Friday, March 19, 2010

D.C. Cup: R.I.P.

Along the row of trophies that surrounding the foyer of McDonough Gymnasium, amidst boxing gloves and leather helmets of bygone eras, sits the Steven Dean Memorial Trophy. Named for an inspirational student of Georgetown in the early 1970's who served as sports information director at Catholic University before his death, the trophy was the manifestation of a fierce if largely forgotten rivalry between a pair of former Division I football powers that trudged in the isolation of Division III. Where once Dutch Bergman and Jack Hagerty were leading their respective teams to the Orange Bowl, these schools now fought annually on the windswept confines of Kehoe Field and the rotting remains of what was Brookland Stadium.

Now placed somewhere in an office in Burr Gymnasium. the D.C [Mayor's] Cup will not get a place on the trophy shelf of Howard University's honors, much less Adrian Fenty's post-mayoral holdings. More likely, someone will throw it away for no good reason. Which, in hindsight, says a lot about a rivalry that never was, and two schools that snared apathy from the jaws of opportunity.

When announced on April 24, 2008, it was an idea whose time had come, especially with the District's two I-AA teams both in need of a boost in attention. "I have seen both schools play over the years and as a Washingtonian, I always wondered why we we're not playing each other," said Dwight Datcher, the new Howard athletic director who was a longtime member of the Georgetown staff, including a tour as an assistant basketball coach under John Thompson in the 1970's. "It is a plus for both institutions because it will involve students, alumni and faculty."

The Howard coaching staff even seemed excited.

"This is something that is long overdue", said HU coach Corey Bailey. "It makes sense to have the game since we are the only two Division 1 football playing schools in Washington. These are two outstanding academic institutions and this match-up will bring together alumni, students and fans."

Just two years later, the Cup is no more. Howard announced its 2010 schedule this year, opening with Holy Cross, not Georgetown. For its part, Georgetown has traded for Bison of another herd--namely, North Dakota State, where at least the game will be indoors at the 19,000 seat Fargodome and outside the elements of the approaching North Dakota winter.

The D.C. elements (natural and man-made) proved to foreshadow a rivalry that never was.

In 2008, the game was postponed for the arrival of an incoming tropical storm that brushed past the D.C. area. Played a day later, an announced crowd of 6,085 saw Georgetown (no, make that Kenny Mitchell) walk off with a win, 12-7. Few students from either school showed, few alumni, fewer still from the press.
And aside from a general sense of pride to open the season, Georgetown's bump for the game was minimal, losing its next eight of nine. Howard fared none better, finishing 1-10.

In 2009, the elements returned, only in the form of a cold, miserable rain. The crowds expected from Howard never materialized-- not even the band showed up. The Homecoming crowd at GU was so dispirited (some said, disgusted) by the poor play on the field that most deserted the MSF by the second quarter. The teams combined for 246 yards in penalties in a 14-11 finish was viewed by no more than 500 by the end of the game, and not more than 100 across the field. Georgetown had a first and goal at the two yard line late in the game and proceeded to call three quarterback sneaks without success. Howard won back the Cup and any bragging rights thereto, and proceeded to finish the season with one more win. Georgetown never got closer to a win all year.

Not with a bang, but a whimper, the Cup went unfilled. Datcher, by all accounts a good athletic director, ran into the inertia that grips Howard atheltics, and was replaced at year's end by vice provost Charles Gibbs. That a vice provost moves into athletics should say something about Howard athletics, but it was at best a lateral move.

"You have to credit and mock HU for making this move this way," wrote the HBCU Sports Journal. "Likely, they were fully aware of the kind of pushback the alumni and students would have against a reviled university executive obtaining more power in the school leadership structure. Perhaps Gibbs, in tandem with University Relations, figured if they never announced the move, no one would know until it really mattered – such as a major gift coming into the department, or the firing of a coach. Perhaps they believed that by the time fans noticed that [Gibbs] was in charge, more pressing issues would be at hand than his clandestine hiring."

"They aren’t at liberty to tell the story of a former admissions officer rising through the ranks to head an athletic department, because his career path is the only thing more illogical than his appointment as athletic director. They can’t expect donations to come fluttering from Heaven; neither roses nor checks fall easily at the feet of disgraced executives."

To an outsider, Howard University exists in its own world. To the Bison, Howard is the "Mecca", the Harvard of HBCU's, but its athletic teams remain at the bottom of Division I. Excepting the street party called Homecomning, the Bison averaged just 2,715 a game this season, not much more than the 2,400 or so at the grim MSF. The basketball team finished 7-25 and drew 991 a game. For a school which rightly prides itself on some of the best students in the HBCU market, it lags considerably behind its HBCU peers in sports, much less other local schools, and after all these years, football there remains more than a well kept secret. So maybe it's not so surprising that with Howard struggling against a team such as Georgetown, the new athletic leadership wanted to walk away.

The two games drew a total of 8,715. Would it have been any different at a neutral site--RFK Stadium, perhaps? Would a marketing campaign corodinated between the schools have made a difference, with a TV broadcast? Could an effort to invite all the local high school kids in the District have made it a true city-wide event? And for its part, couldn't the mayor's office have even bothered to issue a simple press release about it?

These are things that take time, patience, initiaitve, planning and money. Neither school seems to have much of any at this point, much less the city iself.

There hasn't been a truly meaningful "bragging rights" football game in the city since the old DC city title high school football games, which drew as many as 50,000 to RFK before a riot broke out after the 1962 Eastern-St. John's game, and the game was soon discontinued. The DCIAA "city title" now draws friends and family crowds, dwarfed by the Maryland and Virginia schools beyond its borders. The last time these schools got a headline, it was the announcement that Coolidge HS had hired a woman as head football coach.

On the college front, the Eagle Bank Bowl was begun to draw local interest in football, and drew just 23,000 this past December, one of the smallest bowl turnouts nationwide...and yet no one considered and/or pursued local sponsorship of Georgetown-Howard? With two of the most prominent universities right within its borders, the efforts to promote the D.C. Cup were so half-hearted as to suggest that neither school really cared enough about it to make it a priority, and it's now already forgotten, much  like the teams themselves.

"The Bison open the season on September 4 against Holy Cross in Worcester, MA," writes the Howard atheltics web site announcing its schedule. "Holy Cross is a perennial contender in the Football Championships Subdivision", something they did not say about Georgetown.

Georgetown hasn't announced its schedule. Rest assured it won't mention Howard like that.

So next time fans gripe and moan that the schools of the area won't play each other, ask them about the D.C. Cup.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Help Wanted

The second week in March is a rite of passage on the Georgetown athletics calendar, the week that no matter what the sport, eyes are fixed on New York.

For 30 years, the Big East men's tournament has become a magnet not only for the basketball fans among us (myself included), but for much of the Georgetown athletics and development staff-- a time to reconnect with the New York base, meet some new fundraising contacts, and take part in the conference's showplace event.  While not in the Big East, football has also taken advantage of the weekend over the years, with alumni receptions and meet-and-greets with the head coach.
And over the years, you couldn't miss a Frank Rienzo, a Joe Lang, or a Bernard Muir moving quickly through the halls at the Affinia Southgate or Madison Square Garden, because this was no week off for them. Come to think of it, there are no weekends off for that position. But for only the second time in 30 years, Georgetown heads to the Big East in continued search of an athletic director, and the time it has taken to fill the position says a lot about how important (and daunting) the challenge is.

At first glance, it would seem to be a job with a lot of takers:

"Help Wanted:  Top 25 university in BCS-level Division I conference invites nominations and applications for Director of Athletics. Sucessful candidate will lead an award-winning intercollegiate program with a budget comparable to Mississippi State and New Mexico, the largest budget of any major school not playing I-A football. Extensive national coverage during winter months on CBS and ESPN, with instantly identifiable worldwide brand for licensing opportunities. Frequent exposure to national leaders, professional athletes, and local celebrities in vicinity. Work may extend to nights and weekends, some travel required."

Were it that easy! The days where an athletic director was an early retirement job for an ex-coach are long, long gone. No more are the days where an athltic director would pay the bills, say hello to a visiting trustee on their way through town, and get in a couple of rounds of golf before the weekend--it's literally become the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, with 150 employees, 800 participants, and more than a few alumni and fans who mistakenly think the athletic director answers to them. Little wonder that when Michigan hired its new director, it hired a former CEO from Domino's Pizza. Faculty bemoan how athletics is a business, but if it's not run with sound business principles, things break down in a hurry, unlike the glacial pace of academia, where tenure is a lifetime pass and philosophy professors don't have to present a win-loss record to keep their jobs.

In April 2009, the Wilmington News-Journal announced Georgetown AD Bernard Muir was a candidate for the director's post at Delaware. That surprised a lot of people, especially as Muir was considered a rising star in NCAA  circles and, to most, Delaware is not a step up from Georgetown. But unless someone is prepared to make Georgetown their last career stop, the employment door swings two ways: you either open the door or someone opens the door for you. Muir decided to exit on his own terms a month later, and for the last 10 months, Georgetown has been on the lookout for his sucessor.

(It bears repeating that Georgetown has been well served by interim director Dan Porterfield, who has done great work to keep things on an even keel and whose service to this University deserves a lot of praise. Of course, Dan already has a job at Georgetown (sometimes more than one) and interim does not mean indefinite, so the need to bring in a new leader is as important for him as it is for the coaches and players.)

It's not surprising that the search has taken this long--the next paragraph of this fictional job listing would give any serious candidate pause:

"Candidate must manage largest intercollegiate program in conference with less resources per student than any peer school. Must manage revenue stream of one sport with rising scholarship and program needs of 28 other teams, 25 of which have no revenue potential. Must work within university bureaucracy to help raise approx. $10-15 million for athletics annually. Must promptly address over $100 million in deferred/delayed construction projects without funds in hand, with extremely limited space, and with no debt financing. Candidate must have all teams competing at highest competitive levels and to still graduate 100% of seniors amidst rigorous educational requirements, without scandal or sanction." 

This is not an easy situation. There is no T. Boone Hoya waiting to fill the cofffers, no Yum Brands or FedEx waiting to build an athletics campus down the street. A sixty year old building houses a staff of 150 when it was built for six. Kehoe Field has been unplayable for seven years, the track and field program hasn't seen its on-campus track in almost 14 years. Baseball field? Gone. Two 100-yard fields are the remaining sources of outdoor athletic space not just for teams, but for 6,500 students. A boathouse has been in the planning stages since the second term of the Reagan administration.

And then there's football--where does an new AD start with this? Georgetown isn't sitting at the bottom of the Big East, it's sitting with a 1-22 record in the Patriot League over the last four seasons. Recruits see aging, temporary bleachers surrounded by piles of construction dirt, and coaches are still expected to outrecruit Yale and Princeton for kids with a 1400 SAT and a 4.8 in the 40...and stay within two touchdowns of them in the process. 

But through it all, the most important part of the job listing reads: "Georgetown University". It's the tie that binds this job to a wealth of great opportunitiss and possibilities, no less with a football program that could do so much more with a strong athletic director at the helm. Richmond went from almost downgrading its football program to national champions in six years, and will debut a $25 million on-campus stadium this season. If Georgetown got behind its football program, the turnaround could be almost as dramatic.

Yes, it's a tough job, but Georgetown can't long survive in major college athletics without an athletic director, one who will not only articulate the strategic visiton of athletics at the University, but chart a course for it to succeed and excel. It might just be the second toughest job at the school.

The toughest? The president that has to hire him.