Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Here's Your MSF

  Yes, I still have the t-shirt. No, I'm not going to wear it at John Carroll Weekend.

On a cold and rainy Saturday not that long ago, I found my way across a mud-filled Harbin Field to a tent filled with alumni, parents, and assorted development officials. Speeches were made, shovels were cast into the dirt, and celebratory t-shirts were handed out. It read:


What I most remember wasn't the speeches or the plaudits, but one single remark. I forget to this day who said it to me, albeit in passing, but I remember the message, endemic of what this project has become. "The worst thing that can happen," he said, "is for people to be content with what they have right now."

That remark--and that t-shirt-- are reminders to me that not much changed since those shovels turned the dirt on Harbin Field five years ago, and we're all the lesser for it.

"The Field With No Name" has become a sad monument to Georgetown Football, from the temporary seats (that were being finished the morning of the home opener with Brown) that never went away, to the sand that piles up on its fringes from other construction projects more favorably blessed in the University's capital budget. The message this project has sent to prospective students and prospective opponents is an exceedingly poor one--it's the academic equivalent of setting up trailers on Healy Lawn and telling people that this is the library until we get the real one built.

A Google search brings up all kinds of old articles about the place, some official, some less so. "The proposed design will feature permanent spectator seating for 4,652, a two-story press box with VIP seating, sports lighting and sound system, a digital video screen and scoreboard," reads

"Freshmen expect the typical autumn football experience, where you go watch your team win on Saturday, and that hasn’t happened,” GUSA president Ben Shaw told the New York Times. “But at the same time, no one wants football eliminated. We just want it to get better. But people are waiting and wondering. The Multi-Sport Field," he said, "is a metaphor for where things stand at Georgetown."

"The present hiatus in the construction process — albeit brief, we’re sure — will minimize interference with game schedules and allow more time for fundraising efforts," wote the HOYA in 2005. "The stadium, with seating for 4,500, will guarantee enough room for every Hoya fan. New locker rooms, videoconference rooms and a training facility will be housed within the stadium itself."

"Students, faculty, administrators and alumni — and hopefully local community members — agree that the future of Georgetown relies on the betterment of existing programs. That future starts right now."

Or not.

And yet, two hours south of campus, there is a construction project that bears more than a passing resemblance to the MSF, in form as well as function. Welcome To the University of Richmond.

There are numerous photo galleries available on the project, which began in 2006 after the University received approval from the City of Richmond to leave city-owned UR Stadium (capacity, 21,750) to renovate its track stadium (First Market Stadium) and build an on-campus facility of  about 7,800 seats by the 2009 season.

"The expanded Robins Stadium will be a permanent multi-sport venue [emphasis added] serving the University's football, lacrosse, soccer and track programs," writes a UR fact sheet. "The current off-campus facility used for home football outdated and does not meet the needs of our growing football program in 2008....The Robins Stadium expansion has been carefully planned to minimize impact on the surrounding communities, and to further enhance the University's national reputation for having one of the most beautiful campuses in America."

Beginning this fall, UR students and fans will experience an on campus facility that provides year-round use for teams, coaches offices, concesssions, box seating, and modern scoreboard amenities. In a nod to student versus alumni seating patterns, the lower level of seating is reserved for students but built so that if students want to stand, it doesn't block the more sedentary fans above them. It will not be the biggest facility in its conference, but serve as a showplace to the program and a source of campus pride among the university and its community.

This is not to say that the Richmond project enjoyed smooth sailing--progress stalled in 2008 until the Robins family, stalwart supporters of that university, agreed to fund the remainder of the project to see it to conclusion, with the new facility opening in 2010, a year behind original plans. Ironically, Georgetown was scheduled to be among the first opponents to play in Robins Stadium before the parties cancelled the series late last year. Who will be the first opponents in a completed Multi-Sport Facility, no one knows.

And while one can make a case that a smaller school like Richmond has more major donors at its disposal than Georgetown does (a dubious argument, but one nonetheless), Robins Stadium is under construction now because it is a priority--not just for UR Football, but for the university as a whole. Richmond could have easily moved the football program on campus and put up temporary bleachers and be done with it, but at what price, and at what cost? Never mind what it will do to the fan experience and recruiting (two things sorely lacking at Georgetown in its current setup), Robins Stadium will be a visible statement that UR is committed to doing what is right for its campus and for its students.

Few great universities would put up a temporary building, do nothing with it for five years and be satisfied with it.  Georgetown would not have considered putting up temporary housing in the New South parking lot and calling it the Southwest Quadrangle. It would not have considered knocking out some drywall in the Ryan Administration building and hand it over to the fine arts department as its new facility. But five years later, where is the person that works outside McDonough Gym that sees this monument to institutional inertia and expects something better?

Well, Dan Porterfield does, but few others have said as much publicly.

"It is crucial that we complete the Multi-Sport Field," Porterfield wrote seven months ago in September, the last official mention of the project. "Our goals will stay the same: To improve our teams' game-day experience, to make the venue more fan-friendly, and to construct an aesthetically pleasing facility. As we develop new options for this important project in the coming months, we look forward to sharing its details with our friends and donors."

The question is not what what happeed over the last seven months or the last five years, but when there will be a visible and tangible move forward for the student, alumni, and donor community--not talk, not shovels, but actual construction.  (As a point of disclosure, I'm one of these donors, albeit a meager one. In the early part of this decade, I made the largest gift to GU I had made to date, $1,000, to buy the equivalent of a seat in the new MSF that was to open in 2003, then 2005, then....well, whenever. In the intervening years, I've never received correspondence from University Development as to what my $1,000 bought, if they want a second gift out of me, or even if there'll be a "seat" after all.) The diminished returns for Hoya football in the Kevin Kelly era coupled with fading aspirations for the true promise of what a new facility can mean-- not just to Georgetown athletically but holistically-- may leave some bureaucrat to ask why it can't just be left as it is now, with a few pieces of wood here and some more gravel there, and spend the money on something else.

What was true in 2005 is true in 2010: "The worst thing that can happen is for people to be content with what they have right now."

And five years later, there's far too much contentment going around. Maybe I'll pack the t-shirt after all.