Thursday, July 28, 2011

Investing In Football, Part 4: Progress

In the previous entries, investing in football was more than just numbers, it was about investing in visibility, and in people. So if there’s a third element that Georgetown must consider when setting a course for football spending, it’s the investment in progress. Or more specifically, unforeseen progress, the progress to invent the future, not merely to fix the present.

A word about progress. Like apple pie, good schools and lower taxes, no one is exactly “against” progress, it’s part of the American DNA. There isn’t a college president in America that is going to come out against progress, but few will stand up solely for progress at the expense of the stasis which given colleges an institutional sense of self-satisfaction. Universities like things old, dusty, and relatively unchanged, as if to say that their progress is measured in generations and centuries, not in years. The Las Vegas mantra of “ build, demolish and build a bigger one” finds few adherents in higher education, located in a mythical place where, as Garrison Keillor intoned, “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve ... where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average” .

But any university that measures success in athletics over the generations or the centuries probably isn’t progressing at all, merely riding the tide of upward mobility and population growth. The sheer nature of competition, fueled by television, makes it difficult for standing on the sidelines. There are a handful of schools which stepped away from major college sports, but it’s hard to say that NYU or the University of Tampa or Centenary is better for the experience, only different.

There are three dates which are mileposts in Georgetown’s athletic progress, and that they are roughly three decades apart is probably not an accident.

In 1924, Georgetown made the decision to hire a full time football coach to run an athletic department that to date, had been a student-run operation. Lou Little brought a successful if somewhat undervalued Georgetown program to the national spotlight.

In 1951, Hunter Guthrie S.J., for reasons not fully understood to this day, decoupled Georgetown from major college football train and instituted a period of athletic deemphasis—concurrent with that move was a period of academic stasis where Georgetown considered itself a fine university among the Jesuit institutions of the country, but did not have true aspirations outside that circle.

In 1979, Frank Rienzo followed the old adage that if you want something done right, do it yourself, and joined three other athletic directors and forged a new model in college athletics, the Big East conference. It would be hard to imagine a major college coming to Georgetown in the 1970’s, even with basketball, and inviting them aboard, with an $850,000 budget, a smattering of sports across Divisions I, II, and III, and a student-led drive to defund all intercollegiate sports at Georgetown with the bulk of the budget redistributed to library expenses.

The move to the Big East was the third of three paradigm shifts for Georgetown in the 1970’s, beginning with the repositioning of GU as an international university (largely through the efforts of Peter Krogh and the School of Foreign Service) and the move to need blind, full need financial aid in 1978. If someone tells you that Patrick Ewing began the admissions climb at Georgetown, tell them it started years earlier.

Georgetown’s decision to place its financial aid commitment alongside the top universities in the world not only parted it from the regional schools like St. Joseph’s, Fordham, and Holy Cross to which Georgetown was associated with, but students increasingly began to associate Georgetown alongside the Ivies, Stanford, Northwestern, and Duke (another fast climber in this period).

These three great changes are all, to one form another, still in effect today, but show signs of wear. Georgetown might have been one of the first schools to the political/international realm, but it’s a crowded field now. Three U.N. ambassadors from 1979-1997 were Georgetown faculty, but it’s increasingly a wider talent pool outside Georgetown and none of the last seven ambassadors have taught on the Hilltop. Financial aid elevated Georgetown, but the University now treads water financially with a huge aid commitment that is engulfing the annual budget. The Big East model of a strong basketball program carrying the budgets of smaller sports has been challenged by the rise of I-A football into the Big East landscape.

The upcoming capital campaign for Georgetown suggests rapid change ahead: the redirection of Georgetown from an international university to a global leader in higher education, a commitment of $500 million in need based aid, and some undisclosed level of financial and facilities stability for intercollegiate athletics. It is no small challenge for Lee Reed to have joined the athletic department as he did in 2010 and have this waiting on his desk. It is difficult to theorize where Georgetown will be left in the world of modern intercollegiate athletics without an enhanced level of support in this upcoming campaign. the day John Thompson III takes another job should never be a death knell for the entire program, but without some planning, Georgetown continues to rely on salad days in men's basketball without a safety net.

And as for football, this campaign offers a outstanding and much needed opportunity to invest in the unforseen progress that time, on its own, cannot. The guarded expectations of football expressed in 1964 remains in force today, but as times change there must be a road map of progress and the financial muscle needed to accomplish this. There was no Patriot League in 1964, no cable TV, and little hope of ever playing Division I programs. But times change--of the opponents played in the club football era, all but two no longer play football.

Every sport at Georgetown, and that includes men’s basketball and football, can see this capital campaign as an opportunity to map a course for the future and to solicit the transformative gifts (financial and otherwise) to meet this course. If all Georgetown did for athletics over the next six years is build a practice facility, this campaign will, at least for athletics, be a failure.

In January, 2010, I wrote:
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.”
This is the time to invest in football, but football needs a plan and needs to get it not only to seven figure donors, but to the community at large. If Georgetown is going to consider scholarships, what is the plan and how do donors support it? If Georgetown wants to upgrade its coaching, what is the plan and how do donors support it? If Georgetown wants to be the proverbial Ninth Ivy, what is the plan and how do donors support it?

It’s not too soon to convene a football summit at Georgetown at the conclusion of this season, bring in the AD, the coaches, parents, and major donors, get the facts on the table and start hammering out a plan of attack to move forward, to be "quick, but not to hurry.". So what does Georgetown want out of the football program and how can the community support it? What does Lee Reed want out of the football program and how can the community support it? What does Kevin Kelly want out of the football program and how can the community support it? And, of course, what can the community do about it within the parameters of where Georgetown is headed?  If athletics in general and football in specific are not prepared for reaching out to its donor base at this time of the campaign, rest assured that these same donors will be cornered by every other group at Georgetown seeking to raise money.

Over generations, football at Georgetown can and will grow. But athletics no long grows by carbon-dating, and change can come suddenly and without mercy. It’s not enough to spend to elevate Georgetown football. Are we ready to invest in it?