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.