Thursday, October 2, 2014

Role Models

Thirty years ago, there were few basketball programs less heralded than the flagship school of the Nutmeg State, better known as the University of Connecticut. The Huskies were a perpetual also-ran in the big East, hardly the match of  Georgetown and Syracuse, Villanova and St. John's, Boston College and Pitt.  When Northeastern head coach Jim Calhoun succeeded Dom Perno in 1986, there were rumblings that maybe this Yankee Conference school wasn't cut out for a national stage.

The new coach quickly adopted an aspirant program for his Huskies: Georgetown. He would tell recruits  they would be playing Georgetown every year. Soon, he was beating Georgetown, and every other program that got in his way, from one of the least likely  sites to grow a national program: the rolling farmland of Storrs, CT.

Jim Calhoun wasn't trying to be Georgetown, he gave his Huskies something to aspire to. Remember that in the first eight seasons of the Big East Tournament,  UConn was a combined 0-8. You have to start somewhere.

And when it comes to college football, in from one of the least likely sites to grow a national program, you need an aspirant program. For Georgetown, it's isn't Fordham or Holy Cross or Lafayette. It's the school they meet Saturday, Harvard.

Rob Sgarlata isn't trying for Georgetown to be Harvard, because it's not happening. Harvard has a $35 million endowment--the interest alone would approach the top 40 of all American university endowments.  But he doesn't have to, either.

Teams aren't judged by endowments, but by results. With a program budget of $2.5 million, among the bottom 30 in all of Division I, and a restrictive academic admissions index second to none, coach Tim Murphy has led the Crimson to a 12 year record of 106-25 (.890). Among Division I schools, only Boise State, Oklahoma and Ohio State can claim as much. Harvard was won seven or more games across a ten game season nine straight years, and has lost just seven non-conference games in the last 11 years.

What is the Harvard secret, and how can Georgetown learn from it?

First, great programs have no secrets. Any coach will tell you that Harvard has a niche in college football and makes the most of it.

"Everybody thinks of recruiting as someone has to do a great marketing job," Murphy said. "But at the end of the day what recruiting is really about is evaluations. I think we've done an outstanding job of really evaluating the character of people."

"One thing is we don't change our systems. I may hire a new defensive coordinator, new offensive coordinator, new strength coach, but we keep our systems the same. It's a lot easier to teach our system to one person than to reteach 55 people or 100 people or whatever it may be."

Harvard's secret, if there is one is simple: success as constancy to purpose.

Harvard doesn't have a down year because its message is simple, constant, and ultimately  persuasive: playing football in Cambridge is not only an opportunity to compete and  excel on the field, but to do so within an extraordinary academic environment. Four years of football at Harvard is not the end of one's career, it is the crucible to build a lifetime of personal and professional opportunities.

And while Harvard could give Boston College or Army a better game than some would suspect, it doesn't need to win recruiting battles with LSU or Alabama to be relevant.  When it comes to the Ivy recruiting pool, Tim Murphy can make a compelling case to any Ivy recruit, and the results show it. When it comes down to Harvard or Cornell, Harvard wins. Harvard over Columbia, done. Brown, Dartmouth, Penn, and yes, more often than not, Harvard over Yale and Princeton, too. It's not for everyone, of course, but it doesn't have to be, and maybe that's the point.

Rob Sgarlata is trying to build a similar message at Georgetown, and it bears repeating: playing football at Georgetown  is not only an opportunity to compete and excel on the football field, but to do so within an extraordinary academic environment. Four years of football builds a lifetime of opportunities. All things being equal, when it comes down to studying at Georgetown or Lehigh, Georgetown should win. Georgetown over Lafayette.  Georgetown over Bucknell and Holy Cross.  Fordham and Colgate, too.

All things are not equal.

When it comes down to studying at Georgetown or Lehigh and Lehigh can offer a full ride, Lehigh wins.  Same for most Patriot League schools. For low-need kids, a full ride always beats a full house, and the results on the field reflect this. To some parents, ninety kids every year are going to get a full ride to a PL school, and #91 is available for Georgetown.

By contrast, Harvard doesn't suffer this fate because of a admissions policy developed among the Ivy schools which is paved with good intentions but which Harvard can exert its financial will over every other school in the league.

As stated on the Harvard admissions page,

"Our generous financial aid program—bolstered by the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, which seeks to increase low- and middle-income students’ awareness of Harvard’s affordability—aims to make Harvard accessible to any student who is admitted.

"20% of our parents have total incomes less than $65,000 and are not expected to contribute." reads Harvard's admssions site. "Families with incomes between $65,000 and $150,000 will contribute from 0-10% of their income, and those with incomes above $150,000 will be asked to pay proportionately more than 10%, based on their individual circumstances. Families at all income levels who have significant assets will continue to pay more than those in less fortunate circumstances. Home equity and retirement assets are not considered in our assessment of financial need."

Try matching that.  Or maybe Georgetown should.

The University doesn't have the wherewithal to compete for every student on such a generous platform, but what about for football?  Could Georgetown engage in a more aggressive financial aid for the 15 or 20 kids a year who aren't getting a football scholarship, but could otherwise consider Georgetown if the aid was right?

Let's take a look at the criteria above.

Harvard's "net price calculator" on its web site returns a cost of $0 for an average family earning $64,000 a year. Georgetown's net price calculator (and again, these are web tools that are not specific to every family's needs), returns a self-help family bill of a little more than $10,000 for that same student. When Harvard's numbers for  a family approaching a household income of $100,000, it's about $10,000. For Georgetown, about 20,000.  At $175K, it's a little more than $17,000 for a year at Harvard, and that's remarkable. At Georgetown, a need candidate is owing about $27,000.

The ability of Georgetown to float an extra $10,000 of need to as many as 1500 students is not insignificant: that's over $15 million a year. An extra $10,000 in need in football for 25 recruits is about $250,000, or about what the Gridiron Club raises each year.

Coach Sgarlata isn't going to win the recruit who wants to sit on the scout team at Notre Dame.  A chance to be a preferred walk on at Texas or Florida still might be preferable to need based aid in Washington. And, in the financial times we live in, maybe a full ride at Bucknell really is good enough for some kids. But if Sgarlata can walk into a recruit's home, in the same house that hosted a coach from Dartmouth or Cornell or Brown, and can say that Georgetown can match the same need package that these schools do, it opens doors. Lots of them.

Georgetown doesn't need 60 scholarships to be a winner and it's no guarantee, of course. . But if it wants to win at this competitive level, it needs something. if Georgetown wants to compete and win recruits with Fordham or Colgate, it had better offer a comparable package. If its aims are more along the teams in its fight song, it need to make a statement that it does more than merely meet demonstrated need.

The Crimson lines provide a case study in this approach. And when Georgetown walks off the field after a hard fought game, maybe we should say, "there's a program we can be someday."

There's a way, of course. Next, the will to do so.