Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Next Step Up

In his seminal 1947 book on the history of Georgetown football, author Morris Bealle tells the story of a coaching change that involved little fanfare nor newspaper glory. Far from the age of social media and breaking news, Rev. John Kehoe, S.J. walked up the hill from campus upon the practice field that would later bear his name. With a 5-9 former halfback in tow, Kehoe made his way to the field and walked onto the practice. An announcement was read to the team.

“Gentlemen, your new coach, Jack Hagerty.”

Eighty-two years later, Rob Sgarlata was introduced Tuesday as Georgetown’s head football coach without the fanfare common at many schools, yet, like Hagerty, he is someone to whom Georgetown football is more than a job, but a calling. Recruited by Scotty Glacken, studied under Bob Benson, and coached alongside Kevin Kelly, Sgarlata has been part of this program for 22 of the last 24 years. It’s a shared experience that figures to fortify the new coach against a daunting task that one of his predecessors faced so many years ago: putting the pride back into Georgetown football.

If there was a national search following Kevin Kelly's departure, it was a brief one. Sgarlata was the best choice given the circumstances of a position, and, let’s be frank, Pete Carroll wasn’t walking through that door. It's a door which opens to a program with a major college brand, a small college budget, and facilities best suited to a high school. A coaching search in early February was going to be daunting under any circumstances, much less one in which its predecessor struggled so visibly for not one or two years, but eight. Kevin Kelly saw his record drop from eight wins to two within two seasons as the shadow of scholarships began to dominate the entire Patriot League, that is, north of the Mason-Dixon line. It sent a subtle message that this may not be the job an aspiring coach is going to give two weeks notice for.

Doubtless there were candidates, but none with Sgarlata’s experience nor the perspective of what Georgetown football is and what it can become. The 5-8, 165 lb. Sgarlata wasn’t the biggest or fastest running back when he arrived from West Nyack, NY in the fall of 1990. By the time he graduated, Sgarlata would go on to lead the Hoyas in rushing two straight years, be elected team captain, and win the John L. Hagerty Award for the outstanding back on the team.

He has seen as much of the recent history of Hoyas as anyone, and at a front row to the action. He was there for the Bermuda Bowl, and the Yale Bowl. He was there to see the likes of Aley Demarest and Kyle Nolan, from Jim Bolger to Robert McCabe. He helped form a MAAC championship team in 1997, only to see an old teammate put up 69 on the Hoyas five years later.

Being somewhere is not a qualification to be a football coach, however. In his 18 years on the sideline and as the team’s chief recruiter in a job much more difficult than he will ever admit, Sgarlata coached the Georgetown defense in an era when defense was sometimes the only weapon the Hoyas had: Clarke, Fronczke, Buzbee, Ononibaku, Parrish, Schaetzke, McCabe, and Wharton were the names, but they all shared the same coaching leadership. In 13 years of Patriot League football at the Hilltop, Georgetown has produced only 13 first team selections. Twelve of the 13 were from the defense, and all 12 were coached by Rob Sgarlata.

(The earlier reference to Jack Hagerty has a historic parallel, however, and is not meant to compare Sgarlata in 2014 against the arguable candidate for Georgetown’s greatest ever football coach. But the uphill climb awaiting Sgarlata is not unlike what Hagerty faced when he succeeded Tommy Mills in 1932.)

Georgetown’s fall from an 8-2 team in 1928 to a 2-6-1 team by 1932 was not entirely a result on Mills, anymore than the last two years was the sole responsibility of Kevin Kelly. The decline of those Hoyas of an earlier era followed a quiet decision by University president W. Coleman Nevils S.J. to end athletic scholarships—Nevils felt Georgetown didn’t need scholarships to attract fine young men for sports like football. In theory, yes, in practice, not so much. It led Mills’ top assistant, Frank Leahy, to leave Georgetown after one season, saying that Georgetown exhibited “a certain coolness” to competitive football, and he wasn’t being complimentary.

With financial aid but little else, Hagerty’s first full season was a one-win campaign in 1933. Four win seasons followed in 1934 and 1935. By that time, Nevils had retired and his successor Arthur O’Leary, S.J. was amenable to some number of limited grants in aid. By 1936, Hagerty won six of nine games. By 1938, the Hoyas were undefeated. By 1940, the Hoyas were in the Top 10. All with just 20 scholarships, not the 80 or more common in the major college ranks of that era.

But it’s more than scholarships that turned Hagerty’s Georgetown program around in 1933. He understood the politics of the Healy Building, he knew when to push and when to pull, and he knew the importance in building internal support before he could demand external change.

Such is the challenge awaiting Sgarlata. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Hoyas in the Patriot League; unfortunately, it’s a locomotive. Absent scholarships and with the highest bands in the PL’s Ivy Index, Georgetown could become severely non-competitive in a real hurry...say, this year. The last two recruiting classes are but a canary in that coal mine.

Georgetown football not only needs a coach, it needs an evangelist. Kevin Kelly understood this but always seemed uncomfortable doing so. A case must be made for not only what Georgetown football wants, but what it needs. It doesn’t have to be 60 scholarships or a 15,000 seat stadium. But it needs more than what it has right now, and a coach that can speak alongside a parent, a former player, or a University president and make that case, financial and otherwise, can begin to see results. The enduring promise is that no one sitting in McDonough or Healy that is “against” football, but they nonetheless expect football to create its own path to success. In this, the 50th anniversary of the season where students stepped up to bring back football to campus, 2014 can be a similar statement year about where this program needs to go.

It’s been done before. In 1993, a 28 year old coach named Bob Benson outlined seven steps to success when Sgarlata was a senior:

1. Establish accountability and discipline.
2. Emphasize the term student-athlete.
3. Reconnect with alumni.
4. Upgrading the schedule.
5. Recruit quality student-athletes.
6. Educate the leaders of the Georgetown University community about the game of football.
7. Win.

In 1999, he added four more:

8. Play peer institutions.
9. Build a new facility with all the tradition of the past in mind.
10. Place it in the center of campus.
11. Create a new school spirit among our students, faculty, and the community, and bring an environment with a wonderful aura of history and tradition to the Georgetown campus.

For better or worse, this is still the model of Georgetown football twenty years later, with success in some areas (“establish accountability and discipline”, “play peer institutions”), incomplete results in others (“win”) and abject failure in another (“build a new facility”). The challenge for Sgarlata is to revisit this model and kick the tires a bit.

The Benson mode took hold when there were as many as 30 I-AA non-scholarship football programs in the Northeast. Today, excepting the Ivies, there are only two: Georgetown and Marist. Will this model still work in 2015, in 2020, and beyond? If so, what does Georgetown need from its budget, from its alumni, and from its students to make it work? Is the Patriot League a safe harbor for a non-scholarship program like this or does Georgetown need a new course? Can Georgetown still build a program that will draw the next generation of scholar-athletes, or will it become a place for kids with a 1400 SAT that couldn’t get a free ride somewhere else?

“There must be a vision. It is really quite simple,” wrote Benson in 1999. “Utilize the game of football to create an environment and atmosphere among our students, faculty, and community on an autumn Saturday afternoon and bring to our campus a school spirit on a fall day that is desperately needed.”

Twenty years since he last wore #20, that vision now belongs to Rob Sgarlata. Among those who have preceded him, he stands in good company.