Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Muir's Move

When Bernard Muir was selected Georgetown's athletic director in 2005, there were more than a few Georgetown people worried that a 36 year old rising star like Muir could one day be the target of another school. But I doubt anyone had Delaware on a short list.

Muir's departure has set off all sorts of talk on the Internet, and, I suspect, in college athletic departments as well. Athletics is a close-knit community, so they tend to follow the water cooler talk. Fans may assume it's as simple as (choose one)...a) Delaware made a can't -miss offer, b) There is something big about to happen at Delaware, or c) there is something wrong at Georgetown, and particualrly when it comes to Georgetown football.

But I'll choose d): none of the above. It's a little more complicated like that.

The job of athletic director at Georgetown has changed a lot since the days of Jack Hagerty, and Muir took it a step further. He saw the need to run the athletic department more as a business than a department of student affairs, and with that change let go of a number of long-time staff in favor of a new group of administrators around college athletics. In his first two years he replaced over a half dozen head coaches and built up the compliance and support staffs. He was, in effect, the CEO of a $28 million enterprise, albeit a CEO who worked 60-70 hour weeks out of an undersized office in McDonough Gym, who traveled with teams, represented Georgetown in numerous Big East, PL, and NCAA settings, was a sounding board to every parent, alumnus, or donor that pulled him aside, and still had to balance a budget in the process. Oh yeah, and figure out how to solve the Georgetown Paradox.

And he didn't.

The Georgetown Paradox wasn't cited in any of the media reports on Muir, or in Jack DeGioia's comments, or even in the praise afforded him by the Delaware press. It's somewhat invisible to the fan base who sees a Big East game or buys a Georegetown cap or t-shirt, but ask any player who's gone through the system in any sport, and while they might not know it as the Paradox, they know the issue.

Georgetown is a square peg in the round hole of major college athletics. To some, it wants it both ways: it wants to be Columbia during the week and Notre Dame on the weekends, attracting world class talent with high school facilities, to compete with the very best with good coaches and good intentions, but not much more. It's not that Georgetown doesn't want these things, but amidst the short and long term struggles of an underendowed, overleveraged university, athletics often falls behind the priority of the monent. "Maybe in the next campaign", they'll say.

That imbalance is a common refrain at Georgetown--"23rd in US News, 78th in endowment." There's no rational reason Georgetown would be on the same stage as the Ivies, Stanford, Northwestern and Duke, but there they are, a mixture of good timing, a great location, and a niche as a internationationally relevant university that draws students and scholars within walking distance of the centers of power. If Georgetown were located in Parkersburg, WV, this would be a totally different conversation.

But so it is with athletics--the Georgetown community expects great things but the school isn't ready or able to commit large sums to the ingredients that surround it: scholarships, training, gameday facilities, and institutional support. That would mean to some Georgetown is serious about athletics, which is assumed in some musty quarters as becoming less serious about their own sometimes arcane academic pursuits. Georgetown is serious about annual support, but things keep getting in the way on capital projects.

And it's not just fans, but the Big East conference that expects more. The conference has stepped up its requirements for schools to provide minimum schoalrship and coaching support for all its teams, not content to be just a good basketball conference. During Muir's tenure, Georgetown's athletic budget grew by nearly 40 percent to a level comparable with some I-A schools. But most of its sports remain under-funded relative to its peers, even at Big East minimums, and its facilities do not stand the test. The paradox:

Georgetown is a school which expects to excel in athetics.
Georgetown is a prestigious school.
Prestigious schools do not commit to major capital funding for athletics.
Therefore, Georgetown is a prestigious school which expects to excel in athetics but not commit to major capital funds in actually doing so.

An example of this conflict stands at mid-campus. While the MSF sits in its temporary glory, its north end zone sees a brand new $80+ million building, whose dean pushed his way to the front of the facilities line by making the case that Georgetown couldn't be a top 25 business school without a new building. Never mind that Old North was renovated from the ground up in 1983 and the Car Barn was a serviceable academic facility since the early 1990's, but George Daly sold his new building as a recruiting tool for students and faculty, a revenue producer (through executive education) and a part of the 21st century Georgetown. The fact that it is built on the grounds of an baseball field is ironic, but not the story.

And as the unnamed business building shines, the MSF stands as an unintended symbol of Muir's years at Georgetown. It opened four months after he arrived, served as the backfrop for a new coach who was going to reform what Bob Benson left with a 4-7 team, and draw the kind of support which would get the project built, a source of pride in Georgetown Football and the University itself, not to mention the first permanent athletic facility in 50+ years. Instead, the MSF sits alone, where major donors couldn't get assurances when the project would be greenlighted, with recruits that could no longer be told they'd play in a new stadium by the time they were seniors, and without the buzz of a team that would be justifying the investments placed in lots of new grants/scholarships and lots of new seats. If Kevin Kelly was 27-5 entering the 2009 season, people would be clamoring to get both. Instead, he's 5-27, and the temporary seats remain. Bernard Muir couldn't get the dirt flying again.

But maybe even that wouldn't have been enough. Football has a field--Georgetown's natiionally ranked track team has not even had a track of its own in 13 years. A number of years ago, track coach Ron Helmer called out Georgetown at an awards banquet on the institutional neglect facing track, saying that the fact they had done so it well might have minimized the dire need for a track. After over 20 years as a Georgetown coach, Helmer got up and left for Indiana in 2006, a school with not only a 12,000 seat outdoor facility, but an indoor track facility as well. And Georgetown still has no NCAA-grade track, although it practically takes an act of Congress to get the local community to sign off on construction of any kind.

Helmer was a builder with a tool kit, but had no bricks and mortar to build with it, and he found someone willing to give him both. So too with Muir. In that sense, Delaware is going to provide Muir with plenty of bricks and mortar to rebuild his legacy with. He wasn't running away from Georgetown, but Delaware presents an opportunity for to build a program that Georgetown did not, with a lot less red tape and a much faster timeline.

The next athletic director faces a host of challenges. For the first time since 1981, not a single Georgetown program earned a win in NCAA tournament play. Track labors without a track, the crew rows on without a boathouse in sight. Sooner rather than later, the absence of a basketball practice facility will become an issue. And at the conclusion of its worst decade in school history, people are expecting to see real results in football to justify the commitments that have been made and those additional commitments that await. If the Hoyas have another one or two win season, Bernard Muir won't have to put his original coaching hire to scrutiny, but someone else will.

I've met Bernard Muir on a number of occasions and remain impressed by his ability to build a strategy for long term success. Delaware will be well served by his arrival there, and Georgetown will be well served by a search for his successor.