Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What If...

Throughout the history of any team, any program, or any university, there are decisions which profoundly affect its future. The older the organization, the more of these naturally occur.

Some are obvious in its impact. The decision to revive intercollegiate football at Georgetown in 1964 remains among among the most important decisions ever in the sport, and among the more important decisions ever in Georgetown athletics. But what about the decisions that weren'tmade, issues that were deferred, or whose time passed without action? Here are six that would have changed the trajectory of Hoya Football in ways few could have imagined.

1. What if Georgetown Built Memorial Stadium? (1922)

Imagine a 25,000 seat stadium on Georgetown's campus, sitting on the natural bowl of where the baseball field once sat, now the home for the School of Business and a future science building.

Someone once did.

The drawing above was the design for "Memorial Stadium", conceived like so many stadia in the years following World War I as college football became a national obsession. Between 1920 and 1930, fully a third of today's Division I-A schools built facilities, from Michigan to Notre Dame to Texas. Georgetown had a similar idea, as the above illustration suggests, with a classical design facing a horseshoe north towards what now is the Leavey Center.
Based on comparable costs, a 25,000 seat stadium in 1922 would have cost approximately $200,000 to build--contemporary facilities at Kansas, Texas, and Minnesota cost between $275,000 and $575,000. It didn't matter, of course, because Georgetown decided to move games off campus to Griffith Stadium and pay rent versus keeping the money on campus.

Three decades later, it was the ongoing rent that helped lead Georgetown to drop football after the 1950 season.

There's no guarantee a 1920's era stadium would have survived into the modern age, but one can't help but wonder what it would have done for the permanence of the sport, the ability to raise and keep revenue, and not coincidentally, a track, something Georgetown's nationally prominent program has missed for over 10 years.

Well, it's now only a footnote in the college archives. Because in 2009, with the demise of Iona and its postage stamp-sized Mazzella Field, Georgetown now features the smallest stadium of any kind in Division I.

2. What if Georgetown Kept Lou Little? (1930)

Much has been made in trivia circles that Hall of Fame coach Frank Leahy got his start as an assistant at Georgetown, only to leave after one year for what he termed "a coolness towards football" by the administration. Fair or not, Leahy wasn't going to stay at GU: Notre Dame was his destination, something Fordham and later BC would find out the hard way.

Georgetown didn't need a Frank Leahy. It needed Lou Little.

Over his six seasons as head coach, Little enjoyed unprecedented success for a GU coach, going 32-6-1 from 1925-28, with 23 shutouts en route to a 42-12-1 record through 1930. His 1927 team outscored opponents 377-21, and played before crowds as large as 50,000 in the annual matchup with NYU at Yankee Stadium. Those New York appearances caught the eye of officials at Columbia, who offered the 37 year old Little $12,000 a year to move to Morningside Heights. He coached for 27 seasons at Baker Field, took the Lions to the Rose Bowl, and although his record sank under .500 into the mid-1950's, he won 116 games for the Columbia. No coach has won as many as 42 since: in fact, it took nearly a half century from Little's retirement for the Lions to win as many as he did.

A member of the Football Hall of Fame, Little is regarded as one of the game's greatest coaches-- so much so, that when Yale offered him the athletic director's post there, Columbia called on Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to convince Little to stay. How would he had done if he stayed at Georgetown?

Clearly, the arrival of Jack Hagerty put the Hoyas back on solid footing: when the story of Georgetown football is written, Hagerty and Little stand at the summit. There's no doubt Georgetown was a football power under Hagerty, but one wonders where Little could have taken as his coaching career matured. A Rose Bowl, perhaps?

3. What if Georgetown Downgraded Its 1951 Schedule? (1951)

A year removed from the Sun Bowl, Georgetown's final season with 81 scholarship athletes was a rough one: it opened with a loss at Penn State, which marked the debut of coach Rip Engle and his young protege, Joe Paterno. Tulsa, Maryland, Miami...all losses. The Hoyas dropped 7 of 9 in 1950, attendance slumped to less than 6,000 a game, coach Bob Margarita knew there was trouble around the corner if Georgetown could not meet expenses.

Margarita proposed dropping those four opponents for more regional opponents: Richmond, Colgate, Bucknell, and Lafayette--familiar sounding names today, but a decided step down from many of the schools Georgetown had played in the 1940's. Margarita had some rising talent coming up through the program, and knew that if he couldn't stand toe to toe with Penn State, wins against Richmond or Colgate, combined with annual games with Fordham, Holy Cross, BC, Maryland, and George Washington could ward off calls to reevaluate the program.

He was probably three years late. Georgetown never quite returned to its pre-war footing and never won more than five games in a season between 1946-50. The Hoyas lost five straight to Villanova, and two each to Wake Forest and Maryland. By the 1950 season, fixing the schedule was not enough to solve the larger systemic problem of budget deficits.  Still, you have to wonder if a more modest schedule could have carried Georgetown through the 1950's.

4. What if Georgetown Had Invested In Kehoe Field? (1976)

It, it shocks many Georgetown fans to relate the early attendance figures of Kehoe Field in the club era: 6,000, 7,000, 8,004, 9,002. Are we talking about the same Kehoe Field, a space so barren that it makes the Multi-Sport Field look luxurious by comparison?
Dedicated in 1956, Kehoe Field variously sat from 4,000 to 8,000 spectators, featured an all grass field and a track that surrounded it. Modest by today's standards, it fit the footprint of a small college team well. And though few photos exist of its pre-1977 setup (you can see a shot of the old field in the 1973 movie, The Exorcist), the land that Kehoe stood on was eyed as a home for the long-sought intramural facility of the 1970's, later to be named the Yates Field House.

Had Kehoe been spared for the construction, one could argue it had the elements for future expansion, for permanent seating, and a home for a track program that could have never imagined that it would now not have a place to properly train. And if Yates had been sunk truly subterranean, perhaps the architectural vision would still have allowed Kehoe to maintain its role as a suitable athletic facility on level ground. Neither took place.

The Yates design only sunk the first level underground, placing the new Kehoe Field thirty feet in the air as the roof of the building, an architectural oddity that put a straitjacket on building out football at Georgetown. You couldn't put stands on the west side, the east stands were limited by weight concerns on the structure below, the artificial turf took its toll on players for years, and the student body turned its back on coming out to support football as it once did. To this day, telling opposing fans that a university as renowned as Georgetown was reduced to playing college football on the roof of an intramural facility elicits dumbfounded stares.

Today's Kehoe Field is one step from being surrounded with yellow "caution" tape. No, it's not condemned, but it might as well be. Football got off the field in 2002, lacrosse followed, and the only remaining sport, field hockey, could no longer play on it after 2006 because the conditions were deemed unplayable. Not much has changed in the interim, and for all the inertia surrounding the Multi-Sport project, it would be laudable if Georgetown had a field it could have maintained for more sports while better facilities were sought. Kehoe could have been that, but by 1979 it became obsolete upon arrival.

5. What if Allen Iverson Played College Football at Georgetown? (1994)

This one isn't as crazy as you might think.

Far from being a one-dimensional athlete, Allen Iverson was not only a gifted basketball player at Bethel HS in Hampton, VA, but arguably the best quarterback ever to come out of the Tidewater--an area that counts names such as Aaron Brook and Michael Vick among its high school legends. An option quarterback, Iverson accounted for over 3,800 yards total offense and 35 touchdowns in his sophomore and junior seasons.

Iverson's escape from the cloud of controversy following his 1994 arrest was Georgetown, where John Thompson recruited him as a guard. Iverson still enjoyed football, and was said to have stopped by a few practices as a freshmen to see how the team was doing. So what would have been the story of the 1994 Hoyas with Iverson under center?

In a word: wow.

The MAAC was a slow and somewhat prodding conference in 1994--remember, these schools were just two years removed from Division III. Iverson's quickness and toughness could have literally run the table for a Georgetown offense that was still getting its collective feet wet in Division I-AA, while Bob Benson's defense was just one year removed from leading the nation in total defense in 1995.

The Hoyas lost four games in 1994, three by a field goal (Duquesne, 3-0; Iona, 31-28; St. John's 19-16) and one by a touchdown (Franklin & Marshall 14, Georgetown 7). Allen Iverson could have turned each of these games around in short order. In 1995, its three losses were by a total of just 16 points (Duquesne, 13-7; Canisius, 13-7; Johns Hopkins, 7-3). With Bubbachuck in the backfield, it would have been a national story.

Of course, it didn't happen. Coach John Thompson told Iverson in no uncertain terms he wasn't risking Iverson to injury by letting him play two sports. And he never did.

6. What if Georgetown Joined The Big East? (1998)

The 1990's were good to Hoya Football, and optimism was in the air. So too was the effort by coach Bob Benson to look beyond the MAAC conference, which was an impending roadblock for growing the program. An initial discussion was made with the Patriot League which would lead to an invitation in January, 2000. But a much different scenario came and passed Georgetown by during that same period.

In the late 1990's, battered by expansion to 10, then 12, then 13 schools, the Big East conference's I-A football schools extended an unusual olive branch to their conference brethren playing below the I-A level: any Big East school that would commit to an upgrade within a two year window would be admitted as a fooball playing member to the league.

The offer really applied to four schools, and some would say only two of them. St. John's gave the idea fleeting interest (a rumor suggested it eyed Shea Stadium as a future site should their MAAC team made a move), while Villanova officials studied it but judged the facilities requirements too expensive. Connecticut's 12,000 seat Memorial Stadium was no Big East-quality facility, but timing in life is everything. The Connecticut legislature had secured land and funding in East Hartford for a stadium that would precipitate a move by the NFL's New England Patriots; when the Patriots decided to stay in Foxboro, the legislature flipped the project into an upgrade for UConn football, then a nondescript team in what used to be the Yankee Conference. UConn  gave notice, joined  I-A in 2000, and replaced Temple in the Big East by 2004. Today, UConn is more than just a great basketball school--it's a football school, too.
Now about Georgetown. During this "window", there was nothing ever publicly stated that Georgetown had given serious thought to the offer, and maybe it was dismissed as dead upon arrival. But since we're talking what if, well, what did they pass up on? Yes, the up-front costs would have been seismic--a $500,000 budget in the MAAC would grow to $7-8 million overnight, placing games off campus at RFK Stadium, and 20-30 special admits through Admissions a year. It would have profoundly changed Georgetown Athletics--and Georgetown-- in ways the school wasn't prepared for, then or now.

What is missed out on was, of course, the significant revenues that the Bowl Championship Series could provide. A 2008 article noted that West Virginia would make approximately $7.3 million in Big East TV and bowl revenues a year versus about $2 million for the so-called "basketball" schools, before ticket sales, local TV rights, and ancillary revenues. And since the Big East shares bowl revenues, Cincinnati's berth in the Orange Bowl made seven other Big East schools the recipients of a nice check from the BCS, but not for Georgetown, Villanova, and the five non-football schools. And in reality, the BCS is an exclusive club that these schools had a brief ticket to join, but not likely again.

Was Georgetown ready for that leap? In 1998, probably not, but the issue lurks beneath the surface at many schools, if not necessarily at GU. The problem Georgetown and Villanova face is that while I-A football remains a growing revenue stream for colleges, I-AA has no such stream, and there is a finite limit to what men's basketball can generate for a budget. It's no secret why schools like South Florida and Cincinnati have been able to elevate its entire athletic program while stalwarts like Providence and DePaul seem mired in the past: revenues from football are helping to float the boat. I-AA football provides little if any float, but it's a decision Georgetown seems comfortable with. Would Georgetown fans have rallied around a football team in the Big East any better than it does now in the Patriot League? We'll never know.
So what do these five scenarios have in common, Iverson excepted? Revenue, or the lack of it.
In sports, as as in business or in life, big decisions are a balance between opportunity and resources, and too often Georgetown has passed on the former when it lacks the latter. When future decisions await this program, and they will, it must have the financial flexibility to make good decisions.

It's been said that the four saddest words in the English language are "what might have been". Instead, I would end with the thoughts of Alexander Graham Bell, who noted that "When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."

There are some big doors ahead for Georgetown. Keep looking for the open ones.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Some Things Are Worth Fighting For

It's 2009, and hope is in the air. But not for everyone.

As far as college football goes, this is a time of relative growth. New programs, long held back over intra-state squabbling and financial maneuvers, have given way in new programs coming to Charlotte, Georgia State, Lamar, and Old Dominion. When the Monarchs host Georgetown on October 31 at Norfolk's Foreman Field, they will do with a ticket base of nearly 14,000 before the first gameday ticket is sold, all but assuring Georgetown its largest road crowd for a game since the Hoyas traveled to Maryland's Byrd Stadium in 1950.

But somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; but there is no joy in New Rochelle, or Buffalo, or Albany, or Jersey City, for that matter— the MAAC has struck out.

The slow, painful death of Iona College football stands as a case study of how a program of hope deteriorated before our eyes. Like the conference where it won its first title, Iona never could take the next step forward to establish an identity beyond the trail of tears of fallen MAAC programs: Canisius, Siena, St. John's, Fairfield, St. Peter's. And of the original MAAC schools, only Georgetown remains.

Iona's fall was neither sudden nor unexpected. It had passed on the Pioneer League and was the only committed independent school left in the Northeast. A month before the 2008 season ended, its college president told the student newspaper the program was unable to compete--Iona had now loaded up on guarantee games with full scholarship programs which made them look, well, uncompetitive. When the decision was announced at the conclusion of the season, there was no protest, no rally, just not enough of anything.

What killed the Gaels was not its record or its ability to compete. Like a lot of things, it came down to money and priorities. For most of the past 15 years, the MAAC leadership sent a subtle message to its member schools: play football if you like, but it's a luxury and not a necessity for our league. And when the conference raises the expectations game in other sports, think twice before putting more money in football.

The fact is redistributing Iona's budget won't make a difference in elevating other sports, just like it didn't at Canisius, Siena, St. John's, Fairfield or St. Peter's. The sadder fact is that the lack of support even made this an option.

Dropping football isn't reserved for small Catholic schools. Three time zones to the west, the Division II program at Western Washington dropped the sport this season not for competition or budgets but for a plausible, if disappointing reason: the school could no longer afford it, or so they said. But enter Kirk Kriskovich, a former WWU quarterback who has taken the football message online. Not just an online petition or a call to arms, but a case for returning football to his alma mater.

All college football fans ought to make a destination this off-season. The site makes more than a compelling case just for WWU football, but for programs in general--if you want football at your school, you have to fight for it. The site is not about creating villains in the decision, though it does cast a bright light at university president Bruce Shepard and suggests that he may have focused on football deficits as a quick fix rather than solving larger systemic deficits in the atheltic program. It aims to make a case for WWU to bring football back in the fold and to know it is doing the right thing by doing so.

The site is also making a difference where it counts--financially. it's enlisted support in the state legislature, reconnected with former players, and set up a pledge drive for constituents to show support for broad-based support of WWU when the school realizes that there will be a base committed to funding basic operations. Granted, pledges are like opinions (everyone's got one) but the site is going beyond the message board approach to support--collecting the hard data that says, like the Obama campaign so sucessfully did, that in the raw data of supporters, there is tremendous leverage. In the last 30 days, the site has received $415,000 in pledges from 375 members--far more than its booster club did.

Reading the site, I was impressed by both the form and function of the site--it is both passionate and professional, as any good campaign is. Come to think of it, that's exactly what this is: a campaign. WWU isn't going to wipe the egg off its face and resume football overnight--it will take time.But the more a case can be made without getting into personalities, the more that both sides can come to the table and chart a new and steady course for the program. As noted on the site:

"Those at the 'core' of the group have determined that it is vitally important that are clearly organized, have a specific, clear and measurable set of defined goals and objectives, and that these goals and objectives take into account all facets of the larger discussion on this issue, such as:

  • Funding
  • Operational budgets, endowments and feasibility
  • Accountability and Responsibility
  • Appropriate Change
  • Diversity
  • Title IX issues
  • Academic Excellence
  • Legal, Moral and Ethical Responsibilities
  • Long-term Organization Strategy, reaching years in to the future
  • Representation of all interested parties
  • Cross-generational approach that links past, present and future in a unique experience unlike any other in the college and community experience

We have professionals, alumni, parents and leaders from all walks of life prepared to meet and establish a comprehensive strategy. "

Georgetown is not Iona. Georgetown is not Western Washington. But these schools' troubles ought to be closely watched at a school where football doesn't fit neatly into the spending requirements of the Big East, nor has the revenue ability on its own to pay its way, much less to raise its spending along the lines of its own PL brethren. The need for Georgetown's constituent base to recommit itself to supporting football is the issue--if we have to build a "" site someday, it will be too late.

Now is the time to look at those objectives above and ask: is there a long term strategy in place for Georgetown football in five, ten, or twenty years, no matter who the coach is or who the opponents are? Is it reaching a diverse set of representative parties? Is there a cross-generational approach to reach the club alumni, the Glacken era, the Benson era, and the most recent alumni under coach Kelly?

The good news is that the roots for this effort are beginning to take hold. But like the Gospel parable, the seed must be planted in good soil. That's the challenge for a lot of schools in a tight economy where high expectations continue unabated, but it's a challenge that's doable now, not later.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Wise Old Owl

A new year dawns for Georgetown, and the predictions are not far behind.

"It would seem that Colgate, as defending champ and some good nucleus returning would have the inside track, although Holy Cross with Randolph getting a 5th year could derail that position," writes one Lehigh fan on a popular I-AA message board. "After that I would see Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, Fordham and Georgetown; but, as usual, not enough separation to make any other scenario surprising.
Except for Georgetown, I think [the other teams] all have enough talent that on 'any given Saturday', with a break here and there, they could pull off the win against another league foe."

Prevailing football wisdom tells us that the more "academic" teams is in a conference, the less likely its success. Of course, don't tell that I-AA national champion Richmond. And don't tell Vanderbilt, a school that won its first bowl game since the Eisenhower administration in 2009. And don't tell that to a school whose very name was a misnomer for the impossible: Rice.

From 1970 through 1992, Rice never enjoyed a winning season. It was 4-18 against Texas A&M, 3-19 against Arkansas, and 0-22 against Texas, a longstanding mismatch which once led President John F. Kennedy to famously ask, "Why does Rice play Texas?"

A few years ago, people had other questions, like "Why does Rice play football?" College sports cost money, and Rice wasn't making enough of it.

In a two year study that put every option out on the table from actually joining the Patriot League to dropping all sports to club status, Rice University reaffirmed its commitments to sports in general
and football in particular. In 2008, the Owls are enjoying success on the gridiron unseen since the days when it ruled the roost of the mighty Southwest Conference in the 1950's.

This December 31, finishing as a runner up in Conference USA with a 9-3 record, it met Western Michigan (9-3) in the Texas Bowl at nearby Reliant Stadium. In past years, the even thought of Rice beating a nine win team would have been preposterous--instead, they walloped the Broncos 38-14 before over 58,000 at Houston's Reliant Stadium. That's about twice the living alumni population of the school.

Clearly, a I-A team has advantages Georgetown does not, and I'm not campaigning for a crowd of 58,000...well not yet, anyway. But a scattershooting across the articles surrounding this game, surrounding a team which was 1-10 in 2005 and 3-9 in 2007 to a 10-3 team in 2008, undefeated at home, bears some lessons Georgetown would do well to pay attention to.

  1. The Home Town Team. In a pro sports town, Rice is not top of mind, much less the team of choice. The NFL, NBA, MLB, the University of Houston, and the shadows emanating from Austin (Texas) and College Station (Texas A&M) limit what Rice can do. You can add to that the academic focus of the school and its size as the second smallest I-A school in the nation, about half the size of Georgetown. But Rice has sought to reconnect itself with the Houston community, and people have responded. By contrast, Georgetown Football remains on a "need-to-know" basis in the District.
  2. Offense...And Lots Of It. How do you bring folks in to a game? Give them something to look forward to. Rice didn't win every game, but it was never dull. Rice never scored fewer than 35 points at a home game all year and averaged 41 points a game. By contrast, Georgetown averaged 9.6 per game. Which one of those numbers appeals to fans...and recruits?
  3. Senior Leadership. Rice students don't have it easy as a football player--the academic expectations are equal to greater than that of a player at Georgetown. So when 25 freshmen arrived four years ago, expectations were guarded that they could turn around a program like Rice's. Like Georgetown, attrition was common: Rice had only 15 seniors left from that group, but 12 were on the two-deep and and as a group they never gave in. "These seniors drew a line in the sand, they negotiated us around every obstacle," said Rice coach David Bailiff, a former I-AA coach at Texas State. "We had tremendous chemistry and attitude. We did not have one bad practice this season and it's because of what these young men wanted to accomplish.''
  4. Coaches That Adapt. You hear the whispers in road games, on message boards, and from fans--Georgetown is a very predictable team, that opposing coaches can call its plays from the press box, or that "shotgun draw" is the default call of choice. Some of this, admittedly is a talent issue: if you're 4th string RB is in the game because of injuries, your play calling may be limited. But Rice's Bailiff, a cautious coach in his years at Texas State, saw change ahead. "I brought in a lot of traditional thinking that I have held for 45 years as a player and a coach. And those things sometimes just don't apply". As discussed in the Rice Football Webletter, Bailiff added: "I know that these young men now know that I've kept my word to them -- ever since the day I got here," he "I know they trust me. I know they trust this staff. And to win those fourth- and- ones, you've got to trust each other."
  5. Sell, Sell, Sell. As basketball has reassumed its place in the Georgetown spotlight, football has, at least in the public view, retreated. Here too is a lesson from Rice, a campus where its baseball team recently won a NCAA national title and is a perpetual post-season team--what you can sell to recruits you can also sell to the fan base. "We go into living rooms now and tell the players and the parents after five years, we expect you to be the boss," Bailiff told the web site. "After 10 years, we expect you to pay your scholarship back. After 30 years, we expect you to have a building named after you...It's not just a sales pitch. It's what happens at Rice." Is that message getting out at Georgetown?
Don't look for Rice to set up a tent in the 10-win club just yet. The Owls lose a lot of seniors and with high results come higher expectations. But, like Vanderbilt, Rice has re-sent a message to places like Duke (4-8, up from 1-11 in 2007) and Stanford (5-7, up from 1-11 in 2006) and, maybe even Georgetown that academics and gridiron success need not be mutually exclusive with the right mix of attention, dedication, and performance. It's the same recipe against long odds that defined the aforementioned speech by John F. Kennedy, 46 years ago:
"But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."