Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Where The East Begins

Georgetown fans of a certain age remember the story. In his first week of practices in the fall of 1972, 30 year old John Thompson pointed to the empty wall on the southern side of McDonough Gymnasium and told his players a national championship banner would hang there. For a team coming off a 3-23 season, it must have sounded crazy.

About as crazy as someone telling his friends, “someday, Texas Christian University will play in the Rose Bowl and play Big East basketball.”

(And even less likely than winning the national championship.)

Monday’s announcement of TCU joining the Big East conference has spun off more than its share of “Why?” from the working press as well as the blogosphere. A world where TCU and Providence College are partners seems as incongruous as a cattle drive down Kennedy Plaza. But a better question is not “Why?” (read=it’s football) but “How?”. That’s a question Georgetown and its football constituents ought to think about.

Much like the Big East in its earliest days, the eight team Southwest Conference was the place where everybody knew each other and almost everyone was a winner. Four private schools (Rice, SMU, TCU, Baylor) stood side by side with four public schools (Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Texas Tech) and, as often as any, the private schools held the upper hand. From 1941 to 1980, Texas A&M qualified for just one Cotton Bowl, but TCU went to five. Indeed, the late 1950’s saw four straight years where the private school team won the conference title.

Soon, things changed. Pro football siphons away fans. State schools began to offer unlimited scholarships, and suddenly Texas and Arkansas were picking off kids to sit on the fifth string that could start at Rice or TCU. And the losses mounted. And mounted. Beginning in 1966, TCU had 25 losing seasons of its next 27, amidst a run where the Horned Frogs were 28-100 over a ten year stretch from 1972-1982.

And it didn’t get any better. From 1971 through 1990, TCU was 5-55 in games against conference heavyweights Texas, Texas A&M, and Arkansas (three of those wins were against Arkansas). It was possible for someone to go through four years at TCU, marry, have a kid, and have that child go to TCU, graduate…and still have not seen a win over Texas in the intervening years. So it was no great surprise when, upon the first major realignment of the modern era, the public schools kicked the private schools to the curb, (with Baylor added only upon the severe arm-twisting of the then-Governor, a Baylor grad.) TCU, the home of Slingin Sammy Baugh, Davey O’Brien and Bob Lilly, was left with poor talent, declining attendance and no real direction for its future.

If left to the vagaries of a university financial analyst after 1994, TCU football would have drifted into the back roads of college football, maybe even Division I-AA. Instead, it discovered the difference between charity and philanthropy, and the upward trajectory was in place.

Former Georgetown vice president Jim Langley isn’t mentioned much anymore in Hilltop circles since his departure from GU last year. At a school which focuses so much on the annual use dollar, Langley tried to make a distinction between the ask (at GU, common) and the give (less so), and was keen on the concept of philanthropy. “Philanthropy provides the margin of excellence; charity provides the margin for survival,” says Langley in his post-GU blog. And in 1994, TCU was a charity case.

It was also about that time that a local Fort Worth businessman, Roger Williams, decided to change that. Instead of waiting around for someone at the school to start find a shovel to pour dirt over the program, he organized a committee of local business and civic leaders, later known as the “Committee of 100”, to buy season tickets to show support for the program. The Committee sold over 12,000 season tickets in one year, effectively improving attendance by 42% in 1995 and flipping on a light inside the school. Instead of trying to be just TCU’s team, this could be Fort Worth’s team. And it could compete in the future.

It was. And it is.

TCU moved to the Western Athletic Conference but were short-timers there—TCU wanted to distinguish its program against the other Southwest Conference jetsam, and then moved to Conference USA. When C-USA expanded in the ACC/Big East realignment, welcoming in the likes of Rice, SMU, and Houston, TCU upgraded to the Mountain West, all with a growing base of philanthropic support, which manifested itself in things like a new football practice facility, an indoor training area, new facilities for baseball, soccer, and track.

Two years ago, with TCU’s star climbing into national polls, local leaders and alumni asked themselves what two steps were needed to get to the next level. Answer? Better facilities and a BCS conference. A call was made with those who could make a difference to raise funds for a $104 million renovation of aging Amon Carter Stadium, built about the time Georgetown built Copley Hall on top of the old football field.

Thirty four people put up the money.

Let me repeat that. Thirty-four people, $104 million.

Without a five year discernment process, without a “Phase 1B”, without a “let’s wait until the next campaign” answer, TCU boldly started construction a week after the end of the season on the project, which will be finished in the 2012 season, not coincidentally, the season where TCU will find a BCS home in the Big East. It has risen from being one of the four or five worst programs in major college football to the #3 program in the nation, playing in the 2011 Rose Bowl, for cryin’ out loud, and now a member of an elite conference trying to figure out how 17 teams are going to play in Madison Square Garden in two years.

"It is a great scenario for us,” said TCU coach Gary Patterson, about the best college coach in America most people have never heard of. “It has been a hard road, an interesting road. But the last two seasons we have gone to BCS games, and I have been proud of how the DFW community has embraced us, becoming Frog fans. It should be interesting, we certainly don't seem to be getting bored."

I mean, think about it. What were the odds a decade ago that Notre Dame, Syracuse, UConn, and even Georgetown (a school that has played all of three basketball games ever in the second most populous state in the Union), is going to make semi-regular stops in Ft. Worth, Texas?

As the late TCU coach Jim Wacker might have said, “Un-belieeevable.”

For those who dismiss the soaring success of TCU as having no relationship whatsoever to the water-logged Georgetown football program, this thought. The ability of a school in Fort Worth Texas to join the Big East Conference is not an accident, but a process cast in motion by the efforts of those businessmen 16 years ago. They stepped up when the school did not. They gave the school institutional confidence that if it invested in football (and all the other sports which have grown and flourished in the interim), that investment would not be in vain. It also allowed the school to be proactive and to defy conventional wisdom by finding a home for its teams even if it, at first, it didn’t seem to fit. TCU in the Big East? Does it make any less sense for to have been in something called the Mountain West Conference?

Paul Tagliabue said it best Monday--if the Dallas Cowboys can compete in the NFC East, TCU can compete in the Big East.
TCU and Georgetown don’t share much in common but each had a point in its history where it had to change the direction. For TCU, it was that moment in 1994. For Georgetown basketball, it was that moment in 1979 when Frank Rienzo understood that if Georgetown did not build a new conference for its basketball team and its up and coming coach, two generations of Hoya athletics would be spent aside teams like UNC-Wilmington and Virginia Commonwealth before friends and family at aging McDonough Gym.

For Georgetown football, that moment is approaching. It needs its own Committee of 100. With the coming fissures in the Patriot League and a University stuck in institutional inertia over numerous competing priorities and fundraising, if Georgetown football continues to wait for the Red Sea to part, all it will do is get is wet. There is no full time fundraising effort for football, the head coach does not make fundraising a public priority, and more people than not give to the Gridiron Club as a charity than as a movement.

Today marks 1,900 days since the debut of the unnamed Multi-Sport Field and the “temporary” halt in construction. Georgetown should ashamed of this, but absent a true effort to get the dirt flying and resist temptation of "manana" that overshadows athletics projects, what changes? Is Kevin Kelly going to walk into Lee Reed and say “Build it, or I’m walking”? Is the Patriot League going to say “Build it, or go elsewhere?” Are students going to stage rallies and protest? No.

Instead of waiting for the one donor that is going to solve all its problems, reach out to the 100 that can do the heavy lifting. Reach out to a community who hears that “D.C. Is Our Playground” but don’t see enough ties that bind beyond the basketball court. Reach out to alumni who trade more securities in a day than the University has in its bank account and make them true partners in this process. Before Georgetown football moves from a charity to a charity case, make it something people are willing to commit their time, talent, and treasure towards. Or Georgetown can sit quiet, heap praise on a troubled four win season, and wait for things to change.

Those who wait for change often have no control over it. TCU understood this. Does Georgetown?

“A lot of great things are happening,” said TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte. “We have a chancellor that allowed us to dream. If you don’t dream, you’re living in a memory.”

A dream? Of course, dreams without support is like faith without works. But look where that got them, a school of 7,000 in a city whose motto is “Where The West Begins”. Now, it’s where the East begins.