Monday, July 19, 2010

The Case For Better Football

In the midst of discussions about conference realignment, the issue of scholarships and football at Georgetown, a Big East school that does not play football within its conference, has led those inside and outside the Georgetown community to ask what the role football scholarships should play in its future. This is the third of a three part series on the subject asking this question across a spectrum of possibilities: the case for a different view of a sustainable funding model.

So, what can be learned from the previous two installments of this series? Just two points, I'm afraid.

One, Georgetown cannot effectively compete without increased support. Two, that Georgetown cannot, on its own, afford the level of support needed to effectively compete.The key sentence in these two points is not "cannot"; instead, it is "effective"--what is the effective level of competition which Georgetown sees in its program? Amidst the annual budgets and the storm clouds of a Patriot League arms race, this is the question that needs definition.

Every school answers it, even subconsciously. The effective level of competition at Notre Dame is to compete for a national championship; when it falls short, failure is seen as the result. It's been 22 years since ND was awarded a national title and they've gone through five coaches as a result.

The effective level at Boston College is not to expect national title considersation but to aim for a New Year's Day bowl bid. The fans come to BC to see a winner, but Jan 7 on the calendar is not the sole criterion for the program.

In I-AA, similar decisions follow. It took a quarter century, but the effective level of Villanova is to annually compete for the I-AA title, and they did it, spending about 18% of a $25 million athletic budget to get in a position to do so. Fordham spends almost as much, even in its formerly non-scholarship days, but its effective goal (for now) is to make the I-AA playoffs, where post-season success is a notable accopmplishment but not an expectation.

Jack DeGioia and Dan Porterfield have reiterated a refrain amidst the grumbling over the state of the football program: there is a place for football at Georgetown. But concurrent with the talk about whether the curent philosophy is a workable one for the future,  the University has to do a better job to answer what that place is, to restate the effective level of competition it expects from its players and coaches, and by extension, the effective level of expectations that the fan base should commit to.

Nearly forty years ago, former athletic director Frank Rienzo advocated a tiered system for Georgetown athletics based on budgets, traditions, and the competitive landscape, and defined them in specific. The "national" sports were those where the goal of competing for the national championship was a stated one, and these sports would get the program and scholarship support to make that a reasonable goal (basketball, track, and later, lacrosse were identified thusly). A second tier, the "regional" sports, were not built for NCAA titles but were otherwise capable of competing within a conference and limited scholarship support would be provided to strive for occasional post-season honors (soccer, golf, rowing etc.) A third tier, the "local" sports, offered more in competition than performance, without scholarship support, and where the post-season was a lofty goal but by no means an expectation (baseball, swimming, field hockey). The Big East conference didn't always agree (e.g., they didn't want any of its sports funded at a local level), but the general framework existed to this day.

As to football, it was considered a regional sport. Is is still such, and can it be funded as such in the future?

Among GU sports, football ($1.5 million) trails only basketball and track in program expenditures, but as a percentage of expenses (1.6%) it is the lowest spend among any of its peers. A school like Lafayette spends 36% of its entire athletic budget on football alone--a similar outlay at GU would devote a Big East-sized $10.4 million to football. But Georgetown is not Lafayette.

An outsider can assume Georgetown does not want to be Notre Dame in football; if it did, it is failing miserably. It does not appear to want to be BC, either. Does it aspire to compete programmatically and philosophically with Villanova? What about Holy Cross? Duquesne? Sacred Heart? Or something even less? For a number of years GU got along in the D-III world and excelled in the MAAC because many of its its member schools had even less of a commitment; not surprisingly, most of these are in the football graveyard today. The past ten years of the Patriot have rendered the 1993 cost contwainment model somewhat obsolete. A move by Fordham to open the door to 60 scholarships could make it dangerous.

Answering the question to what is Georgetown's effective place in the college football firmament sets in course the follow-up--how to excel in that framework. A school doesn't have to compete for a bowl game or a national title to crerate a positive experience for coaches, players, and fans. But absent a set of clear marching orders, it can run adrift of the changing currents of the sport.

The case for better football is a three-pronged approach. It starts at the university level, with a clear statement of where the sport is, where GU expects it to be (because it's probably not there now), and what it is willing to do to meet this goal. A $1.5 million budget is a receipt for 2-9 and 3-8 seasons for the forseeable future--is Georgetown OK with that? If not, what is the roadmap to increased funding?

Comparisons matter. Georgetown baseball has gone 24 years without a winning season and this is accepted as a matter of course. The last time the men's basketball team was under .500, they fired the coach. With different expectations come clarity and, presumably, a better focus on what can (and will ) be judged as success. Fans like myself can ask why the MSF stands as a model to inactivity, but if the priorities don't support it, at least we'll know why.

The case for better football continues at the donor level. A clear positioning statement provides the donor base with a mandate on how and to what degree it can provide both substantive and meaningful support. What would one scholarship "buy" Georgetown as to its competitive position? What would ten do? What would 50 do?  This is not something the Gridiron Club has done a good job in communicating, but to be fair, it's not like Georgetown has been clear about it, either, athletic or otherwise.

Where is your $10 gift doing the most good? Your $100 gift? Your $1,000 gift?  Your $1 million gift?

So, to that end, what is the priority list for Georgetown football? In any particular order, it could be:

  • Finishing the MSF
  • Securing better competition
  • Improved recruiting budget
  • Merit scholarships
  • Need based aid
  • Coaching salaries
  • Media (TV, radio contracts)
  • Travel
  • Program support
  • Game day activities
  • Ancillary support (cheerleaders, marching band)
  • Training and athletic support
The key, of course, is the order. If finishing the MSF is #4 on the list, don't treat it like it is the #1 priority. If it is #1, don't do the opposite.

The third area for better football is at the team level. Are the players doing what it takes to improve; presumably yes, but is Georgetown providing students with the best coaching to effectively compete? Are we providing the coaches the framework with which to teach? Is Georgetown (as institution, as donors, and as friends) balancing the needs of support with its institutional priorities? (Buying a brand new bus, for example, doesn't mean as much if Georgetown suddenly joins the Ohio Valley Conference instead of the Patriot League.)

Concurrently, with expectations come review. Georgetown's four year record since 2006 can be rationalized and justififed ad nauseum, but it still reflects poorly on the team, its coaches, and the University, absent a set of priorities and expectations. If we don't expect 10-1 every season, fine. But where is the line drawn, and what is the standard by which to judge the team when it does not step up?

The case for better football comes down to one directive: it's time for Georgetown to chart a course and move it forward. Just as the strategy of 1964 was a foundation, not a roadmap for the intevening years, strategy is groundless without a plan in place to meet its goals. It doesn't have to be two stone tablets from the mountaintop--various constituencies can be valuable in the dialogue and GU might be surprised at how a few key individuals could add significantly to the conversation for the very reason that they were asked to do so.

The question has never been "can Georgetown compete?" Of course it can. The question isn't "will Georgetown compete?", either--with resources, that question answers itself. The question is, at least on this blog, "tell us where you want to go, and let's get there together".

That's not just a good idea. It's a better one.