Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rebuilding A Winning Culture

(They say brevity is the soul of wit. Not for this column...)

Saturday, I was a million miles from Georgetown. Or maybe just a thousand. But I was probably the only person among 80,000 people in northern Indiana checking for the score of the Georgetown-Colgate game on my phone.

Last week I had the good fortune to do one of those "100 Sports Events You Have To See In Your Lifetime" kind of events, namely, the USC-Notre Dame game at historic Notre Dame Stadium. I'm no fan of the uber-Domers (outside of the University of Texas orangebloods, there are few fans more insufferable than a true-blue Irish fan), but one could not help but be impressed by the culture and commitment of the fans to their school and their program. These have not been halcyon days in South Bend, but tradition still tops temporal setbacks.

We arrived four hours early and the campus was full of tailgaters already. A steady stream of fans toured the campus basilica (including Dick Vitale, a few steps ahead of us), and campus buildings were open for visitors, although the basketball team had the Joyce Center arena closed for practice. Within the crisp autumn day, an exciting game settled on the last play, the arrival of the USC Song Girls and the Trojan Marching Band, and the long walk back to the public parking lots in near total darkness (thanks to NBC's frequent commercial interruptions), I thought how the success enjoyed by football has manifest itself across so much of that school. There are no "Village A"'s at Notre Dame--the names of alumni benefactors dot nearly every new building on campus.

Of course, this wasn't Georgetown. When the public address announcer takes breaks during time outs to announce the Mass times available after the game, you sense this is a different place. (Notre Dame has 47 chapels on its main campus, Georgetown has two.) In a stadium with not a shred of advertising, beyond a small "NBC Sports" sign in the upper end zone, the focus is on the teams and the schools they represent. When everyone from the bookstore clerk to the ticket taker to the concessionaire greeted you with the same four words, "Welcome to Notre Dame!", they meant it.

The 2000's won't be considered the glory days of Notre Dame football, and even less for Georgetown football. Glory? OK, it's been a decade just short of deflating. Georgetown had never suffered more than three straight losing seasons in 110 years, it's now at ten straight and counting. Bob Benson's vision for Patriot League football is no more realized now than it was on the wind-swept roof of Kehoe Field in 2001: "Utilize the game of football to create an environment and atmosphere among our students, faculty, and community on an autumn Saturday afternoon and bring to our campus a school spirit on a fall day that is desperately needed."

Georgetown's woes appear to parallel that of Dartmouth, whose winning days of football seem as remote as its Indian mascot of yore. Earlier this year, its athletic director issued a call of arms of sorts to the faithful, who are some of the most loyal Ivy fans you will ever find. He wrote, in part:

"In recent years, our non-league schedule has been daunting, as we near the end of three agreements that were negotiated more than 15 years ago when those opponents were not as strong as they are today. In hindsight, it was probably a mistake to lock into such long-term arrangements, as it has made it difficult for our team to develop confidence and to generate early-season momentum...

"Research showed that our football operating budget is in the same ballpark as our Ivy competitors, but our program has fewer financial resources overall because we are at the bottom of the League in annual giving ... While we’ve been receiving about $300,000 in annual [donations], our Ivy competitors have been raising $500,000-$750,000 annually, providing much more funding for priorities like team travel, recruiting, video equipment, and scouting services. Regardless of the economic circumstances, it is imperative that we increase annual ... giving substantially to provide our program with a level playing field...And I will personally do my best to dispel the persistent myth that increased [giving] prompts the College to reduce institutional support, since I know from first-hand experience that this has not occurred once in my 19 years in Dartmouth Athletics.

"In summary, we are all in agreement that our team’s record over the past 11 years has been unacceptable. I hope I have adequately conveyed our resolve — both institutionally and departmentally — to ensure that Dartmouth Football soon reclaims a level of success worthy of our proud tradition, and adds to our League-leading collection of championship banners. It won’t happen overnight, but we are determined to get there."

Sound familiar?

What he didn't say was that Dartmouth, like, Georgetown, has lost the culture of winning that a Notre Dame, that a Penn State, and on the I-AA level, that a Harvard, a Colgate and a Villanova enjoys. These schools have not been successful by accident, but by applying basic commitments at the right time to give this sport an opportunity to excel--sure, not a given (ask the Irish fans about Charlie Weis), but an opportunity. Right now, for Georgetown and Dartmouth, it isn't there.

As it relates to Georgetown, below are my ten keys to create a culture of winning--not a culture of "excellence", not yet, because one begets the other. When John Thompson was asked if he sought for Georgetown to become, like Lefty Driesell's Maryland, the "UCLA of the East," Thompson dismissed it outright--in 1974, Georgetown basketball had about as much in common with UCLA basketball as it did with Notre Dame football. Thompson's response, that he wanted first to be the "Georgetown of Georgetown" was appropriate. Then and now.

1. Leadership. Georgetown has to have a visible commitment from a head coach, an athletic director, and a University president about college football. Absent an athletic director, Jack DeGioia and Dan Porterfield have provided a good amount of leadership in both, but they need to further build awareness not only within the athletics community, but the overall University of the importance of athletics in general (and football in specific) into the culture of learning (and winning) at Georgetown.

Leadership also comes from the coaching staff. Kevin Kelly  needs to be out front on the need for leadership and winning--not so easy to do when your record is at a historic low, but needed nonetheless. Some of this is at the latitude of their boss--Joe Lang didn't mind Bob Benson getting out in front on the Hoyas, while Bernard Muir wanted coaches to coach and not to be as visible on issues like fundraising. Once the new AD is named, the coaching staff needs to learn what their role in educating Georgetown about winning football is, and embrace it.

2. Tradition. Winning within a tradition of athletic excellence pays multiple rewards, and Georgetown's dusty football archives need to get out in front of people. This isn't ND, but this is a school with four of its former coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame, or did you know that? This isn't Penn State, but 51 of its alumni have played in the NFL, or did you know that? This isn't Harvard, but this is a school that was playing football in 1881, when there were only 12 schools in the nation playing the sport. I'm guessing you didn't know that...even I didn't until I looked it up.

Sometime after this season, I hope to announce work on creating a complementary work to the successful site known as the Georgetown Basketball History Project, but for football. Lots of work ahead on it, but it's something that people need to know when they think of Georgetown University and college football. You can't prepare for the future without an appreciation of the past.

3. Facilities. No matter how you slice it, Georgetown cannot escape this verity: it needs a facility that serves the athletic and academic needs of the place. A roof won't cut it. A parking lot won't cut it. And a half.., no, quarter-finished field isn't cutting it. Ask the coaches. Ask the fans. Better yet, ask the kids.

I understand another round of plans is in place for the MSF. May I suggest a call to Notre Dame?

This past fall, Notre Dame dedicated not one, but two new stadia on campus, nearly identical to each other: Alumni Stadium for men's and women's soccer, and Arlotta Stadium for men's and women's lacrosse. Combined, they would have sat 8,000, but ND decided to place each next to each other so as to create their own traditions-- so they have this unusual setup where both are side to side.

Each stadium cost $5.7 million apiece--somewhere around 3,000-4,000 seats on one side, press box, some indoor seating, rest rooms, concessions, a team lounge, locker rooms, and a general permanence to the place. (Unbeknownst to me, a woman in the crowd was mentioning how a classmate of mine in high school was among the two major donors to the soccer project.) Add some bleachers on the east side and it's the 5,000 number Georgetown has been looking for.  Some photos courtesy of the ND site illustrate how a small but functional place can make a difference, and certainly not at the $30-40 million figure once touted for MSF 3.0 could help build a tradition at GU.

Repeat: $5.7 million bought this:

4. Training. One cannot say enough about the fact that while football is a 12 week season, it's the 40 weeks of the off-season that turn contenders into champions. Let's put aside the fact that Georgetown's training facilities are more conceptual than actual, the efforts of Augie Maurelli need to be supported all year around so that Georgetown does not continue to become a punching-bag for opponents. Today's teams are, in general, and not player-specific, too small, too slow, and a step behind their counterparts across the league to compete. To be a winning program, Georgetown must seek, retain, and train their student athletes to be the best they can be, and there's a lot of work to be done.

5. Quarterback. Winning programs are built at QB. The great ND teams were driven by its stars at QB: Bertelli, Lujack, Hornung, Lamonica, Hanratty, Theismann, Montana. In this decade? Not as much: Carlyle Holiday, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen.

By contrast, the Georgetown slot has been a veritable revolving door. Only four QB's were needed in the 1990's: Demarest, Ring, Ward, and Mont. In the last eight years, 14 different quarterbacks (Paulus, Peterson, Booth, Crawford, Turner, Allan, Cangelosi, Hostetler, Bassuener, Lane, Lawrence, Darby, Brady, Kempf) have brought 14 different styles to the team, with no constancy, and Bassuener was, if by default, the only QB to continuously hold onto the job for more than one season.

A winning culture starts with a winning quarterback. Maybe Isaiah Kempf is four year material, maybe not.  Georgetown cannot expect to win with a week to week leader. Sucessful teams do not change horses in midstream.

6. Scheduling. Winning programs know when to schedule up, and when to schedule down. Over the years, Georgetown's schedule has been a mix of non-conference opponents added for need (Charleston Southern, FIU, San Diego), for distance (Howard, Old Dominion Richmond), and for good feeling (Yale, Penn, Brown). What it needs is more than one winnable game a year, though anyone who has Marist penciled in this year might want to wait on that.

With five non-conference games a year (assuming Fordham stays in the fold), the Hoyas need to attract opponents that can provide the Hoyas opportunities to compete and to win--no D-III teams, of course, but not Richmond, either. There's room for a marquee game every year, but scheduling strategy is a key to building a program. Notre Dame night play USC and Michigan, but they still scheduled Nevada and Stanford, too.

7. A Star. Winning programs are built on the shoulders that came before them. Before there was a Tim Tebow at Florida, there was a Danny Wuerffel and even a Steve Spurrier way back when. Even at Colgate, a Nate Eachus at runningback is in the long line of Red Raider runners from Jordan Scott to Jamaal Branch and seemingly back to Mark Van Eeghen.

There is no Long Gray Line when it comes to Georgetown football stars, but it starts, as in any successful program, with someone. In Georgetown basketball, that star wasn't a Ewing or a Mourning but Al Dutch.

"A 25 point, 15 rebound a game Parade All-American at John Carroll HS, Dutch was the first nationally ranked recruit to choose to play for the Hoyas in the John Thompson era, signing with Georgetown over national offers from Notre Dame and Duke," writes the Georgetown basketball History Project. "After two decades of Washington talent heading elsewhere, Dutch's signing elevated Georgetown's visibility to players at home and around the nation." Because without Al Dutch, maybe Craig Shelton and John Duren go elsewhere. Without Shelton and Duren, Georgetown never wins the inaugural Big East title and acquires a national reputation in 1980. Without that reputation, Patrick Ewing might easily have worn Tar Heel Blue instead of Georgetown blue.

Georgetown football needs its own Al Dutch--someone who can energize recruiting and open the doors to the next generation of players who can elevate this program.

8. Leadership Development. All winning organizations--academic, athletic, corporate, military--thrive on leadership opportunities. It does an organization no good to have a talented general and ill-equipped soldiers.

Georgetown has a great opportunity to leverage the resources at its disposal to add a layer of education into the football program available at only a handful of schools--an athletic leadership institute where players (and coaches) are part of ongoing development in character building, personal responsibility, and the tools of leadership that will prepare them for a life beyond the gridiron.

Remember the phrase "learning to win"? Winning must be learned within the context of the resources and commitments required to do so. Leveraging the learning resources at Georgetown to give football players an added advantage to a Georgetown education would be an excellent step-- not only for the final score of a game, but the larger challenges to come.

9. Publicity. In this Redskins-charged media environment, even the bigger colleges tend to be pushed off the Washington front pages, but the lack of print and broadcast coverage of Georgetown is atrocious. A winning culture does nothing if no one sees or hears about it. Some say alumni don't care about the team at 0-7, well, to be frank, how many of them even know they're 0-7? The Hoyas need to be in print, on radio, on TV. Period. And they need to...

10. Win. A culture of winning starts with results, which have been few and far between. Players can't do it alone, neither can coaches. But in the end, we are accountable as well as responsible for success as a community, as a team, and Georgetown cannot succeed in football unless (to mix sports metaphors), all oars are in the water. Right now (and another mixed metaphor ahead), Georgetown football is rowing in an eight man scull with four oars.

In the past, I've referred to a 2003 speech by Georgetown president Jack DeGioia that set the tone for much of athletics today. Delivered just a year before Craig Esherick's dismissal, the speech applies across all sports, not just basketball. It discusses expectations for students and coaches, and why a school like Georgetown is even in intercollegiate athletics to begin with. If Georgetown as a community is to rekindle a culture of winning football, it must be under some of the tenets shared in that speech. Some excerpts:

"Why do we do this? Why does a University like Georgetown invite you in and ask you to compete at the level that we do? For three reasons. First, we want to encourage performance, from young people, at the highest degree possible. We want to do this in the classroom and in the recital hall, in the news room and on the basketball court. One of our former newspaper writers here on campus won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday. Another is the Supreme Allied Commander for NATO...We want to prepare people to make a difference in the world and one of the ways we do that is by exposing them to competition at the highest level possible. We provide hundreds of opportunities for you and your classmates to develop yourselves during your undergraduate years. About 600 of our 6000 students participate in one set of these opportunities - intercollegiate athletics... A rare, special and privileged opportunity to develop yourselves, to make the most of your talents and abilities, to forge your character in a context that is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. We provide this opportunity to you because we believe this is a way in which you can fulfill your promise and potential and prepare yourselves for the world's fight.

"Second, we seek to create opportunities for the community to come together and celebrate this commitment, this expression of excellence. We want to gather this community around the experience of watching you perform at your very best. A celebration of your gifts, that can bring together an entire community.

"Third, it's fun. Enjoy this. For all of us, but especially for you, enjoy this. There is nothing quite like this. You will have other incredible experiences in your lives. Anyone who tells you these are the best years of your lives isn't really telling you the truth. You have incredible adventures ahead of you. But this is special and there is nothing you will experience that is quite like this."

And to the coaches:

"For the coaches, you accept the commitments we ask of you. And here too, there are three: (1) That each student we offer the opportunity in which to participate in this program - that each will accept the responsibilities entailed - and the first of those is to embrace the education provided here. The first commitment - that our students will receive our education and they will graduate; When I say our education, it means more than that they will graduate. It also means that they are prepared to live lives in which they will be leaders in their communities and businesses, lives in which they will be I husbands and fathers, friends, and citizens. You accept this set of responsibilities that is grounded in our 214-year tradition of Catholic and Jesuit education here on the Hilltop. (2) Secondly, that we do it honestly­, that we be above reproach - that we must set the standard for integrity in intercollegiate athletics. And we do; (3) And finally, that we win. We keep score for a reason. Everyone has a better experience when we are winning.

These are the three commitments we ask you to make when you accept the responsibility for this program. You accept the challenge of coaching in a university that places the highest priority on the academic performance of our students. We do not meet our mission if each of these young men do not perform to the best of their abilities in the classroom. You accept the challenge of setting the highest possible moral standards in the execution of our mission. And you accept the challenge of ensuring that our young men are prepared to go out...and win..."

It's time we provide Georgetown football a winning culture that we as Hoyas expect out of most (if not all) its intercollegiate sports. And with a winning team, in a new home, the phrase "welcome to Georgetown" will open the doors even wider to a new generation of Hoyas ready to rebuild football upon a strong foundation.