Did the SoCon mismanage its once-successful baseball tournament? Sure looks like it.

In 2004, the SoCon baseball tournament was a happening. A record total of 35,150 fans rumbled through the turnstiles at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park during the event.

It was the fifteenth consecutive year the tournament had been held in Charleston, and the culmination of a six-year stretch (1999-2004) in which the SoCon tourney annually drew more fans than did the ACC Tournament. Yes, you read that right. The Southern Conference tournament had a higher attendance than the ACC’s version for six straight years.

The good times continued in 2005 (attendance of 26,707), 2006 (28,206), and 2007 (31,298). So what did the SoCon’s powers-that-be decide to do in June of 2007?

You guessed it. They announced they were moving the tournament.

This happened, it appears, for two reasons. First, a small minority of school coaches/officials complained about Charleston’s status as the permanent host site, led by Mike Gaski, the longtime UNC-Greensboro coach whose teams had established a pattern of underachieving at the SoCon tournament.

However, it is likely the main impetus for the decision was financial. The league thought it could make even more money than it already was (and yes, it was doing quite well in Charleston) if it shopped the tournament to different communities.

After a mildly disappointing 2009 tournament in Greenville (at least in terms of attendance), SoCon commissioner John Iamarino insisted that the net guarantee to the league from that tournament was “141 percent greater” than the net revenue in the previous year’s event (2008), which suggested that Greenville had ponied up a lot of money to swipe the tournament from Charleston.

You could say the league cashed in that year. It is doubtful, however, that you can say that these days.

The last two years, the tournament has been held in Greenville (2013) and Charleston (2014). Combined total attendance from those two tourneys: 15,471. Combined.

Those are the two lowest years for attendance (regardless of venue) since at least 1997, which was when Riley Park first opened. They are almost certainly the two lowest years for attendance since the tournament was first moved to Charleston in 1990 (attendance figures prior to 1997 are hard to come by, as the league doesn’t list them).

I doubt anyone thinks it’s a good thing that the combined attendance from the last two league tournaments was lower than the attendance from the 1994 event (15,486), which was held at College Park. Twenty years later, and the conference is going backwards in terms of tournament interest.

The sad thing is that it was all too predictable. The league could have looked at the aforementioned ACC tournament, which struggled mightily after being moved from Greenville, where it had enjoyed a lot of success over a nine-year period. Rotating sites did that league no good, and attendance suffered until a multi-year stay in Jacksonville got the event back on track.

In 2009, Mike DeMaine from the Greenville Drive (which co-hosted the event) said that “Maybe if you are in one place a long time, it gets stale for everyone.” I guess he would have favored rotating the Rose Bowl between Pasadena and Fresno.

What a permanent host site does is establish consistency. It makes it easier for fans, coaches, and administrators to plan ahead, knowing from past years what to expect. It helps in developing relationships within the community that lead to increased sponsorships and other promotional opportunities.

You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Take John Iamarino’s comments, for example:

There are advantages to going back to a city: It helps with sponsors; it helps with awareness of the event.

Of course, he wasn’t talking about Charleston. He was talking about Asheville, which will now host the SoCon men’s and women’s basketball tournaments through 2017.

For some reason, the league is anxious to find a permanent home for its basketball tourneys but would rather rotate the baseball tournament, despite evidence suggesting that leaving it in one place is the way to go.

That place should be Charleston, which previously demonstrated an ability to “grow” the event in a way that Greenville simply has not been able to match.

Don’t count on it happening, though. Next year the tournament will return to Charleston, but in 2016 and 2017 it will probably move back to Greenville (which has an option to host in those years). After that, who knows.

While moving the tournament around has been a problem, the actual format of the event has also drawn attention, and in a very negative way.

The Southern Conference bracket is set up so that two teams will meet in a winner-take-all final, whether or not one of the teams is undefeated (it is conceivable both could be undefeated). Thus, even though most of the tournament is a double-elimination setup, it is possible for a team to lose only one game in the tournament and still not win the championship.

In fact, that has happened the last two seasons. In both cases, the previously undefeated team lost in the title game (and by one run) to a team that had already lost earlier in the tournament.

The SoCon isn’t the only league to have a single-elimination final, but that’s no excuse for using a format that is clearly unfair.

In a conference like the SEC (which has a single-elimination final and semifinals), the automatic berth in the NCAAs that goes to the tourney champion is not as important as it is to a league like the SoCon. That’s because at least half of the teams in the SEC are getting regional bids anyway (this year, 10 of 14 squads in that league are headed to the NCAA tournament).

Meanwhile, most years the SoCon is a one- or two-bid conference, never more than three. Winning the tournament championship is critical. That auto-bid means something. Devaluing it by using a made-for-TV tournament format is borderline unconscionable.

What’s worse, though, is that the final is not on television anyway. It’s on ESPN3. That is not the same thing as ESPN or ESPN2 or ESPNU or ESPN The Ocho or any other ESPN channel you can name. What’s the point of using a bracket designed for a one-shot television window when you aren’t even on TV?

There is no reason not to hold a standard double-elimination tournament. That’s the fair thing to do, the right thing to do, and the sensible thing to do.

Don’t count on that happening, either.

SoCon Hall of Fame, revisited: from bad to worse

A few days ago I wrote about the Southern Conference Hall of Fame, and how it has botched its induction process. Since then, more information has come to light.

Jeff Hartsell wrote about the SoCon Hall of Fame on Tuesday, and included some tidbits about the SoCon’s election procedures that are just infuriating. I had noted in my previous post on the subject that the league had “bent over backwards to honor players and coaches from its distant past.”

Well, it turns out that the conference’s de facto position is that players and coaches from its first 33 years of existence are actually twice as important as those from more recent decades. No, I’m not kidding.

From Hartsell’s article:

Voters are asked to pick two nominees from the pre-1954 era (when the ACC split off from the SoCon), two from 1954-now and one female.

This is simply absurd. The “pre-1954 era” is a 33-year period, while “1954-now” is 60 years (and counting). Why, then, should the conference allocate the same number of spots for both eras? The modern era should have twice as many spots, because it is twice as long a period of time as the pre-1954 era.

This ludicrous lean to the days of long ago will only get worse as the years go by, of course, because the “1954-now” period will continue to expand, while the other era will always remain the same in duration — 33 years.

Oh, but that’s not the only ridiculous move the SoCon has made with its Hall of Fame:

The plan to induct a new class just every other year will only make the perceived backlog problem even worse.

Yes, that’s right. The league is only going to vote every other year. Why? I have no idea. I couldn’t even think of a cynical reason. It’s just bizarre.

Hartsell suggested on Twitter that the league might be trying to save money by not having a banquet every year. My response to that is maybe the league could elect new members every year while holding the banquet every other year.

As a result, the next scheduled election isn’t until 2016. What does this mean for modern-era male athletes?

Let’s take 2012, the first election in the SoCon’s “elect five in three specific categories” format. The two modern-era inductees that year were longtime Furman tennis coach Paul Scarpa and Jim Burch, a basketball officiating supervisor. No male athletes from the last six decades were selected.

2013: No election

2014: Furman soccer star Clint Dempsey and Appalachian State football coach Jerry Moore were elected as the “modern era” choices.

2015: No election scheduled

2016: Here is where things get really fun. Both Stephen Curry and Armanti Edwards will be eligible in 2016. There is a good chance that one or both of them will be elected, and that all the other modern-era candidates will be shunted aside for another two years.

It is even more likely that Curry and Edwards will get the nod because neither of their schools will be in the league by 2016, which seems to have been a significant advantage for past candidates.

2017: No election scheduled

2018: By this time no officiating supervisors will have been elected for six years, so expect at least one to take up a “modern era” slot, much like Burch did in 2012. The other inductee will likely be a former Elon player or coach (again, the no-longer-in-league factor).

2019: No election scheduled

2020: Will the league still exist? Of course, if you follow sports on television, you might be under the impression the SoCon doesn’t really exist in 2014.

It also doesn’t help the league that certain schools seem to have a leg up on getting people inducted. For example, Appalachian State, which has been in the league since 1971, has five enshrinees.

Jerry Moore retired (or was forced out), and the following year was immediately waved into the Hall. Chal Port of The Citadel, with similar accomplishments as a baseball coach, is not in the Hall.

Dexter Coakley is one of four post-1960 male athletes to have gained enshrinement into the league’s Hall of Fame. He was a dynamite force on the gridiron, but is he really one of the four top SoCon male athletes of the past 50+ years?

Coakley was a truly outstanding football player, to be sure, and the recipient of many honors, but is there a particular reason why he is in the Hall of Fame and (just to name one example) Brian Ruff isn’t? From Coakley’s Hall of Fame bio page:

His name still stands among the Mountaineers’ all-time leaders in all tackling categories, twice registering at least 20 tackles in back-to-back games.

That’s great, and Coakley is second all-time in the Southern Conference in tackles, with 616. He’s behind Ruff, who had a staggering 755 tackles in his college career.

Coakley’s bio also notes that he was “the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore, junior and senior.” Again, this is very impressive.

Brian Ruff was the league’s Player of the Year twice. That was before they started giving awards for both offense and defense, so Ruff had to compete with all the league’s offensive stars as well as defenders. Only four SoCon players won the PoY award multiple times; Ruff was the only defender to do so.

Ruff was also the last Southern Conference football player to have been named a Division I first-team All-American. (Not I-AA; I.)

I want to reiterate that Coakley is not undeserving of recognition. If there were six to eight football players from the “modern era” in the Hall, it would stand to reason that he might be one of them.

It’s just that right now, there are only two (Coakley and Georgia Southern’s Adrian Peterson). Where is Ruff, or Thomas Haskins, or Stanford Jennings, or Bob Schweickert?

Heck, since Schweickert went to a school that is now in the ACC (Virginia Tech), he would seem to be a natural choice under the current guidelines.

In all honesty, though, Appalachian State’s prowess in lobbying is not the biggest problem with the Hall. No, it’s the league’s favoring of a shorter period of its past at the expense of the majority of its history that is most frustrating, and which needs to change.

Jeff Hartsell suggested the following in his column, which I think makes a lot of sense:

Induct a six-person class every year: At least one woman and one candidate from the pre-1954 era, with the other four from the “modern era.”

That would work. For one thing, it would alleviate a smaller problem with the current setup, which is that while the number of women currently in the Hall of Fame is more or less appropriate (if you are into quotas, anyway), the “women’s category” would be slightly over-represented in a one-out-of-five format going forward.

One out of six is (at least for this current time in league history) a more reasonable percentage. That isn’t such a big deal, though, at least relative to the league’s other procedural shortcomings.

Obviously having elections every year is the way to go. When the National Baseball Hall of Fame got started, the powers that be made a similar mistake in not holding yearly elections.

This led to a host of problems, some of which still negatively impact Cooperstown today. Seventy-five years later, the Southern Conference should not be repeating the same mistake.

While you could argue that having four “modern era” picks for every one pre-1954 selection is reversing the current problem, the fact is that the SoCon Hall of Fame has so many pre-1954 honorees already it would take about a decade of voting to even things back out.

Incidentally, the SoCon has changed its voting procedures before:

In the fall of 2009, the conference created a special contributor category to honor administrators.

Yes, the league changed the rules so it could elect officiating supervisors…

Jeff Hartsell wrote that “the SoCon, despite its rich history, did not even have a Hall of Fame until current commish John Iamarino came on board in 2006. He and his staff got it up and running and should be commended for that.”

Well, I’m not sure I’m willing to commend the commissioner for establishing a Hall of Fame that seems to primarily exist as an auxiliary Hall for the ACC and SEC.

I’ve been following the Southern Conference for my entire life. I would like to see appropriate recognition for the coaches and athletes I have watched compete in the league. That isn’t happening right now.

(Also, here’s a tip: I don’t watch the games for the officiating, and nobody else does either.)

It may be that the league is unwilling to change its voting procedures to more accurately reflect its history. If so, then I would respectfully suggest to the administration at The Citadel that it may be best for the school to “opt out” of the SoCon Hall of Fame.

It is likely that The Citadel helps fund this entity. However, if its coaches and players are not going to be treated fairly (along with those from other schools, notably VMI), then why should The Citadel have to pay for the privilege?

If FBS schools no longer play FCS schools in football, what are the ramifications?

If you follow college football at all, you probably are familiar with last week’s story out of Wisconsin, where Barry Alvarez was quoted as saying that Big 10 schools would not schedule FCS opponents going forward:

“The nonconference schedule in our league is ridiculous,” Alvarez said on WIBA-AM. “It’s not very appealing…

“So we’ve made an agreement that our future games will all be Division I schools. It will not be FCS schools.”

A couple of quick points:

- Obviously, FCS schools are members of Division I. You would think the director of athletics at a D-1 institution would know that.

- Alvarez claimed that the Big 10’s non-conference schedule “is ridiculous”, yet he is the same AD who in recent years scheduled multiple FCS schools from all over the country, including The Citadel, Wofford, Northern Iowa, South Dakota, Austin Peay, and Cal Poly. The Badgers will play Tennessee Tech in 2013.

Alvarez’s comment drew a lot of attention, understandably so, although it is not a lock that the Big 10 will enforce such an edict. Northern Iowa’s AD was blunt:

I would tell you the loss of the Big Ten schools will be devastating, to UNI and to a lot of our peers. Not just because we wouldn’t play Iowa and have the guarantee, if you think this will stop at the Big Ten…I look at things happening in the equity leagues in fives, and so I have to believe this might lead to additional dominoes…It impacts our ability to generate money in football. It closes the ranks, it closes us out a little bit more.

Samford’s AD had a similar reaction:

If the SEC and ACC make the same decision, we’ve all got to sit back and reevaluate how we’re going to replace our money. If you eliminate those guarantee teams, it puts us in a tough situation at a private school where we don’t get any state funding.

Of course, not everyone is upset. Some in the media welcome the move, eager for what they perceive as “better” scheduling (though suggesting New Mexico State would be a significant improvement over a decent FCS squad strikes me as a bit puzzling). Most members of the college football press/blogosphere, however, understand the potential issues associated with such a decision and the nuances at play. Not all of them do, though — or if they do, they simply don’t care.

The best (worst?) example of this attitude is probably Yahoo! Sports columnist Frank Schwab, who couldn’t be more thrilled with the no-FCS proposal. After writing (in a headline) that “hopefully everyone follows [the Big 10’s] suit”, he added:

…hopefully other conferences (and by “other conferences” we mostly mean you, SEC) stop the practice of wasting a precious Saturday afternoon in the fall on FCS opponents. The FCS teams benefit with a large payday, and that’s great for the bean counters at those schools. It’s not good for anyone else.

It stinks for the season-ticket holders that have to pay for a sham of a game. It’s nothing worth watching on television. The FBS team has nothing to gain, because a win is expected but a loss goes down in infamy. And while the FCS team will get enough money to build a new weight room, the most common result is getting pounded by 40 or 50 points, which can’t be that enjoyable for those players.

Some Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents.

I thought Schwab’s overall tone was a bit much, to be honest. I sent him a tweet, trying to be as polite as possible:

You seem to have a very flippant attitude about the FCS.

His reply:

Oh, make no mistake, no “seem” about it

Okay, then…

My first thought when I read Schwab’s piece was that it was clearly the work of someone who does not understand FCS football, or who has no connection to it at all (Schwab is a Wisconsin alum). Saying that FCS players can’t enjoy the experience suggests he has never spoken to any of them about it. Most small-school players relish the challenge of “playing up”. In fact, such games are often a recruiting tool for FCS coaches. It’s not all about the money.

Earlier in this post I listed six FCS schools Wisconsin has played in recent years. Of those matchups, the Badgers had to hang on to beat Northern Iowa by five points, were tied at halftime with The Citadel, and frankly should have lost to Cal Poly (winning in OT after the Mustangs missed three extra points). I’m not really getting the “sham of a game” vibe with those contests. Now if you want to talk about the 2012 Big 10 championship game against Nebraska in those terms, go right ahead.

Schwab singles out the SEC as the worst “offender” when it comes to playing FCS schools. I think it is only fair to point out that Big 10 schools currently have a total of 37 FCS teams on their future schedules, while SEC schools have 32. (I’m sure the SEC will eventually add a few more.)

Oh, and to quickly dispose of one canard (which in fairness to Schwab, he does not suggest): some people occasionally claim that allegedly easy FCS matchups have given the SEC a leg up on winning BCS titles, because they play fewer quality non-conference opponents. You only have to look at the Big 10 to see that isn’t the case.

The SEC has played more FCS schools in the past than has the Big 10. However, despite that, Big 10 schools have actually lost more games to FCS opposition since 2005 than has the SEC. In fact, no BCS league has lost as many such games (six) or had as many different schools lose them (four) in that time period.

Not playing FCS schools won’t hide the Big 10’s real problem, which is illustrated to a degree by this article, written in August of 2012:

Iowa has four nonconference football dates. It has chosen to fill two of them this year with games against teams from the Mid-American Conference

The reason for this: The Hawkeyes wanted two games they would have very good chances to win.

That’s not exactly a revelation. But perhaps you aren’t aware of just how pronounced Iowa’s (and the Big Ten’s) dominance over MAC teams has been.

The columnist wrote that the MAC was “the Big 10’s football piñata”, which in years past it may have been. Unfortunately for the Big 10 (and to the undoubted surprise of the writer), it would lose three games to MAC schools in 2012, and that was just part of a trend — MAC teams have beaten Big 10 squads twelve times since 2008. (MACtion, indeed.)

As for the Hawkeyes and the “two games they would have very good chances to win”…Iowa lost one of them by one point, and won the other by one point.

The truth is the Big 10 just hasn’t been that good in football in recent years, which doesn’t have anything to do with playing FCS opposition. Dropping FCS schools from Big 10 schedules won’t change things, either. SEC schools aren’t winning all those BCS titles because they play FCS teams; they’re winning them because SEC schools have the best players and (in some cases) the best coaches.

So what happens if the Big 10 follows through and has its members drop all FCS opponents? What happens if other leagues do the same thing?

You’ve seen the quotes from ADs at schools that would be affected. Then there is this take from agent/event promoter Jason Belzer:

If other conferences follow the Big Ten’s lead and stop scheduling games against FCS opponents, the institutions that compete at that level will have two options: 1) look to make up the funds elsewhere, or 2) essentially be forced to stop competing at the same level as the larger institutions. Because it is  unrealistic to believe that any institution can begin to make up the difference in loss of football guarantee revenue by playing any number of additional such games in basketball, it is more likely that the second option will occur. With the loss of revenue, the gap between schools in BCS conferences and those who are not will continue to grow ever wider, leading to what may be the eventual breakup of the approximately 340 schools that compete at the NCAA Division I level.

How soon this may occur remains to be seen, but the the additional millions in revenue the new college football playoff will provide BCS conferences, coupled with their decision to eliminate the one source in which smaller schools could obtain a piece of those funds, will almost certainly accelerate the timetable for any such  fracturing.

I think that is a distinct possibility. I also think it may be the ultimate aim of the Big 10.

Not everyone agrees that the outlook is so dire, and at least one observer believes there are other ways for smaller schools to generate revenue:

FCS schools can take steps to enhance revenue streams outside of the on-field competitions with big schools. For example, very few schools FCS schools have media rights deals. Yet there are an increasing number of regional sports networks (RSNs) and national networks that are looking for programming. In fact, NBC Sports Network signed a media rights deal with the FCS Ivy League to “broadcast football, men’s basketball. and lacrosse.” FCS schools can and should continue to pursue these deals to be less dependent on paycheck changes…
…many institutions do not lobby at the federal or state level for their athletic programs or rely the schools’ lobbyists for their athletic programs. As schools like UNI receive more state funding, it is unclear how much of that funding will go to its athletic department. Therefore, FCS can and should make larger commitments to lobby on their athletic programs’ behalf, especially if paycheck games are eliminated.

That comes from a blog by a group (or maybe just one individual) called Block Six Analytics. I’ll be honest. I don’t buy either of those options.

I think many smaller institutions already lobby on varsity sports interests, and at any rate in most cases there would be a ceiling for actual results. To use The Citadel as an example, the school has in recent years begun to play Clemson and South Carolina in football on a more regular basis, as do several other FCS schools in the Palmetto State.

This outcome was basically due to a request by the state legislature to the two larger schools, neither of which had any real problem with it. However, The Citadel can’t play Clemson and/or South Carolina every year, since there are numerous other FCS programs in the state (Furman, Wofford, South Carolina State, Coastal Carolina, Presbyterian, and Charleston Southern).

The first point, that FCS schools should have media rights deals…um, it’s not like they haven’t tried. I’m sure the Southern Conference would like to have a profitable contract with CBS or ESPN or Al-Jazeera, but that’s not likely to happen. Even the mid-major conferences that do have deals (like the CAA has with NBC Sports) usually only get the benefit of exposure. That’s great, but it’s not a big cash situation.

I’m trying to imagine what reaction SoCon commissioner John Iamarino would have if he was told that he should go right out and find a big-money media rights deal for his league. Eye-rolling? Uncontrollable laughter?

Speaking of Iamarino, he had some comments on the FCS vs. FBS situation that were fairly ominous:

The only reason to have 63 scholarships is to be eligible to play FBS teams and count toward their bowl eligibility. If those games go away, the entire subdivision would have to look at if 63 is the right number. Could we save expenses by reducing the number of scholarships? It would seem to me that’s one thing that would have to be looked at.

I disagree with Iamarino that “the only reason” to have 63 scholarships is to play FBS schools (but I digress).

I’m guessing it hasn’t occurred to some of the more FBS-focused among the media that there could be a potential loss of football scholarships if the Big 10’s big idea comes to pass. No one thinks that would be good for the health of the sport. It would also be an sizable number of lost opportunities for potential students.

Iamarino doesn’t give a number, but I could see the FCS maximum dropping to around 50, based on scholarship costs and the lost income from not playing those games. That’s not much more than the D-2 maximum of 36.

This wouldn’t be the first time a Big 10 proposal had the potential to eliminate athletic scholarships at other schools, of course. As far back as 1948 the NCAA, then largely controlled by the Big 10, enacted the Sanity Code, an attempt to get rid of all athletic scholarships. It was a rule seen by many as benefiting the Big 10 at the expense of mostly southern schools.

Famously, the Sanity Code would not last long, and it is a pleasure to note that The Citadel was one of the “Seven Sinners” at the heart of its eventual destruction. I would hate to see the school have to reduce opportunities for prospective students after all these years.

Block Six Analytics did make one good point, which is that the FCS schools do have one other string in their collective bow, namely the NCAA basketball tournament:

One may argue that it is madness to have such a seemingly large organization completely dependent on one deal. However, this deal also means the NCAA will do everything in its power to ensure that there are enough Division I basketball programs to continue “March Madness” (also known as the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship). This requires that schools outside of the BCS have basketball programs that compete at the Division I level. In addition, this dynamic may allow smaller schools to actually ask for an increased amount of subsidies from the NCAA – especially given the elimination of paycheck games.

This may be the biggest obstacle to the Big 10 (and other power leagues) breaking away from the NCAA sooner rather than later. There is a lot of money in that tournament, and the event works in part because the country is enchanted with the “David vs. Goliath” component that is traditionally the major drawing card of the first two rounds. A basketball tournament only open to 65-75 larger schools wouldn’t be nearly as valuable (whether administrators at the BCS schools all understand this point is another issue).

Having said that, I have my doubts the smaller schools could extract a larger pound of flesh for their participation in the event.

A couple of other thoughts:

- If the Big 10 eliminates games against FCS schools, it will be harder for its member institutions to become bowl-eligible. This could be even more of a problem if the league moves to a 10-game conference schedule, which is reportedly under consideration.

If dropping FCS schools from FBS schedules was done across the board, there wouldn’t be enough eligible teams for all the existing bowl spots. Either the rules would have to be changed to allow 5-7 teams to play in bowls, or a bunch of bowl games would have to be cut.

- Frank Schwab wrote that a “Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents”. I believe all but one of the current Sun Belt schools were once FCS (I-AA) programs. It’s not that big a difference from playing these schools versus competing against a quality FCS squad.

In addition, if FBS-FCS matchups go by the wayside, then a bunch of FCS schools will likely move up to FBS — more than are already planning to do so.

It’s possible that Alvarez’s comments to a local radio station are just the rantings of one man. I hope so, but I’m not confident that is the case. I think this is probably going to happen (though perhaps not next year). It will have a limited impact unless leagues like the SEC and ACC do the same thing. Then it will become a problem.

When it comes to maintaining financially stable sports programs, smaller schools already have too many problems.

2012 Football, Game 4: The Citadel vs. North Carolina State

The Citadel at North Carolina State, to be played at Carter-Finley Stadium, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 22.  The game will be streamed on ESPN3.com, with play-by-play from Mike Gleason, analysis by Paul Maguire, and sideline reporting from Sarah Stankavage. The contest can also be heard on radio via the twelve affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze patrolling the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pregame, halftime, and postgame commentary. Bulldog Insider will also provide free audio. The Citadel Sports Network broadcast can be heard on the radio in Carter-Finley Stadium via 90.3 FM.

Links of interest:

The Citadel game notes

North Carolina State game notes

SoCon weekly release

FCS Coaches Poll

The Sports Network FCS Poll

Map of Carter-Finley Stadium and surrounding parking lots

Video of NCSU head coach Tom O’Brien’s weekly press conference

I was travelling last weekend, so I wasn’t in Boone to watch The Citadel play Appalachian State (obviously my loss). I wanted to know what was going on, of course, so occasionally I would get out my smartphone and check for scoring updates. (Okay, maybe more than occasionally.)

When the game started I was wandering around the extremely impressive Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago (a school that was once a member of the Big 10, by the way, and is still a member of that conference’s academic consortium). By the time it ended I was at the underrated Loyola University Museum of Art, just off of Michigan Avenue. Hey, I’m not just a sports geek; my nerdiness is multi-faceted.

The Oriental Institute wasn’t quite as impressive, however, as The Citadel putting FIFTY-TWO POINTS ON THE BOARD IN BOONE. Fifty-two points…and in only three quarters!

Three Bulldogs rushing for over 100 yards? Another with over 100 receiving yards? Unbelievable, and also unprecedented, for while The Citadel did have three 100-yard rushers in a game against VMI in 1998, there was no 100-yard receiver in that particular contest.

I’ve spent the past couple of days trying to reconstruct the App State game before taking a look at this week’s game against North Carolina State. Kevin Higgins may give his charges only 24 hours to enjoy a victory before focusing on the next game, but I can take more time to review things.

The highlights were great fun to watch. The two TD runs by Ben Dupree, the long pass plays, the blocked punt for a TD, the sacks/pressures, and the “truck jobs” by Rickey Anderson and Van Dyke Jones — they were all good, especially with Danny Reed roaring in the background.

I think everyone by now has a good idea of what happened in the game, so I’m not going to rehash all of it. I will say, though, that while the offense was responsible for 45 points (the punt block providing the other TD) and an astounding 618 yards of total offense, it seems to me the defense may have been the more consistent unit against the Mountaineers.

I’m not sure the offense’s productivity last Saturday is sustainable, at least not in the manner it was accomplished.

As I wrapped up my preview of the Appalachian State game last week, I wrote:

The Bulldogs were only 3 for 14 on third-down conversions against Georgia Southern. That won’t be good enough against Appalachian State.

This is something I actually got right. The Citadel turned that third-down conversion stat on its head, as it went 11 for 14 on third-down conversions against the Mountaineers. That is quite a switch, but a closer look tells a more remarkable tale.

Four times against Appalachian State, the Bulldogs were faced with a third down needing six yards or more to move the chains. In fact, all four of those conversion attempts were 3rd-and-8 or longer. The Citadel’s average gain on the four plays? 36.25 yards, with two of them resulting in touchdowns (Dupree’s long scampers) and another leading to a first-and-goal (the 32-yard pass reception by Domonic Jones).

That is an absurd success rate, both in terms of percentage and resulting yardage. In contrast, the Bulldogs had eight third down plays against Georgia Southern in which they needed to gain at least six yards for a first down. The Citadel converted only one of those against the Eagles (the first TD of that contest, a 26-yard pass from Dupree to Jones on a 3rd-and-7).

When The Citadel played Charleston Southern, the Bulldogs converted twice on third-and-six but were 0-3 on third-down conversion attempts longer than that (and 3-for-9 overall).

I’m not trying to take anything away from the offense. After all, The Citadel only faced a third-and-long situation four times in twelve drives, which is excellent. However, those conversions led to 21 of the Bulldogs’ 38 first-half points. It could have been a very different game if The Citadel had converted on, say, only one of those long-yardage situations.

Going forward, The Citadel can’t count on that type of success on third-and-long. It’s nice to know, though, that the Bulldogs are capable of making big plays on offense when necessary. Another huge plus: no turnovers.

As for the defensive effort against the Mountaineers, it was just what the doctor ordered. Appalachian State had averaged over 42 points per game in the previous six contests against the Bulldogs at Kidd Brewer Stadium, so holding App to 14 points through three quarters was a welcome change.

The Mountaineers had nine full possessions in those three periods and were limited to 239 yards of total offense. Five of the nine App drives ended in punts, one in an interception, and another on a lost fumble. Six of those non-scoring drives were over in five or fewer plays, so the defense played its role in The Citadel’s huge edge in time of possession (the Bulldogs had the ball for over 38 minutes in the contest).

The defense did an excellent job preventing Mountaineers QB Jamal Jackson from making big plays (his longest pass completion of the day was only 15 yards). I am a little puzzled by App’s seeming unwillingness to throw the ball deep. Perhaps it was more a case of being unable than unwilling. The Citadel got a lot of pressure on Jackson when he did attempt to go long (Mark Thomas put his stamp on the game twice in this respect).

Now the Bulldogs will play a football game in another city in North Carolina. It won’t be a conference game, though. North Carolina State is this year’s FBS opponent, as The Citadel will pocket $375,000 for appearing at Carter-Finley Stadium this Saturday.

North Carolina State is different in at least one respect from The Citadel’s recent FBS opposition. South Carolina, Arizona, and North Carolina are all schools that have never produced a player who had a significant career as an NFL quarterback. Briefly reviewing those three schools’ histories with regards to signal-callers:

- Before Nick Foles was selected in the third round of the most recent NFL draft, Arizona had not had a QB picked in the draft since 1985. The Wildcats haven’t had an alum start a game at quarterback in the NFL since 1974.

- T.J. Yates started five regular-season games (and two playoff games) for the Houston Texans last season, which was remarkable enough. More remarkable, perhaps, is that he became the first UNC player to ever start a game at quarterback in the NFL.

- Anthony Wright, with 19 career starts, is one of only two former South Carolina players to start an NFL game at quarterback.

NC State, with a program arguably on the same level historically as those schools, is QBU by comparison, with three alums (so far) making an impact on the NFL scene at the quarterback position.

Roman Gabriel was the first. Gabriel, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, was the second overall pick in the NFL draft in 1962. He played for 16 years in the league with the Rams and Eagles, winning the NFL MVP award in 1969. Gabriel was in a movie with John Wayne; he also portrayed a headhunter on Gilligan’s Island.

Erik Kramer’s NFL career wasn’t quite as distinguished as Gabriel’s, but in ten seasons Kramer did make 67 starts. His claims to fame include an appearance on Married with Children (as himself). Most notable, however, is the fact that Kramer is the only man alive to have quarterbacked the Detroit Lions to victory in a playoff game.

Philip Rivers is a known quantity to current football fans. By the time the month of October rolls around, he will have started 100 games in the NFL and thrown for over 25,000 yards. Unlike Gabriel and Kramer, Rivers has yet to make an appearance in a network sitcom.

Russell Wilson may not be as well known as Rivers yet, but odds are he will be sooner rather than later; he has already made his first commercial. Russell was the Pack’s starting QB for three seasons before spending his final year as a transfer grad student at Wisconsin (leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl). He won the starting QB job for the Seattle Seahawks this year as a rookie despite only being a third-round pick.

Wilson’s move to Madison was a controversial one, and could have backfired on NC State head coach Tom O’Brien. It didn’t, though, largely because O’Brien had another potential NFL quarterback in Mike Glennon waiting in the wings. Glennon wasn’t a sure bet this time last year, however, and so O’Brien was the subject of a lot of criticism.

Criticism of O’Brien isn’t exactly a new concept. O’Brien has always had a particular kind of rap against him, that of being a decent coach with a definite ceiling. At Boston College, he took over a program racked by scandal and patiently built it into a perennial bowl team, consistently winning eight or nine games every season.

After a while, though, BC fans began to tire of never winning “the big one” and playing in middling bowl games (which O’Brien usually won; he is 8-2 in bowls). O’Brien also apparently didn’t get along with his AD, and so he wound up taking the NC State job. The school needed an experienced, steady disciplinarian (O’Brien went to the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the Marine Corps).

O’Brien had a slower start in terms of wins and losses at North Carolina State, but in the last two years the team has won nine and eight games, respectively. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple last year, as not only had Wilson departed, but due to scheduling two FCS teams, the Pack had to win seven regular season games to qualify for a bowl.

A befuddling loss to O’Brien’s old team, Boston College, meant that NC State had to win its last two games to get to seven victories, and one of those was against eventual ACC champ Clemson — but the ever-erratic Pack smashed the Tigers, 37-13. Then in the season finale against two-win Maryland, NC State trailed 41-14 in the third quarter before scoring 42 straight points to win the game and a berth in the Belk Bowl (slacks for everybody!).

Fans of NC State are unsure if the Pack can win a title with Tom O’Brien as a coach. He is not known for recruiting at a championship level, he isn’t an offensive innovator, and there is nothing in his history that suggests he can take the program to the “next level”.

On the other hand, he wins more than he loses, he runs a relatively tight ship, and he knows how to beat UNC (5-0 against the Heels). Maybe one year, a few more breaks will go his way, and NC State will wind up in the Orange Bowl.

O’Brien has also inspired TOBing, easily one of the great college football memes of this century, good enough to be the subject of newspaper articles. It has been mentioned by ESPN and NC State’s own game notes. The TOBing craze was instigated by longtime blogger Akula Wolf of Backing the Pack.

The coach has a couple of Low Country connections. His youngest daughter works for the Historic Charleston Foundation. O’Brien is also one of the 1,989 college football and basketball coaches who owns a vacation home along the South Carolina coast.

When Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, that put the onus on Mike Glennon to deliver an all-star type of season. He did just that in 2011, completing 62.5% of his passes for 3,054 yards and 31 TDs. In his last four games, Glennon threw for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The 6’6″ Glennon struggled in this year’s opener against Tennessee, throwing four interceptions, but has been pick-free in two wins over Connecticut and South Alabama. He threw three TD passes against the Jaguars.

While Glennon is established as the snap-taker, that same sense of stability cannot be found at running back for NC State. Irmo High grad Mustafa Greene will not play against The Citadel, as he has been suspended. James Washington and Tony Creecy should get the bulk of the carries. Washington is the last NCSU player to rush for 100 yards in a game; he did so against North Carolina last season.

NC State is averaging 2.6 yards per rush through three games, a number that includes lost yardage from sacks, but is still not very good. The Pack has not had a player rush for over 1,000 yards since 2002.

Part of not having a 1,000-yard back  can probably be attributed to offensive line play, which has been a sore subject for Pack supporters during the O’Brien era. The coach has not been able to consistently develop the kind of quality o-line talent in Raleigh that he had in Chestnut Hill.

This season a couple of regulars were shifted around (“new” starting left guard R.J. Mattes has now played in four different spots on the o-line in his career). NC State is already on its second left tackle of the campaign after Rob Crisp was injured against Tennessee.

Several receivers are capable of making big plays for the Pack. Bryan Underwood has two TD receptions this year of more than 40 yards. Quintin Payton is a 6’4″ wideout who is averaging almost 20 yards per reception; he had 129 receiving yards versus Tennessee. Tobais Palmer had five TD catches in 2011. He is also NC State’s primary kick returner. Another receiver, Rashard Smith (who caught a touchdown pass against South Alabama), returns punts.

Mike Glennon will also occasionally throw to his tight ends. Actually, Glennon will throw to just about anybody, as he has already completed passes to twelve different players this season through just three games.

NCSU’s strength on defense lies in its secondary, which has talent and experience. All-American David Amerson is an amazing ball-hawk; he intercepted 13 (!) passes last season and already has two picks this year. He got burned a couple of times against Tennessee, but that can happen to the best of DBs.

Amerson is joined in the defensive backfield by safeties Earl Wolff (such a good name for an NC State player) and Brandon Bishop, who have combined to start 69 games for the Pack. The two aren’t afraid to mix it up, either, as they have accounted for a combined 54 tackles through three games this season.

Incidentally, Wolff’s mother is currently serving overseas in the military.

North Carolina State’s linebacking corps is not nearly as experienced. Middle linebacker Sterling Lucas is back after missing the 2011 season due to injury. Lucas is easily the best-educated of all the Pack players, although he has yet to inform the school’s athletic media relations department that it has the name of his high school listed improperly in the game notes.

NCSU has a couple of promising younger players in sophomores Rodman Noel (whose younger brother, Nerlens Noel, is a super-hyped freshman basketball player at Kentucky this year) and Brandon Pittman. Noel will start in the Pack’s base 4-3, but Pittman will play a lot.

On the defensive line, NCSU will rotate up to ten guys. The key players in this unit on Saturday might be veteran right end Brian Slay and 315-lb. DT Thomas Teal.

Over the last two games NCSU has held its opponents to a meager 2-for-23 on third down conversion attempts, with South Alabama pulling an 0-fer in the category (in eleven tries). Tennessee was 9-for-19 converting third downs against the Pack.

Both of NC State’s kicking specialists started as freshmen last year. Niklas Sade is the Pack’s placekicker. He has made 50 consecutive PATs and was 11-16 on FG attempts last year, although so far this season Sade is only 2-5. His career long is 45 yards.

Wil Baumann is NC State’s punter. From what I can tell, based on the stats, he is more of a directional kicker than a true “boomer”. This could be a tough week for fans of the Domonic Jones Puntblocking Experience (DJPE), however, as NC State hasn’t had a punt blocked in over three seasons, and hasn’t had one blocked and returned for a TD since 2005.

For the third consecutive week, The Citadel will play in a game designated as Military Appreciation Day. NC State has an impressive history of producing military officers, and I would anticipate a particularly good show at Carter-Finley.

It is hard to really predict how Saturday’s game will go. The Citadel was very competitive in its last matchup against an FBS opponent, and that was against a nationally ranked South Carolina squad at the close of last season. On the other hand, it is also true that the Gamecocks did not punt in that game.

I don’t think this NC State team is as good as that South Carolina outfit (at the very least, there will be no Alshon Jeffery with which to contend), but the Pack is a solid ACC program that features a fine quarterback and several playmakers.

By my count, Tom O’Brien is 10-0 against I-AA/FCS schools in his head coaching career. One of those wins came in 2007 against Wofford, in O’Brien’s first season in Raleigh. NC State won that game 38-17, a good approximation of what the smart money says Saturday’s result will be.

NC State has played Georgia Tech in each of the last two years, so it is not unfamiliar with the triple option. The Pack did not always defend the Jackets’ offense very well in those games, but then Georgia Tech has a different level of athlete in its system than does (for the most part) The Citadel. At any rate, NCSU was already preparing for this game before the season began.

Much of the focus for this week’s contest has been on how NC State will defend Triple O’Higgins, but it may be that The Citadel’s biggest task will be for its defense to stop a potent (if occasionally inconsistent) Pack offense. In most FBS vs. FCS contests, the main advantage the FBS school has is on the line of scrimmage. How the Bulldogs solve that problem will go a long way to determining how close the game will be.

To me, this game is a freeroll for the Bulldogs. A loss doesn’t affect any of the team’s long-term goals in any way, except for having a winning season, and even there The Citadel will have plenty of opportunities to get three more victories.

What is important is that The Citadel comes out of this game with A) no serious injuries, B) confidence intact, and C) a cashed check for $375K.

Ben Dupree was asked if a win over NC State would “validate” the program. He correctly said no.

To beat an FBS team, you have to be on your ‘A’ game. I don’t think winning this game would validate us, but it would get us some more national attention. We’re hoping to win this game and be a top 5 team.

Exactly right.

In a bit of an oddity, The Citadel could be the team on Saturday night in danger of suffering a letdown. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise for the Bulldogs to come out flat after two enormous (and potentially program-altering) wins.

That said, the bandwagon is starting to fill up. A win in Raleigh would fill it to near capacity.

Will the conference realignment train make a stop at the SoCon station?

It was inevitable that the never-ending saga of conference realignment would eventually impact the Southern Conference. To recap, some recent (and related) developments in the world of college athletics have included the following:

– As part of a CAA implosion, Virginia Commonwealth is joining the football-free Atlantic 10 (which will have 14 teams for basketball after adding VCU and Butler to replace Temple and Charlotte). Old Dominion, which has had a football program for about three hours, is making a big move to Conference USA. Georgia State, with even less football history than ODU, is joining the Sun Belt.

George Mason is staying in the CAA for the moment, although that may be because there isn’t room in the A-10 for GMU…not yet, anyway.

– Georgia State isn’t alone as a new member of the Sun Belt, as that league is also adding Texas State, but Florida International and North Texas are moving out (to C-USA). Denver is another Sun Belt school on the move, as it is heading to the WAC in a month, assuming the WAC will still exist in a month.

– Denver doesn’t have football. South Alabama once didn’t have a football program either, but now it does, and it will stay in the Sun Belt for all sports. The Jaguars begin league play in football this season.

– Arkansas-Little Rock would be the only non-football school in the Sun Belt, as things stand now. That is expected to change this week with the addition of UT-Arlington, which will give the Sun Belt 12 overall members, with 10 of them playing football.

– Another football newbie, UT-San Antonio, has already managed to join multiple FBS conferences (jilting the WAC for C-USA). UTSA thus has already joined more leagues (two) than it has played football seasons (one), a historic accomplishment.

– Appalachian State wants to move up to FBS land. To do so, Appy has to be invited to join an FBS conference, which has been problematic. The folks in Boone would love to hook up with C-USA, but the feeling may not be mutual. Not only did C-USA invite ODU instead of Appy, it is also bringing in Charlotte (UNCC to you old-timers out there). Let’s review some basic gridiron facts about Appalachian State, Old Dominion, and Charlotte:

- 0 (number of football victories by Charlotte in its history)
– 68 (number of football victories by ODU in its history)
– 67 (number of football victories by Appalachian State since the beginning of the 2006 season)

Ouch. That sound you hear is Appalachian State fans collectively grinding their teeth. (Incidentally, the Mountaineers have 555 wins over the program’s entire history.)

The lesson, as always: markets matter.

– Middle Tennessee State did everything it could to wangle an invitation to C-USA, but like Appalachian State, MTSU didn’t get the call. Again, markets matter. Murfreesboro and Boone lost out to Norfolk and Charlotte.

– Georgia Southern is going to try to raise a bunch of money so that it can move to the land of milk and honey, too. It’s supposed to be an eight-year fundraising campaign, which in today’s climate may be too long a period of time. Eight weeks would be better.

Georgia Southern’s late-to-the-party approach is probably due to the fact it has taken a while for the powers-that-be in Statesboro to warm up to the idea of being an FBS school, much to the annoyance of a vocal section of its fan base. It has been almost three years since GSU released a self-study (entitled “Football Classification Analysis”) that revealed just how difficult a move up to FBS could be for Georgia Southern. I wrote an extensive (warning: VERY extensive) post about the report when it first came out: Link

– Also on the “we want FBS” list: Liberty, a school that has had big-time gridiron aspirations for decades (as a Sports Illustrated story from 1989 illustrates). Liberty is ready to go; just give it 48 hours.

– Delaware is one of several schools being mentioned in what would become an expanded (and expansive) MAC. This article states that moving to the FBS “has been discussed favorably among members of the UD board of trustees and other high-ranking officials.” Whether that discussion has been about football only (and placing its other sports in another league) is open to question.

Meanwhile, no current all-sports MAC schools are being linked to another league, which comes as a surprise to at least one writer.

– James Madison, another CAA football-playing school trying to figure out its future, has also been linked to the MAC — but wait, there’s more. JMU reportedly has also drawn interest from the WAC. That would be the WAC which is a year away from being a two-school (New Mexico State and Idaho) football league, as things stand now.

Presumably the WAC is trying to put together western and eastern divisions to keep the conference alive, or maybe try to swing a Sun Belt-WAC merger of some sort. Good luck with that.

The MAC is adding Massachusetts for football but losing Temple, so it will be at 13 teams and may want to add another one — or three. Appalachian State is a possibility for this league too. Oddly, Appy may not be a factor in the Sun Belt sweepstakes, at least not yet, which will disappoint this columnist.

Honestly, I’m not sure why the MAC would feel the need to expand, but then I thought the SEC was fine at 12 schools. In today’s climate, if your conference has “only” 12 members, then it clearly needs to add even more schools and get to at least 14 if not 16 members, because otherwise the world will end (per the Mayans and/or Mike Slive).

The SoCon is holding its spring meetings at the end of May/beginning of June. According to Chattanooga AD Rick Hart, conference expansion will be the main (if not exclusive) topic of discussion. League commissioner John Iamarino stated that he had a short list of schools to target if that became necessary. Will it become necessary?

That depends on what Appalachian State and Georgia Southern do, of course, and it will also depend on what other conferences do. The league to watch is probably the CAA, but the confusing trail of realignment for SoCon schools will also pass through the MAC, Sun Belt, Big South, Atlantic Sun, and possibly the OVC. (No, I’m not buying the WAC — at least, not yet.)

The CAA’s problem is basically twofold (see this excellent overview). It has to decide whether it should continue being a player in the world of FCS, and it has to decide what its geographic focus will be. How it makes those decisions will go a long way in determining how much the SoCon could be affected.

Brian Mull of the Wilmingon (NC) Star-News wrote a solid piece from UNC-Wilmington’s perspective. UNCW is a non-football school at the southern end of the CAA. UNCW needs travel partners, and schools like the College of Charleston and Davidson would be ideal on that front. Mull also discusses other schools in the league as well, like UNC-Greensboro and (to prop up the football side of the CAA) Furman, Elon, and Appalachian State. UNC-Asheville of the Big South gets a mention.

He isn’t the first person to connect Davidson and the CofC to the CAA. As soon as ODU announced it was jumping ship, my twitter feed started humming with tweets from the likes of Jeff Goodman and Andy Katz, among others, all with the same “CAA must go after Davidson/CofC” message.

Just how interested would those two schools really be, though? I have my doubts.

The argument that the two would benefit from a move to a multi-bid hoops league falls flat, in my opinion, because the departures of VCU and ODU lessen the “value” of CAA hoops to the point where the conference is no longer a solid bet to get multiple bids on a semi-regular basis. Heck, even this past season CAA regular-season champ Drexel didn’t get an at-large bid to the NCAAs.

Combine the loss of VCU and ODU with the realization that league hoops stalwart George Mason and FBS contenders JMU and Delaware are all far from certain to stay in the CAA, and the move would be mostly lateral from an on-court perspective.

Another reason for Davidson and the CofC to move on could be the CAA’s new TV contract with NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), which on the surface appears to easily surpass the SoCon’s PBS arrangement. However, with the recent defections of ODU and VCU (not to mention Georgia State), that NBCSN/CAA contract will likely be renegotiated. It is hard to determine just how much exposure schools like Davidson and the College of Charleston would get with that deal.

Is it worth the increased travel costs, loss of traditional rivalries, and/or the general effect on the schools’ total sports portfolio? As far as other sports are concerned, for example, I’m thinking about CofC baseball, which would definitely be hurt by a move to the CAA.

That isn’t to say there wouldn’t be positives for a school like the College of Charleston. For one thing, this isn’t your mother’s CofC. It now has about 10,000 undergraduate students, or roughly 1,000 students for every available parking space downtown. It’s a midsize state school looking to attract good students, including those valuable out-of-state students with their out-of-state tuition payments. Moving to a league with a more northern geographic scope might be seen as beneficial, as part of an overall strategy of recruiting students from the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.

I think Davidson would be a much tougher sell. It’s a small school that isn’t going to get bigger. It’s been in the Southern Conference since 1936, with the exception of a brief three-year fling with the Big South more than two decades ago. That Davidson/Big South dalliance could be described as one of those affairs that scares people from ever straying again. I’m not sure Davidson is ready to trade in bus trips to Furman for airplane flights to Northeastern.

When trying to analyze future league membership, the potential loss by the SoCon of Appalachian State and/or Georgia Southern should be viewed differently than if Davidson/CofC/UNCG were to leave. If Appy and GSU depart the conference, a football replacement (or two) would be needed, which would not be the case if one or more of the non-football schools left the league.

The last two schools to be admitted to the SoCon were each smaller schools (Elon and Samford, both private universities), and I suspect that trend will continue.

I don’t see Coastal Carolina having much, if any, chance of joining the Southern Conference. CCU in the SoCon is a non-starter for Furman, The Citadel, and Wofford (and probably Davidson and Samford as well). Adding Coastal Carolina to the conference is of no benefit to those schools.

I thought Coastal Carolina might have a decent shot at getting a CAA invite, but there seems to be some resistance to CCU from that league as well. The leading football-school candidate for the CAA appears to be Stony Brook.

At this point, Coastal Carolina might have a better chance of moving out of the Big South and into another league by going the FBS route. That would be a costly move, but maybe CCU could ask its new football coach for a loan. After all, he has the money.

Here are some football-playing schools that might be good SoCon fits:

- VMI: yes, a back to the future move. Would VMI accept? Probably. Leaving the SoCon was not the best decision ever made by its administration. It would help if VMI had a travel partner of sorts, though…

- William&Mary: another back to the future candidate, and a Virginia school to pair with VMI. If the CAA completely collapses, William&Mary will become a school needing a new (and appropriate) home. Truth be told, at least part of its fan base would prefer the Patriot League, and I can understand that. If the Patriot League doesn’t expand, though, and the CAA can’t get its act together, I could see the Tribe back in the SoCon.

- Richmond: not happening. Richmond basketball is in the A-10 and UR isn’t giving that up anytime soon. Richmond as a football-only member of the SoCon? Possible, I suppose, but I doubt it (and wouldn’t support it, either).

- Mercer: hired former Furman coach Bobby Lamb to start a football program; however, it’s going to be non-scholarship. If it were scholarship, Mercer would be a very strong candidate.

- Presbyterian: PC would be a decent candidate if there weren’t already three football-playing schools in the league from South Carolina. Thus, it’s not likely to be invited, although Presbyterian would certainly be more palatable to Furman/The Citadel/Wofford than would Coastal Carolina.

- Jacksonville: I wrote about JU when I previewed The Citadel’s season opener last year. JU has potential, but it’s another non-scholarship football program.

- Gardner-Webb: It would rank behind most of the other schools I mentioned as far as likely SoCon contenders are concerned.

Incidentally, I am on board with smaller schools being the focus of the Southern Conference when/if it looks for new membership. I’m biased, so I want what is best for The Citadel. What is best for The Citadel, in my opinion, is to compete in a Division I all-sports conference with “like” schools.

Of course, there really aren’t any schools like The Citadel (save maybe VMI), but ideally the other schools would be similar in terms of enrollment size, academic standards, budgets for varsity athletics, etc. If you have a couple of days and want to read more about my ideas on “peer institutions” and what The Citadel should be doing going forward, I wrote a manifesto a month or so ago that Leo Tolstoy would have considered a tad lengthy.

What do I think will happen? I think Davidson and the College of Charleston will stay in the SoCon. I suspect Appalachian State will move to FBS within twelve months. Georgia Southern may stay at the FCS level for a while longer, unless the two schools are a “package deal” for an FBS league (likely the Sun Belt). VMI will wind up back in the SoCon.

I could be wrong about all of that, of course. There are no guarantees.

It’s all speculative at this point, though. Anybody can say anything, especially on the internet. On Saturday night a couple of tweets showed up on my timeline indicating that Clemson was going to move to the Big XII — “from all indications the board of trustees will approve”. I had never heard of the original tweeter, but the information (or misinformation) spread like wildfire. More than 36 hours after the initial tweets, no other source had confirmed the story. This is fairly typical.

At least that rumor was about Clemson. I’m starting to get tired of the Florida State-Big XII angle. Hey, if anyone wants to start a fun rumor, try this one:

FSU and Clemson are staying in the ACC, because they know that Notre Dame is joining the ACC as part of a joint entry with a mystery school. While eating lunch at a Bojangle’s in suburban Greensboro, an ACC official accidentally dropped an artist’s rendering of the new 16-team league. A quick-thinking cashier took a picture of it. I’ve acquired a photo of this mock-up. Consider this a TSA exclusive. It’s a “done deal”.

Happy conference realignment, everybody!

The Citadel: Status of the Football Program

Judging from some posts at TCISN over the last few weeks (and from some non-message board discussions I have heard), there is sentiment in some circles that it’s time to make a coaching change at The Citadel.  This is, in my opinion, definitely a minority viewpoint, but it’s out there.

It’s a position that reached its zenith in popularity following the offensive debacle against Georgia Southern, and I have to say it would be hard to blame anyone for having a knee-jerk reaction after sitting through that game.  It was embarrassing.  The improved performance against Elon last Saturday seems to have muted some of the “we need a new coach” talk, though.

That said, I seriously doubt there is going to be a coaching change after this season. Actually, I would be really, really surprised if Kevin Higgins weren’t retained.

Higgins is currently under contract through the 2013 football season.  In this economic climate, there aren’t many schools that are prepared to let a coach go with three years left on his deal, and The Citadel doesn’t have a history of doing that, anyway.  Just the opposite, in fact.  The Citadel has honored the full contracts of “lame-duck” coaches like Don Powers in football and Randy Nesbit in basketball, just to name two.

Another thing to consider is that after last season, his second straight losing campaign (and fourth in five years), Higgins decided to completely scrap his spread offense and move to the triple option.  That doesn’t strike me as the move of a man worried about job security, because he had to know when he made that decision that the 2010 season was probably going to be difficult.  Maybe he didn’t think it was going to be as difficult as it has turned out, perhaps, but he knew the potential pitfalls.

I don’t know, but I would guess that before deciding to employ a new offense Higgins had a chat with AD Larry Leckonby about the move, just to make sure his position was safe for at least a couple of years.  That also was likely the message Leckonby delivered to prospective assistant coaching candidates (Higgins brought in seven new assistants).

Tommy Laurendine, for example, was in a presumably “safe” job at his alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne.  I doubt he would have taken the job at The Citadel if he thought there was a chance that it would only be for one year.  The same is true for Josh Conklin and Bob Bodine, among others.

Assuming Higgins is back for at least one more season, then, where does the program stand in relation to historical norms?  Is keeping a coach with his overall and league record a good idea, regardless of contract status?  What factors besides on-field performance need to be considered?

First, let’s look at some numbers (keep in mind that at the time of this post, The Citadel has yet to play its final game of the 2010 season, which is at Samford).

Kevin Higgins is 26-40 overall, 14-30 in the Southern Conference.  He has been the Bulldogs’ head coach for six full seasons.

Twenty-three men have served as head coach of The Citadel.  Eight of them coached prior to the school joining the Southern Conference.  Tatum Gressette is the transitional coach in this respect, with the last four years of his eight-year tenure marking the first four SoCon campaigns for The Citadel.

Counting Gressette, then, let’s take a look at how Higgins compares to those fifteen coaches who competed in the Southern Conference.

– Overall record:  Higgins ranks 10th out of 15 in winning percentage

– SoCon record:  Higgins ranks 8th out of 15 in winning percentage

There is more to this than just those placements, though.  Higgins may only be 10th alltime in overall winning percentage, but of the five coaches behind him, three of them were his immediate predecessors at The Citadel.  The other two, Quinn Decker and John McMillan, were the first two coaches at The Citadel following the program’s post-World War II restart.

As for the SoCon record, Higgins has a better conference winning percentage than Ellis Johnson and John Zernhelt (but not Don Powers, interestingly), and also has a better mark than Tom Moore, along with John Rowland, Gressette, Decker, and McMillan.

Starting with John Sauer, who only coached at The Citadel for two seasons, every coach who was at The Citadel between 1955 to 2000 has a better league record than Higgins, except Moore.  That includes Eddie Teague, who succeeded Sauer as head coach, and three men then-AD Teague later hired (Red Parker, Bobby Ross, and Art Baker).  Moore’s successor, Charlie Taaffe, also has a better SoCon record than Higgins.

Comparing Higgins’ SoCon record to the Gressette/Rowland/Decker/McMillan group is probably pointless, though.  For example, Gressette was 4-14 in league play over four seasons, but seven of his fourteen conference losses were to schools currently in the ACC or SEC.

Decker was 8-25-1 in conference action, which included playing either South Carolina or Clemson every season — as conference games.  (His 1950 squad was 2-3 in the league; one of the two wins came against the Gamecocks, at Johnson Hagood Stadium.)

That doesn’t even take into account the difficulties Decker (and later McMillan) had in trying to bring the program back up to the level it had been prior to the war.  It must have been hard, for the first nine seasons following the program’s return were losing campaigns.  Neither Decker nor McMillan ever had a winning season at The Citadel.

One thing to consider when evaluating a coach’s record at The Citadel would be, simply, how successful has the school been historically in football?  What should expectations be?

The Citadel has basically been a .500 program through most of its history.  At the time it joined the Southern Conference, the school’s overall football record was 115-112-24.  It had never had more than four consecutive winning seasons, or more than three straight losing campaigns.

The ten years leading up to league membership were fairly typical:  7-3, 3-6-1, 6-3-1, 4-5-1, 4-5-2, 5-4-1, 4-5, 3-5-1, 3-5-1, 4-3-1.  Even after joining the SoCon, the overall records (as opposed to conference play) continued in a similar vein.

As I mentioned, though, in the post-WWII era the football program at The Citadel struggled.  That included league play, despite the move of many of the SoCon’s bigger schools to a new confederation called the Atlantic Coast Conference.  Things finally changed with the arrival, not of a coach, but of a general.  Mark Clark wasn’t interested in losing.

After a bit of a false start with Sauer (probably best remembered at The Citadel for bringing in a young hotshot of an assistant named Al Davis), Clark’s hiring of Teague finally got the football program on a winning track.  In its nineteenth season of league play, The Citadel would finally finish with a winning record in conference action.  That was in 1957.

That’s right, it took nineteen seasons for The Citadel to have a winning league record after joining the Southern Conference.  Think about that.

Four years later, the school would win its first SoCon title.

Earlier I stated that The Citadel has “basically been a .500 program”, but of course the actual overall record is 454-518-32.  What I meant, though, is that for most of its history the school’s football program really puttered along at about a .500 clip, with two exceptions.

The first is that nine-year period following World War II.  The Citadel was 27-54-1 during that stretch.  The football program is 64 games under .500 alltime, and 27 of those 64 games can be accounted for in that near-decade of losing.

That’s arguably not the worst run in the history of the program, however (particularly if you account for the fact the program had been briefly dormant).  The longest stretch of consistent losing The Citadel has ever had has been a 13-year period where the cumulative record of the team is 50-93, 43 games under .500, with eleven losing campaigns and only one winning season in that timespan.  That includes an ugly 29-70 mark in SoCon play in those thirteen seasons.

Those thirteen years?  You guessed it.  They are the last thirteen years.  The current era is in the discussion for being the low point for the program, at least in terms of on-field competitiveness.

Was there one event, a specific turning point, that led to the football program’s slide?  I think so.  Some people might claim it to be the dismissal of Charlie Taaffe, but that wasn’t the tipping point.  No, the die was actually cast on November 23, 1999, two days before Thanksgiving that year.

Don Powers’ team had gone 2-9 that season (after a 5-6 campaign the year before). Powers was essentially a caretaker-type coach, a fill-in for Taaffe, but after four years it was clearly time for fresh blood.  Walt Nadzak made the decision to reassign Powers — and then was overruled by the school president, Major General John Grinalds.

I linked Jeff Hartsell’s article about this move above; here it is again.  It’s worth linking twice, because I think Grinalds’ decision, “honorable” as he thought it was, started the ball rolling downhill for the football program, and not in a good way.  Sure, it was just one year.  Sometimes, though, that one year matters.  This was one of those times.

Timing is everything in life, and that includes college athletics.  In 1999 Nadzak was faced with a football program with a deteriorating on-field performance and a decrepit stadium.  He also had to contend with issues over which he had little to no control, from the proliferation of college sports (especially football) on cable television to women at The Citadel.

Nadzak knew he needed a new stadium, and he also knew that with it he needed a competitive team.  He didn’t get either (although the stadium would come eventually). In a column written the following week, Ken Burger all but predicted that Grinalds’ move would signal the end of Nadzak’s tenure at The Citadel.  He was correct.

Asked if he expects the Bulldogs to have a better season next year, Grinalds said, “Yes, we do.'”

The team went 2-9 for a second straight season…

I would suspect (although I can’t say for sure) that the dead-in-the-water aspect to the program had an impact on fundraising, perhaps including the ability of the school to raise money for the new stadium.  Things went slowly, too slowly, as the world around the school kept moving faster and faster.

If you run in place, you don’t go anywhere.  The Citadel needed a decent team to continue to draw fans, particularly because the stadium was becoming more and more of a problem, whether it was archaeologists digging up gravesites underneath the stadium for reburial, or the fact that you couldn’t turn on the stadium lights and the french fry machines at the same time because it would short out the electrical system, or having so many bricks fall off the facade that eventually they were all removed for safety reasons.

Now the school finally has a quality stadium, and it’s a first-rate facility.  What it doesn’t have is a drawing card, a team good enough to bring in new fans (and revive interest from old fans).

Ellis Johnson tried to overcome the program’s malaise in part by featuring transfers and hideous uniforms, and it didn’t work.  After three seasons, he was ready to become an FBS defensive coordinator again.  John Zernhelt lasted one year, and then moved on, taking big money from the New York Jets. (Hard to blame him.)

In the ten years prior to Kevin Higgins taking over as coach, The Citadel had an overall record of 36-74.  That’s actually a worse record by percentage than the nine-year period following World War II I referenced earlier.  In addition, the school had not had a winning record in conference play since 1992, the year The Citadel won its second (and last) league title.

That’s a lot to overcome.  Higgins got off to a good start, but soon found that one year does not establish a trend, or even momentum.

Can he get over the hump?  Normally when a coach has his record after six seasons, he doesn’t get an opportunity to find out.  However, I think the evidence suggests that Higgins had a higher mountain to climb than most, and that patience may in fact be warranted.

There is an elephant in the room, however.  I’m talking about home attendance.

The Citadel now has a great facility, and (other than the on-field results) a very good atmosphere for home games, including the cadets, tailgating, etc…and attendance is declining at an alarming rate.

Average attendance at Johnson Hagood since 1997:

1997 — 12,173

1998 — 13,291

1999 — 14,543

2000 — 14,342

2001 — 15,687

2002 — 15,582

2003 — 16,759

2004 — 8,359 (the year of “half a stadium” and thus an aberration)

2005 — 11,674

2006 — 14,599

2007 — 13,757

2008 — 12,261

2009 — 13,029

2010 — 11,445

Ouch.  Ouch for the last seven years, really, but particularly for this season.

I wrote extensively about attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium in July of last year. That post includes my theory on how television impacts attendance at The Citadel’s home games, among other things.

The Citadel cannot afford to have its home attendance continue to erode.  It’s not the only school to have concerns in that area, as anyone who has watched ACC games can attest.   Ultimately, though, attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium has to get better.

While baseball is the most successful sport at The Citadel, and basketball is the sport with the most potential for growth, football always has been and remains the bell cow for the department of athletics.  It drives the entire department, and also has a significant impact on the school as a whole.  Sagging attendance is a major problem, one that should concern everyone.

Even if The Citadel has a breakthrough year on the field next season, I would be surprised if there is a dramatic improvement in home attendance.  There is often a one-year lag between on-field/on-court success and attendance gains.

Because of that, if the team were to turn the corner, and the triple option to start cranking out games like, say, Navy’s offense did against East Carolina last week, I don’t expect attendance to make a big jump in 2011 (although the home schedule should help, as Furman, Wofford, and VMI are all expected on the JHS slate of games).  The 2012 season is when you would see dividends from a positive 2011 campaign.

Basically, I’m fine with Kevin Higgins getting another year.   I haven’t been completely happy with his tenure at The Citadel, even excepting the wins and losses; there have been issues from the unimportant (my continued frustration with the uniforms) to the all-important (the Rice/Starks episode, which was much, much worse than multiple 0-11 seasons would ever be).

He seems to be popular with the administration, which is good.  I thought it was interesting that the Alumni Association made him an “Honorary Life Member”; that news came after consecutive games in which his team didn’t score.  I did wonder if someone was trying to make a statement to certain unhappy alums, but I suppose it was just coincidental.

After next season, though, I think Larry Leckonby has to make a move if things don’t work out.  At that time Higgins will still have two years remaining on his contract, but if the team does poorly Leckonby won’t be able to afford keeping him.  He can’t make the mistake that was made over a decade ago.

That’s the bottom line, even at The Citadel.

Why exactly is The Citadel playing Arizona in the first place?

I didn’t touch on this in my preview of the game between The Citadel and Arizona, but I figured I could make a quick post out of the question:  why exactly is The Citadel playing Arizona in football in the first place?  I’m sure fans of both schools are a little curious about that.

Well, for money, of course.  The Citadel has to play at least one football “guarantee” game every season to balance (or attempt to balance) its budget for athletics.  On the other hand, surely The Citadel could find an FBS opponent a little closer to home, an ACC or SEC team, or even a Big East squad.  After all, the Bulldogs have played teams from all those leagues in the last few seasons, along with a Big XII team (Texas A&M), a Big 10 outfit (Wisconsin)…oh, wait a second.  I see a pattern — a pattern created by none other than Les Robinson.

That’s right, The Citadel’s national tour of BCS conferences is a result of one of former AD Les Robinson’s grand ideas.  You can read about it here:  Link

The game against the Pac-10’s Arizona is the last of the “BCS series” for The Citadel, which in the past five years has traveled to play against the aforementioned Texas A&M and Wisconsin, along with Pittsburgh of the Big East, Florida of the SEC, and North Carolina and Clemson of the ACC.

Just prior to that five-year run the Bulldogs traveled to Oxford to play Mississippi and Tallahassee to tangle with Florida State.  The coach for all these games has been Kevin Higgins, so keep that in mind when evaluating his 25-32 record at The Citadel. I think there is a good chance Higgins is the only head coach in the country to have played teams from all six BCS conferences in the last five seasons.

After this game the Bulldogs will have completed the Robinson Quest, having played teams from all six BCS leagues.  Robinson even set up a “bonus” two-game series with Princeton of the Ivy League.  I am not sure current AD Larry Leckonby is crazy about scheduling the likes of Arizona or (to a lesser extent) Wisconsin, as the travel for those games eats into the guarantee.  It was also a significant issue for the game at Princeton.

I can certainly understand that, and in the future I expect most, if not all, of The Citadel’s football guarantee games to come against SEC/ACC schools.  However, I don’t think it hurts the school to travel out of its home region on occasion.  I agree with the comment Robinson made in the linked article about such games providing needed national exposure.  Another thing they provide is an opportunity for alums living outside the southeast to attend a game.

The Citadel brought a very good crowd to the Princeton game last year.  I can attest to the number of PA/NJ/NY alums in attendance, most of whom showed up with their families, and some with friends too.  We need to play games like that once in a while, if only for those fans.

The game against Arizona will give some of our alums on the west coast a chance to see their team in action.  Admittedly, a game against UCLA or Stanford might have been a better bet in terms of Bulldog supporters showing up — I’m not sure how many alums live in Arizona — but still, it’s in the general area.

Anyway, I hope the following gives a little insight into how this game came to be.  I don’t think we’ll be seeing any other matchups on the gridiron between The Citadel and Pac-10 teams in the near future, but you never know.

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