Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ten Years After

It seems so long ago. Maybe because it was.

If you opened the Washington Post on January 19, 2000 , you would have read about the start of President Clinton’s last year in office, the first Republican caucus of the campaign year between the two leading GOP candidates, businessman Steve Forbes and Texas governor George W. Bush, and rising public concerns about spiking gasoline prices—a gallon of unleaded gas was now $1.25, up from just $0.89 a year ago.

And there on the Post's sports page, the front of the sports page no less, was the announcement that Georgetown University was joining the Patriot League.

I note the front page because it was the first time Georgetown football had made it to C1 of the Post since Scotty Glacken was let go in 1993, and the Hoyas haven’t made the front page since. But it was a turning point for Georgetown’s football history and despite the losses which followed, it was a big change.

Difficult as it may be to some football fans today to conceive, Georgetown was a team on the rise in 1999. Coming off consecutive nine-win seasons, with its head coach pursued by Princeton for its vacant head coaching job, talk of a new stadium coming by, oh, 2003, and a team winning many of its conference games with relative ease (its final two games of the season were won by a combined score of 101-13), times were good for the Hoyas. But Bob Benson knew better, and he led the change for the Hoyas to apply to the Patriot League and leave the MAAC.

“The move to the Patriot League is an expensive one,” said Benson. “For Georgetown University to make this decision, the change must not only be a positive move for the football program, but for the entire university. There must be a vision! Our president, Father Leo O'Donovan , a great man and a true friend, had such a vision. It is really quite simple. 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.”

Because for all its MAAC success, Iona and Siena weren’t rivals for Georgetown, the Ivies were. But Ivy schools didn’t deign to play MAAC schools, and to get Georgetown on the Ivy radar screen, it needed a step up.

Georgetown wasn’t the first school grabbing a rowboat to leave the sinking MAAC but the most prominent. The league maintained a stand-pat policy in the intervening years, as six MAAC schools dropped the sport and left it with two remaining; Duquesne and Marist. (Of the original six schools in 1993, Georgetown is the only survivor.)  However much of a beat-down the PL has become for Georgetown’s win-loss record, and it has, it prevented a much more ominous situation in the fracturing of its former conference.

No one, certainly not the perpetually optimistic Benson, could have quite foreseen what followed. Or maybe he did. After the Hoyas 2001 season opener, a 41-14 loss to Lehigh, a lot of us fans were not altogether disappointed—give Benson a couple of years worth of recruiting classes and Georgetown is going to start beating these teams, or so we thought. The look on Benson’s face that day suggested otherwise.

Absent a larger financial aid budget, Georgetown wasn’t going to out-recruit anyone and that dynamic hasn’t changed much in the last ten years. Georgetown, a welterweight champion in the MAAC, was fighting above its weight class and getting pounded every week for it. The budget didn’t grow significantly past 2004, the Multi-Sport Facility got no institutional traction, and in Benson’s last meeting at Hoyas Unlimited, he handed out copies of a newspaper article detailing how Lafayette was now recruiting alongside Richmond, and had plans to update the decaying Fisher Field. “This is what we’re up against,” he said.

“I covered their first game in the league back on Labor Day weekend of 2001,” said Allentown sports writer Keith Groller. “Lehigh beat them 41-14 that day in Washington and Georgetown talked about how far away they were from competing in the Patriot League. Eight seasons later and they're still far away.”

Ten years taught Georgetown a hard lesson about the cost of change. What will the next ten years bring?

For whatever fans say about it, the Patriot League has been a safe harbor for Georgetown’s football aspirations. It opened the door to Ivy league schools (in its first game in 2003, a 42-20 win over Cornell, albeit 10 straight losses since) and raised the talent level from what it could realistically reach as a MAAC school. But the upcoming questions facing the league over scholarships cast a shadow over its future; one, I would argue, has parallels to the choices made by the MAAC two decades earlier. Georgetown survived the 2000’s because it was a relatively strong program; by contrast, St. John’s and the MAAC brethren had no foundation from which to weather the storm. What do the 2010’s bring?

At a I-AA message board I frequent, I refer to it as the “lady or the tiger” scenario for the league in addressing Fordham’s "request" to convert its program from a PL-style non-scholarship arrangement to a full fledged 60 scholarship program beginning this season, with I-A opponents like Army and Connecticut on the Rams’ schedule within three years. Put aside the competitive question (e.g., if GU can’t beat Fordham now, how does it beat them with 60 scholarships?) and consider these four choices awaiting the PL presidents:

1. Reject Fordham’s scholarship demand and Fordham is gone, with no realistic replacements on the horizon and followed by rising fears that the league will become non-competitive.

2. Go full steam ahead on 60 scholarships and watch Georgetown and Bucknell instantly become non-competitive. The PL runs the risk that other teams will face potential Title IX impacts to scholarship funding and thus imperil the conference as a whole.

3. Let Fordham have its scholarships but no one else, a recipe for trouble down the road when Colgate and Lehigh want what Fordham has...and can’t get it.

4. Leave it to each school on its own to add as many scholarships as they choose, and invite an arms race among the schools. Four schools will have 50 or more scholarships, Bucknell will be two steps behind, and Georgetown will be at the back of the line, not unlike option 2 and not unlike where it stands today. But how do you grow a program (or build a stadium) going 1-10 every year and having your students and alumni grow accustomed to losing 52-7 every week?

Answer: you don’t. And that's a huge problem.

It’s much too simplistic to say that it’s a case of “reject scholarships and lose Fordham, add them and lose Georgetown.” Institutionally speaking, GU has no philosophical prohibition against scholarship athletics and I’m sure it could have some small number of grants available if it came to pass (emphasis on the phrase “small number”). It may be a more telling issue at places like Bucknell or Lafayette, or at a Holy Cross program whose abandonment of scholarships in the 1980’s opened a huge tear in that college’s athletic fabric. Is it still “Ivy lite” if the PL doesn’t play by the Ivy’s rules?

Whatever the outcome, something is coming. And history teaches that while you can’t always change an outcome, you can adapt to it, and in doing so Georgetown can be successful in these uncharted waters if it is prepared to make commitments to do so. It’s been said that it is not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent, but those most responsive to change.

Ten years from now, maybe Georgetown is the king of the Patriot League; maybe it’s sitting at 1-10 and wondering why the MSF never got built. But it has the opportunity to chart its own course: following the PL's lead, or finding other solutions which better meet its needs. Maybe that course keeps Georgetown in the PL in ten years, maybe it's a new conference option down the road with more like-minded programs.

The future of the Patriot League is changing, one way or another. And the year 2020 is now as close to Georgetown as the day it joined the league.