Larry Leckonby’s Lament: The Citadel in 2010-11

The first thing I want to note is that none of what follows is intended to be a negative reflection on any of the individuals who compete for The Citadel in varsity athletics.  I am greatly appreciative of all the young men and women who represent the school on the field of play.

This is about the “big picture”, and the truth is that the big picture for the school year 2010-11 at The Citadel featured a lot of losing.  Just how much losing?

Well, let’s take a look at all the varsity programs under the military college’s banner. The Citadel has fifteen varsity sports, by my reckoning.  I count rifle (listed as both a men’s and women’s sport on the school’s website) as just one sport, because it is co-ed.  I consider indoor track and outdoor track to be separate entities, because the Southern Conference awards championships in both of them (and for both men and women).  The school competes in the SoCon in fourteen of the fifteen sports (the exception is rifle).

The Citadel’s most successful sport in 2010-2011 was, in fact, rifle.  The rifle team won its first conference title since 2001, the conference title in question being the Southeastern Air Rifle Conference championship.  I don’t know a whole lot about this, but it sounds good to me.  The previous four SEARC titles had been won by North Carolina State.  Those four titles had been won by NCSU prior to Debbie Yow being named director of athletics at that school, but there was no indication that sabotage was involved in The Citadel’s triumph.

It seems appropriate that The Citadel has an outstanding rifle program.

The women’s soccer team finished 12-8-1, 7-4 in the Southern Conference (good for 3rd place), and was easily the second-most successful sport at The Citadel this school year.  It was #1 in the “feel good” category by miles and miles, however, since the program had only won three league games in its entire history prior to the 2010 campaign.

In addition, the soccer team was the only squad this year to win a postseason game of any kind for The Citadel, defeating Furman 2-1 in 2OT in the first round of the SoCon tourney.

The wrestling team finished fourth in the SoCon (out of six teams) in what probably could be considered a mildly disappointing season.  On the bright side, at least The Citadel still has a wrestling program, which is more than can be said for second-place UNC-Greensboro or NCAA Division II champion Nebraska-Omaha.

The Citadel finished 5th in the SoCon (out of nine teams) in both men’s indoor and outdoor track, while the women were 9th (out of twelve teams) in both.  This strikes me as perfectly respectable.  Ninth is not as good as first or second, obviously, but perspective has to maintained, especially considering that as of September there were only 142 female cadets overall at The Citadel.  The coaches just need to find another Stephanie McNeill or two in order to vault a few spots in the standings.

The Citadel finished next-to-last in both men’s and women’s cross country in the SoCon (10th/11 men, 11th/12 women).  In this case, though, it may be fair to grade on a curve. I suspect that it is not easy (if even possible) to develop a serious league contender in cross country at a military school located in Charleston, South Carolina. The City of Charleston has a number of charms, but it is certainly not conducive to ideal cross country training.

I noticed when reviewing the league’s history and records that the College of Charleston (since becoming a league member) has generally joined The Citadel in the lower part of the standings.  That’s probably not a coincidence, and neither is the fact that Appalachian State and Chattanooga have dominated the sport in the league over the years.  Incidentally, The Citadel’s 3rd-place result in the 1972 SoCon meet is the best finish in school history.

You know it’s been a bad school year in Bulldog athletics when there are six varsity sports that arguably had worse seasons than a pair of cross country teams that each finished next-to-last in the league…

The volleyball team finished 7-25, 1-15 in the SoCon.  Perhaps not surprisingly, The Citadel made a coaching change.  You have to wonder if the success of the women’s soccer team this year cast a less-than-favorable light on the volleyball program, which has an alltime record in league play of 10-192.  (No, that’s not a typo.)

One of the downsides when a “non-revenue” sport is on the short end of the wins-and-losses ledger is that alums and other interested observers are less likely to read or hear about the players, and some of those cadets are rather accomplished student-athletes.  That’s just another reason why it’s important to maintain competitive teams in all of The Citadel’s varsity programs.

Another program that will be helmed by a new coach next season is the tennis team, which finished 3-21, and failed to win a single Southern Conference match (0-10). The Bulldogs were winless against Division I competition, with the three victories coming against Case Western and Reserve, Johnson C. Smith, and Lenoir-Rhyne.

Then there is the women’s golf team, which was possibly even less competitive in the conference in 2011 than the tennis team.

At this year’s SoCon championships, there was a 79-shot difference between the first-place team (Chattanooga, which won the title by 30 strokes) and the ninth-place team (Appalachian State).  The Citadel finished 10th and last, 70 shots behind App State.

For a lot of graduates, football, baseball, and basketball are the sports that matter. They tend to get the lions’ share of attention and resources, and are thus held to a higher standard by most alums, who are more inclined to follow them and compare the successes and failures of the programs to other schools.  If you are reading this, you undoubtedly know how their seasons went, but a quick recap:

Football:  3-8, 1-7 (tied for last) in the SoCon.  The first year of Triple O’Higgins was often a cover-your-eyes situation, with the nadir being the nine-turnover debacle at home against Georgia Southern.

Basketball:  10-22, 6-12 in the Socon (next-to-last in South Division).  Chuck Driesell’s first year as head coach was not a success, as a senior-laden team and wannabe league contender struggled all season.

Baseball:  20-36, 8-22 in the SoCon (last).  The baseball team missed the SoCon tournament for the first time since 1987 (and back then, only four teams made the tourney).  A twelve-game losing streak to close the season resulted in the Bulldogs finishing last in the league for the first time ever.  The collapse came as a shock, despite expectations being relatively modest following the team’s championship season of a year ago.

The combined 66 losses by the “Big 3” is a record, as you might have guessed.  It’s not often all three programs have a losing season in the same school year.  The last time it happened was in 1993-94, but that year the baseball team got on a serious roll at the end of the season and won the league tournament, making the NCAAs.  The football team was a not-so-terrible 5-6.  The worst record for the three sports that year was the hoops squad’s 11-16 mark.

When it comes to “best year” or “worst year” in Bulldog athletics, of course, it’s really just a matter of opinion.  To me, an especially difficult year would include poor results by the “Big 3” combined with less-than-stellar records for a lot of the other programs.  I want The Citadel to be good at everything, or at least decent at everything.

I went back and looked at some of the records for the past five decades.  I was particularly interested in the 1966-67 and 1986-87 school years, the most recent campaigns (prior to 1993-94) where the “Big 3” programs all finished with losing records.  Exact comparisons could not be made, of course, as The Citadel has sponsored sports in which it no longer fields varsity teams (like men’s golf and men’s soccer) and now has other sports which didn’t exist in previous years (all the women’s teams).

In 1966-67, the baseball team lost 12 in a row (just like this season) and finished 9-16.  That losing streak included losses to Taylor and Pfeiffer.  The basketball team was 8-16, a season that has been well chronicled.  The football team was 4-6, although that campaign did include end-of-season victories over VMI and Furman.

The 1966-67 basketball and baseball teams were not good, and comparable to this year’s editions of those teams, but the football team was probably better than 2010’s squad.  In addition, 1966-67 featured a solid tennis team (3rd in the SoCon) and, most notably, a championship outfit — the wrestling team, which won the Southern Conference title that year and featured Ed Steers, who was named Most Outstanding Wrestler after winning the second of his three league titles in the 145-lb. division.

When comparing 2010-11 to 1986-87, it’s a closer call.  The football team was arguably worse (that was Tom Moore’s final season; the Bulldogs finished 3-8 with some dreadful performances, particularly at home against VMI and Chattanooga), but the hoops squad was better (13-15, 6-10 in the SoCon) and the baseball team was too.  In addition, the other sports were slightly more successful across the board in 1986-87 (with tennis being significantly better).

I did not find another school year in the 1961-2001 era where the varsity sports teams struggled as much as in those two years.  I think a persuasive argument can be made that 2010-11 was the worst school year for varsity athletics at The Citadel in at least 50 years.

What does it mean?  Well, in the short term it probably means that Jerry Baker, Caleb Davis and company will have that much more difficult a time raising money for the Brigadier Foundation. Contributors want to see a winner, and you had to search far and wide to find a winner in The Citadel’s athletics department this year.

For Larry Leckonby, it means that 2011-12 will be an important year, one in which he will have to make key decisions.  His biggest call will be on Kevin Higgins’ future.  The department of athletics pivots off the success of the football team; it’s the most high-profile sport at the school, it’s where the money is made, and I also think that it sometimes establishes momentum for the other sports.

Speaking of coaches, Leckonby also needs to find the right one for the tennis team, which should be better than 3-21 (and yes, I know that NCAA tennis is a different animal than it was two and three decades ago).  I don’t have any good advice on that front, other than if he gets an applicant who drives a Jaguar (with a baby bulldog in the front seat) and appears regularly on television, he should hire him.  It worked fairly well the first time.

While last year was mostly grim, there is hope, and that hope can be found by considering what happened following the 1986-87 school year.  In May of 1987, it would have been easy to be pessimistic about sports at The Citadel, but in the next six years:

— The baseball team won two regular season SoCon titles, one league tourney, and advanced to the College World Series in 1990.

— The football team won at South Carolina, at Army, beat Navy twice (at home and on the road), made three playoff appearances, and won the Southern Conference title for only the second time in school history.

— The basketball team won at South Carolina (the first win over the Gamecocks since the 1943 Southern Conference tournament) and had a 16-win season.

— The tennis team had two top-3 finishes in the SoCon tourney; the golf team had a top-4 finish; and the soccer team had a tie for first place (in 1990).

After the struggles of 1986-87, the department had its best run of success since the early 1960s.  Maybe history can repeat itself.

I hope so.  Losing isn’t any fun…

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