Thursday, September 10, 2009

Wishful Thinking

With the home opener around the corner, I can't wait. Of course, I'm one of the few.

One of my ongoing frustrations with the football program is the lack of a gameday atmosphere that has developed (or more precisely, not developed) around the Hoyas. I fully realize that Georgetown is not Georgia Tech and the Multi-Sport Field does not remind anyone of a game at Virginia or Maryland, much less William and Mary or Richmond. There are a lot of contributory causes (lack of local fans, lack of parking lots for tailgating, few "traveling" fans for home and away games, etc.) but Georgetown simply can do better.

And I've never bought the "Georgetown is an academic school" excuse. Six years ago, while walking the Cornell campus in advance of the Hoyas' 42-20 win (probably the high water mark of the decade as wins go) , I ran into the Cornell band, which was embarking on a campus-wide march past dorms in anticipation of the game. Fans young and old followed the band as they sang along to the George M. Cohan inspired fight song of the Big Red, "Give My Regards To Davy". As the band turned the corner past the dining hall, out stepped the Cornell football team, wearing cardinal red blazers and carrying their playbooks, as the band led them down the hill to Schoellkopf Field...pretty impressive. It didn't take a Tennessee sized crowd to impart upon this visitor that football traditions aren't taught as much as they are learned, and this was part of the traditions which Cornell was justly proud of. The Big Red wasn't very good that year (as the score would indicate) but that Saturday morning in Ithaca was part of its campus fabric.

Atheltics hasn't been a part of the campus fabric at Georgetown in years. Basketball is parked off-campus, baseball, field hockey, golf and rowing are somewhere "out there", and football is not taken seriously for a variety of reasons, from the setting to the record. As I discussed in a 2007 column, excerpted below, there is room for improvement.

"At Georgetown, you have two things working against you," noted columnist Matt Dougherty, now a Patriot league official. "The football program doesn't have a history of success, so it's hard to get the alumni and even current students excited. And you are in a large metropolitan area where the Georgetown football game will never be the marquee event on a Saturday. So you have to play to the family that wants to take their kids for a fun experience at a reasonable price....You can hook people in September, and they'll be more likely to return in November if the team is in good position."

From the moment Georgetown gave up on Griffith Stadium and major college football in 1951, greater Washington gave up on Georgetown as well. Even in the days of 9,000 fans for club football, local fans were never much a part of it--Georgetown may be in the city, but it's never been the "city's" school, and for a variety of reasons never will be....but first, let's start with the core audience of intercollegiate athletics--the students themselves.

With few exceptions, the decline in student is generational across most Division I schools. Where 9,000 attended the 1965 Georgetown-Fordham game (a majority of which were students), the environment was certainly much different. To start, distractions were proportionately fewer. Riggs Library was perpetually overcrowded, and the idea of studying on a Saturday afternoon was anathema to many. If a student had a TV at all, there were only three stations to choose from, with one only game per week seen on channel 7, but no more. And with an all-male College, the opportunity to bring a date to the football game was an added plus.

That football still brings in students in the world of high tech and constant communication speaks well to the students and the sport, but Georgetown doesn't make it any easier for them. University bureaucrats continue to counter-program events against games, while University publicity efforts continue to ignore or otherwise downplay the games.

Student leadership remains noticeably absent around the sport at all. If students relied on GUSA for basketball tickets, they'd be sitting in the upper levels of Verizon Center by now.
The home grown success of Hoya Blue makes the student section a bonafide place to be for basketball season, but how do you translate that to football season?

"Many students at Georgetown are simply not football fans and if they are then they are
attached to the college team they grew up supporting," said former Hoya Blue volunteer Michael Segner. "Many hard core football fans will watch Ohio [State] vs. Michigan on TV rather than attend a Georgetown home game and NFL fans will get their work out of the way so they can watch games on Sunday. Inroads can be made with these groups but the most attractive target market are the casual football fans."

Of course, many students at Georgetown are not basketball fans either, and judging by the number of alumni who give to the Hoop Club after graduation support is a mile long and a few inches deep. But what drives students to return for basketball or even football isn't always the final score...though it doesn't hurt.

"Basketball games against teams like Duke attract the casual fans because they know there will be an intense and fun atmosphere, win or lose," Segner said. It is a social event to see people and recognize your part of something larger than yourself, the Georgetown community. This experience is what needs to be promoted [in football]."

A decade earlier, this site had a familair refrain:

"Tailgating has never been understood by most Georgetown alumni, since many of them have not been regular followers of college football. Beginning in the mid-80's, and through 1994, tailgating was a series of loosely organized events at Homecoming which were basically all-you-can-drink affairs without the mix of food and football that tailgating requires. The situation was so ill-defined that most tailgaters skipped other Homecoming events to sit in the parking lot all afternoon to drink. To sit in a half-empty Kehoe Field while 1,500 or so people could be heard whooping it up in a parking lot below seemed a complete waste of what Homecoming was all about. The pattern of drinking (much of it underage) set off alarm bells at Student Affairs, which de facto banned tailgating after the 1995 season and instituted a series of litigious rules for cars entering the parking lot for games. "

Well, at least one issue doesn't apply anymore--most of the parking lot is gone. But how do you tailgate without a parking lot?

McDonough parking lot has been used in recent years as a meeting point, and it is, well, a failure. The Gridiron Club generally hosts a pre-game event, but most fans entering the game never see it, leading it to become a small group of parents and athletic department staffers. The other half of the lot is often taken up with, well, cars, and any tailgating is literally tail-gated between the cars. Students stop at the field and never veer past it.

Tailgating is an art form of sort at places like Mississippi, where "The Grove" is a tree lined party where the generations meet and greet before home games. And it's not just beer, either. "It is pimento cheese sandwiches and silver trays, candelabra and fried chicken tenders, button-down shirts, rep ties and khaki shorts, pearls, expensive sunglasses and flip-flops in your purse for when your high heels become history," wrote the New York Times."Cars have been kept out since a rainstorm in 1990 that reduced the Grove to  a rutted swamp, and tents replaced them. With the tents began a dance of real estate that kicked off the rules and regulations, and like a ball in play, the interpretations of them, that characterizes the party in the Grove today."

Of course, schools like Ole Miss maintain a social order that even Georgetown's best fashionistas would be hard pressed to duplicate--Hoya fans don't dress up in their finest on Saturdays for anything, much less football. While Copley Lawn could, in theory, become a Grove-like site for pre-game mixing, chances are most fans would simply stay there and not go to the game. Maybe it's best to start off simple--a place within view of the game, easy access, and a place people will go to and not away from. OK, then, here you go.  It's not The Grove, so let's call it "The Gate".

With only one of the four gates to the facility actually completed by Georgetown, the fencing adjoins a two lane road created as a result of the Southwest Quadrangle project, connecting the McDonough tennis courts with Harbin and Village C, which form the southern boundary of the still unnamed field. Without going into too much detail right now, let's make it simple: close the road immediately adjacent to the field on game day. Open it up to the Gridiron Club and the football parents, who can set up tents or tables and give it a place of distinction for pre-game, halftime, and post-game activity.

And not just at Homecoming, either. The opening game is traditionally the Kickoff Weekend reception, which could be set up there. A week later, Yale comes to town and the crowds along the gate would even be larger. [Sep. 26] is Homecoming, and the location sells itself.

And what about the students? Adjacent to the road is an archway under Kennedy Hall that opens to the Southwest Quadrangle, facing south to dining hall and the Potomac. Fans coming up from the garage or from the dining hall would be greeted with music, grills, balloons, pick-up games...and most of all, people. Rather than confine students to a section of the roadway, let them develop the quadrangle as their own.

All roads lead to The Gate, so to speak. March the team in pre-game workouts through the archway, and onto the field. Let the band and cheerleaders set up there before the game. The activities end on time before each kickoff, and you then bring the people to the game. Bringing people together--that's what it's all about.

"If there are groups of people tailgating, socializing, laughing, and throwing the Frisbee around chances are people will enjoy attending games," said Segner. "A camaraderie can be built among the fans which can last no matter what the score or record of the team. Give students the impression that attending football games is the fun/social thing to do and it will become a reality."

"There are better and more visible places to hold a campus-wide tailgate (which is what is needed, IMO) than the McDonough parking lot," added alumnus Rob Daniel. "This accomplishes several things: first, it establishes links between the alumni and students, necessary for a true fan base. Second, free food and [drinks] build a lot of goodwill among students. Third, by establishing a central Gridiron Club or University sponsored tailgate, the University could control alcohol consumption to a certain extent.

"Tailgating is central to college football, and Georgetown currently does it very poorly. Make the tailgate before the game a destination, and the game becomes a destination."

It bears repeating: Give alumni and students a chance to make tailgating the kind of event that families feel comfortable in attending. Let's move away from the theme and consider a variety of foods and that would be befitting of an international university. A tray of hamburgers here, some quesedillas there, maybe some souvlaki a few tables down...why not? Such an event would be a great way of building interest among local and out of town alumni to make the game something special. Whether your taste is brats, barbecue, or even chablis and brie (for the prep school crowd, of course), the college football experience sets the stage for an afternoon of good times for everyone.

Either way, students need to rediscover the college football experience. A tailgate is a start, and a good view of the game only adds to the experience. And Georgetown needs to get going sooner rather than later to get this area reserved, get ground rules set, promote it, and build a tradition around what we have, not what we lack.

Getting students back to the games is the first step in making a Saturday afternoon in Georgetown a destination again. Few schools have the wealth of activities outside its doorstep that Georgetown students enjoy, yet the ability to follow and support intercollegiate athletics has its own place in college life as well. If the recent success of men's basketball has taught anything, it is that such shared experiences follow Georgetown's alumni/ae for many years beyond college. Maybe there's another shared experience around the corner, this time on the gridiron.

Two years later, little has changed. The Gridiron Club will hold an event in the McDonough parking lot, students will wander over with little spirit, and the band will not march through campus, but file into the MSF a half hour prior to game time and set up their instruments with no great enthusiasm. But maybe the students and fans will see this game, this first night game, as an opportunity to turn the corner and give Georgetown football something it has lacked for years--not a new stadium, but a new attitude. And with a spirited fan effort, perhaps the team could do its part and bring a home a win, the kind of win that can have more than 100 kids singing the fight song at game's end, but a couple thousand. Yes, winning does make a difference, but support does too. The stadium promised so many times by so many people remains unfulfilled, and as long as the lights stay on and the scoreboard doesn't go off, fans might have something to remember and a program might find something to build on.

So here's to a great night of football.