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.