Wednesday, August 29, 2018

25 Years In: The I-AA Era At Georgetown

No 25th anniversary patches on the uniforms. No "All-Time I-AA Team" in the Washington Post. No wistful recollections of the 1993 Bermuda Bowl ("What happened in Bermuda, stays in Bermuda.")

This season marks the 25th anniversary of Georgetown moving to Division I-AA, a move that was not popular in some quarters of the campus, and by recent results has not been saluted as such. In 24 years, Georgetown is 107-160 in the subdivision some call the Football Championship Subdivision.

One look at those 107 wins tells the story of the last quarter century as well as any. In the first eight years of I-AA, Georgetown won 53 games, or 6.6 per season. In the last 17 years, Georgetown has won 54, or 3.1 per season.

The words "Championship" and "Georgetown" seem miles apart today; even moreso in 1991, where our story begins.

For the better part of two decades, Georgetown football existed in a no-man's land of 27 Division I schools playing non-scholarship football in Divisions II or  III because, well, there was no other place to go. The remnants of the club football era, Eastern schools like Georgetown, Duquesne, St. Francis, Marist, Fordham, St. John's, Wagner, and the like cobbled annual schedules with a mix of these schools and regional Division III schools, many of which were as or more organized than their larger counterparts.

For Georgetown, that meant schools like Catholic, Gallaudet, Washington & Lee, Johns Hopkins, and Franklin & Marshall, playing as an independent with little or no hope of post season play. From 1970 to 1992, the Hoyas were within range of the playoffs just once, 1978, a 7-1 season which fell one game short in a 33-32 loss at St. John's before an announced crowd of 500 at Redmen Field.

In 1991, two disparate forces clashed over the status of these schools. Larger I-A schools saw these schools as bottom feeders and many wanted them to either invest in football or get out of Division I altogether. Across the aisle, Division III schools that tired of the University of Dayton dominating the playoffs of that era (UD won three Div. III titles and was a finalist in two others) and wanted these bigger schools out of their sandbox.

What followed were two proposals: the "Dayton Rule", requiring these 28 schools to either upgrade to Division I (I-A or I-AA) or drop football. The competing proposal would have created a new championship subdivision known as "I-AAA". Divisions I and III supported the former and opposed the latter, Division II opposed both, fearing its schools would see I-AAA as an exit path to share in the NCAA Division I basketball revenue stream.

By 1992, Georgetown had  two choices: up or out. It was not a sure thing which way it would go.

The Hoyas played on the roof of Yates Field House. The team had four coaches, all part-time. Recruiting was, by today's standards, all but nonexistent.  Worse yet, some felt that there as no way Georgetown could cobble together a schedule with regional schools like James Madison or Richmond, much less be competitive. Though Fordham had left the fold in 1988 to play with the Colonial (now Patriot) League, the Rams were hammered at every turn. If Fordham could not make it, how would Georgetown?

Some argued that Georgetown should return to a club format.  Instead, six of the soon to be displaced schools discussed starting a conference whereby they could meet the Division I-AA rule of a minimum five Division I opponents (i.e., themselves) without getting slaughtered on the open market, but still play Div. III schools with the remainder of the schedule, and avoid the spending needed at I-AA's 63-scholarship plateau. "Cost containment football", they called it.

Everyone else called it the MAAC Football League.

Of the 28 affected schools by the legislation, 27 moved up (Santa Clara, a successful and capable Div. II program, folded). One school, Alabama-Birmingham, actually moved to Division I-A. Most everyone east of the Rockies eventually settled in one of thee conferences: the MAAC, the Northeast, or the Pioneer.

In hindsight, the MAAC was good for Georgetown.  Cutting ties with the Scotty Glacken era, Georgetown brought in 29 year old Bob Benson, whose mix of youth and relentless exuberance seemed to send the team's fortunes skyward. He was the youngest coach in Division I football, and saw Georgetown as, in his words, a goldmine. 

"Our football staff inherited a program that was probably one meeting away from being discontinued and very few people who actually cared about the direction the program would take, which was probably why I was offered the job in the first place," he remarked in 2000.

For seven consecutive years, GU's record improved. Four wins, then 5, 6, 7, 8, and a pair of 9-2 seasons at decade's end. The Division III schools pared off the schedule as the MAAC expanded, and a tandem of teams - Georgetown and Duquesne - wreaked havoc on the remaining conference schools. A pair of Patriot League teams joined the schedules in Fordham and Holy Cross, each rumored to be looking at the MAAC if the PL went sour. Georgetown's win over Holy Cross in 1997 was the turning point Benson had sought for five years.

The 1990's were good to Georgetown Football. Recruiting was underway and adding kids that could play at the Division I level. With Kehoe Field bursting at the seams (figuratively and literally), conversations progressed about building a stadium that could accommodate more fans. Benson was everywhere talking up the program.

"I've said since the first day I arrived here, I am not going to apologize for my age," Benson said. "It has nothing to do with my ability. It has nothing to do with my ability to work with people. It's got nothing to do with my work ethic. I think it actually helps me relate to people that are 18 to 21. I have a pretty good grasp of what goes on in everyday life on and off the field and I think it only helps me relate to our kids."

In 2000, Georgetown did something it is often unaccustomed to do - it was proactive. The MAAC Football League had served Georgetown well, with two titles and a modicum of regional respect. But cracks were forming. Siena had dropped football, St. John's had left for a scholarship program in the Northeast Conference, and there were rumblings that the all-sports MAAC schools were discussing de-emphasizing football in order to be more competitive in basketball. Of course, that never works.

"While the winning was happening on the field, in the classroom, and on campus, our players were doing a tremendous job creating a positive image as serious student athletes and quality citizens. In addition, alumni were coming back, giving money, and the Georgetown football program was beginning to get more and more people believing in the cause. Momentum was growing and we began to explore the landscape and see if our football program could make a move," Benson wrote in 2000. "Timing is everything. In the fall of 1999, the Patriot League approached our athletic director with an invitation to join the Patriot League in the fall of 2001. The association with peer institutions, as well as the opportunity to play for an automatic bid to the I-AA playoffs, made the Patriot League a perfect fit for Georgetown."

The Georgetown Hoyas ended the Patriot League era with back to back wins over Canisius and LaSalle by a combined score of 101-13. A new and unfamiliar era awaited.

The Hoyas joined the Patriot League in 2001. Today it is the only original member of the MAAC Football League still playing football.

The intervening years have not been the stuff of legend.

Benson's teams lacked depth and teams picked them apart as a result. After a winless PL season and a 2-9 record in 2001, 2002 saw signs of an upturn. Georgetown won three of its final four to finish 5-6, and maybe Benson had the team in line for a move in the standings two or three years early.

The five win season has been matched just twice since.

A 42-20 win over Cornell in October 2003 gave Georgetown rightful pride of beating an Ivy league team, never mind that the Big Red lost nine straight to end the season and fired its coach. In the 2005 return game, they beat the Hoyas 57-7.

The Cornell game of 2003 was among the high watermark games of Georgetown's PL era.  Luke McArdle  collected 263 all-purpose yards, Marcus Slayton rushed for 113 yards, and the remarkable play of freshman quarterback Alondzo Turner opened up the game and sent a wave of optimism among fans.

"The win over Cornell is the first in a new era of Hoya football where we build a tradition of competing against the schools with which we are aligned academically," wrote one fan on the HoyaTalk board.

"One reason Hoya football failed to gain an audience was because a game versus Iona or Duquesne elicited a response somewhere between "Who are they?" and "Who cares?" amongst students. The move to the Patriot League solved this to an extent but we still needed to start playing the Ivies. We compete with them for admissions, many of our students have siblings and relatives who attended these schools, and we have many students attending graduate and professional schools at these institutions."

"With Yale, Brown, Cornell, and especially our admissions recruiting counterpart Penn on the schedule in coming years, Georgetown football has made a concerted effort to make football a more integral part of our tradition. With a new stadium coming and the new slate of opponents I am excited about this development for my alma mater, which honestly could use more on-campus activities around which to foster a sense of community."

It didn't last. Turner never made it to sophomore year, the stadium didn't arrive, and Bernard Muir gave Benson his walking papers after a sixth straight losing season. For Benson, who was reported to have turned down an offer from Princeton to be its head coach in 2000 to stay at Georgetown, this was his last head coaching position. He is now at Penn

Of the Kevin Kelly era, well, it was different.

Kelly was a lot of things Bob Benson was not. Kelly was a no-nonsense, straight down the line coach, but without the motivational strengths that struggling teams often needed. An experienced assistant with the likes of Tulane, Syracuse, Marshall, and Navy, Georgetown was Kelly's first head coaching job. His only other head coaching job since was a high school team; he has since settled at Bryant as an assistant.

If there were memorable games in Kelly's first four years, it was for all the wrong reasons.  Over a three week stretch in 2007, the Hoyas were outscored 142-20, falling behind to Pennsylvania 28-0 in the first quarter alone. Kelly's first four years saw Georgetown go 5-38, including the school's first ever 0-11 season. It opened with a loss to Lafayette and the bizarre scene of the starting QB's dad yelling in Kelly's face as he exited Multi-Sport Field. It ended 12 weeks later giving up 686 yards to Fordham on Senior Day.

At any other, at every other school, Kelly would have been fired. But there was no one to fire him. Bernard Muir, who failed to do anything with football in his tenure as AD, quit Georgetown for a job at Delaware and the position was vacant for over a year.  In the interim, Kelly hired an offensive coordinator from Hofstra, and Dave Patenaude helped make Georgetown what Elliot Uzelac and Jim Miceli could not: a winning football team.

By 2010, Patenaude had begun to turn the tide. The Hoyas opened the season winning three of four for the first time in seven years, narrowly missing a fourth when Yale scored on the final play of the game in a 40-35 win at the Yale Bowl. Georgetown had scored 83 points in four games versus just 106 the entire 2009 season. The team slumped to a 4-7 finish via turnovers  (GU gave up 58 points off turnovers that season), but the pieces were in place for 2011.

And what a ride it was.  After a rough start with losses to Yale and Bucknell, the 2001 team took off. Wins over Lafayette and Bucknell were surprising, but a 40-17 win over Colgate was shocking. In the (to date) only win over the Red Raiders in the series between the schools.and the largest margin of victory Georgetown had earned against any PL opponent.

A week later, even more surprises. Forcing five turnovers in a snowy Fitton Field, Georgetown upset Holy Cross 19-6, its first win over the Crusaders since the MAAC era. A week later, the Hoyas throttled Fordham, 30-13, its first undefeated record at home in 13 years.

A week later, Georgetown played Lehigh for the PL title and an NCAA playoff bid.

Let me repeat that: A week later, Georgetown played Lehigh for the PL title and an NCAA playoff bid. From 0-11 in 2009, the 8-2 Hoyas were on the verge of a historic event. Lehigh was not impressed, putting up 517 yards for its 10th PL title, 34-12.

"Although we ended up losing the was a step in the right direction," wrote Nick Fedyk. "In a school that loves to ridicule the woes of its football team, the recent success of our program is a sign that things are finally starting to turn around. When passing Multi Sport Facility, Blue and Gray tour guides can no longer make a joke about the ineptitude of Georgetown football."

Patenaude left Georgetown for Coastal Carolina after the 2011 season, and now coaches at Temple.  But four weeks into the 2012 season, there was still enough of the good times for Georgetown to put together its best performance of this era.

The site was Princeton Stadium, a Friday night game broadcast nationally on ESPNU. No, not the video only  ESPN+ or some such Internet only site, but ESPNU, reaching 75 million households. The 2-1 Hoyas had narrowly missed a third win  the week before when it fell in last second fashion to the Elis, 24-21, with the game winning pass was picked off in Yale's end zone.

The game started ominously as Princeton opened an early lead. The Hoyas closed to 14-12 at the half and its defense was as good as it had ever been holding the Tigers scoreless through the third quarter. With its top two quarterbacks injured, third string QB Stephen Skon opened his college career with a  a wild drive to lead 18-14 in the third. Princeton missed three field goals over three quarters, but retook the lead on a 53 yard run early in the fourth, 20-18. Special teams blocked the PAT, and special teams won the game when, following an exciting 15 play, 72 yard drive at game's end, Matt MacZura kicked the game winning field goal with 14 seconds left, 21-20. All of on national TV, no less.

And talk about two ships passing that night.

Georgetown left Princeton Stadium the winners of 12 of its prior 16 games. In the intervening six years, they have won just 15 games and are picked to finish last in the 2018 Patriot League.

Princeton returned to their dorms having dropped nine straight. In the next six years, they have won three Ivy league championships. Princeton is picked to finish first in the 2018 Ivy League.

If the 2013 Princeton game was the high watermark, last season's Harvard game was low tide. The announcement of the game at venerable but otherwise aged RFK Stadium was a promotional boost for the program, complete with one of the larger crowds GU had seen in years (never mind what the official scorer said). Weeks of goodwill were crushed by three Georgetown turnovers in the first quarter, and the place emptied out. Twenty five years of climbing the I-AA ladder were knocked to its feet by a Harvard team that was unchallenged for 60 minutes.

That's not how the story was drawn up back in 1993.

But maybe it was.

Georgetown's I-AA era was based on Benson's early 1990's plan of success--playing peers in the Patriot and Ivy, and staying out of the college football arms race. It hasn't evolved much since, but everyone else has. Outspent by as many as three to one by PL schools that offer 60 full football scholarships, Georgetown has been spending the past quarter century sharpening its knife for what has become a gun fight.  With the Ivies all but giving out full aid packages and PL schools prepping for the likes of for Boston College and UConn on its September schedules, Georgetown still plays Marist every year and can't seem to figure out why that's not enough anymore.

In a 2012 New York Times article titled "Obstacles Nothing New for Georgetown Football", author Tom Flynn spoke of " a mix of frustration and surprise, a microcosm of the history of the program, which has combined flashes of promise with long stretches of futility."

If it knew then what it knows now, was it worth it to Georgetown? Certainly, in the off the field product - hundreds of graduates who became leaders in their families and in their communities are the better for having attended Georgetown and competed for it. On the field, a day and night difference from the MAAC and the Patriot League.

But the road to the second quarter century isn't an easy one. There is still no strategic plan in dealing with "cost containment" in a full scholarship world. Annual giving has plateaued as alumni see diminishing returns. The jokes have returned among the Blue and Gray tour guides.

In Providence author Bill Reynolds' 1989 book on the Big East, he quoted a Georgetown alumnus of the era who remarked that in the 1960's, "It was like they always wanted to have a good [basketball] team...but they didn't know how to go about it." In football, 2018, much the same.

The good news is that the future is what we make of it. If the idea of playing Harvard in RFK Stadium in 1993 seemed utterly impossible, perhaps an annual game with Villanova before 20,000 at Audi Field is equally fanciful. But if you're not in the game, what then? Why does a program that have such potential seem to sit in Georgetown's dry dock?

"In the end, [the program] will be what the university makes it," said former player Rohan Williamson (C'14). [Paul] Tagliabue and President DeGioia actually care about football, so if they want to make it happen, they will.”

If Georgetown can learn from the good and the bad of its last 25 years, there's no telling how far it can travel in the next twenty five. But the road begins with a single step...forward.