On the eve of the 2009 season, every Division I team in America (save Indiana State, who already lost a week earlier) has reason for hope, for expectation. Not everyone will make it to the finish, but it's the race that counts.
So it's with some degree of concern that it seems that the expectations for the 2009 Georgetown Hoyas are set as low as they've been in the 16 years I've been closely following the team.
Not by the team of course, nor even the University. Senior Henry Bowe has already found his way onto some Holy Cross bulletin board with his hopes for a big upset Saturday, and with 19 (formerly 18) returning starters, one can't help but think that Kevin Kelly's fourth year team is its most experienced in years. So where's the expectation that this is the start of something big?
A decade ago, the late Dan Allen remarked "The misnomer around here is that people think we should beat Georgetown. Early on, we didn't respect Georgetown as much as we should have, for whatever reason. You have to respect a program that's beaten you two years in a row. We're at that point right now. Georgetown is as good as any team we play this year."
No one is expecting Tom Gilmore to second the motion this week, but which current PL coach would? Public comments notwithstanding, does Frank Tavani or Dick Biddle or Andy Coen really worry anymore about Georgetown? Eight years after joining the PL, the Hoya football program engenders neither fear nor anger among opponents. It's a win, isn't it?
Not everyone is writing off the Hoyas, however. CSN sports columnist Chuck Burton wrote in his Lehigh blog that "The Hoyas may have the best college football fans in the entire nation. It's one thing to root for a team that routinely wins conference championships, bowl games or FCS playoff games. It's quite another to root for a team that hasn't done better than 5-6 as a member of the Patriot League and not even coming close to a Patriot League championship. Add to this the fact that the DC media largely doesn't even know they exist, and they've been playing in a half-finished stadium for the last three years - the fact that the small, but strong, Hoya faithful have stayed loyal to their team all these years says volumes about their fans."
"But there's real evidence that Hoya fans have ceased to be patient with coach [Kevin] Kelly. It's his fourth year as head coach. This group is, in every way, his team. The staff has largely been intact from last year's last-place 2-8 finish. And the talk of teams like Fordham changing the Patriot League financial aid landscape is forcing Hoya fans to ask some uncomfortable questions."
We've talked about Fordham before, but Burton's aside on Kelly is an undercurrent that will unfortunately be there all year if the Hoyas don't show some visible on-field improvement. At almost any other Division I school, posting a 5-27 record is a one way bus ticket, but Georgetown shows a well known loyalty to its coaches, in good times and bad (Ask Pete Wilk.) In fact, unless your name is Craig Esherick, it's hard to remember any Georgetown coaches in recent years who were publicly pushed out of a job.
Kelly has set high standards for his team, withstood some departures, but raised team grades and has maintained morale in difficult times. The wins have not followed, but the 2006 team was not his, they said, the 2007 team was too young and 2008 was a MASH unit. What to make, then, of 2009, and what will we say three months hence?
Fans and alumni don't expect playoff bids, but they expect competitive play: over the last three years, there has simply not been enough of it . Georgetown has won five games in three years, four by the margin of a field goal and one by a touchdown, 7-0. The other 27 have frankly not been close. Save for a missed assignment by a Howard defender and two missed extra points by Marist, Georgetown fans could very well have seen a winless 2008 season. In 2007, a winless season was averted by a 38 yard field goal with 10 seconds left at Bucknell, which has inexplicably seen as many PL wins for the Hoyas (two) as has its own home field. And if you believe some of the PL writers foreseeing the 2009 season, Georgetown can start 18 returning players and still be a 1-10 team before it is all over. What breaks this cycle?
The structural impediments to success have been well chronicled: the budget gap, the ever-tightening recruiting window, the unfinished promises of the MSF. But facilities don't make first downs, and budgets don't block--it's up the coaches and players to make the difference. This team and this staff must commit to better on-field performance, win or lose, and do so in a more cohesive way, and accept the results of those expectations.
Similarly, the University must commit to a better off-field expectation. Ten years ago, Bob Benson could go on for a half-hour discussing his vision for Georgetown football. He even wrote about it in a essay covered on the HoyaSaxa.com site: "Play peer institutions," he said. "Build a new facility with all the tradition of the past in mind. Place it in the center of campus. Create a new school spirit among our students, faculty, and the community, and bring an environment with a wonderful aura of history and tradition to the Georgetown campus. "
That may (or may not) be the vision today. In 2009, with Fordham's scholarship demands putting the PL on notice and the perceived decline of the PL as a whole, what is the vision going forward?
Kevin Kelly has never been asked to articulate a vision, that belonged in Bernard Muir's hands. Two years ago, he told the New York Times that "We don’t have all the football pieces in place yet, but in time we will, and it will be a good experience for Georgetown." Unfortunately, Muir's putting the pieces together in Delaware, not DC. Without an athletic director for 2009-10, maybe the vision thing, like the MSF, uncomfortably stays on hold. But that's exactly when the expectation for success must be in front of these AD candidates--Georgetown is committed to sustained competitive excellence in the Patriot/Ivy model and you, as a candidate need to understand and support it. If they don't buy in, why should anyone else?
Vision and expectations go hand in hand. Speaking for myself, that there are eight--count em', eight--games from which a prepared and well-executed game plan could mean a win for the Hoyas. (I'll leave it for you to guess the three games this won't apply.)
Win all eight? Not quite, but just split the eight and you've got a 4-7 season. Great? No. Progress? Yes. Anything less than four raises more questions than I'd like to raise at this point.
And, yeah, there's also something to be said for the adage, "shoot for the moon, settle for the stars". Georgetown's academic peer, Duke, knows all too well what consistent losing does for a program. Its second year coach David Cutcliffe has no small aspirations, however. A 4-7 season won't cut it for Cutcliffe. He wants to see the Blue Devils in a bowl. That would be like picking the Hoyas to challenge for the PL title, wouldn't it?
"This team should be a bowl team," Cutcliffe said. "I've been doing this a long time. It has the ingredients. It has enough experience in the right places. If the coach puts them in the right position, then we'll get there. I know people look at me sometimes like I'm crazy. I just say what I really believe, and I don't have a problem with doing that. I just like to say the truth."
The season begins, and the truth is not far behind.