Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Postcards From The Road

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, travelers would send post cards back to family and friends with tales of their journeys, a penny a card. Sports facilities, of course, also drew interest, so when I spotted this early 20th century card on the web, it was worth a second look:

It's a early post card of Fitton Field, then the baseball and football home of the Holy Cross Crusaders, and near the site of Georgetown's 2009 season opener. Clearly, the site has undergone a few changes along the way, most notably a 1986 reconstruction that added aluminum seating to what was once an all-wood structure. But for the better part of a century, HC grads have grown up with the field as a part of their college experience, something that is somewhat foreign to Georgetown.

A look around this year's road stops introduces fans to a wide variety of stadia and amenities. With some 21st century photography (satelitte imagery), here's an introduction to the Hoyas' road venues this season:

Fitton Field (Holy Cross)
Capacity: 23,500
Date: September 5
The largest stadium in the PL doesn't have skyboxes or other modern amenities, but it's a comfortable place to watch a game, especially if you're wearing purple. HC has won nine straight against the Hoyas, the second longest streak by any Georgetown opponent. Its last sellout was in 1986 versus Boston College.

C. Mathewson-Memorial Stad. (Bucknell)
Capacity: 13,100
Date: October 3
A classic horseshoe design, it's among the most comfortable stadiums for fans and a great place for night games. The stadium holds the unusual distinction as the only road stadium in the PL where Georgetown has won twice--2005 and 2007. Can the Hoyas make it three in a row?

Goodman Stadium (Lehigh)
Capacity: 16,000
Date: October 10
This natural bowl in the shadow of South Mountain is the best stadium in the PL, and serves as the summer training camp for the Philadelphia Eagles. There may not be a more scenic stadium in Eastern football....but not to the Hoyas. In three games at Goodman, Georgetown teams have been outscored 160-14.

Foreman Field (Old Dominion)
Capacity: 20,748
Date: October 31
Still under construction when this photo was taken, the refurbished Foreman Field is expected to break a modern record for a Georgetown road game when a full house will be in force for a Halloween night game. ODU fans still remember its upset of the Hoyas in basketball two years ago, and are shooting for a football upset at well.

Tenney Stadium (Marist)
Capacity: 5,000
Date: November 7
I'm sure a few Georgetown fans look at these large stadia and say, "we can't do this". And then there's Marist, which tore down an obsolete 2,000 seat Leonidoff Field for a modern stadium along the Hudson that has brought new life to that program. Cost? $4 million. (And we can't do this?)

Finally, let's check the satellite to see what the Multi-Sport Field looks like from high up above. Ugh.

It's been four years since "Phase 1" debuted with temporary seats, a temporary scoreboard, and a sense that real progess was coming.

The 2005 team was a modest 4-7, 2-4 in the Patriot League, but Bernard Muir had higher expectations, and brought in a new era of Georgetown Football to go with the new building to come. The winning tradition isn't here yet. Neither is the building. Nor is the scoreboard.

As a reader, you can judge for yourself what the MSF says about Georgetown against some of the photos above. The temporary seats are still there, and so is the temporary scoreboard. Lots of broken ground for the bleachers that never were built, for the landscaping that never was. The New York Times wrote that "Centrally located on the picturesque Georgetown campus, which sits on a hill overlooking Washington and Virginia, the finished field would be surrounded by campus buildings and dormitories. [Athletic director Bernard] Muir predicted that the new, bowl-like stadium would be “one of the best game-day environments in our league.” That was written two years ago, and nothing has changed.

"The Multi-Sport Field is a metaphor for where things stand at Georgetown," said student association president Ben Shaw. "We’re halfway there.”

Be it ever so humble.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Five Questions: Defense & Special Teams

If Georgetown's offense is blessed with some much-needed depth, so to is the defense. Nine starters return to a group that, despite its best efforts, often gets battered up and down the field, sometimes through no fault of their own.

The 2008 season finale with Fordham was a good example. The defense held the Rams to just 17 points all afternoon, but it wasn't close to being enough--the offense held the ball for just 6:18 in the first half and the defense was out on the field a record 42 minutes in the game. Despite giving up 252 yards in the first half, the score was still as close as 3-0 nearing the end of the half before the Rams pulled away.

For the defense to do its part, the offense has to control time of possession. Outside that, what are some of the big questions facing the defense into 2009? Here are five.

1. Can Georgetown control the line? The Hoyas were sixth in the league in rush defense and fifth in sacks in 2008. Replacing NFL free agent Ataefiok Etukeren and three year starter Anthony DiTommaso won't be easy, but it's probably the biggest area of adjustment for the team. If the 4-3 defense is successful, it needs the best four it can get out there, and two of these may come from the junior class.

2. How good can Nick Parrish become? Entering his junior season, Parrish may be the best pure linebacker the Hoyas have had since All-MAAC standout Tom Wonica (1992-95) and finished fourth in the Patriot League in tackles as a sophomore. Georgetown's 4-2 defensive stands put a lot of pressure on the LB's to cover the middle and Parrish could be capable of a big year, especially if the line can do their role and give him time to get into better position. He's a big key for the Hoyas to hold its own defensively.

3. Protect the secondary. Teams may find it tempting to go deep on the Hoyas this fall, and we could see that in evidence as early as the season opener with Holy Cross. Georgetown returns all five defensive backs from 2008 and they'll be tested as pass-oriented offenses work the 20-30 yard ranges. Three seniors and two talented sophomores give Georgetown a strong base from which to build upon, but injuries have taken their toll on the secondary in years past. Another stat to watch: interceptions. Georgetown allowed almost 60 percent completion rates as a defense but earned only seven interceptions. A stronger secondary may help rebuild those numbers.

4. Punt coverage. Georegetown lost two of its best returners in the graduation of Kenny Mitchell and the departure of Mychal Harrison. Georgetown may use a number of options early in the season, but with the impact of field position for an offense such as Georgetown's, return yardage is an underrated statistic. Any improvement on GU's 5.0 yards per return could be key in series where the Hoyas need to establish mid-field position to make a realistic attempt to score. For a team that averaged less than 10 points a game in 2008, field position is essential.

5. Can the defense get a rest? Opponents held, on average, a 10:08 advantage in time of possession against the Hoyas last year, an astounding number. In Kevin Kelly's first two seasons, the gap was around four minutes. A team cannot win games if its defense is worn out by halftime. Georgetown is competitive when its defense gets time off the field, and that will be a constant refrain all season.

Nine returning lettermen offers some experience and some confidence to a defensive set that takes its share of bumps and bruises for a last place PL team. This season, the Hoyas could be a surprise in some games, and look for the defense to take the lead.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Five Questions: The Offense

Now that the season approaches, it's time to look forward to the task at hand.

A quote attributed to Michael Jordan reads: "If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome." As far as the Patriot League's pre-season poll goes, expectations for Georgetown's 2009 season are not only negative, they're practically nonexistent.

The Hoyas received a last place vote from every one of the 12 voters among the other six schools, which is a de facto prediction for another 0-6 or 1-5 league record, which, frankly will be unacceptable this year. Not only would an 0-fer extend Kevin Kelly's coaching mark to an astounding 1-23 record in PL play, but it would come at the expense of perhaps the deepest returning offensive corps seen at Georgetown in nearly a decade. Put another way, this team is much better than 0-6. Now, can they deliver?

The cynic can rightly say that Georgetown could easily lose every game this year. An optimist would look at the same schedule and make an argument that eight of the 11 games on the schedule are winnable, but with the right mix of talent, teaching, and execution. For the first time in four years, the experience level is there--the Hoyas return eight starters on offense, all taught in the Kelly system. With this in mind, here are five questions on the offense as the season draws closer:

1. Is this the year for stability at quarterback? Looking back at the Georgetown teams of the 1990's, one finds a run of stability and success at quarterback--the Hoyas basically ran just four starters (Aley Demarest, Bill Ring, Bill Ward, and J.J. Mont) over a 10 year run from 1991 through 2000, averaging 20 or more points per game in nine of those seasons.

In the last eight years, there has been a revolving door in the QB position. Since 2001, fans have variously seen starts by Sean Peterson, David Paulus, Morgan Booth, Andrew Crawford, Alondzo Turner, Keith Allan, Nick Cangelosi, Ben Hostetler, Matt Bassuener, Robert Lane, Keerome Lawrence, James Brady, and Scott Darby. Among these 13 quarterbacks over eight seasons, the Hoyas have topped 20 points per game in just one season.

The seven man QB list of 2008 has been trimmed to four entering 2009, with Brady and sophomore Tucker Stafford being the likely two-deep after Keerome Lawrence was moved to slotback (more on him later). Brady was more skilled as a passer than a runner in his debut season, as Georgetown quarterbacks have increasingly become runners versus throwers in the face of a withering line. Stafford, perhaps the best pure quarterback prospect for a Georgetown team since Aley Demarest, saw just three plays against Yale last season before being lost for the season with a hand injury. If Georgetown is to get out of the cellar, it needs consistency from the QB post. Even if someone doesn't go all 11 games, there needs to be a clear leader on the field, and one willing to throw the ball downfield.

2. Is this Charlie Houghton's year at running back? Since being named the Patriot League Rookie of the Year in 2006 on the strength of an end of season flurry, Houghton's impact on the Hoyas has declined heading into his senior season. Averaging 82.3 yards a game in the last four games of 2006, he averaged just half that in 2007, and gained only 32 yards in 2008 before injuries took him out of the lineup.

Houghton is especially valuable as a downfield option--if he can get past the line of scrimmage, as a runner or receiver, his size and speed provide a legitimate option for downfield yardage, something the Hoyas have not proven to be very proficient over the last few years.

With options in the slot, Houghton doesn't have to get the ball for 30 carries a game, but he's capable of it. It's a bit surprising to discover that only one Georgetown runner this decade has carried more than 30 times in one game (Kim Sarin's 31 against VMI in 2004) but then, no surprise that this was the only year Georgetown has ever posted a 1,000 yard rusher.

To borrow an image from the Redskins' teams of the 1980's, the Hoyas need a diesel in the backfield when a quarterback keeper won't do. With a veteran line, this may be the opportunity to finally put Houghton's talents to work.

3. Can we "hold that line"? If one can point to any one group of positions where Georgetown has been considerably deficient relative to their opponents, it's the offensive. Too often, the Hoya lines have been too small, too light, too slow and inexperienced against the defensive sets of other PL schools. There have been games where the defensive lines of some schools were heavier than the Georgetown front line, and that spells trouble.

Of these concerns, inexperience was a common issue. There were always upperclassmen in the starting lineup, but injuries and substitutions always seemed to turn the offensive line into a hug question mark by October. This season's previews report that all five lineman are back for the Hoyas for the first time in a number of years. Are they the 300-pound hogs common in other teams? No, none more than 285. But experience is vital in line work, both for how the game is played and how their teammates react. Georgetown's got a group of five men that know how to play the game. Let's keep them in there right through November.

4. Whither the passing game? Eight starters return for the Hoyas in 2009, not one of them a receiver. Of the top five receivers from 2008, none are back in 2009, accounting for 72 percent of the passing yards from last season. Brent Tomlinson, Colin Meador and Kenny Mitchell (one of the more under-utilized receivers of the last decade relative to talent) graduated, while Mychal Harrison and Keion Wade are no longer on the roster. The Hoyas could really have used the speed off the ball from Harrison and Wade, so what's left?

The leading returning receiver, Rick Cosgrove, caught all of seven passes in 2008, and no other returning receiver had more than two. Ugh. If the Hoyas can't develop a serious threat on the passing game, opponents will drop eight or nine in the box and overwhelm the offense.

The freshman class doesn't contain a lot of big-name stars, but two that might be able to get into the lineup are receivers Kenneth Furlough and Brandon Floyd. Both are 6-2 or taller, both can pick up speed down the field, and one or both may be able to give Georgetown a downfield option it hasn't had since Luke McArdle in 2003, which seems like a generation ago. Seniors Cosgrove, Matt Kinnan, and Zack Barbiasz are all reasonable options at receiver, but none had enough experience to be considered threats at the position. It will be interesting to see if a newcomer can break through and wake up the echoes of when the long ball was a realsitic option for opponents to prepare for against Georgetown.

4. Can Keerome Lawrence be a game changer? Moving a quarterback to the slot is a risky move, but in this situation I think it could be a real given Lawrence's skill set and the ability to introduce something Georgetown hasn't had in the backfield in six years: unpredictability.

In 2003, Bob Benson introduced a lineup that, for the first half of the season, thoroughly confused opponents and led Georgetown to three straight wins by late October, by adding to a freshman quarterback named Alondzo Turner into the lineup. Announced as 6-0, but just barely, the 180 lb. Turner could run, pass, and when in a slot, add some interesting options to the backfield and was named the league's rookie of the week in two consecutive weeks. For 2003, his only season with Georgetown, Turner was third on the team in rushing and threw three touchdowns.

While the experiment with Turner didn't develop, the ability of Lawrence to develop in the backfield is in intriguing one. Lawrence led the team in rushing last season, albeit as a quarterback, and while he wouldn't be expected to do so in 2009, he's capable of big things. His passing game was erratic in 2008, but the simple fact that he could put the ball in the air can open up options to what remains a predictable offense. Absent a huge surprise in the receiver corps, a backfield trip of Houghton, Lawrence and Robert Lane will be the Hoyas' best chance for yardage all season. With his ability, Lawrence could be a great addition to the backfield that enters 2009 ranked among the bottom of I-AA in yardage per game.

And to end this segment, another quote, this one from Thomas Edison: "If we did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves." Such is the hope for the 2009 Hoyas and an offense capable not only meeting expectations, but rolling right past them.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Men Of Harbin?

This has been a fairly serious summer of posts on the blog, but as the season arrives there's always time to take a step back. Football is more than dollars and cents, but about camaraderie: among players, among fans, among schools.

Camaraderie came to mind this week upon a review of some of the posts on the HoyaTalk message boards. For the most part, the folks get along, and the comments often elevate from mere fandom to some pretty high-minded conversation. I'm still scratching my head over the quote which read, in part:

"I cited the problems of removal jurisdiction and a state court being able to fashion a post-hoc remedy that does not impinge on the Article II powers that are already committed to the electors, the legislature, and Congress. You cite the fact that State Secretary's of State make a ministerial decision regarding candidate eligibility. Challenging this approximately a year later through the use of an extraordinary writ is specious and unlikely to succeed. A court will not fashion relief that goes beyond the bounds of what it may do constitutionally, where the Plaintiff has slept on his or her rights, and the court cannot workably enforce the remedy. I already stated this. You still refuse to deal with it. Of course, your argument also ignores the fact that courts have already dealt with this and dismissed state suits for the exact reasons I explained here."

I'm guessing he wasn't talking about Tucker Stafford's passing attack.

But across the pages at the football board, there was a discussion about having the football team build up some excitement at the start of the game, something popular at I-A schools but largely ignored at the bottom of the Patriot League. One post suggested an entrance like they do at the College of Wooster, where a
pipe band leads the Scots onto the field. Another poster suggested the scene from the 1964 movie "Zulu", where the outmanned British garrison, about to face a slaughter from 20,000 proud warriors, suddenly breaks out in singing the Welsh battle song, Men of Harlech. (Was someone making an inference between the Hoyas' chances and that of the garrison? Perhaps, but don't forget that it was the Empire that won the battle.)

OK, so many Hoyas may not get the clever sub-reference. Here's another video where the fans of Cardiff's soccer team sing following Cardiff's FA Cup semifinal win in 2008. You may not know the words, but the tune ought to be familiar:

The song, commemorating the mighty siege of Harlech Castle from 1461 to 1468, was the musical backdrop to Robert Collier's Sons of Georgetown (1894). Most students of the era knew the musical tie-in, most today would surely not. If the team marched onto the field singing this song a capella, I would guess at least one Georegetown fan would ask if they were referring to "Men of Harbin."

The song is one of courage and camaraderie. In sports, that's an unseen and often misunderstood benefit of the athletics experience. In sports, as in life, we learn more from one another than simply from a playbook or a chalk-talk; it is the elements of character and leadership that athletics, the "battlefields of friendly strife", teach. For a Georgetown team where players don't go on to the NFL, where winning is still a goal and not an expectation, and where the four year experience of football is a significant personal commitment most students and/or fans will not soon realize, the need to dedicate oneself to the task at hand is not to be underemphasized.

So, yes, maybe the team does need a better entrance onto the unnamed Multi-Sport Field every game. Maybe they should gather at the hill above the new Hariri Hall, the crown jewel of the MSB, and run down the hill with great abandon (assuming the fencing is taken care of, of course.) Maybe the Georgetown band, not prone to simple marching, should otherwise greet them on the field with the fight song as they run down the field. Or maybe it's as simple as playing the old Georgetown alma mater, it's own Men of Harlech, before the start of play and encourage the crowd to sing it loudly as a call to action, not a post-game dirge of defeat. Use the beginning of the game to set a course of unity, of Georgetown, of victory, and have fun doing so. With a month until the home opener against Lafayette, let's get this on the to-do list, even if it means handing out lyrics to fans as they walk in the gate.

Collier put it best:
"Where Potomac's tide is streaming
From her spires and steeples beaming.
See the grand old banner gleaming
Georgetown's Blue and Gray..."

(And then beat the #$%^%$ out of Lafayette.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Stepping Up

As I write this, August awaits, a month where football is just around the corner and every team, in theory at least, is ready to make a run for the title.

Theory, however, is not reality.

So it is with a little indigestion that I pass along this story from the
Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, where eager fans await the revival of football at Old Dominion University on September 5, with a home date against Georgetown in a little under three months. The school has already sold over 14,000 season tickets, turned another 1,000 away, renovated a 1930's era stadium, and is installing a new scoreboard and sound system.

"When Old Dominion kicks off its football season Sept. 5 against Chowan, the renovated Foreman Field will be as wired as the 20,000 people on hand" writes the paper. "The old lady - the stadium was built in 1936 - has 56 miles of new fiber optic cable running through and beneath her, part of a grand plan to give fans a video and audio show to remember. ODU has invested $1.5 million into the stadium's audio and video production systems - not counting the approximately $1 million for the 30-foot-wide jumbo video board."

$1.5 million. Ugh. Old Dominion is spending as much on A/V equipment as Georgetown is spending on its football program.

And that's been the rub across the worst decade in the 120+ years of Georgetown football--a day late and a fistful of lot of dollars short. When the Hoyas rode across the MAAC's landscape, they did so with the largest budget in the conference--no great statement there, but Georgetown was never in a game where they couldn't compete. Nine seasons later, Georgetown is over $1.6 million behind that of the sixth largest budget, Bucknell, and nearly $3 million behind that of Fordham. Football is the great unfinished legacy of Bernard Muir's tenure as athletic director: he sought to fix the win loss record (4-7 in Bob Benson's last season, 2005), and the Hoyas won only five games since. He sought to fix the funding, but football spending is about where it was in 2005. He looked forward to getting the MSF project out of the bureaucratic swamp and it's still there. The oft-derided Georgetown scoreboard, good for at least one or two malfunctions every season, is still there.

You can't raise money without a plan: Muir knew that, and so do we all. And I don't doubt there are plans, veritable boxes of plans, floating around McDonough Gym for football, for basketball, and for 27 other sports. But if no one (or very few) knows the plan, is it a plan, or just an clever idea? In an earlier post, I spoke of a paradox in Georgetown's strategic planning that sees the status quo go on for far too long, and it's not just athletics. He who hesitates is lost. Q.E.D.

For Georgetown to complete, it must be on a level playing field. Funding provides a foundation from which to compete, however, and in Georgetown's next capital campaign there must be a means from which Georgetown can call upon resources to build that foundation. I'm not arguing for 63 scholarships (which, for a school carrying
less than $375,000 in endowed scholarship revenue, would be untenable), but five steps towards providing the coaching staff a means to attract and retain the best and brightest. Maybe these are in the plan; if not, well, here's some food for thought.

1. Work to endow 12 men's basketball scholarships. What does this mean for football? Well, aside from the uncomfortable idea that a nationally prominent program like Georgetown has secured all of one endowed scholarship in men's basketball, provides an opportunity for football which I'll explain below.

Twelve full scholarships amounts to over $600,000 in athletic department costs. Endowing the scholarships ($1 million each) would open up the equivalent spend of 12 scholarships which the new athletic director could use across all men's sports (with the understanding that a similar campaign for endowing women's basketball scholarships could do the same for these programs.) With 12 scholarships (e.g., three full grants a year), the AD could use these as wild cards, where the various men's coaches could recommend recruits whereby a full scholarship offer would be a page-turner for that sport. For example, football might get one in a year, one for baseball, one for soccer--no guarantees that any sport would get one, but the idea that there are additional resources available to lock in a legitimate "star", the results on the field could be noticeable. Imagine if someone had been able to offer a
Mike McLeod (Yale) or a Chris Marinelli (Stanford) a full ride to Georgetown, much less local kids like a Brian Westbrook (DeMatha, Villanova) or a Arman Shields (Gonzaga, Richmond). So imagine if there were more...

2. Work to endow 10 football scholarships. This ought to be up-front in the campaign: identify ten individuals willing to make a game-changing commitment and endow a fully funded scholarship for football. Scholarships at Georgetown aren't cheap and the cost of fully funding a year at Georgetown into perpetuity is $1 million. This task won't be easy, but the tallest hills rarely are. Imagine the opportunities that would open up where a full ride to Georgetown University is available to the top scholar-athletes in the nation.

3. Work to raise annual funds for 15 annual use half-scholarships. Endowed scholarships take time, and we could all be sitting here in ten years waiting for those gifts to come in. The Gridiron Club, which is tasked with annual use giving, should be on the front lines identifying a need (should the Patriot League approve scholarship support) to raise the $25,000 per student each year for a "half scholarship" when combined with available financial aid, would draw a larger pool of recruits into committing to Georgetown. These awards could be named in honor of former coaches (Jack Hagerty, Lou Little), former All-Americans (Al Blozis, John Dwyer, Bob Morris), or the donors themselves. The average gift of a Georgetown endowed scholarship at this time is less than $8,000 per athlete. A $25,000 gift would open up doors...and yardage.

4. Work to raise annual funds for 20 additional buyouts. Absent an athletic scholarship, the Patriot League provides preferential aid in what is called a buyout package--it can convert the loan and work-study components of financial aid to grant for those with need. It cannot offer this to those without need (pending the league's scholarship vote, of course), but for middle and lower income recruits the amount could be valuable in making a decision to attend a school. Georgetown is able to offer many, but not all, recruits such buyouts, which is otherwise standard course at PL schools, and annual buyouts should be a public and visible fundraising priority for the Gridiron Club.

If a recruit has an offer from Lehigh which reads: $30,000 grant, $20,000 parent contribution, or Georgetown ($20,000 grant, $5,000 loan, $5,000 work study, $20,000 parent contribution), where do you think he goes? Where would you go?

These are ambitious goals, every one of them. Let's review the costs:

Work to endow 10 football scholarships ($10 million)
Work to raise annual funds for 15 annual use half-scholarships ($400,000 a year)
Work to raise annual funds for 20 additional buyouts ($200,000 a year)

The last three would add the equivalent of 22.5 scholarships to Georgetown's program, which is estimated in the blogosphere to provide the equivalent of less than 20 in its current model, compared to Fordham (over 60), Colgate (over 55) Lehigh, Lafayette, and Holy Cross (over 50) and Bucknell (over 45). And that's before these schools turn the financial aid mortar into scholarship bricks, which they will presumably use to clobber schools like Georgetown over the head if GU maintains (by absence or design) the financial aid formulas it has used since joining the league.

These goals won't get Georgetown to become Boston College. Or Villanova. Or Holy Cross. It won't put one dollar into the unnamed and unfinished Multi-Sport Facility and won't solve the riddle of the Academic Index. But for the long term stability of the program, it is a visible step forward, a step towards balancing competitive stability and financial security.

$1.5 million buys a great video presentation. But it doesn't always buy a great program.