Kirk Herbstreit: the worst thing going on in college football?

Last Saturday, there was a segment on ESPN’s popular College GameDay show centered around FBS-FCS matchups. You can watch it here:

Link

With the exception of Lee Corso, the ESPN crew was highly critical of FBS-FCS games, particularly those occurring late in the season (an SEC specialty).

The segment began with Chris Fowler listing a series of recent SEC opponents from the FCS. Fowler then noted:

Of course, a year ago this week Georgia Southern went to the swamp and did stun Georgia, giving license to all the SEC coaches to talk up the virtues, the worthiness, of today’s opponents.

Fowler delivered this line with a great deal of sarcasm, concentrating so much on his delivery that he forgot Georgia Southern actually beat Florida last year, not Georgia.

ESPN then showed snippets of various SEC coaches discussing their opponents for this week. The clips were clearly selected to make it seem that the coaches were overhyping their FCS foes.

If you were really paying attention, though, there wasn’t that much sandbagging going on. Mark Richt was probably a little over-the-top in extolling Charleston Southern’s “fever” to win, but there was nothing fraudulent about Gus Malzahn saying Samford was a “good I-AA team” (it is), or Nick Saban stating that Western Carolina was “a much improved team” (certainly true), or Will Muschamp noting that Eastern Kentucky was a playoff team in “I-AA, or whatever we’re calling that now” (he was right, as EKU made the FCS playoffs).

Also, Muschamp lost to an FCS school last year. Why wouldn’t he be concerned with a matchup against another team from that division?

Heck, he had been fired earlier in the week. Why would he have bothered overselling the game anyway?

Arguably, though, the most misleading clips were those of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, as he discussed South Alabama, the Gamecocks’ opponent last Saturday. There was no mention by anyone on the set that South Alabama wasn’t actually an FCS school at all (the Jaguars are members of the Sun Belt).

Considering South Carolina’s struggles of late (particularly on defense), Spurrier had good reason to be respectful of his upcoming opponent.

“We’re not trying to belittle [the FCS],” said Fowler, after spending the previous two minutes belittling the FCS. He then criticized the SEC for playing these games. “It’s not good for the sport.”

After a short interlude with Corso, Kirk Herbstreit looked right at the camera and said:

This is the worst thing that goes on in college football.

Yes. He said that. The worst thing that goes on in the sport. FCS vs. FBS matchups. Not any of the myriad off-field issues, not the safety concerns on the field, none of that.

“No due respect to the FCS and what they’re doing,” Herbstreit continued (with an unintentional but perhaps more accurate slip of the tongue), “…there should be a penalty [from the college football playoff committee]…when you play games like this. We need to eliminate these games when it comes to the non-conference [schedules]. They’re not good for the FCS schools, they’re not good for the SEC schools, or any other schools that play ‘em. It’s just bad for the game. We have no games this weekend!”

“I hate it!” me-tooed Desmond Howard, who added that when he was in school, his alma mater (Michigan) didn’t play FCS schools. Of course, that changed after Howard left Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines rather famously played an FCS school in 2007.

Lee Corso then pointed out that the games are a financial boon to the FCS schools. Herbstreit’s response: “We’ve got enough money now…if it’s about the money, give ‘em the money, just don’t schedule [these games].” Corso began cackling at the notion.

Let’s go through some of these comments:

- “There should be a penalty…when you play games like this.”

A team that schedules quality FBS non-conference opponents is probably going to be looked upon more favorably by the playoff committee than one that plays lesser competition. I’m not even sure that’s an issue.

Exactly how many FBS schools are going to be competing for one of those playoff spots in a given year, however? There are 65 FBS schools in the power five conferences (including Notre Dame in that group). How many of them are going to be serious contenders for one of four spots? What about the other 63 schools that compete at the FBS level? (Well, we probably know the answer to that last question.)

- “They’re not good for the FCS schools.”

This statement made me wonder if Herbstreit has ever talked to someone associated with an FCS school.

Besides the money aspect mentioned by Corso, FCS players almost always love playing these games. They like to measure themselves against top-level competition. They enjoy playing in large stadiums, in a “big time” atmosphere, often on television.

Fans of smaller schools usually like these games too, especially if they aren’t too far away. They are often used for alumni networking and fundraising.

Sometimes, there is an element of tradition associated with these contests. You don’t think alums from Furman or The Citadel enjoy occasional matchups with South Carolina or Clemson? I can assure you that they do.

- “We have no games this weekend!”

Well, I looked at the schedule. I saw plenty of games.

There may not have been a matchup between two ranked SEC teams, but keep in mind that various ESPN networks featured several prominent SEC battles early in the season, while other conferences were in the midst of their non-league schedules. It’s a trade-off.

The truth of the matter is there were a lot of quality games played last weekend. Maybe you had to look a little deeper into the world of college football to find them, but is that such a bad thing?

Also, remember Week 5 of this season? That Saturday, College GameDay wound up at the Missouri-South Carolina game, due to a perceived lack of quality matchups (both the Gamecocks and Tigers already had a loss at the time, with Mizzou having just lost at home to Indiana).

Was that slate of games so poor because of a bunch of FBS-FCS matchups? No. There were only two such games in that week: Army-Yale (a game won in double overtime by the Elis), and Eastern Illinois-Ohio (the Bobcats won 34-19).

Sometimes, the schedule for a given week just isn’t going to be that alluring. That has little to do with FBS-FCS games (which were only around 7% of the complete FBS schedule for the regular season anyway).

Western Carolina head coach Mark Speir watched Herbstreit and company before WCU played Alabama later that day, and he wasn’t happy.

Now, I think Speir was a little heavyhanded in his criticism of Herbstreit. The “silver spoon” reference was not necessary.

However, I fully understand Speir’s frustration, and he had every right to call out the former Ohio State quarterback for his remarks (particularly the “worst thing that goes on in college football” line uttered by Herbstreit, which was simply ludicrous).

I thought it was good of Speir to speak out, and to let people know that he was personally offended by the comments that were made. Too often the point of view from the FCS side of the aisle goes unheard.

After all, Speir has been a coach on the FCS level for most of his career, including a long stint as an assistant at Appalachian State. He was in Michigan Stadium that fateful day when the Mountaineers stunned the Wolverines.

In my opinion, the FCS-FBS matchups are largely good for college football, because college football is about a lot more than the schools in the power five conferences. This is something that appears to be hard for some people to understand.

The concept of what is best for the greater good of college football — well, it seems to be lost in certain quarters. I’ve said this before, but I honestly get the impression some members of the national college football media cabal think there should only be thirty or forty schools that play football, and that the rest should just give up the sport.

I’m not the only person who gets that vibe, judging from these comments by Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman:

Huesman was watching “Gameday” from his hotel room in Greenville, S.C., before the Mocs’ game against Furman, but he said he will not watch the show again.

“Herbstreit has bothered me for a few years now,” Huesman said. “Nothing to him matters except big-time college football. And then Desmond Howard jumped in, too, and that’s when I had had enough. I’ll never watch that show again.

“I thought it was absolutely ridiculous for them to put on a rant like that during the course of a show about college football. I thought it was disrespectful. He just alienated people.

It should be pointed out that the backdrop for Saturday’s ESPN discussion was an FCS game (Yale-Harvard), and that College GameDay visited the fine folks at North Dakota State earlier this season (for the second consecutive year). There are people at the network who clearly appreciate the FCS, along with other divisions of college football. I’m glad for that.

I just wish there were more of them, and that they were on camera.

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.

The new college football playoff: will it hurt FCS schools?

As a fan of an FCS program, one thing stood out to me in all the hoopla about the new four-team FBS playoff. It may have just become a lot tougher for the department of athletics at an FCS school to balance its budget. Why?

Strength of schedule is apparently going to be a factor in determining which teams make the playoff.

From a June 21 article by Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel:

Weighing schedule strength could prove beneficial beyond just the playoff. Unlike the AP and Coaches’ Poll, which tend to place the most importance on simply not losing, a committee could theoretically elevate, say, an 11-2 Pac-12 team over a 12-1 Big Ten team if the former played three power-conference foes in September, while the other played three MAC or FCS schools.

“How do you encourage people to play [tough games]?” said [Big 10 commissioner Jim] Delany. “And I’m talking about our people and other peoples’ people. I don’t think we served ourselves particularly well with the 12th game.”

Delany wants his league to play a challenge event of sorts against the Pac-12, beginning in 2017 (or thereabouts), which would account for one non-conference game for each school in both leagues. Some of the Pac-12 schools aren’t so crazy about the idea, in part because of that conference’s nine-game league slate.

The Big 10 only has an eight-game conference schedule, though there has been talk of that changing. Not all Big 10 schools are in favor of moving to nine, however. For Wisconsin, which is evaluating its future schedules with a possible strength of schedule component in mind, one gets the impression that proposed contests against the likes of Notre Dame or Alabama may not be as likely if the conference adds a league game.

Notre Dame, which plays a difficult schedule almost every season, is not surprisingly also on board with measuring a school’s SOS in evaluating playoff fitness.

West Virginia director of athletics Oliver Luck was direct when discussing the possible pitfalls of scheduling an FCS school in the future:

 “[The strength of schedule component to the playoff] is going to force everybody to look at their non-conference schedule and figure out if we can still play a I-AA school.”

That sounds ominous if you are an AD at an FCS school which needs to play (at least) one FBS opponent every year to help balance the budget. Larry Leckonby of The Citadel (with department expenses in FY 2012 of $10.1 million) is in such a position:

For 2013, Leckonby said budgeting is complicated by the fact that The Citadel will have only five home football games [during the 2012 season]. A home game is worth about $130k. The game at N.C. State will bring a guarantee of $375K…

…To help make up the numbers, Leckonby said basketball will be asked to play three guarantee games next year. Basketball guarantees can bring in from $50k to $80K or so, depending on the foe.

Leckonby confirmed that 2013 football non-SoCon foes will be CSU and VMI at home and at Clemson and at East Carolina for a 12-game schedule. In 2014, the Bulldogs will play at Florida State and at VMI, with Charlotte and Coastal Carolina coming to Johnson Hagood Stadium on one-year deals.

In 2014, the regular season for FCS schools will also be 12 games, as in 2013, but The Citadel is only playing one FBS team that year instead of two. Otherwise the Bulldogs would play seven road games, with two of them against FBS competition, and only five home games. Thus, the games against Charlotte and Coastal Carolina.

Back to Mandel: from a recent SI “mailbag”, he suggested that FBS teams “may (hopefully) see a decline in FCS foes, simply because of the blight that puts on one’s schedule, but we’ll still get plenty of games between the Big Ten and MAC, the SEC and Sun Belt.”

Well, I obviously disagree with that characterization. Some of my tomato plants might suffer from blight (though not if I can help it), but playing an FCS school is not a “blight” on an FBS team’s schedule. Of course, Mandel went to Northwestern, a Big 10 school; perhaps he’s hoping that the conference can avoid embarrassing losses to FCS opponents by simply not playing those games at all.

I got a slightly more positive response from Mandel’s SI colleague, Andy Staples, on Twitter. Just slightly. After saying he was “thrilled” there would possibly be fewer FBS/FCS matchups, he did acknowledge that smaller schools need those games.

I received a few negative tweets on the subject from the Twitterverse. My personal favorite was this one:

“we want your money” not a valid reason. Sorry.

Yes, how dare money-grubbing schools like The Citadel attempt to defile the pristine pastureland of major-college football.

The real reason the strength of schedule issue is getting so much play from people like Jim Delany is because of the recent dominance of the SEC. With six straight BCS titles, that league has demonstrated it can A) win the big game, and B) schedule its way to the big game. I am sure Delany and company would like to force the SEC powers to replace their annual “series” versus Southern Conference teams with games against, say, Big XII schools.

If the Pac-12 and Big 10 can have what I described earlier in this post as a “challenge event”, why not the Big XII and SEC? You could have a high-profile game like Florida-Texas, for instance. That’s right, the Gators would play a non-conference regular season game outside the state of Florida (which never happens).

I suspect there would be few “big-time” matchups, however, even if a Big XII-SEC challenge came to pass. One reason for that is RPI, even with strength of schedule a consideration.

The commissioners want strength of schedule emphasized and to give conference champions some preference. They are also working on power rankings, similar to the RPI used by the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee.

I’m not a professional mathematician, so this is going to be dangerous, but here goes…

RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is formulated by a team’s winning percentage (generally 25% of the total), along with its opponents’ winning percentage (50%) and the winning percentage of its opponents’ opponents (25%). That’s the basic concept; there are usually small built-in bonuses and penalties (for road games, etc.).

Sure, Texas could play Florida (in this example, I’m assuming both the Longhorns and Gators are outstanding squads, as opposed to what they have been for the last two seasons). However, in such a matchup one team would obviously lose. Strength of schedule or no strength of schedule, any loss is going to be extremely harmful to a playoff aspirant, since there are only twelve regular season games.

What Texas and Florida would really want is the value of the other’s SOS without having to play, and risk a loss. Instead of playing each other in a Big XII vs. SEC “event”, they could schedule (presumably lesser) opponents of each other. Texas could play Kentucky while Florida faces Kansas. This would take advantage of the opponents’ opponents winning percentage (built up by playing an SEC or Big XII league schedule), not to mention the team’s own winning percentage, without having to play a truly elite opponent.

I think you would see a lot more of those kinds of games than Texas-Florida, LSU-Oklahoma, etc. In some cases, it would be more than justifiable.

Southern California already plays nine Pac-12 games, plus Notre Dame out of conference, each season. There is no real benefit for the Trojans in participating in Delany’s challenge, and having to face a Big 10 opponent like Ohio State or Michigan in another regular-season game.

In addition, there is a “connectivity” issue with RPI. This is especially problematic in college baseball, which is a much more regional sport than college hoops, and as a result teams from parts of the country with fewer baseball schools tend to get hosed by the RPI (and the reverse is also true). I would guess that college football would be even worse in this respect, because there aren’t nearly as many games, and so there would be far less connectivity.

Even if the football playoff selection committee uses a different version of RPI (or “power rankings”), it is likely to run into similar problems.

All of that is assuming that the landscape for non-conference scheduling changes at all. I realize I’ve just written several paragraphs about the potential for FCS schools to lose out on guarantee games, but ultimately I think that most FBS schools will ignore strength of schedule when putting together their non-league slates.

When he wasn’t calling FCS schools a “blight” on FBS schedules, Mandel was making a good point about the need for big-time programs to play as many home games as possible, for financial reasons. Those schools need to buy at least two guarantee games every season.

Another factor is the simple fact that not many schools will need to schedule with the post-season in mind. Only 3% of the entire FBS is going to be in a playoff each season, as opposed to the NCAA basketball tournament, where 20% of D-1 teams make the field. Unless there is a dramatic shift in college football’s hierarchy, Mississippi and Iowa State aren’t going to be in the mix for a playoff berth in football. Neither are Indiana or Oregon State. Playing an FCS school isn’t going to cost those schools a shot at a national title, but it will be good for their budgets and (usually) win totals.

Strength of schedule matters in college basketball because many more teams have a chance to advance to post-season play. Playing a weak non-league slate can hurt middle-of-the-pack schools in major conferences. In football, those schools aren’t in the running anyway.

I think that in the future a school may occasionally adjust its schedule for a potential title run. For instance, Florida State may decide it has a great chance to win it all in 2014. If the Seminoles go 12-0, they are a lock for a playoff berth — but what if FSU slips up and finishes 11-1? Would the ACC be strong enough as a league for Florida State to get a bid anyway?

FSU does play Florida in non-conference play, so its schedule strength should be helped by that matchup. Florida State has so far only announced one other OOC opponent for 2014. That school? The Citadel.

It wouldn’t surprise me if FSU were to decide (perhaps in the winter of 2013) that it needed to replace The Citadel with a BCS opponent in order to shore up any lingering questions about its schedule strength. In that case, though, FSU would buy out the game, so it wouldn’t be a total loss for the military college (and I could see Florida State arranging for The Citadel to play another FBS team to make up for it, perhaps another ACC school).

It may be, then, that the threat of guarantee games drying up for FCS schools is overstated. I hope so. It does bear watching, however.

For many FCS schools, annual games against FBS opponents are not only important for budgetary reasons, they are a recruiting tool and often a way to energize the fan base. They also help programs maintain a connection to major-college football, which at the very least is of some historical interest. Occasionally, they become something more. It’s not strictly about the money.

It’s just mostly about the money.

Conference Realignment — Back to the Future?

Admittedly, there have already been a few billion words wasted on the subject of conference realignment, but I’ll throw in a few comments about the subject as well…

There is some discussion about a merger of sorts between Conference USA and the Mountain West.  This would create a confederation of (at least) 22 teams, which sounds ridiculous.  It would not be unprecedented, however.

The Southern Conference formed in 1921, with 14 original members.  Those schools: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Washington & Lee.  Six schools joined shortly thereafter:  LSU, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tulane, and Vanderbilt.  By 1931, Duke, Sewanee, and VMI had become members.

That’s right.  One major conference, 23 member schools.  It was an unwieldy amalgamation, and destined for a breakup.  It wouldn’t be the last time a league split into pieces because it got too big.

Tangent:  It really wasn’t the first time, either.  The SoCon itself was a product of a split, as those 14 original schools were breaking away from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which by 1921 had 30 members.

In December of 1932, 13 of the SoCon schools left to form the Southeastern Conference:  Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Sewanee, and Tulane.  The final three schools listed would eventually leave the SEC, with Sewanee departing in 1940 after eight years in the league; the Tigers had played 37 conference football games and lost all 37 of them.

Now the SEC has 12 schools (with Arkansas and South Carolina added in the early 1990s) and is poised to add a 13th, Texas A&M.  Conference commissioner Mike Slive has stated that the league can stay at 13 members for the time being, and why not — it was a 13-school league for the first eight years of its history.

There has been a lot of talk about BCS “superconferences” with 16 schools.  It wasn’t that long ago that there was a Division I league with 16 members — the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which expanded from 10 to 16 schools in 1996.  This proved to be a mistake, as several of the “old guard” WAC schools did not like the new setup.  After three years, the 16-school league was a memory, as eight members left to form the Mountain West.

Eleven of the schools that were in the sixteen-member WAC are now in either the Mountain West or C-USA.  I wonder what they think about possibly becoming part of a 22-school association…

Another one of the “WAC 16″, TCU, was set to become the Big East’s 17th member next year (10 for football, all for hoops).  Now that league will be losing at least two of its schools, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

There are a lot of reasons why the Big East is in trouble, but trying to satisfy the agendas of so many different institutions is surely one of them.  That’s one reason I was surprised when Brett McMurphy of CBSSports.com reported that the Big East had considered adding Navy and possibly Air Force to its roster (as football-only members) prior to the sudden departures of Pitt and Syracuse.

Random thoughts:

– If a school isn’t sure which conference it should join, maybe it can join two at once, like Iowa, which was a member of both the Big 10 and the Big 8 from 1907 to 1911.

– If your conference ceases to exist, like the Southwest Conference, that might be sad.  It could be worse, though.  Phillips University, which was a member of the SWC for one year (1920), closed up shop in 1998, two years after the league in which it was once briefly a member met its demise.

– It’s sometimes instructive (and occasionally amusing) to look back at what schools were once members of various leagues.  I’ve already mentioned original SEC member Sewanee.  The Big 10 once included the University of Chicago (and that school is still a member of the conference’s academic consortium, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation).

Southwestern University was a charter member of the SWC.  Washington University (MO) was an original member of the Big 8, which also featured for a time Drake and Grinnell College.  The league now known as the Pac-12 once had both Idaho and Montana as members.

– Then there are schools like West Virginia, a BCS school (for the moment, anyway) that until 1968 was a member of the Southern Conference.  Virginia Tech was a SoCon stalwart for four decades, leaving in 1965.

Rutgers has gone from being one of the “middle three” with Lafayette and Lehigh, and a historic rivalry with Princeton, to big-time athletics in the Big East; now it is searching for a way to ensure it continues to hold its place in that sphere as its conference appears on the verge of collapse.  Another Big East school, South Florida, did not hold its first classes until 1960 and did not field a football team until 1997 (history records that the Bulls’ first loss on the gridiron came at the hands of The Citadel, at Johnson Hagood Stadium).

The University of Arizona started playing football in 1899, before Arizona was even a state.  Arizona (the school) and Arizona State were members of the Border Conference, which included Hardin-Simmons and West Texas A&M, and then left that league to join the WAC (long before the 16-member WAC) before becoming members of the renamed Pac-10.

The history of conference realignment is that leagues have been transient by nature, as the fortunes on and off the field of the various schools have ebbed and flowed.  In 1899 no one would have dreamed that the state of Arizona would have a population boom thanks (in part) to air conditioning, so that by the end of the century that state’s universities would be much larger than anyone would have anticipated one hundred years before.  There are a lot of stories like the Arizona schools and South Florida, and a few on the other side as well (like poor Phillips).

In other words, trying to anticipate how things will shake out can be dicey at best. Even as I type this, my twitter feed has exploded with the news that the Pac-12 (which was once the Pac-10, and before that the Pac-8, and before that the AAWU, and before that the PCC) has decided not to expand, for now.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

Variety Pack: The NCAA’s Seven Sinners, Gonzo’s friend Duke Rice, and the Plant of the Week

It’s the long-awaited latest edition of the Variety Pack, the celebrated TSA series that debuted earlier this year.  The idea is to write briefly (I hope) on two or three different topics without being limited to 140 characters, like my Twitter tweets.

This is one of two holiday Variety Packs; in a week or two I’ll post the other one, which will (probably) feature The Citadel’s role in the modern-day proliferation of college football on television.

Both Variety Packs are inspired by Google Books.  What  I did, basically, is type in some search terms, and see what came up.

In 1948, the NCAA crafted a statute colloquially known as the “Sanity Code”.  The Sanity Code was an attempt to end the practice of awarding athletic scholarships, something many southern institutions had been doing since the early 1930s.

The Sanity Code allowed schools to award scholarships to prospective athletes, but only on a basis of need – and even then the scholarships were limited to tuition and incidental expenses.  Most scholarship athletes would either have to qualify for academic scholarships, or pay their own way, usually by holding down jobs while in school.

This was seen by a lot of the southern schools as an attempt by the “establishment” to keep itself on top of the college athletics pyramid.  The establishment consisted mainly of the Big 10 schools, largely aligned with the Ivy League and Pac-8.  To add fuel to the fire, in those days the Big 10 commissioner also oversaw the NCAA’s daily activities; Walter Byers, later executive director of the NCAA, split time between his NCAA duties and his primary job as the Big 10’s publicity director.

There were myriad problems with the Sanity Code.  It was basically unenforceable.  It was also seen as unfair.  The southern schools had no interest in dropping athletic scholarships, especially when at the same time wealthy Big 10 alums would be giving bogus jobs to football and basketball players with no penalty.

The school most often ridiculed by Sanity Code opponents was Ohio State.  Prior to the 1950 Rose Bowl, it was revealed that at least 16 Buckeye football players had cushy jobs with the state, including a running back on the payroll of the state’s transportation department as a tire inspector.

The Sanity Code was going to allow OSU to do that, but not let SEC or Southern Conference schools offer athletic scholarships.  It’s easy to see why people got upset.

Enter the “Seven Sinners”.  No, I’m not talking about the John Wayne-Marlene Dietrich movie.

In this case, the “Seven Sinners” were seven schools that refused to live a lie, and admitted that they were not adhering to the new statute enacted by the NCAA.  The seven happened to be a very difficult group for the establishment to criticize.  Only one, Maryland, was a major college football power offering a large number of athletic scholarships.  The others were Virginia, Virginia Tech, VMI, The Citadel, Boston College, and Villanova.

For The Citadel, the notion of having athletes work jobs while at the same time go to class, play a sport, and participate in military activities was a non-starter (the same was true for VMI, and to a certain extent Virginia Tech).  The school also questioned the amateur-but-not-really idea of the Sanity Code, with The Citadel’s faculty representative stating that “The Code defines the word amateur and then promptly authorizes students to participate…who do not meet the requirements of the definition.”

At the 1950 NCAA Convention, the association moved to expel the seven schools. That’s right, the NCAA wasn’t going to put them on probation, a concept not yet considered.  It was going to expel them.

UVA president Colgate Darden made a principled argument against the statute, and stated that his school had no intention of following the Code.  Maryland president (and former football coach) Curley Byrd worked the floor at the convention, making sure there weren’t enough votes to expel the seven schools, and using Ohio State’s situation (as an example of the NCAA’s hypocrisy) in order to convince some fence-sitters to support the Sinners’ position.

The Citadel, however, had already announced it was going to resign from the NCAA, stating it refused “to lie to stay in the association”.  For The Citadel, either the Sanity Code had to go, or The Citadel would go.  After all, it’s not like the school had a history of shying away from secession-related activities.

Since all seven of the “Seven Sinners” are still members of the NCAA, you can guess that they weren’t expelled.  Expulsion required a two-thirds majority, and that didn’t happen (although more than half of the NCAA members did vote against the Sinners). This prevented a complete fracture of the NCAA, as it is likely the southern schools would have left the association otherwise.

While most of the votes supporting the seven schools came from the south, there were schools in the other parts of the country which also voted against expelling the seven, a fact not unnoticed by the NCAA leadership.  The Sanity Code was repealed the following year.

In retrospect, it’s kind of funny that The Citadel was in the position of being an NCAA malefactor.  However, it should be pointed out that 111 schools did vote to expel the military college from the NCAA on that fateful day in 1950.  In fact, when the vote was taken, NCAA president Karl Lieb announced that the motion to expel had carried, before being corrected by assorted shouts from the convention floor.  He then said, “You’re right, the motion is not carried.”  Lieb had forgotten about that two-thirds majority rule for passage; the vote to expel The Citadel and the other six schools had fallen 25 votes short.

The echoes from the Sanity Code controversy still reverberate today.  There are still notable divisions between the Big 10 and Pac-10 schools and the other “major” conference schools like the SEC.  The Ivy League has basically withdrawn from the scene.  Even today, there is some distrust of the Big 10 and its closeness (real or perceived) with the NCAA.

Below are some links that touch on this topic.  They are mostly links from Google Books, so it may take a little bit of work to get to the referenced sections.

College Football:  History, Spectacle, Controversy (starting on page 213)

The 50-Year Seduction (starting on page 18)

Unsportsmanlike Conduct:  Exploiting College Athletes (starting on page 53)

College Athletes For Hire (starting on page 43)

Sport:  What Price Football? (column in Time magazine)

Egg In Your Beer (editorial from the January 21, 1950 edition of The Harvard Crimson)

While perusing Google Books, I read a passage from a book entitled Gonzo:  The Life of Hunter S. Thompson:  An Oral Biography:

[Thompson’s] best friend from his early days was probably Duke Rice.  He was a skinny kid and not all that tall, and suddenly he shot up to six-six or six-seven and got a basketball scholarship to The Citadel, where he was the only player of the time who was able to shut down Jerry West.

Now, this little blurb interested me, for a couple of reasons:

– Thompson’s friend was named Duke Rice.  With a name like that, he shouldn’t have gone to The Citadel; he should have gone to Vanderbilt or Northwestern.

– The “Blitz Kids” were a group of players recruited by Norm Sloan to The Citadel in the late 1950s and early 1960s (which is also the time period when Jerry West played for West Virginia).  That era was the pinnacle for basketball at The Citadel.  The stars of those teams were Art Musselman, Dick Wherry, Ray Graves, and Dick Jones (and later Gary Daniels)…but not anyone named Duke Rice.

The Blitz Kids never won the Southern Conference, mostly because West Virginia was in the league at that time, and Jerry West played for the Mountaineers.  He was, of course, a fantastic player.  Very few teams shut him down, and The Citadel certainly didn’t.  West played three games in his career against The Citadel.  WVU won all three games, by scores of 89-61, 85-66, and 98-76.

That 85-66 score came in the 1959 Southern Conference tournament championship game, the only time The Citadel has ever made the league final.  West scored 27 points in that contest.  I don’t know how many points he scored against the Bulldogs in the other two games, but since the Mountaineers put up 89 and 98 points in those matchups, I’m guessing he wasn’t exactly “shut down”.

Incidentally, that 98-76 game was played during the 1959-60 season at McAlister Field House, and was arguably the most anticipated contest ever played at the ancient armory (at least for those contests not involving Ric Flair).  West Virginia had lost in the NCAA championship game the year before (to California, 71-70), and West was the most celebrated college basketball player of his time.  People came out in droves to see West play.

West was so good, both in college and in the NBA, that he had no fewer than three great nicknames — “Zeke from Cabin Creek”, “The Logo”, and “Mr. Clutch”.  There are a lot of great athletes who would love to have just one cool nickname, and West had (at least) three of them.

Going back to the book, the person who stated that Duke Rice had played for The Citadel was another friend of Thompson’s named Gerald Tyrrell.  Now, I was sure Tyrrell didn’t make up that story.  After all, there wasn’t any reason for him to do so, and I suspected that part of it was true.  It’s just that it was rather obvious that The Citadel part of it wasn’t true.

No one with the last name “Rice” is listed as having lettered for The Citadel in the school’s media guide.  I briefly considered the possibility that the last name was incorrect (and that Duke was a childhood nickname), but Hunter S. Thompson grew up in Louisville, and none of the players for The Citadel during that era were from Louisville, at least from what I was able to determine.

As it happened, it didn’t take much effort (just some additional Googling) to come up with the answer.  Duke Rice had in fact played college basketball, and had played in the Southern Conference for a school with a military component…but the school in question was Virginia Tech.

Rice is mentioned in this interview of Chris Smith, who starred for the Hokies from 1957-61.  Smith described the 1960 Southern Conference championship game:

We had great athletes.  Bobby Ayersman, Louie Mills, and Bucky Keller were each outstanding high school football quarterbacks.  Dean Blake and Duke Rice did a great job  during the game as they took turns guarding Jerry West.  They held him to 14 points.  When Jerry fouled out in the third quarter, we were tied 49 to 49. Unfortunately, the rest of the WV team responded well and they scored on several long shots during the final 10 minutes of the game.

There he is!

What’s more, it appears that Tyrrell’s comment that Rice was “the only player of his time to shut down Jerry West” has some validity to it.  Maybe it’s an overstatement, but at least it’s rooted in fact.

In the end, the Duke Rice story doesn’t really have anything to do with The Citadel.  It’s more about a slightly blurry memory (which I suspect Thompson himself would have appreciated) and a lack of fact-checking by the book’s editors.  This particular book happens to be co-authored by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.

It also illustrates the inherent danger of taking oral histories at face value.  Anyone who follows baseball knows this all too well.  The success of Lawrence Ritter’s classic The Glory Of Their Times has led to a number of similar books, a lot of which are a little short in the truth-telling department.

It’s time for the Plant of the Week.  For this edition, the honoree is a canna lily, the Cleopatra canna, which when it comes to coloration basically has a mind of its own.

Warm weather can’t get here fast enough…

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.

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