Friday, December 4, 2009

Acres of Diamonds

What's the worst thing about being an 0-11 team in November? Being one in December.

The last week or so has seen an outpouring of Internet grumbling over the winless Hoyas, who commanded little or no media attention in their weekly losses but seems to have become a point of discussion following the euthanasia of programs at Northeastern and Hofstra. Bad teams are supposed to clean house the weekend after the season finale, right?

"The alarming thing about Georgetown is they're doing nothing to fix their situation," writes one posted on a I-AA message board. "They haven't fired their coach and they've made no progress in updating their facilities. The fact that the coach has remained is the most curious of all imo. The program has hit rock bottom, shows no signs of life yet the course looks to continue. What's the point?"

Back at the HoyaTalk message board, a familiar writer to the site suggests this:  "I think Georgetown has 5-10 years left to prove to the community that there is still a place for football on the Hilltop. Otherwise, the program will keep falling down the slippery slope of doom, gloom, apathy, irrelevance, and embarrassment that this campus-wide joke has become."

The distinction between these two lines of thought is the difference between the word "won't" and "can't". The first writer thinks Georgetown won't remedy its situaiton, the second suggests it can't, which is a more serious contention; yet, I don't believe either.

But if you're under the age of 30, if you've never seen Georgetown written in an article that didn't involve a sports writer's tongue firmly in cheek, or if the only optimism you've seen on the program is that erstwhile New York Times feature on Bernard Muir and the future greatness of Hoya Football, one can be excused for being melancholy about the whole thing. Excused, but not absolved. Time to look forward.

So in this off-season, as the S.S. Georgetown is stuck on the shoals of college football, now is not the time to drop anchor, but get back out in the water. 

Growing up in Texas, I got to follow some great college football...and some really awful football, too. Chief offenders of the latter were the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University, who endured five winning seasons from 1966 to 1997 and were the source of many a joke in the rugged Southwest Conference.

Esteemed writer Dan Jenkins observed that "Fans in the stadium learned to cheer for first downs, to holler at the offense "Hold 'Em Frogs", and once, a large hand-made sign appeared in the student section proclaiming: "We're #115."

They played in a battered old stadium and their best days were behind them. Attendance was nominal, and recruits took notice. From 1974-78, the Frogs were 8-49, 2-36 in league play.

No one was trying to drum them out of the league or to drop football. But when the SWC met its demise and the big schools went elsewhere, TCU was left behind in a big way, and people got serious about what to do. The school reached out to local businessmen, the so-called "Committee of 100",  to help reinvest local interest (and local dollars) into the program. Facility upgrades followed. Recruiting, still a second of third choice to Big 12 programs, began to pick up gems the big schools missed.

One of them was a running back from San Diego, and today his photo proudly stands at the entrance to its stadium, along with legends from days gone by:

And it was more than just players. TCU started hiring coaches that were good enough to be capable of being hired away elsewhere, and soon were (Pat Sullivan was nearly hired by LSU, Dennis Franchione by Alabama). Following Franchione's exit, the school promoted its defensive coordinator, Gary Patterson, and hasn't looked back. Over the past ten years, only Southern Cal has a better winning percentage among all Division I-A private schools than TCU. (Not even Notre Dame.) Patterson, thought to be in the running for the vacant ND job, just signed a contract extension. And why not? He's built something special.

Two weeks ago, TCU finished 12-0 with a thorough pounding of New Mexico, 51-10 and stands waiting for a BCS bowl. A generation ago, no, a decade ago, this would have been unthinkable. TCU was the Temple of Southwestern football (and look at Temple these days!)

What changed? What got these stands filled time and time again in a region full of Longhorn and Aggie fans?

 What got a student body not much larger than Georgetown to fill these stands?

 What got hundreds of children to line up before the game to "run" with their home town team?

Because TCU has discovered a truism that Georgetown hasn't: you don't need to look far to build a base of support. But first you've got to work at it.

In 1890, a Baptist educator named Russell Conwell toured the countryside telling a story, considered one of the most memorable speeches of the 19th century. Royalties from the speech made him enough money to fund a struggling Baptist school in Philadelphia he called Temple University, and to this day it remains a hallmark among motivational speakers. Known as the "Acres of Diamonds" speech, it carried a simple message--before one goes searching the world for success, take stock of what one has right now, and start using those resources to build wealth.

Wrote Rev. Conwell: "Greatness consists not in holding some office; greatness really consists in doing some great deed with little means, in the accomplishment of vast purposes from the private ranks of life, that is true greatness."

It was true in Conwell's time, as he built Temple into a major research university.

It was true for TCU, as they have built a major college program from the wreckage of years of futility.

Most importantly (for this column), it is true for Georgetown. But first it's got to work at it.

We bemoan (and I am sometimes guilty of same) that Georgetown doesn't have the tools it takes to compete. Not to compete in the Big East, of course, but even among smaller private schools. And yet, look around and see the diamonds on the fringe of that forsaken field called the MSF:

  • This is a University that provides educational opportunities unmatched by any Catholic school in the nation, a peer with the major research universities of the nation. 
  • This is a University that can recruit, educate, and graduate a cross section of conscientious leaders from its football program for generations to come, whether they be CEO's, field generals, or college presidents.
  • This is a school whose contacts provide its football student-athletes significant internship and networking opportunities for careers that will exceed their expectations and open doors that will change their lives and the lives of others.
  • This is a University with a vast network of alumni that have played football for the school, willing and able to devote resources towards student support, facility improvement, and coaching development.
  • This is a University whose representatives can walk in to a recruit's home anywhere in the nation and tell its story.
  • This is a University fully capable of attracting outstanding student-athletes, near as well as far, who can compete at a designated level and provide its students and alumni success on and off the field of play, with or without the comforts that other schools may enjoy.
  • This is a University with a proud football tradition dating back to the very origins of the sport, with a long-term record of competitive success that ought to be cherished and embraced rather than ignored and minimized.

And look around! Look at the diamonds in its midst! This is a University that can certainly compete and win at the Division I-AA level and bring honor and distinction to its legacy. One doesn't have to go to a BCS bowl to do it, either. Georgetown has resources at its disposal Northeastern never had, and Hofstra never will! But first it's got to work at it.

The basketball folks like to say we are Georgetown, and so "we" are. But if Georgetown can excel with honor in basketball, in track, in lacrosse, rowing, sailing, et al., it can do the same in football, I'm convinced of it. That its own students (much less alumni and Internet message boards) haven't heard that message is a problem in need of solving.

It won't be easy, but that's not the issue.

"Difficulty," wrote Edward R. Murrow, "is the excuse history never accepts."