Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Unkindest Season

Imagine, if you will, studying to become an attorney, only to find out that every year, just around Christmas, 20 percent of the partner-level workforce nationwide is fired; and with it, the partners fire all their associates. Imagine going to work for a brokerage industry where the bottom 20 percent of firms are flushed every December, and where aspiring managers have one month or so to find a new job, moving families to Oregon or North Dakota or Alabama, because that’s where the job takes you.

And if you’re young and don’t get a new job in a month or two, however underpaid or in the middle of nowhere, you might be out of the business for good.

Welcome to the career prospects of a coach in college football. And welcome to the un-happ-happiest time of the year.

Over the past three weeks, the pink slips fly in college football. Schools are great about preaching loyalty, but few practice it. Twenty-four head coaching positions within Division I-AA have changed hands in the last month, only two by retirement:

Alabama A&M
Central Arkansas
Central Connecticut
The Citadel
Eastern Illinois
Grambling State
Jackson State
James Madison
Mississippi Valley State
Morgan State
North Carolina Central
North Dakota
North Dakota State
Robert Morris
Rhode Island
Southeast Missouri State
Stephen F. Austin State
Weber State

Eternal vigilance – and a willingness to resettle on short notice – is the price to become a successful college football coach.. Kevin Kelly’s resume can attest, and he’s one of the luckier ones.

Here is Coach Kelly’s “change of address” forms in the first 20 or so years since he graduated from college:

Springfield, MA
New York, NY
New Haven, CT
Syracuse, NY
Boston, MA
Hanover, NH
New Orleans, LA
Huntington, WV
Brunswick, ME
Syracuse, NY
Huntington, WV
Annapolis, MD

Kelly’s eight years in the Washington area are probably the longest he’s stayed in one place since grad school, which is great for raising a family. The results, less so. In coaching, as in life, you’re as good as your last job.

When Kelly interviewed for the job at Yale in 2011, it was not because of any ill will for Georgetown or an overarching desire to move back to scenic New Haven. Instead, it’s the business. He was coming off an 8-3 season and Yale was interested. If he was 3-8 that year, Yale would not be.

Head coaches in football, as a rule, don’t get the gold watch and don’t set the rules for their retirement. Bobby Bowden didn’t go out his way, nor did or Woody Hayes or Darrell Royal or a thousand others. Joe Paterno once said that he didn’t want to get forced out like Bear Bryant did and die within a month as Bryant did. He was, of course, and he died a month later as well. Mack Brown, of all people, has a .770 winning percentage at Texas, a national title, and only one season with fewer than eight wins. Not good enough in Austin. That’s business. (That, and failing to recruit each of the last three Heisman Trophy winners, all of which wanted to play for you.)

The 2011 season is history. At the conclusion of the 2013 season, Kevin Kelly has the lowest winning percentage of any Division I-AA head coach with more than four years experience. Of 25 coaches below .500, eight were let go in the last month (in gray):

Division I-AA Coaches At Or Below .500:
Tom GilmoreHoly Cross10565600.500
Frank TavaniLafayette14767700.497
Pete AdrianNorfolk St.9505200.490
Chris MussmanN. Dakota 6313400.477
Watson BrownTennessee Tech10526000.464
Monte ColemanAR-Pine Bluff6313600.463
Donovan RoseHampton5253000.455
J.C. HarperS.F. Austin7374500.451
Mike KramerIdaho St.168310300.446
Marshall SperbeckSacramento St.7354400.443
Donald Hill-EleyMorgan St.12597600.437
Paul GorhamSacred Heart10466200.426
Sparky WoodsVMI11527120.416
Buddy TeevensDartmouth14578120.407
Nigel BurtonPortland St.4182700.400
Ray WoodardLamar4182800.391
Tony SamuelSE Missouri8316000.341
Chris VillarrialSt. Francis4133100.295
Kevin KellyGeorgetown8246300.276
Charlie StubbsNicholls St.4103500.222
Joe TrainerRhode Island5124400.214
Harold NicholsPresbyterian5114400.200
Karl A. MorganMiss. Valley St.483500.186
Dale CarlsonValparaiso434100.068

Coach Kelly is fortunate that few if any I-AA  schools would have the patience to absorb the depth of losses that the Georgetown program has experienced over the past eight years. VMI? Maybe. Dartmouth? Only if your coach is Buddy Teevens, a former star quarterback for the Indians who won a pair of Ivy titles way back when. Even Columbia, that textbook case of a losing program, has had only one coach make it past six seasons since 1968.

Even in the low-wattage Patriot League, ask yourself: would Andy Coen still be at Lehigh with these kind of records? How about Tom Gilmore at Holy Cross? Will Dick Biddle’ successor at Colgate get the time to build a winner?

A lot of schools won’t want to hear about it. “Did you win?”, they ask. They rarely ask why you didn't.

That’s the business. And for those that don’t understand it, or who underestimate it, it’s a difficult realization. It’s the part of coaching that fans, and even some coaches, don’t understand.

Part of the enmity that former basketball coach Craig Esherick still feels for Georgetown firing him in 2004 was that he thought he deserved better. He had been with the program for 40 years as an undergrad, law student, assistant coach, and head coach, and went so far as to brag he’d be around another 30. He didn’t understand that, to quote the son of a Georgetown football All-American, “you are what your record says you are”. In a revenue sport like basketball, it wasn't enough.

Georgetown has been a bit more patient to more of its coaches. Pete Wilk has been the baseball coach for 14 seasons and has never posted a winning record. Arlisa Williams has been the volleyball coach for eight seasons and Georgetown is 77-124.

Of course, no one is writing a column in the Washington Post of the baseball team doesn’t get to the post-season. Students are not planning a march on Healy if volleyball finishes under .500.  Football web sites don’t use the phrase “hot seat” around Georgetown football. If Frank Tavani or Tom Gilmore was 24-63 after eight seasons, chances are pretty good they would have never see a ninth season…much less a sixth, seventh, or eighth.

But this isn't Lafayette or Holy Cross. What coaches like Wilk, Williams, Kelly, and others at McDonough do share is a sport where the expectations on the field take a back seat to the expectations in the classroom, and these are sports where the kids have been admitted, competed, and have graduated. That’s reassuring to coaches, but it’s not a blank check. Pat Knapp was that kind of academics-first coach for 15 years for women’s basketball, but he didn’t retire at Georgetown either. And while Dave Urick did retire in men’s lacrosse, he did not go out the way he deserved.

In the end, Georgetown does right by its coaches, and for those like Kelly who must fight from behind, without the amenities or admission breaks his colleagues enjoy, it’s very much an uphill climb. That the University is able to recruit (and retain) good people who do their jobs honorably despite the disparity of support functions that fans of other schools could hardly imagine, speaks highly of the place. It doesn’t excuse losing but it does place things in perspective, which is all coaches can ask out of the process.

“I thought we made progress while we were here,” said Army coach Rich Ellerson after the Black Knights dropped yet another loss to Navy, with hours to go before his imminent dismissal. “But I wasn’t hired to make progress.”

Every coach can relate.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Day 3,000: The More Things Change

Someday next year, a crowd will gather.

Blue and gray bunting will surround a pile of dirt where once there was a tennis court. Coaches, players, dignitaries all, the group will all applaud at a shovel in the ground for a long delayed project and congratulate everyone on having come this far. After nearly seven years of hopes and dreams, the really big gift didn’t come in, but enough of the six figure ones did so that the generically named "Intercollegiate Athletics Center" can oneday say it will be underway. Once a project starts, it gets built.

Just don’t look too far over your shoulder.

A stone’s throw from the future site of the IAC stands Georgetown’s ongoing exercise in inertia, which today passes 3,000 days since construction was halted upon it. On September 17, 2005, with temporary seats left in place for the remainder of the 2005 season, the site once called “the most significant project in the history of Georgetown athletics” was inaugurated in a 34-3 loss to Brown.

And when the Bruins returned this fall, almost nothing had changed.

Because nothing has changed.

“Rumors abound that Harbin Field will eventually be turned into a real stadium, to be used by such teams as soccer, football and lacrosse. If this is the case, it will be a major boost for campus ... The university should do all that it can to provide better accommodations; after all, having sports on campus for all to enjoy follows the Jesuit ideal of educating the whole person - mind and body. We already have the teams ... now let's live up to our reputation and give them the facilities they deserve."

If this HOYA editorial sounds familiar, well, you’ve been reading this site too long.  It was authored on November 17, 1999, 14 years ago. This is a project that has spanned three U.S. presidents, three Popes, three full time athletic directors, not to mention some 30,000 Georgetown graduates across its various schools. While not the longest delayed project at the University (the legal wrangling on the boathouse enters its 27th year in 2014), it is certainly among the more visible ones. Hundreds of prospective students pass by it each day, with more than its share of nonplussed comments by tour guides or the off-putting response, “but we’re no good at football anyway.”

There was a time when comments were uniformly more positive.

“In the first phase, a new playing surface, visitor’s stands on the east side and other game-day facility needs will be installed. This portion of the project is slated to begin following the end of this fall’s competition schedule with completion by September 2005,” wrote a  Hoyas Unlimited newsletter in August 2004.

More follows:

“In the second phase, slated for completion in the fall of 2006, additional amenities will be added, and the focus will be on the home (west) side. New home stands will be constructed. Underneath the stands will be locker rooms, a training room and storage space. A new press box will be added and lights will be installed. This phasing is being done to accommodate a road realignment taking place on the west side of the facility around the same time. To date, over $12.7 million in cash and pledges has been raised for the new Multi-Sport Facility.“

To say this project has had its share of turns is an understatement. At least five different designs have come and gone. And where once Georgetown would comment that the project was just around the corner, perhaps they have learned the lesson of the U.S. government bureaucracy that no starting date means you’re never behind. The last public statement on the progress of this project at was over four years ago.

“In the year to come, we are focusing on developing a strategic plan for two major projects, the completion of which would benefit all of our teams and the University community as a whole,” wrote GU vice president Dan Porterfield (C’83) in September 2009, serving as an interim athletic director between the tenures of Bernard Muir and Lee Reed. Wrote Porterfield:

“First, it is crucial that we complete the Multi-Sport Field, which hosts not only our football and lacrosse games, but also intramurals, club sports, and events such as the annual all-night Relay for Life, a major fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Though improvements have been made to the field in the last few years, the project remains unfinished and still requires significant investment to complete. 

"For that reason, I have asked colleagues in Athletics and the University to see if we can develop a cost-effective approach to completing the field. 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.“

And that’s part of the problem. Muir wanted little to do with a project that was assembled before his watch. Reed inherited the project amidst the growing heat that John Thompson III didn’t have a practice facility. Reed won’t be judged on what happens to the MSF, because priority 1 is the IAC. Kevin Kelly doesn’t talk about it publicly, but why would he? It’s been just another roadblock in his recruiting efforts.

Georgetown even went to the unusual step of washing its hands of the MSF in advance of the current capital campaign, noting in its campaign literature that “The Multi–Sport Field was one of the later priorities of the last campaign. Although substantial funds were raised, they were insufficient to complete the project in its ultimate, very expansive scope. The funds raised to date, together with university investment, were used to build the core of the facility, including a new playing field, lighting, scoreboards and stands. We are working to complete the second and final phase of the work outside the context of this campaign. ‘

(In its most recent iteration, the comments on the MSF no longer appear in the online FAQ.)

All of this inaction over this project is not some of struggle against football or athletics. Far from it. It merely plays to an academic bent where little, if anything can be done in a timely manner. What’s a few years in the life of a 225 year old University? After all, it took 23 years to get McDonough Gymnasium built, and stately Gaston Hall sat as an unfinished shell inside the Healy Building for the better part of two decades.

Georgetown has “conversations” on the MSF. It maintains “dialogue”. It seeks “opportunities” to see progress. These are words better suited to a discussion on ethics, not construction projects, and certainly not projects where money was raised and accepted. And according to that story cited above, $12.7 million is not an insignificant number.

Full disclosure: I made a gift of $1,000 to the Multi-Sport Facility when the project was still in active fundraising. In the interim, I’ve not received any correspondence from Georgetown University informing me of the status of my gift (technically, a seat at the new field), what became of the gift, if they want any more money from me, or if they simply reallocated the amount for something else.

Because a the bottom of all this, this project is all about commitment, one which unfortunately speaks loud and clear to recruits, to parents, and to fellow coaches. It’s hurt football recruiting, even if people won’t say it, and it has hurt lacrosse recruiting, even if people won’t say that, either. How can Georgetown be committed to sports like football if it doesn’t even finish what it started?

The University doesn’t need a replica of AT&T Stadium for a facility, even if Jerry Jones himself is the parent of an football alum. It doesn’t need another Byrd Stadium,  named after a former Georgetown quarterback, no less. Porterfield’s goals in that 2009 letter were simple and direct: “To improve our teams' game-day experience, to make the venue more fan-friendly, and to construct an aesthetically pleasing facility.”

This project needs ownership and a frank discussion with its donors about what it is prepared to do…and what it expects its donors to do in return. And those in McDonough Gym that are used to my squawking about this subject understand it’s not personal, that despite talk that things are getting closer, some of us have heard that offer for too many years now.

In the meantime, day 3,000 will be day 3,001 before we know it.