Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Off-Week Thoughts: A Homecoming, And a Plan

For one weekend a year, more people come to campus than any other. It isn’t orientation, graduation, Reunion, or even Parent’s Weekend. It’s Homecoming, and since 1925 it’s been built around the shared experience of fun, fellowship and football.

Yes, even at Georgetown.

The event has endured its ups and downs, from the days of spirited alumni parties at the Wardman Hotel, to thousands of beer-friendly grads overwhelming Kehoe Field, to a run of games where the meager status of MAAC opponents left it a decided non-factor to returning guests. Today’s Homecoming event is as much academic as athletic, but it raises a question: in many cases, it’s the only exposure many alumni (and sadly, many students) get to experiencing football on campus. What are the messages Georgetown is sending?

From the start, it’s a mixed one.

Many teams build a pre-season pyramid of goals:

Win the opener.
Win at Homecoming.
Win the rivalry game.
Win the conference title.
Win a bowl (or playoff) game.
Complete for the National Championship

After that second level, Georgetown football grinds to a halt every year.

Over 20 years ago, former coach Bob Benson laid out his vision for the program.  He stated the following  as goals:

  • Establish accountability and discipline.
  • Emphasize the term student-athlete.
  • Reconnect with alumni.
  • Separate from Division III as quickly as possible by upgrading the schedule.
  • Recruit quality student-athletes.
  • Educate the leaders of the Georgetown University community about the game of football.
  • Win.

For the most part, mission accomplished, but the bar was set fairly low. The program has reconnected with its alumni, but basketball shines such a searchlight over athletics that it makes it difficult for any sport to make the argument that it’s worth their continued attention. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the last 10 years of Georgetown athletics that it’s tacitly made the case that basketball is the only sport which matters at Georgetown. Maybe at Fox Sports, but this isn’t Fox Sports.

Benson did upgrade the schedule and had plans to do more, but Kevin Kelly quickly dialed it back. Richmond was out, Old Dominion cancelled after one game. No CAA opponent has appeared on the schedule this decade, none seem likely. Every other Patriot league team has scheduled upcoming games with teams you know—Army, Navy, BC, Syracuse, Temple, UConn—but not Georgetown.

Some of that is competitive reality, some if it is institutional myopia. We can’t do better because we won’t do better.

Ivy League teams are a comfortable “name” opponent to administrators, but I wonder how many 20-somethings even care that it’s Columbia at Homecoming instead of Canisius or even Catholic. Georgetown is one of a handful of schools that does not seem interested to schedule better opponents, and that sends a message to its constituents. Lafayette plays Villanova this weekend, but there are plenty of people that will claim Georgetown could never play such a school because we can’t compete.  Would more people show up to see Villanova or James Madison or even a game with Army at RFK Stadium? Would they care?

Because to play Villanova, to play JMU, or to get the Cadets to make a trip to DC takes something more. Scholarships? Likely, but not exclusively. Budget? Yes, but not as much as some would think. Vision? Absolutely.

“It is really quite simple,” Benson wrote. “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.”

What is the vision for Georgetown football?

Absent Georgetown joining the Ivy League, it needs a plan, a vision statement for the 2020’s, not for the MAAC Football League. It needs to educate the community that selling up is not selling out, and that the marginal investment in competitive football is a material gain for the University and how it brands itself as a well-rounded experience for all its students. Or can alumni expect no more than to be “first in war, first in peace, and last in the Patriot League?”

What are the messages Georgetown is sending about football at Homecoming this week? You won’t see it in the facility and the ongoing lack of communication around field construction. You won’t see it with the crushing lack of pageantry and excitement around the game, where many Homecoming guests will be more content sitting in a humid tent than buying a ticket for the game. But where you need to see it start is in conversation: one on one, one to many. It’s not enough that Georgetown has football or that we’re happy playing Davidson and Marist every season, two of the lowest ranked programs in the nation on a year in, year out basis. People have to ask where Georgetown can reach higher without tripping over its own two feet. In nearly every other sport, students have nearly limitless opportunities to be the best they can be and to strive for national acclaim…football excepted. To paraphrase John Thompson, Georgetown doesn’t need to be the USC of the East, but be the Georgetown of Georgetown. And right now, we’re not that Georgetown.