its kicking game in order.

There comes a point every season--maybe once, maybe more, where a kicker is the outcome of a game. Losing by three following a blocked punt converted into a touchdown is one such instance. Last season's collapse versus Holy Cross came down to the same kicker. Hurst is more than overdue to win a game and I'd love to see it versus the Crusaders Saturday, but it's not likely.

3. Patriot League Tiebreakers. Yet another deflating season of PL football ends this weekend, with the sole consolation that a 4-8 win team will not represent the league in the playoffs. Here's the tiebreakers entering the final week of the regular season:

  • Holy Cross (6-5, 4-1 PL) is currently the only team above .500 this season. HC wins the playoff bid with a win over Georgetown OR a Lehigh win over Lafayette.
  • Lafayette (3-8, 3-2) wins the playoff bid with a win over Lehigh AND a Georgetown win over Holy Cross.
  • A Lehigh win over Lafayette AND a Georgetown win over Holy Cross AND a Bucknell win over Fordham creates a three way tie, to which Holy Cross wins the tiebreaker.

 If there was any year where the Hoyas could have snuck into the conversation, this was it. Three of its four losses were by a field goal each.  Such a returning opportunity is not likely anytime soon.

4. Since Last We Met:  The front page likes to recall the  most recent meeting between the teams, but I'd like to take a look back at Georgetown's last win at Holy Cross, six years ago to the day. With 439 yards total offense, including 212 on the ground, and no turnovers, Georgetown got the win.  Here's the recap--is past prologue?

Kyle Nolan's 82 yard quarterback run with 1:57 to play earned Georgetown its most important win of the season, rallying from an early deficit and dominating the second half in a 28-21 upset of Holy Cross at Fitton Field in Worcester, MA. The win ended an eight game losing streak for the Hoyas and earned Georgetown a season ending win for only the second time since the 2002 season.

 The Hoyas stumbled at the start, with a fumble by senior RB Nick Campanella on the second play of the game. HC took over in Georgetown territory, driving 42 yards in six plays for the 7-0 lead three minutes into the game. The Hoyas punted the ball back but a Holy Cross returned fumbled the wind-adjusted punt, setting up the Hoyas at the Crusader 26. The offense stalled over the next three downs, but with nothing to lose, Georgetown opted to go on 4th and six at the 22, with sophomore QB Kyle Nolan finding senior TE Dan Sprotte for the first down. Three plays later, sophomore RB Joel Kimpela went six yards for the score, 7-7.

Holy Cross reasserted itself over its next series: a nine play, 71 yard touchdown drive late in the first quarter, aided by a late hit by junior LB Patrick Boyle into the Georgetown bench that extended the Crusaders' drive. GU ended the first quarter on a three and out, and following a defensive interception to stall a Holy Cross drive at the Georgetown 35, the G-men turned in a second three and out. On its next series, however, Nolan took advantage of the wind, with passes to Zack Wilke and Brandon Durham to advance inside the HC 20. A Following a penalty, Nolan found WR Justin Hill with a 29 yard pass to the one yard line, and took it over on the following play, 14-14, with 5:20 to halftime.

The Hoyas held Holy Cross in check over the next three Crusader series, forcing three straight punts. The Hoyas looked to be taking advantage of the wind at its back in its final series of the half, with Nolan completing passes to Wilke and Elliott Owusu to close inside the HC 25, but three offensive penalties pushed the Hoyas back and forced an unwieldy 52 yard attempt from PK Matt MacZura which fell short at the end of the first half.

Georgetown maintained the wind direction entering the third quarter and took early advantage, with Nolan found Wilke in stride with a 49 yard pass to the HC 25. The Hoyas advanced to the Crusader 10, and cashed in for a 29 yard MacZura field goal, 17-14, its first lead in a third quarter since mid-September.

Holy Cross simply could not move against the Hoyas and against the wind, failing to post a first down in its fifth straight series since the second quarter. Georgetown marched 10 plays to the HC 23, and on the 39 yard field goal attempt appeared to be faked and Georgetown lost three yards in the process.

The third quarter Crusaders continued to be generous to the Hoyas, but the touchdowns did not materialize. On the third play of the next drive, QB Peter Pujals threw a pass that was picked off by DB Cameron Gamble at the HC 44. Seven plays later, the drive stalled at the HC 22, with a 39-yard MacZura field goal extending the count to 20-14.

Holy Cross got the wind into the fourth, and on its first play of the quarter picked up its original first down of the second half. The Crusaders picked up three more first downs before WR Kyle Tolouse fumbled a likely touchdown, recovered by DB Garrett Powers at the two. A big drive followed for Georgetown at the 11:15 mark of the 4th, where Nolan led the Hoyas on converting three consecutive third down possessions to keep the clock moving. Another third down followed at the 6:24 mark, where a 15 yard pass from Nolan to Sprotte was invalidated for an illegal receiver downfield. Georgetown punted it back at the 5:59 mark, with HC taking over at its 15. Five plays took the Crusaders across midfield, but a holding call on the Crusaders set the drive back to its 44 with 3:20 to play. With 2:56 to play, HC faced a 3rd and 20, whereupon DT Richard Shankle sacked Pujals at the 36 and forced a punt with 2:15 to play.
Georgetown took over at its 15. A first down run to Kimpela netted four, and when everyone expected Kimpela to get the carry on second down, Nolan took off untouched down the field for 82 yards, fooling the Patriot League Network cameras and sending the ever-stalwart Hoya fans across Fitton Field to its feet. A two point conversion passed muster, and GU took over, 28-14.

Holy Cross wasted no time to come back, with an eight play drive that advanced to the Georgetown 12 entering the final minute. Pujals threw a touchdown to freshman Jake Wieczorek with :47 left, 28-21, but Georgetown alertly recovered the onsides kick at midfield and ran out the clock.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Week 7 Thoughts

Some thoughts following Georgetown's 14-10 win over Lafayette Saturday:

1. What Might Have Been: Just a week ago, we were asking how five plays might have turned around the finish versus Fordham. This week, Lafayette fans can relate.

This was a very winnable game for the Leopards, in part because they were able to get distance in the secondary and largely contained Georgetown's offense (more on that later). But good teams find ways to win and Lafayette isn't a good team right now. The Leopards gave up an interception in the red zone early in the forth and advanced to the Georgetown eight and failed to score.  Down four, in a game where the teams had combined for two red zone possessions entering this drive, it's very hard to se where three points buys you momentum. Yes, in a different scenario, you get the field goal, hold Georgetown three and out, and march back to win 16-14, it's plausible, but a touchdown might have put the game out of reach. And there's the other scenario where Keegan Shoemaker actually gets out of bounds on that last play setting up a game winning field goal. All in all, however, to many what-ifs and that's why Lafayette heads home 0-7 to play Bucknell.

2. Peak Offense? Well, we knew this wasn't the offense that steamrolled Marist and Catholic by a combined 103-3, but in recent weeks the offense has begin to slow and opponents are about to take advantage.

Georgetown's run game is bearing the brunt of injuries and attrition along the offensive line, and an injury to Herman Moultrie won't help the situation heading into Lehigh. While Georgetown remains third in rushing after two PL games, it has to maintain a priority on running to open up opportunities for Gunther Johnson in the secondary. It is a little frustrating as fans to see how little production the Hoyas' talented receiver corps is getting in the current offense, but that's a reflection of the defensive commitment teams are putting on stopping Georgetown's wide-outs. They won't relent if it the run game is not getting traction.

The run game figures to be a point of emphasis for Lehigh this week. Net of a 94 yard run for a score, Lehigh managed only 40 yards on the ground and
surrendered 330 yards to Fordham last week and that's not going to win you many games going forward. The Engineers managed only four first downs on the ground last week.

3. PL Attendance: It's mid-October but home attendance is bearing the brunt of poor non-conference performances. Throwing out Georgetown's number, average PL attendance in 2019 versus 2009:

Bucknell: 3,339 per game in 2019  vs. 3,018 in 2009
Colgate: 4,087 per game in 2019 vs. 4,642 in 2009
Fordham: 3,777 per game in 2019 vs. 3,886 in 2019
Holy Cross: 9,376 per game in 2019 vs. 7,552 in 2009
Lafayette: 5,015 per game in 2019 vs. 7,623 in 2009
Lehigh: 4,336 per game in 2019 vs. 8,130 in 2009

4. Thanks For The Memories? Unless the west stands of Cooper Field are a clever mirage (and after 15 years, nothing is out of the question), the Nov. 2 game with Colgate will be the final game at the half-finished Cooper Field configuration, with the promise of a new era in 2020.

While the construction plans do not show seats on the east side, the camera angles have been outstanding on the PL network, and if maintained, would allow the video to show the home stands instead of a view into the Harbin parking lot. I fully understand that working in the east press box is hazard pay compared to facilities everywhere else, but having a visitors side makes good sense even if it does not fit the architectural plan originally proffered, and adds capacity to what will still be a very, very small facility.

External communications on the construction have been all but nonexistent--I've said so publicly and privately. During the bye week, we'll discuss the considerable opportunity that a new Cooper Field could do to elevate the program.

Until then, it's on to Lehigh.