Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Front Row Seat

As Patriot League coaches and team captains join the handful of media which have made their 20 minute drive to the Green Pond Country Club, the 2012 Media Day isn't like the 20-odd events which have preceded it. Things are a little different around the "Pennsylvania League" these days.

The first change is that reporter questions about scholarships won't be met by muffled voices and awkward "no comment" replies from coaches. Like Holy Cross basketball before them, Fordham football stared down the league, and the league blinked. One of the founding principles behind "The Last Amateurs" is no more. John Feinstein hasn't written an elegy for PL non-scholarship football, in part because PL football has never interested him the way basketball did, bu perhaps the elegy would fall on deaf ears in this assemblage. For once, Frank Tavani and Dick Biddle and Andy Coen can raise their voices and tell the assembled media, however few, that they're ready to go and next year's class will be the best ever. (As it always is.)

There's a change down the aisle at Fordham too, which is no longer on double secret probation for offering 30 more scholarships than everyone else, but will still be on the outside looking in for two more years... whereupon they will still have 30 more than everyone else, but by then it's presumably OK. Even as a 30-scholarship team in 2011, it was low tide for the Rams,  with a blistering 1-10 record, the loss of its coach, and the retirement of its long-time athletic director. With a football budget now north of 5.5 million (or mre than what GU spends over there years), former Fordham QB and Georgetown assistant Joe Moorhead is looking to be quick, but not hurry, the Rams' rise to back the top of the PL standings.

Scheduling talk figures to be a little different, too. Whether the coaches like it or not, the days where the Ivy League would schedule 80 percent of tis games versus five PL schools by rote, appears to be gone with the wind. Slowly and surely (the only ways the Ivy moves), scholarship PL schools are being weaned off future Ivy schedules. If Princeton wanted a scholarship opponent, they could lose to Rutgers, in that they don't need to lose by 35 to Lafayette.

And following the move of Fordham, who lost convincingly to Army and UConn and will travel to a convincing loss at Cincinnati this October, expect to hear the drumbeat for PL teams to dip their toes in the waters of I-A guarantee games. Holy Cross fans would relish a return match with BC, no matter the outcome. Colgate would take on Syracuse any day of the week. The over/under at Media Day on the first question that asks: "Would [your school] consider playing at Penn State?" is 30 minutes. Public answer? "We would have to discuss this further." Private answer? "Where do we sign?"

And then, there are some unfamiliar colors at the front table. Blue and gray. The same coach that won one league game in four seasons now stands alongside the top of the coaches' list in the league. Barring a homer vote (and as I write this a day early, it's eminently possible), Georgetown figures to be close to second in the PL coaches and media voting.

Third place, and there's some ballot stuffing going on. Fourth place, and Kevin Kelly should get up and leave.

The freshmen that arrived at unfinished Multi-Sport Field in 2009, watched their starting quarterback quit the team after sitting the last two minutes of the home opener, and struggled through the school's first ever 0-11 season, now enter 2012 with heads held high and a well deserved round of confidence. The Hoyas haven't returned 17 starters since the mid-90's when it ran roughshod over the MAAC schools, and experience in August is a great addition to any training camp.

Georgetown didn't get here by accident, and don't have to end the season by accident, either. And while much in the PL media between Easton and Bethlehem consider the 2011 season some sort of Verizon FiOS editing job, the Hoyas did win those eight games and proved they belonged on a field with the more popular kids in the PL playground. It's like seeing DePaul finish runners-up in the Big East. Sure, they could, but how?

Coming off the 2011 season, and entering 2012, there are three constants that have driven Georgetown forward, and each figure to be important going forward this season:

1. Offensive Philosophy. The playcalling of Elliot Uzelac (2004-05) was awful. It was matched by Jim Miceli (2006-09), no less frustrating. Both were veteran coaches who had seen plenty of football in their day, but it just didn't click with the players and the results were eminently predictable. From numerous penalties and time outs to avoid getting the plays in late, to the simplicity of plays that opponents could actually call out from across the defensive line of scrimmage, the Hoyas of the mid-2000's were not respected among other PL teams, and it showed. When Dave Patenaude arrived from Hofstra in 2010, he opened the playbook and cut down on the simple mistakes that plagued the Georgetown offenses of that decade. It was so unusual, at least for Georgetown, that it threw opponents off guard, especially in a pair of close wins over Lafayette. Patenaude has left for Coastal Carolina and PL observers will be watching to see if former Columbia OC Vinny Marino is the next Patenaude or the next Miceli. Probably, it's neither.Yes, Columbia's offensive output was poor in 2011, but the play calls were less of the issue and more to Columbia's general inexperience. Marino inherits the most experienced Georgetown offense in years, and if the calls remain stable, this offense can get to work.
2. Depth and injuries. Over the lean years spanning the Bob Benson and Kevin Kelly tenures, the amount of injuries to linemen from week to week couldn't be ignored. It did Georgetown no good when its second or third string tackles were starters by week 5--they were often undersized and unprepared for the task, and it showed. Sacks and TFL's declined over the last two years, and with it, Georgetown's quarterback rotation had more time to find targets, and less time needed in full "run away" mode from incoming linemen. For the most part, Georgetown escaped serious injuries in 2011, and while depth is much improved, a full season with its lines would be the best medicine for this team.
3. Confidence. There was a time not long ago when the Hoyas would fall behind 10-0 or 14-0 and your could hear a collective sigh rise up from the bench area. This was not a team that believed in itself of a comeback, and the numbers bore this out. From a note I posted to the Any Given Saturday message board: "From 2004-09, teams scoring 14 or more points vs. Georgetown were a combined 51-4 (.927); two of  the four GU wins when allowing 14 or more were to Marist, the other two were to Bucknell. In 44 games from 2004-09 where the Hoyas allowed more than 21 points, opponents were 44-0." Offensive woes notwithstanding, today's Hoyas are more confident that all is not lost if they give up the opening score, or if it's 17-10 at the half. Just as important, if Georgetown can hold a lead in the last two years, they have been up to the task. The 2012 schedule gives Georgetown an ample opportunity to open up with just that level of confidence--from Davidson and Wagner, through three Ivy games, into the meat of the PL schedule. In a three week run of Fordham, Lehigh, and Colgate, a confident Georgetown team could remind the PL brahmin that 2011 wasn't some sort of video edit.

Of course, that's not to say there aren't more questions ahead. Coach Kelly was shopping around New Haven last January, and there's been turnover in the staff. The MSF remains a hot potato topic in development circles and is so prickly it even got its own question in the capital campaign literature.

Ninety scholarships will be on the line every year going forward in the PL, and not one will be offered from the Hilltop. In 2013, maybe not that big a deal. In 2015, a bigger deal. In 2017, a very big deal.Those are questions for another day, even if at least one Lehigh Valley  reporter figures to ask Kevin Kelly, "Scholarships...so, what are you going to do about it?"

But for now, Georgetown sits in the front row. The correct answer is "Just win."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Friday Night Lights

There's an old television commercial which cautions its viewers, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." True, perhaps, but a second impression might be for the better.

For the last 48 years, the visibility of football at Georgetown University has all but been obscured by the penumbra that is men's basketball--fans unconnected with GU often assume there is no football team, while those who walked the Hilltop as students recall a disorganized, small-time effort. The next Greg Monroe would play at Verizon Center, but the next Greg Paulus would never play at the mess that is Multi-Sport Field.

So it is with some enthusiasm and hope that I read this past week about Princeton moving its Sep. 22 game with the Hoyas (its first between the schools since the early months of the Coolidge administration) from a Saturday afternoon start to a Friday night event with national coverage on ESPNU. This becomes the first national broadcast of any Georgetown football event, and a prime-time game with, as of this writing, only one other football game in its time slot--Baylor (post-Robert Griffin III) vs. Louisiana-Monroe. OK, not exactly Alabama-Auburn, but it'll get some viewers. Who knows, maybe a few more will check out the U and see two schools that haven't been discussed in the same sentence since the 1989 NCAA basketball tournament.

Yes, this is a big deal. For Princeton, a team which has struggled in football over recent years, it's a chance to show off its first-rate 27,000 seat stadium, its idyllic campus, and drop a few friendly interviews over the course of the game with administrators and coaches. While Princeton Stadium has been largely unfilled in the years since it replaced Palmer Stadium in 1997, a national appearance can bring even the most jaded Ivy Leaguers to don the orange and black for one night. (A few years ago, the dispassionate student fan base at Harvard turned out en masse for a Friday night game with Holy Cross, with nearly 22,000 on hand, and a night game at Princeton almost screams for a big turnout by the student body.)

It is also a big deal for Georgetown, if we only realize it in time.

In football parlance, Georgetown "does not travel well". Yes, there is a core of parents that dutifully travel every week to see their sons play, some from extreme distances. Over the years, I've met parents from as far as Illinois ans Ohio traveling to games weekly. Outside that group, not so much. At the low point of the Kevin Kelly era (a 31-10 loss at Old Dominion during the 0-11 season), there may not have been 30 Hoyas fans amidst the 19,782 at Foreman Field...and almost all of them were parents. Our fans do not travel to road games, whether it is across the District or across the country.

Georgetown does not travel well because there is no culture of travel. Student road trips to a big game in the fall are nonexistent due as much to the lack of tradition as the lack of automobiles. In either case, its opponents during the Division III years were nondescript, its MAAC era opponents forgettable, and many of the Patriot teams are simply out of sight and out of mind from the Nation's Capital. Few if any Washingtonians wake up one Saturday and say: "we're off to Hamilton."

ESPN could have chosen dozens of games that weekend, most with stadia much larger and more crowded, but they've decided on Princeton, and thus, an opportunity is upon us. So let's take this confluence of factors--a winning team, a string returning base, a name opponent, a beautiful setting for football, a location convenient to thousands of its alumni, and a first-time ever national TV audience-- and make something of it. Georgetown can't fill Princeton Stadium, but the ESPNU audience needs to know they're there.

How does GU do this? In large part, it will have to be a grass roots effort. The athletic department has largely deemphasized the event component of Hoyas Unlimited in favor of abject fundraising, and good people can agree to disagree on the results of this. Too many alumni complain that all GU wants is their money, and if it's not an "ask", they're not calling. As far as I'm concerned, you can't start to fund-raise until you "friend-raise", and events are a great tool for both. The collective Georgetown "we" needs an event to get people to Princeton in September and to raise the tide of moral and financial support. Well, they've got one.

Let's look at five groups who need to be on board when the track is cleared to Old Nassau:

1. Regional Alumni. There are over 4,000 undergraduate alumni in the Garden State, and unless they live at Atlantic City, Cape May or somewhere along the Delaware Bridge, Princeton is a centrally located site with access by road and rail. Granted, many if not most of these alumni have never seen a Hoya football game since their last Homecoming, if then. These same alumni would never drive to Georgetown to see a game, much less to watch a game before a few hundred at St. Peter's, at Seton Hall, or even 3,000 at Monmouth -- these are sites of 18 of the 23 Georgetown road games ever played in New Jersey since 1887. However, Princeton is not Jersey City, and they might make a trip to see this one. Georgetown Clubs of Northern and Southern New Jersey, I'm talking to you.

A concerted effort to provide awareness of, interest in, and response to attend a Georgetown alumni event at  the game won't rouse all 4,000 of these folks out of their Friday afternoon haze, but it's certainly worth the effort. On the fringe of each club are the larger clubs of New York and Philadelphia, and give them the heads-up, too. From Penn Station, a NJT train at 5:01 gets them to the campus in one hour and one minute, and back home by midnight. From 30th Street Center City, a transfer in Trenton adds five minutes to the trip, or an express on Amtrak stops at Princeton Junction in just 37 minutes. Make it memorable--bring the family and enjoy a fall evening under the lights and on national T: a "once in a lifetime" experience.

2. Band & Cheerleaders. During the 1920's, a concerted effort by The HOYA urged its readers to "Bring The Band To Boston" as the Hilltoppers traveled to meet Boston College at Braves Field. And while the Pep Band hasn't traveled to a road basketball game in years and a football game in three score and two, the chance to show off Georgetown on national TV might be the ticket to get 25 or 30 of these folks on a bus outside McDonough at 2:00 Friday afternoon, along with cheerleaders and the costumed Jack The Bulldog to show the colors for TV and rally the fans making the trip. Instead of a three hour commercial for Princeton, there's nothing like cheerleaders and a band to get some air time if the Hoyas are on the march.

Transportation to and from the game costs money. Transportation to and from the game requires planning. The Gridiron Club should open up the discussion this summer with these groups and get some commitments and, where needed, a few donations, to get this moving.

3. Students. While we're at it with the bad and cheerleaders, is Hoya Blue ready for its curtain call? It's been five years since a student group made it to a road football game outside the District, as a small group found their way to Franklin Field on Oct. 6, 2007, only to see the Hoyas fall behind 28-0 after the first quarter and subsequent trips were quickly folded. But with only a three hour road trip, what better way to get students (particularly freshmen) interested in Georgetown sports than a bus trip such as this? Why wait another month for Midnight Madness when a pre-Homecoming road trip is there for the taking?

Also, with two home games prior to the Princeton game, why not sell tickets for the trip throughout those games? With a good early start to the season (at Davidson, home games with Wagner and Yale), Georgetown might be surprised at the response.

4. National Alumni. Granted, a Friday night start doesn't fit everyone's schedule, particularly those outside the region. But for national and regional clubs that like to build events around televised Georgetown games (99% of which involve men's basketball), this is a great opportunity. We need awareness by every Georgetown regional club in the US that they should host a game watching party for this one--no self-respecting sports bar or grill in the Republic doesn't have access to ESPNU. Seeing their school on national TV, even on the somewhat unfamiliar gridiron, is a guaranteed draw for regional clubs, many of whom would like to have more events in the fall before basketball season takes over. Let the word go forth--the Hoyas are coming to a alumni club event near you.

5. Basketball fans. Georgetown's largest fan base is in men's basketball, and as a general rule basketball doesn't promote other GU sports. Many of these fans are not alumni, and not students, and do not associate with alumni clubs. But let's invite them to follow the game as well.

TV notwithstanding, there are a lot of reasons to be motivated to promote this game, and one worth noting at the conclusion: the future. The PL ship is sailing forward with scholarships, and Georgetown is not on board. As it moves into an uncertain period, the ability to establish closer ties with those institutions which do share Georgetown's academic and athletic philosophy on football is vital. In the Northeast, there are only nine, and eight belong to the Ivy League.

If the Ivies see Georgetown as largely unmotivated and uninspired with its football program (a fair assumption given the facilities at its disposal), there is little need for Princeton or Penn or Harvard to schedule them consistently, if at all. In the years since Georgetown acquired games from Towson when it left the league, only Yale has been a consistent opponent, leaving GU a variety of other non-conference opponents with little or no interest among alumni or in the community. Anyone talking about Monmouth or Sacred Heart lately?

But this opponent, this game, this stage, this kind of attention is a unique opportunity to reintroduce Georgetown football to its people and the public at large, and send a message that it not only wants to compete against the Ivy League, but alongside them. If Georgetown can show it wants to make the most of this, it can not only set a course for increased visibility as a program, it can only help Georgetown be a stronger program no matter where the Patriot League goes.

Now's the time to build a new tradition and show the nation just what Georgetown football is all about. And whether it's a first or second impression, let's make it a great one.