Hagood History: The Citadel 26, Air Force 7 (1976)

I know, I know — The Citadel didn’t play Air Force at Johnson Hagood Stadium. The game was played at Falcon Stadium, in Colorado Springs. “Hagood History” is just a way to identify historical game reviews, which I may do from time to time.

Also, you can’t beat the alliteration.

I first thought about taking a closer look at the 1976 game between The Citadel and the Air Force Academy while reading a post from The Citadel’s new “Off The Collar” blog:

[The current president of The Citadel Football Association, John Carlisle] inherited a project started by former CFA president Charlie Baker to digitize and make available to Citadel fans as many football game films that he could find. That collection currently stands at almost 400 and growing.

I’m not really a connoisseur of game film, but I was intrigued at the list of games, and decided to check one out. I picked The Citadel-AFA 1976 because of its relative anonymity, at least when compared to other notable Bulldog victories.

Ben Martin was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who began his head coaching career at Virginia. In two seasons in Charlottesville, his teams compiled a cumulative record of 6-13-1, but despite that Martin was hired by the Air Force Academy to take over as its football coach in 1958. He succeeded AFA’s first-ever varsity head coach, Buck Shaw, who lasted two seasons in Colorado Springs before moving on to the Philadelphia Eagles (where Shaw would win the NFL Championship in 1960).

Air Force’s 1958 campaign, which was also the senior year of the first class of academy graduates, would be high on any list of “most surprising seasons” in modern college football annals. Air Force had been 3-6-1 in 1957, but in Martin’s first year in charge the Falcons went undefeated, finishing 9-0-2.

The two ties were each rather impressive. The first was an early-season road game at Iowa, which went on to win the Big 10 and the Rose Bowl; the Hawkeyes finished the year ranked #2 in both the AP and UPI polls. The Falcons’ other tie came in the Cotton Bowl, against Southwest Conference champ TCU. Air Force’s victories that year included wins over 8-3 Oklahoma State, 8-3 Wyoming (coached by Bob Devaney), and 7-3 New Mexico (helmed by Marv Levy).

Other than that magical 1958 run, Air Force had mostly mediocre records for the next ten years, with the exception of 1963 (when the Falcons made an appearance in the Gator Bowl). Starting in 1968, however, Air Force ran off a string of six consecutive winning seasons. In 1970 the Falcons won nine games and played in the Sugar Bowl.

By 1976, though, Air Force’s fortunes on the gridiron had declined. The Falcons only won two games in both 1974 and 1975. Ben Martin began his nineteenth season at the academy probably knowing that he was close to the end of his career.

After an easy victory over Pacific to open the ’76 season, Air Force was thrashed the next two weeks by a combined score of 81-13. Admittedly, the two opponents (Iowa State and UCLA) were both very good teams. The Falcons played creditably against a solid Kent State outfit in their fourth game, but lost 24-19.

However, the following week Air Force beat Navy, 13-3. That meant the Falcons would win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time if they could defeat Army at West Point.

Before traveling east, though, Air Force had to play two more home games, against Colorado State and The Citadel. Colorado State whipped Air Force, 27-3, dropping AFA to 2-4 on the season.

Would the Falcons look past the Bulldogs with the game versus Army looming on the horizon? AFA quarterback Rob Shaw didn’t think so. “We can’t afford to look past them,” he said.

In 1961, The Citadel won its first Southern Conference championship. It was the culmination of a three-year stretch in which the program won 23 games. However, The Citadel would not have another winning season until 1969. The Bulldogs were 8-3 in 1971, but only won twelve games over the next three years.

In 1975, The Citadel finished 6-5, its third winning season since 1961 and first under head coach Bobby Ross, who had taken over in 1973. The Bulldogs achieved this despite the loss of all-conference running back Andrew Johnson to a knee injury in the second game of the season.

Johnson had been the SoCon’s player of the year in 1974 after rushing for 1373 yards. Without him, and with injuries throughout the season to other key players, the offense averaged only 13 points per game (10 points per game if you don’t count the 44 the Bulldogs ran up on hapless Davidson) and was shut out three times.

The team managed to win six games that year anyway, though, thanks to an amazing defensive effort, as the Bulldogs only gave up 97 points all season (8.8 points/game average). In eight of the eleven games, The Citadel allowed fewer than 10 points.

The highlight of the year was probably the Bulldogs’ 6-3 victory at VMI, which featured game-saving plays by Brian Ruff and Ralph Ferguson. Both Ruff and Ferguson made the all-conference team after the season, as did tight end Dickie Regan. Ruff was also named the league’s player of the year (and the SoCon Male Athlete of the Year).

For the 1976 season, Ferguson, Ruff, and Andrew Johnson served as team captains. Anticipation for the upcoming campaign was palpable. Despite an exorbitant price of $25, season tickets sold at a record rate. The local newspaper preached caution, however, noting that the Bulldogs faced “a grueling schedule, [with an] unproven offense and [a] lack of depth.”

Indeed, that lack of depth started to come into play before the season began, with an injury to defensive end Alan Turner. This caused some reshuffling on the two-deep, and would unfortunately be the start of an unbelievable stretch of injuries suffered by the Bulldogs, a run of bad luck that would eventually affect the team’s ability to win.

The Citadel opened with a tough loss at Clemson, falling 10-7 in a game the Bulldogs probably should have won. The second game of the season was the home opener, and a big crowd at Johnson Hagood Stadium watched the Bulldogs outlast Delaware 17-15. In that game, Andrew Johnson scored two touchdowns in a ten-second span, thanks in part due to a miscue by Delaware’s kickoff return team and an alert play by Jennings Dorn.

The Bulldogs then beat Furman for a sixth consecutive season, 17-16, taking advantage of four Paladin turnovers and a missed extra point. That game was followed by a disappointing (but not entirely surprising) 22-3 loss to East Carolina and a 14-10 victory at home over UT-Chattanooga.

The Citadel then beat Richmond, 20-7, thanks to two TD passes from Marty Crosby to Doug Johnson and some typical heroics from the Bulldogs’ D, including a fourth down stop by Ruff inside the five-yard line and an interception by Kevin White inside the 20. The Citadel moved to 4-2 on the season and prepared for the trip to Colorado Springs to play Air Force.

Most of The Citadel’s concerns for the game had to do with the ever-present injury issues. Dickie Regan had been lost for the season after suffering knee damage against Richmond. That followed season-ending injuries to Mike Riley (hurt on the last play of the game at Clemson) and Ronnie Easterby (injured while playing East Carolina). Alan Turner was back, however, after missing the first six contests.

One of the preview articles in The News and Courier centered around The Citadel’s secondary, known for its ball-hawking tendencies (a specialty of Ralph Ferguson in particular) and ferocious hitting (a specialty of seemingly every defensive back on the roster). Tony Kimbrell had this to say about the Falcons:

They do a lot of things, but some of [them] they don’t execute well. They’ll throw the ball 75%-80% of the time. [Quarterback Rob] Shaw is the best athlete on the team. He has a quick arm and quick feet…I haven’t noticed any super receivers. They try to find an opening and get someone under the coverage.

Air Force had generally featured a short, controlled passing game during Martin’s time as head coach, and the 1976 season was no exception. However, there were indications that Martin was going to change things up for the game against The Citadel. According to the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, even the Air Force players themselves weren’t going to know who was starting until just before gametime.

– Tangent: The Gazette-Telegraph newspaper was most famous for an erroneous advertisement (placed during the 1955 holiday season) that inadvertently led to the ‘NORAD Tracks Santa‘ program. I thought that was worth mentioning.

“We’re just trying to get on the right track and put our best foot forward,” said Ben Martin. The Gazette-Telegraph suggested that changes might be coming due to an “almost totally inept” Falcons running game. Bobby Ross had described the situation a bit differently, suggesting that Air Force “[did not] concentrate on running since passing was [its] game”.

Martin, according to the Gazette-Telegraph, also “indicated that he wanted to see more of freshman quarterback Dave Zeibart under fire.” Martin wasn’t kidding, as he actually started Zeibart against The Citadel, using him in a veer formation. Ziebart made history as the first freshman to ever start a game at quarterback for Air Force, but he wound up being “under fire” a lot more than Martin would have liked.

October 23 turned out to be a good day to play football, with excellent weather conditions for the players and fans (total attendance: 29,138). The game kicked off as scheduled, at 1:30 pm Mountain Time. It was Band Day at Falcon Stadium, with 53 bands from five different states in attendance.

I received two DVDs for this game. One was the actual game film, 43 minutes of action (no sound) in black-and-white. It made for a solid viewing experience. The only issue I had was trying to read the numerals on The Citadel’s white jerseys.

That problem was largely alleviated by the second DVD, which was Ben Martin’s coach’s show. This was a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t expecting it. Even better, despite the package description of it being in black-and-white, the show actually featured highlights in color, with narration from an off-screen Martin.

The Citadel wore all-white uniforms; a white helmet with a light-blue “block C” helmet logo (very similar to the 2012 helmet logo), pants with a light blue stripe, and light blue numerals with no names on the back of the jerseys. They looked great. Air Force wore dark blue jerseys (with names on the back) and white pants, with white helmets featuring the “lightning bolt” logo.

The end zones also featured painted lightning bolts, and also some type of lettering that I’m sure meant something; I just have no idea what. Two small jets were parked on the Air Force side of the field, away from the majority of the cadet corps, which sat on the other end of the home stands. A sheet hung on the wall beneath one of the cadet sections read “Hi Mama Whitehorn – The Kids”.

The very first play from scrimmage set the tone for the rest of the game. Zeibart took the snap from center, rolled right, hesitated, and then got crushed by David Sollazzo for a ten-yard loss. It would be the first of eight sacks recorded by the Bulldogs. Sollazzo had two of them; his second sack, later in the first quarter, landed him a spot on the front page of the Gazette-Telegraph‘s Sunday sports section.

The Citadel didn’t try to do too much on offense. Marty Crosby only attempted twelve passes during the game, completing eight of them. Basically, the Bulldogs let their defense and special teams dictate the game.

The first touchdown of the game came on The Citadel’s second possession. Air Force was forced to punt deep in its own territory, and then proceeded to interfere with a fair catch attempt, leading to the Bulldogs beginning the drive on the AFA 27.

The Citadel scored in four plays, with most of the yardage coming from Andrew Johnson, including a three-yard TD run. Two different Falcon defenders had an angle on Johnson, but he brushed them aside with relative ease and cruised into the end zone.

During his coach’s show, Martin was effusive in his praise for Johnson. “He’s a very good running back. He could play for anybody,” Martin said.

On the ensuing kickoff, there was a brief delay when the ball fell off the tee as Paul Tanguay ran up to kick. On his second run-up, he boomed the ball through the end zone, a recurring theme throughout the afternoon. Tanguay and punter/linebacker Kenny Caldwell were both outstanding, and a big reason why Air Force had poor field position during much of the game.

All six of Tanguay’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Meanwhile, Caldwell averaged 44 yards per punt, and Air Force wound up with more penalty yardage on its punt returns than return yardage.

Air Force picked up two first downs on its next drive but was forced to punt. The Citadel marched down the field. Marty Crosby was particularly effective on the possession, with a couple of nice throws to Doug Johnson extending the drive, but things eventually bogged down thanks in part to a penalty for illegal motion. The second quarter opened with a 47-yard field goal by Tanguay, which he made with room to spare.

Rob Shaw entered the game at quarterback for the Falcons, but there was no immediate change in Air Force’s offensive fortunes, as the Bulldog D forced consecutive three-and-outs. After yet another kick-catch interference penalty on Air Force, The Citadel took over in good field position, but that drive stalled and Tanguay’s 49-yard field goal attempt was deflected.

Air Force’s first play from scrimmage after the missed field goal was an eighteen-yard run, but any momentum for the Falcons was short-circuited on the next play by Ruff, who essentially knocked down every member of the AFA backfield. Two plays later, Randy Johnson swooped in for one of his four sacks, and the Falcons were forced to punt again.

A promising drive for the Bulldogs on the next possession ended when Crosby fumbled at the Air Force 10-yard line. The Falcons’ first sustained drive of the half was too little too late, and a 57-yard field goal attempt was well short. The Citadel led 10-0 at halftime, and if anything the score flattered Air Force.

Ben Martin’s highlight narration stopped briefly for a clip showing some of the many bands at the game playing on the field at the half, followed by a closeup shot of a stunningly beautiful white falcon. “That’s our white falcon,” the coach noted. “We don’t fly him too often, he’s just for looking at.”

After a three-and-out by The Citadel to begin the third quarter, Air Force actually had good field position. It did nothing with it, though, and had to punt. The snap was high, and the punt was blocked by Alan Turner. The Bulldogs could not take advantage, however.

The next two drives would prove decisive. Air Force drove from its own 12-yard line to the Bulldogs’ 29, but on fourth-and-two Shaw was stuffed for no gain by Tony Starks, with assistance from Ruff.

The Citadel took over on downs, and 66 yards later, the Bulldogs were at the Falcons’ 5-yard line, facing third-and-goal. The Citadel had enjoyed success throughout the afternoon throwing to tight end Al Major, and went to the well again, this time for a touchdown. Major made a nice catch while falling down in the end zone for his first career TD.

He then got up…and did the Funky Chicken TD dance, a la Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. I laughed hard when I saw that on the DVD.

Ben Martin thought it was funny, too:

That seems to be [in] vogue these days. We’ve got to get our guys to practice [that]. If we ever get in the end zone we might use that one.

I enjoyed Martin’s narration of the highlights, and not just because of the action on the field. He was relaxed, mild-mannered, almost light-hearted; not exactly what I was expecting from a veteran coach circa 1976.

With the Bulldogs ahead 17-0 late in the third quarter, Air Force was up against it. The next series didn’t help. After a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct (a receiver angry at The Citadel’s gang-tackling threw the ball at a Bulldog after the whistle had blown), Shaw was intercepted on his own 20-yard line by Billy Thomas. That led to another Tanguay field goal (37 yards).

Two possessions later, Shaw threw a first-down pass late and over the middle. Everyone knows what happens when a quarterback throws late and over the middle. Ralph Ferguson intercepted the pass and ran it back 31 yards for a touchdown, helped by a nice block from Bob Tillman. The PAT was blocked, but it didn’t really matter. The Citadel led 26-0 with 8:44 to play, and the game was all but over.

Ferguson’s interception was the thirteenth and last of his career at The Citadel, which at the time was tied for the most by a Bulldog. He is still tied for second all-time in career interceptions, behind only J.D. Cauthen (who picked off 18 passes from 1985-88).

After it got the ball back, Air Force tried a third quarterback, Jim Lee. The lefthander guided the Falcons to their only score of the day, though by that time both teams were playing multiple reserves. Having said that, Lee played well and made a fine throw under heavy pressure for the TD (a 22-yard pass to tight end Scott Jensen).

Air Force actually had the edge in total offensive yardage for the game, 310-240, but 147 of the Falcons’ 310 yards came after Ferguson’s TD iced the game for The Citadel.

From the Gazette-Telegraph:

The near free-for-all that cleared both benches on the game’s final play [note: this was not on either DVD] only added to the embarrassment of a beaten Falcon team annihilated by its opponent from the not-too-highly reputed Southern Conference…

The Citadel…presented its case for entrance into the [Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy] race — even though it might not want it — by thumping the Falcons.

…Brian Ruff is a 6’1″, 225 [lb.] senior, an Associated Press second-team All-America linebacker last year. He should get Air Force’s vote for the first team. Ruff finished with 19 tackles, 10 solos, and spent more time in the Air Force’s backfield than three Falcon quarterbacks…

Of course, Ruff wasn’t the only Bulldog who had a good game, particularly on defense. Sollazzo, Starks, Randy Johnson, Ferguson, Keith Allen (who had 13 tackles) — heck, I could name about 15 guys on that side of the ball who played well. They played with reckless abandon, too.

There was some serious hitting in this game from both teams, but The Citadel probably had the edge in that category, as it did in most categories on the day. As Bill Greene of The News and Courier put it, “The Bulldogs were much, much better than Air Force. They simply ruled the contest.”

A few other notes from the game:

– If you ever watch a game on TV in which one (or both) of the teams involved is a military school, you will undoubtedly hear an announcer start talking about how players at military schools have great on-field discipline. I think it’s in the broadcasters’ manual. I would hate to have had an announcer try to justify that statement for this game, though.

There were 21 combined penalties in the contest, a staggering 11 of which were “major” (the Falcons were guilty of six of those). The Citadel had 13 penalties for 115 yards, while Air Force had 8 for 96.

Air Force committed not one but two kick-catch interference penalties, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a late hit, and threw in a clip for good measure. The Bulldogs had personal fouls for a late hit and a facemask, among others, and were also flagged eight times for false starts/offsides.

(Not penalized: Major’s end zone dance. It was perfectly legal to do the Funky Chicken back in those days.)

– The Citadel’s defensive formation was the old wide tackle 6, with an incredible amount of stunting and blitzing. You don’t really see that look anymore, thanks mostly to the development of modern passing attacks. There are schools that run variations of it, though, including Virginia Tech. Frank Beamer was on the staff at The Citadel in 1976, and brought a similar defensive philosophy to Blacksburg when he became the Head Hokie.

– Bobby Ross said after the game that the victory “was a prestigious win for the school and the city of Charleston.” He was far from alone in making that assessment, as approximately 400 fans greeted the team at the Charleston airport when its airplane landed shortly after midnight on Sunday.

Things didn’t get better for Air Force the following week, as the Falcons lost 24-7 at Army, and thus did not win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time. However, Ben Martin managed to rally his troops down the stretch, and Air Force won two of its final three games to finish the season with a 4-7 record.

The Falcons were down 15 points before storming back to beat Frank Kush’s Arizona State squad, 31-30. In its season finale, Air Force upset Wyoming 41-21 (the Cowboys, coached at that time by Fred Akers, would go on to play in the Fiesta Bowl).

Martin coached Air Force for one more year, retiring following the 1977 season. His replacement in Colorado Springs was none other than Bill Parcells, who lasted just one year at the academy before taking a coordinator’s job in the NFL. Parcells was followed by Ken Hatfield and, later, Fisher DeBerry.

During much of DeBerry’s long, successful run at Air Force, the analyst for the Falcons’ radio network was Ben Martin.

The Citadel hit a brick wall after the win over Air Force, losing three consecutive games. Injuries took their toll on the Bulldogs. Starting center Danny Eggleston joined the list of sidelined players when he dislocated his elbow in the Air Force game, and Kenny Caldwell was limited to punting duties after re-injuring his shoulder prior to the VMI contest. Sidney Wildes and Randy Johnson both got hurt against Appalachian State.

However, there was still one goal left to accomplish — a winning season. The opponent in the year’s final game was Davidson, and the Bulldogs took care of business, winning 40-6. For the first time since 1960-61, The Citadel enjoyed consecutive winning campaigns. Afterwards, Brian Ruff said:

This is the game we’ll remember, the last game. It’s nice to go out a winner, both in the game and the season.

The day after the Davidson game, WCSC-TV televised a 30-minute special called “Brian Ruff — A Study In Confidence”. Ruff would repeat as the league’s player of the year in football and as the SoCon Male Athlete of the Year. He also became the first (and only) player from The Citadel to be named a Division I-A first-team AP All-American, which got him an audience with Bob Hope.

Ruff was one of three Bulldogs to receive All-Southern Conference honors in 1976, along with Ferguson and Andrew Johnson. Those three joined Starks, Caldwell, and Regan on that season’s All-State team, as well.

Bobby Ross coached at The Citadel for one more season, and then left to become the special teams coach for the Kansas City Chiefs (under Marv Levy). Of course, Ross is now well-known for an outstanding coaching career that included ACC titles at Maryland and Georgia Tech (where he also won the national title), and a Super Bowl appearance with the San Diego Chargers. He even managed to lead the Detroit Lions to the playoffs.

1976 was a year that featured the Bicentennial celebration, along with the syndicated-TV debut of The Muppet Show. Jimmy Carter was elected president, and the Olympics were held in Montreal. A new band formed in Dublin, Ireland, that would later call itself U2.

However, without question the highlight of the year was The Citadel’s victory over Air Force in Colorado Springs. That’s why we will always remember 1976.

Game Review, 2011: VMI

The Citadel 41, VMI 14. The coveted Silver Shako remains in Charleston.

Links of interest:

Game story from The Post and Courier

Jeff Hartsell’s postgame notes column

Photo gallery of VMI-The Citadel from The Post and Courier

Game writeup from VMI’s sports website

Game writeup from The Citadel’s sports website

I got to the stadium early on Saturday, and decided to walk around campus. That gave me the opportunity to see the new Ring Statue (I guess that’s what it is going to be called). The statue is a great addition to the parade ground, and I like where it is stationed. It is also a magnet for photographers of all types (including me).

The campus as a whole looked good, even on a gloomy, overcast morning. Conditions improved considerably as gametime approached, and by kickoff it was nice and sunny, classic fall “jacket weather”. The only negative was a rather insistent breeze, but it wasn’t too bad.

The Hall of Fame inductions resulted in some familiar faces showing up for the game, including former hoopsters like Gus Olalere and James Stevens, just to name two. Nate Ross, Renaissance Man, was also on hand. It wasn’t surprising to see a strong basketball contingent, what with Randy Nesbit being one of the HoF inductees.

Dallas McPherson and Tony Skole were also honored, so more than a few ex-baseball players (like Anthony Jenkins and Mike Montei) were at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Phil Florence was enshrined as well. I had forgotten just how good a career he had in track, to say nothing of his abilities as a wide receiver; I was reminded of that fact during his introduction to the crowd at the half.

Charlie Taaffe wasn’t there, as Central Florida had a game on Saturday. I’m not sure the Knights really needed their offensive coordinator, as UCF shut out hapless Memphis 41-0, but Taaffe was represented at halftime by his son Brian. Tom McQueeney, one of about 300 McQueeneys to attend The Citadel, was also inducted into the Hall.

Just before I entered the stadium, I saw an older gentleman come out of the front of JHS, slip past the turnstiles, and walk over to a small group of people. They appeared to be family members. He pointed them in the direction where they were apparently supposed to go, and off they went.

After a moment, he strolled through the side gate (mysteriously open) next to the Altman Center. He then stopped briefly to take out a visitors’ pass and put it around his neck, a needless gesture if there ever was one.

If I had been a little closer when I first saw him, I probably would have greeted him. After all, Bobby Ross was the head coach for the first football game I ever attended. It was a win, too. I watched him amiably talking to one of the security workers for a minute or so, on the edge of the field. Then memories came flooding into my brain, and I turned away.

I was disappointed in the attendance. It was a good day for football (eventually), Clemson and South Carolina were both playing road night games, and there weren’t any truly interesting football games on TV in the afternoon. Just 11,184 people decided to go to the game, though.

Bobby Ross, who had the honors at the coin toss, might have been able to relate to the attendance woes. In his first two years as head coach at The Citadel the average attendance for a game at Johnson Hagood Stadium was just 11,692, not much more than the crowd on Saturday. However, in his last three seasons with the Bulldogs, the average attendance jumped to 16,718.

As for the game itself, some random thoughts:

— At halftime, The Citadel led 21-7. That was the good news, and the best kind of good news, since it was the bottom line. However, I found it worrisome that the difference in the half boiled down to two blocked punts.

After the first couple of drives the Bulldogs did not accomplish much on offense, and the defense allowed a touchdown drive by VMI that consisted of two penalties and six consecutive runs by Keydet running back Chaz Jones, most of them right up the middle. Jones finished the day with 112 yards rushing on 16 carries.

— Sparky Woods is a good coach, but if he had to do it over again, I suspect he might have done a couple of things differently on Saturday. I think Woods tried too hard to keep his offense “balanced”, as VMI finished the day with 33 rush attempts and 26 pass plays. Those numbers don’t account for sacks, so it was really more like 30 designed rushing plays and 29 throws or would-be throws.

The problem was that VMI was reasonably effective on the ground but putrid in the air. Only 9 of those 26 pass attempts were completed, for a total of just 68 yards. From my vantage point, it seemed the primary problem with VMI’s passing game was that its receivers could not get open. Meanwhile, the Keydets were averaging a respectable 4.7 yards per rush, led by Jones, who I thought probably should have received more opportunities to carry the ball.

— The decision by Woods that I found most perplexing, though, came in the third quarter. With The Citadel leading 24-7, VMI faced a fourth-and-seven on its own 29. The Keydets prepared to punt, which for their fans was a cover-your-eyes situation, as two VMI punts had already been blocked in the game, and another possible block just missed.

VMI survived yet another close call on this particular punt. The net was only 23 yards, but considering the troubles with the VMI punting game, and the fact the Keydets were going against the wind, it wasn’t the most terrible of outcomes. However, there was a penalty on the play.

It wasn’t roughing the kicker, but running into the kicker. If the penalty were accepted, it would be fourth and two on the VMI 34. VMI could go for it (after all, the Keydets had nothing to lose, down 17, and Jones was picking up good yardage on running plays). The Keydets could also decline the penalty, with The Citadel taking over at its own 48.

Woods elected to take the penalty, and punt again. I have no idea why. The result was rather predictable, as John Synovec came through the line untouched and blocked the punt.

Tangent: after Synovec blocked the punt, I noticed a Bulldog player (probably Chris Billingslea, always in the middle of The Citadel’s punt-blocking exploits) grab a Keydet in an effort to prevent the VMI player from covering the football. It didn’t matter in the end, as the ball was not advanced, but I think The Citadel could have been called for a post-possession holding penalty in that situation. Then again, I might be wrong about that.

— VMI did a good job adjusting on defense after The Citadel’s first two offensive drives. To this non-expert, it seemed the Keydets D was doing a fair bit of stunting and blitzing, blowing up plays before The Citadel could get to the perimeter.

The Bulldogs finally started to get back on track midway through the third quarter, with the offensive adjustments including the toss sweep (a play Georgia Tech would run repeatedly later that night against Clemson) and some misdirection plays. The Citadel’s wide receivers also did a better job of blocking in the second half.

— It’s not every game in which a team has eleven different players with a rushing attempt, but that was the number of Bulldogs who carried the ball on Saturday. One of those eleven was punter Cass Couey, who picked up twelve yards and a first down on a fake punt, the second time in his career he has made such a play.

I’m honestly not sure whether or not that was planned, or if he felt the pressure on his right and decided to take off on his own. It was a heady play either way by Couey, who is making a strong case to be the all-SoCon punter.

— The Citadel wore what is arguably the most aesthetically displeasing of all its uniform sets, the light blue jersey/navy pants combo. The Bulldogs had lost six consecutive games in which they wore navy pants prior to the victory over VMI.

I’ll close out this post with some photos I took on Saturday. They include several shots of the new Ring Statue, some pictures of the Bulldogs warming up pregame (I saw no Schembechler-inspired activity on that front), static game shots, an actually semi-decent “action” photo of the first blocked punt, a few other “at the game” pictures, plus a photo of that which is most coveted. As always, please understand that the photographer isn’t very good and his camera isn’t much better.

On to Statesboro..

Chal Port and his legacy

Chal Port was the best coach I ever had, and his love of his boys poured out of him the way it always does with the best of the breed.

— Pat Conroy, Prologue, My Losing Season

We are not reloading; we are in a rebuilding process.  Our team is made up of reserves of past years and freshmen who will get the opportunity to play this year and hopefully be up to the challenge…Our baseball accomplishments measured by victories this year could be moderate.  From our players we need a dedication of purpose, firm self-discipline and tenacious determination.  Hard work and aggressive play must overcome our limitations.

We will be playing off the enthusiasm of youth, and that should result in some entertaining baseball.  We must judge this team on the basis of their performance, according to their individual abilities and improvement throughout the season.  We want to teach them not to beat themselves and to always play with a fighting spirit and essential mental toughness.

We need to stay out of the way of line drives and recover foul balls so that we can stay within our budget.

— Chal Port, from The Citadel’s 1990 Baseball Media Guide

That last line is one of Port’s more famous witticisms, mainly because it is one of the most publicized, as it got a lot of press after the 1990 team reached the College World Series.  It is quintessential Port, to be sure.

Port died Saturday in Charleston after a long illness.  He was 80 years old.  You can read and view stories and tributes to Port in many places, including Jeff Hartsell’s article in The Post and Courier, WCIV-TV, WCSC-TV, and this selection from the 2005 documentary DVD “Who’d a Thunk It?”.

Chal Port won 641 games and seven Southern Conference championships at The Citadel, but the opening paragraph on any story about his career at the military college always prominently includes that 1990 squad, and justifiably so.  At the time, longtime Clemson coach Bill Wilhelm said he didn’t know of “a lower-budget team to go to the College World Series,” and he wasn’t being patronizing in any way.

Port was the only fulltime coach on the staff; his two assistants were a part-timer (Tom Hatley) and a GA (Ken Creehan).  As for how many scholarships Port had available, I have heard different numbers, though all sources agree that he had far from the maximum 11.7 schollies.  He probably had half that amount at his disposal, at best.

Winning 46 games with a team that had such limited resources, including the wins over North Carolina State and East Carolina at the Atlantic Regional, becoming the only team to ever win two games against Miami at Mark Light Stadium in a regional, and then actually winning a game in Omaha…that was some kind of run.  Nothing like it had ever happened before, and it is hard to imagine it ever happening again.

Port guiding his Bulldogs to Omaha was a godsend for both the local and national media in 1990, as he gave scribes and TV commentators all the material they wanted and then some.  Just a sample:

— [From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution] “After his team beat perennial power Miami to reach the CWS, ESPN’s Tim Brando asked Port how it felt to win in the shadow of the building named for Ron Fraser, Miami’s coach.

‘No big deal,’ he said.  ‘I’ve got a building at The Citadel named after me.  It’s the Port-O-Let next to the dugout.'”

(After that comment, the AJC‘s Tom Whitfield wrote that “Chal Port of The Citadel has been named college coach of the year by The Sporting News…when it comes to down-home wisdom and one-liners, he’s the coach for the ages.”)

— Brando interviewed Port at the Atlantic Regional in Miami.  Also at that regional, a young Miami Herald sportswriter named Dan Le Batard documented an exchange with Port that went in part like this:

Le Batard: “…but Chal, your team…is an impressive 41-12 and…”

Port:  “Good scheduling, don’t you think?”

Le Batard:  “But Chal, pal, your team had a 26-game winning streak this year, the nation’s longest, and…”

Port:  “Aw, we don’t win a lot of baseball games but we do pretty good in wars.”

— Port also gave an interview to columnist William Rhoden of The New York Times:

“When we looked at the calendar last fall, our goal for June 1st was to make sure that the kids had turned in all their equipment.” …

… “‘Baseball has never been big at The Citadel,” he said. ”It’s a military school, and as a military school, football is the god, then basketball. When baseball has a good year, we’re third. When we have poor years, we drop down behind golf.”

For all of the success of this year’s team, Port realizes that The Citadel will never become a perennial baseball power.

”Most excellent baseball players are not interested in marching and wearing uniforms,” Port said.

Of course, one team and a bunch of jokes don’t really define the man.  His overall record is extremely impressive, but when put into context, the adjective “amazing” may be a more appropriate term than “impressive”.  This next section is something I wrote a couple of years ago as part of a study of the records of Port and Fred Jordan, with some minor editing.

Chal Port had to make numerous on-field adjustments during his tenure, including the change from wooden to aluminum bats, and the Southern Conference moving to divisional play (and then dropping the divisions), among other things.  Then there were the off-field adjustments, which included integration, and the fact that going to a military school wasn’t exactly the cool thing to do in the early-to-mid-1970s (not that it’s ever been the really cool thing to do).   Consider what the baseball program accomplished, especially when compared to The Citadel’s football and hoops programs of that decade:

From 1971-1979, the football team was coached by Red Parker, Bobby Ross, and Art Baker.  Ross in particular is known as having been an outstanding coach, with major success at multiple levels of the sport.  The football team had four winning seasons overall in those nine years, with no league titles and a conference mark of 26-29 (47.2%).  SoCon finishes:  3rd, 4th, 7th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 3rd, 5th, 3rd.

The basketball team was coached from 1971-79 by Dick Campbell, George Hill, and Les Robinson.  Robinson would later prove his worth as a coach with an outstanding rebuilding job at East Tennessee State, but during this period the hoops program had just two winning seasons, bookends on seven straight losing campaigns, and had an overall conference record of 43-69 (38.4%).  Conference finishes:  4th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 7th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 3rd.

Meanwhile, from 1971-1979 Port went 85-43 (66.4%) in conference play, with three championships, nine winning seasons overall, and eight winning seasons in the league (and the other was a .500 season).  His SoCon finishes during that time:  1st, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st.  He finished in the upper half of the league all nine years.

He wasn’t done yet, either.  He had his best teams up to that time in 1982 and 1983, with the ’82 squad finishing 40-8.  At that point another power arose in the Southern Conference, as Western Carolina hired Jack Leggett to upgrade its already promising program.  The Catamounts would win five straight league titles, a stretch dovetailing almost exactly with a gradual decline in The Citadel’s fortunes on the diamond.

Port outlasted WCU’s run and (even more impressively) Hurricane Hugo, however, and orchestrated a season that won’t soon be forgotten, plus a very nice coda (the ’91 campaign).

The 1990 season was incredible, but don’t forget all those terrific teams he had in the 1970s and 1980s.  A few of those squads were just a break or two away from being DVD-worthy themselves (the 1982 team in particular).

Port is, without much doubt, the best coach The Citadel has ever had, in any sport.  He got it done off the field, too, as almost all of his players graduated.

The State of South Carolina has had more than its fair share of outstanding college baseball coaches over the years, but Chal Port was arguably better than any of them, given his resources.  I say that as someone who has a great deal of respect for the wonderful job Ray Tanner has done at South Carolina (not to mention Wilhelm, Bobby Richardson, etc.).

Port’s influence over the game continues today.  Numerous former players went on to become successful high school coaches in the state, preaching the gospel of Chal.

Some of his disciples moved on to the college ranks, including three current D-1 head coaches:  his successor at The Citadel, Fred Jordan; Tony Skole (ETSU);  and Dan McDonnell (who made a little history for himself by leading Louisville to Omaha a few years ago, joining the exclusive club of individuals to have played for and coached a CWS team).

Port’s influence can even be seen indirectly with players like Baltimore Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters, whose father Richard was an outstanding pitcher-outfielder for Port in the 1970s.

Chal Port’s ability to develop and nurture leaders inside and outside the game is his real legacy, even more so than his renowned storytelling ability and his championship-winning baseball teams.

Condolences to his family and friends.

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.

Review: Georgia Southern

Well, that game was a debacle…and when I say it was a debacle, I mean just that.  IT. WAS. A. DEBACLE.

Nine turnovers.  Nine.  Let’s look at some facts about this game:

— Nine turnovers in a game, as you may have guessed, is a school record for The Citadel.

— Among the many amazing things about the game, the Bulldogs committed nine turnovers while running only 47 plays from scrimmage.

— The Citadel committed four turnovers in nine passing attempts (three interceptions, one fumble) and five turnovers on 38 rushing plays (all fumbles, obviously).

— Georgia Southern lost its starting quarterback on its second offensive play.  GSU completed no passes in the game and did not really dominate on the ground, either (4.0 yards per rush).  Yet it still won.  On the road.  By 20 points.

— GSU and The Citadel combined to complete seven passes, three to offensive players and four to defensive players.  It was the first time I had ever seen a game, either in person or on television, where the defensive units for the two teams caught more passes than the offensive units.

— After a game in which The Citadel completed no passes (against Appalachian State), it played a game in which its opponent completed no passes.  I guess that’s like a team getting no-hit in baseball one day, then throwing a no-hitter the next day, but losing both games.

— As Jeff Hartsell pointed out, it was the first time a Bulldog opponent had failed to complete a pass since 1973.  The opposition that day was William & Mary.  That game was also at Johnson Hagood Stadium, and The Citadel lost it, too (24-12). That Bulldog squad finished the year 3-8, by the way, in Bobby Ross’ first season at The Citadel.

— The Citadel fumbled away the ball on its first three offensive possessions.  In seven first-half possessions, the Bulldogs turned the ball over five times and punted twice (three-and-outs on both those drives).

— The second half wasn’t much better, consisting of four turnovers, one punt, and failing on a fourth-down play.

— Thanks to all the turnovers, Georgia Southern’s average starting field position was The Citadel’s 40-yard line.

— The Citadel committed more turnovers against GSU at Johnson Hagood Stadium on Saturday (nine) than the basketball team committed against GSU in McAlister Field House last season (eight).

The Citadel is now in last place in all of FCS in the following categories:  fumbles lost (19, five more than the next-worst team), offensive passing yardage per game, and offensive passing efficiency.  The Bulldogs are in a three-way tie for having committed the most turnovers (27).

I went back and looked at the turnover numbers during Charlie Taaffe’s first season as head coach (1987).  The Bulldogs committed 31 turnovers that year in 11 games; 19 fumbles and 12 interceptions.  The most lost fumbles in one game that season? Four, against Army.  The season high for turnovers in one game that year was five, against Furman.

On the other hand, that team was much more productive on offense, including passing yardage (114 passing ypg. in 1987, 50 this season), total yards (363 to 274), and scoring offense (20.7 to 16.9).  The 1987 team also had a time of possession advantage over its opponents of just over eight minutes; the 2010 Bulldogs to date have a TOP edge of just over four minutes.

One other thing I’ll say that I can’t prove with statistics.  I believe (from memory) that the 1987 team’s lost fumbles were more spread out in terms of different types.  In other words, there were fumbles on bad/dropped pitches, fumbles where the ballcarrier was hit hard and fumbled, “mesh” fumbles, QB/center exchange issues, etc.

Most of the 2010 fumbles are QB/center exchange problems and “mesh” errors.  I have to say that in all honesty, the Bulldogs haven’t managed to get outside enough to have a lot of fumbles on pitch plays (although they have had a few).

Kevin Higgins, from his Monday presser:

“As we analyze each of the nine turnovers, something different happens in each of them, but the one common denominator in all of the fumbles was that a freshman player was involved. That’s not an excuse, but the young guys need to grow up and learn how to do the right thing with the football.”

Okay, so freshmen were “involved” in all nine turnovers.  That might be something to use as a crutch if this had been the first or second game of the season, but it wasn’t. It was the eighth game of the season.  Those guys are all now closer to being sophomores in terms of game experience than freshmen.

Nine turnovers in a spring game would be eye-raising.  Nine turnovers on October 23 is just embarrassing.

The defense played well.  The fact that the final score was “only” 20-0 is a credit to that unit.  I won’t say it was an A+ effort from the D; I would have liked to have seen more forced turnovers, particularly with the backup QB in the game for the Eagles, but it’s also true that GSU employed a fairly conservative game plan on offense for the most part (and why not).

The one time the Bulldog defense had a chance to swing momentum in the game, it did just that, after GSU coach Jeff Monken unaccountably started channeling Wade Phillips late in the first half.  Brandon McCladdie intercepted an ill-advised pass (ill-advised in both strategy and execution), and suddenly The Citadel had the ball in Eagle territory with under a minute to play in the half.

However, on the next play The Citadel gave Georgia Southern the ball right back, returning the Eagles’ interception with one of its own, and that was that.

One other thing from that game:  Greg Adams is apparently okay after a vicious, and illegal, hit by a GSU player who struck the defenseless Adams as he was preparing to return a punt.  I’m glad Adams is all right, but I also think the play warranted a suspension for the offender from the Southern Conference.  As it was, the player wasn’t even ejected from the game.

There are more things to discuss, related not just to this game but the season in general and the state of the football program in particular.  I want to think about them for a few more days…I’ll discuss those issues in my preview of the Wofford game. The discussion may make up the bulk of that preview, actually.

Below are a few pictures I took during the game.  There isn’t anything special about any of them.  I would note that I didn’t think it was such a good idea for the team to wear all-navy on a warm day, but then I wouldn’t like the navy uniforms on any kind of day.

Football, week 1: The Citadel vs. North Carolina

There will be a lot of blue on display in this game.  If Kenan Stadium could sing a song on Saturday, it might sound like this:

I’m blue da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di…

That’s right, an Eiffel 65 reference.  What other game preview gives you that?

The Citadel begins another football season this Saturday.  Doesn’t it seem like the anticipation increases every year?  Of course, this year part of the reason Bulldog fans want the season to hurry up and get here is so the team doesn’t lose any more running backs before the first game.

Some fast facts:

–Series:  UNC leads 3-0 (all three games played in Chapel Hill)
–Scores:  14-7 UNC (1915), 50-0 UNC (1939), 45-14 UNC (1986)
–The Citadel alltime against current ACC schools:  6-63-2
–The Citadel alltime against ACC schools (when those schools were actually members of the ACC):  0-24

The last time the Bulldogs beat a current ACC school was in 1931, when The Citadel edged Clemson, 6-0 (in a game played in Florence, of all places).  The Citadel also tied Florida State in 1960, 0-0.  The Bulldogs haven’t seriously threatened an ACC opponent on the gridiron since 1976, when Clemson slipped past a solid Bobby Ross squad, 10-7.

The 1939 UNC team that thrashed the Bulldogs 50-0 was pretty good, going 8-1-1 that season.  Alas, the loss was to Duke.  The coach of the Tar Heels at the time was Raymond “Bear” Wolf.  Yes, “Bear” Wolf.  Years before, Wolf had been a baseball player; he played in one game in the majors, for Cincinnati, getting one more at bat than Moonlight Graham did (speaking of UNC alums).  Wolf had a good run in Chapel Hill until 1941, when he went 3-7.

The new coach was Jim Tatum, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but mostly for his work at Maryland.  Tatum only coached at UNC (his alma mater) for one year before enlisting in the Navy; he would later have enormous success in College Park, winning a national title with the Terrapins in 1953, before returning to North Carolina in 1956.  Tatum coached three more seasons in Chapel Hill before dying suddenly of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in 1959.  He was only 46.

While Tatum was building a championship team at Maryland (he also coached Oklahoma for one season), UNC was having a very good run of its own, thanks in large part to the exploits of the great Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.  Justice is surely one of the best college football players not to win the Heisman Trophy (he was the runner-up twice).  North Carolina played in three major bowl games during this period, the only three times the Heels have ever played in a major bowl.  UNC lost all three games.

After some good (and bad) seasons through the 1960s, UNC would have another outstanding streak of success in the early 1970s under Bill Dooley, including an 11-1 season in 1972, marred only by a loss to Ohio State.  Interestingly, North Carolina did not finish the year in the top 10 of either poll.  Dooley would move on to Virginia Tech (and later Wake Forest).

Dick Crum took over the program from Dooley, and had some excellent seasons of his own, including 1980, when the Tar Heels (featuring Lawrence Taylor) would again go 11-1, again go undefeated in ACC play — and again struggle against a big-name non-conference opponent, this time Oklahoma (losing 41-7).  That 1980 season marks the last time UNC won the ACC title.

The next year could arguably serve as a microcosm of North Carolina’s football history.  UNC, led by tailback Kelvin Bryant, scored 161 points in its first three games in 1981.  Bryant scored an amazing 15 touchdowns in those three matchups.  Then, against Georgia Tech, Bryant injured his knee.  He would miss the next four games.  UNC hung on for two games, but after improving its record to 6-0, the Tar Heels were soundly beaten at home by a mediocre South Carolina team, 31-13.

North Carolina rebounded to beat Maryland, and then played Clemson in a game that was essentially for the ACC title.  The Heels had won 11 straight ACC contests, and the Tigers were undefeated (and had beaten Herschel Walker and Georgia).  It was the first time two ACC schools had met in football when both were ranked in the AP top 10, and it would be a memorable encounter.  Clemson prevailed, 10-8, in a game where the intensity was palpable, even to TV viewers.

North Carolina would not lose again that season, buoyed to an extent by the return of Bryant for the final two regular-season games and the Gator Bowl (where the Tar Heels would defeat Arkansas).  There was, however, one final twist of the knife.  From the “Scorecard” section of Sports Illustrated (January 11, 1982):

They say you can prove anything with statistics, and in the case of North Carolina running back Kelvin Bryant, official NCAA figures would appear to show that he didn’t exist in 1981. NCAA rules specify that to qualify as a season statistical leader a football player must appear in at least 75% of his team’s regular-season games; for the Tar Heels, who played an 11-game schedule, that meant a minimum of eight games. Because of knee surgery, Bryant played in only seven games, but he made the most of his limited participation, to put it mildly, scoring 108 points. The NCAA determines scoring leaders on a per-game basis, and it awarded the scoring title to USC’s Marcus Allen, who averaged 12.5 points a game. Because he played too few games, Bryant, with a 15.4 average, didn’t qualify to be the scoring champion, which may be fair enough. But Bryant also was excluded from the list of 25 top scorers even though—surely there’s an injustice here—he ranked fifth in total points behind Allen (138 points), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (120), SMU’s Eric Dickerson (114) and McNeese State’s Buford Johnson (l10). Absurdly, Iowa State’s Dwayne Crutchfield, who scored just 104 points, is listed in fifth place, while Bryant and his 108 points are nowhere to be seen.

This little blurb came in the same edition of the magazine  that featured Clemson wide receiver Perry Tuttle on the cover, as the Tigers had just won the national championship by defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.  Talk about a double whammy of what might have beens…

Crum never had a team that good again, and by the late 1980s the program was beginning to fade.  Mack Brown then arrived and basically decided to start over.  After consecutive 1-10 seasons, that may have looked like a mistake, but Brown gradually built things back up, and in his last two seasons in Chapel Hill the team went 10-2 and 11-1 .  He couldn’t quite get that one big win to push the program to the next level, though, as the Heels could not beat Florida State.  After that 11-1 season (in 1997), Brown left for a program that he felt he could push over the top — Texas.

As the above paragraphs illustrate, UNC has had an occasionally-close-but-no-cigar kind of history in football — sometimes good, sometimes very good, but never quite getting over the hump (at least nationally) for various reasons, and thus always remaining in the large shadow cast by the school’s basketball program.  As the years have gone by, the degree of difficulty in trying to escape that shadow seems to have increased.

After ten seasons of around .500 ball under two coaches, the folks at UNC decided to shake things up and bring in Butch Davis, who is known as somebody who can really recruit (proof:  the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, which had 16 future NFL first-round draft picks on its roster).  Whether Davis can put it all together at North Carolina is the big question.  There are high hopes in Chapel Hill this season, however, as he returns 38 lettermen (including 15 starters) from a team that won eight games last season and is ranked #20 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

One of those returning starters is quarterback T.J. Yates, who presumably will have fully recovered from an injury suffered this past spring while playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I’m guessing that summer activities for the Tar Heels were restricted to checkers and backgammon in an attempt to keep everyone healthy.

Speaking of UNC quarterbacks, one of the curious things about the Heels’ football history is the lack of success of any North Carolina quarterback in the NFL (at least as a QB).  There have been 182 UNC football players who went on to the NFL (as of the conclusion of the 2008-09 season), but only two of them have been quarterbacks — and one of them, Jim Camp, never threw a pass in the league.  The other, Scott Stankavich, played in only four career games (no starts); two of those games came as a “replacement player” during the 1987 players’ strike.

Ronald Curry has had a decent career in the NFL, but as a wide receiver.  Curry has attempted four passes in the league, completing none of them.  There have actually been fifteen former Tar Heels who have attempted at least one NFL pass.  Only six of them, however, have actually completed one.  Stankavage is one of those six, but the Heel with the most yards passing in the NFL is halfback Ed Sutton, who threw for 146 yards in his career, with one TD.  Don McCauley is the only other UNC player to throw a TD pass in the NFL.

I totalled all the NFL passing statistics for former UNC players.  I also totalled the passing statistics for The Citadel’s Stump Mitchell (who threw nine passes during his career, including a TD toss to Roy Green) and Paul Maguire (who threw one pass during his career, completing it for 19 yards).  Check out the cumulative stats comparison:

UNC:  19-70, 315 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs, QB rating of 19.6
The Citadel:  5-10, 102 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, QB rating of 119.6

A 100-point difference in QB rating?!  Advantage, Bulldogs.  Of course, that won’t mean anything on Saturday.

Last season, the Bulldogs were 4-8.  This followed a 7-4 campaign in 2007 that had fans thinking a return to the FCS playoffs was not far away.  Instead, the Bulldogs lost six straight games during the course of the 2008 season, narrowly avoided a seventh straight defeat to a poor UT-Chattanooga squad, and then got pummeled by Tim Tebow and eventual BCS champion Florida in the season finale.

Some of those games were close (The Citadel lost three Southern Conference games by a total of 12 points), but on the whole the 4-8 record was a fair reflection of the Bulldogs’ play.  Comparing some league-only statistics from the 2007 and 2008 seasons is illuminating.  Ignoring the raw totals, which are a touch misleading (scoring was down in the SoCon last season as compared to 2007), and looking at league rankings:

-Scoring defense:  4th (2007), 8th (2008)
-Pass efficiency defense:  3rd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Red Zone defense:  2nd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Turnover margin:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion offense:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion defense:  2nd (2007, 5th (2008)

That’s basically the story of the 2008 season right there.  The defense had trouble getting off the field (SoCon opponents completed over 64% of their passes against The Citadel, and the Bulldogs only intercepted two passes all season in league play).  Inside the 20, The Citadel’s defense had no answers (allowing 23 touchdowns in 31 red zone situations).

Offensively, the running game struggled, as rushing yardage per game dropped by one-third.  Perhaps more ominously, the number of third downs converted via the rush fell substantially.  This also affected the offense’s red zone success rate, as the team scored only 18 touchdowns in 34 opportunities inside the 20 (the worst ratio in the league), and led to over-reliance on an erratic (I’m being kind here) placekicking game.  The Bulldogs only made 7 of 12 field goals attempted in red zone possessions.  No other conference team missed more than one such attempt all season.

After a season like that, it’s not surprising changes were made.  The Bulldogs are going to return to a 4-3 defense after last year’s attempt at a 3-4 resulted in the D getting pushed all over the gridiron.  That rather obvious lack of physicality was also addressed by an aggressive offseason conditioning program.  There are a couple of new defensive coaches, too.

There has been a good pre-season buzz about the defensive line, which is nice, but there also needs to be more playmaking from the linebackers and secondary.  In other words:  get stops and force turnovers.  The key is to corral more interceptions (fumble recoveries tend to be somewhat random).  Scoring touchdowns on defense would be a plus, too, but you have to get the turnovers first before you can think six.  The Bulldogs have recorded 13 sacks in conference play each of the last two seasons; a few more this year certainly couldn’t hurt.

The offensive line should be strong, although illness has been a problem in fall practice, what with one lineman suffering from an acid-reflux problem and another battling mononucleosis.  That’s still much better than the Bulldogs’ running back situation.  The starter for UNC may be walk-on freshman Bucky Kennedy, walk-on freshman Remi Biakabutuka, or one of the backup bagpipers.  Biakabutuka would definitely be the choice if the opening-game opponent were Ohio State rather than North Carolina, as just the name “Biakabutuka” on his jersey would be enough to unnerve the Buckeyes, thanks to his older brother Tim.

Another potential threat as a runner is backup quarterback Miguel Starks, who last year impressed many observers just by standing on the sideline during games.  However, he’s never played a down of college football.  It will be interesting to see what he can do once he gets on the field.

I’m of the opinion that the incumbent starting quarterback, Bart Blanchard, didn’t have that bad a season last year, as I don’t think he got much help from the rest of the backfield (and the offensive line seemed to lack consistency).  He is a bit limited as a runner, which is not ideal in Kevin Higgins’ offense, but that was true the year before as well and the Bulldogs managed just fine when he stepped in for Duran Lawson.  Higgins wants him to have a better completion percentage, but part of the problem Blanchard had last season trying to avoid incompletions was a limited number of passing targets — basically, his options were the tight ends and Andre Roberts.

Of course, Roberts is a nice target to have.  It would really help Roberts (and Blanchard) if a second receiver emerged this season (Kevin Hardy?), which never happened last year.  If another Bulldog wideout does develop into a threat, Roberts could wind up with fewer catches but more yards per reception.  Roberts in space is a big play waiting to happen, as anyone who has watched him return punts can attest.  I’m glad he’s not going to be returning kickoffs this year, though.  I worry about him wearing down over the course of the season.

The placekicking needs to be much improved.  Last year was just not acceptable.  The Bulldogs also must replace Mark Kasper, who was a solid punter for four seasons (second in the league in net punting last year).  The Citadel needs to improve its kickoff coverage (next-to-last in the conference in 2008).  Basically, the special teams must get better across the board (with the exception of the punt return team, which thanks to Roberts was the nation’s best unit).

As for Saturday’s game, a lot depends on whether Blanchard and Roberts have fully recovered from sprained ankles each suffered during fall practice.  If they are both good to go, I would expect the Bulldogs to be reasonably competitive against North Carolina.

While the Heels return 15 starters, they must replace some excellent wide receivers (including Hakeem Nicks) and two starters on their offensive line.  UNC’s o-line has taken a bit of a hit in the pre-season with some injuries and attrition (nothing like The Citadel’s running back situation, though).  The starting group should still be solid, however.

T.J. Yates should be okay after his frisbee ordeal.  This will be his third year starting games at QB for UNC.  Yates is good at taking care of the ball (only four interceptions last season).  UNC has a nice corps of running backs, led by Shaun Draughn, who rushed for 866 yards in 2008.  The Tar Heels will definitely need to find some new wideouts, as no returning receiver caught more than 11 passes last year.

UNC rotates a number of defensive linemen, and almost all of them are very good athletes (and most of them are huge).  Marvin Austin has first-round pick potential, Cam Thomas has all the makings of a future NFL nosetackle, and Ladson native Robert Quinn won the ACC’s Piccolo Award after recovering from a brain tumor to have an outstanding freshman campaign.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, the Tar Heels didn’t do a particularly good job creating sacks last season (only 22 all season; the d-line only had 5.5 of those).  Still, this group will be a formidable challenge for The Citadel’s offensive line.

North Carolina has a really good trio of starting linebackers, led by Bruce Carter, who doubles as a great kick-blocker (five last year).  The defensive backfield should be excellent, with several ball hawks ready to repeat last year’s success in intercepting passes (the Heels had 20 picks).

UNC did struggle defensively on third down conversions, ranking last in the ACC in that category.

North Carolina’s special teams were okay last year, although its net punting was mediocre.  The Heels will be breaking in a new punter this season, which might be good news for Andre Roberts (and Mel Capers), although first The Citadel’s defense has to actually force a punt.

Last season UNC opened with McNeese State, and struggled before finally winning the game 35-27.  It should be pointed out that the Cowboys were a solid FCS club (finishing 7-4, and featuring a quality offense), and that the game was affected by a lightning delay.  If anything, that relatively close call may make the North Carolina players more wary of FCS opposition.

The goals for this game, from The Citadel’s point of view, are for the team to be as competitive as possible, and to avoid major injuries.  It isn’t realistic to expect a victory, particularly against a pre-season Top 20 team.  The Bulldogs just want to make UNC work for a win.

To do that, avoiding turnovers on offense is a must.  I suspect that The Citadel is not going to have much of a rushing attack in this game, which is going to be a problem.  It’s also going to be a tough game to break in a new punter.  I think the Bulldog defense has a chance to establish itself to a certain extent.  However, the UNC offense is not turnover-prone and is more than capable of grinding out drives (although this may not be a bad thing for The Citadel; the fewer big plays, the better).

Obviously, the players won’t be thinking the way I’m thinking.  They’re traveling to Chapel Hill looking for a victory, which is a good thing.  That’s how they should approach this game.  Besides, you never know what might happen.  After all, my fantasy football team is called The Jack Crowes.

I’m just ready for kickoff.

Trying to fill a stadium

Note:  Yes, this is long.  It needs to be, though.  (Believe it or not, it could have been longer — I did some judicious editing.)  It can be read in stages if necessary, I suppose.  It’s one of the two longest posts I’ve made on this blog, along with my rundown of The Citadel’s brutal hoops history, which was made prior to basketball season.  After I made that post, the basketball team had one of its best campaigns ever.  If that’s the kind of karma attached to long essays, then the average attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium will approach 20,000 fans this season.

In 2007 The Citadel went 7-4, its first winning season in a decade.  There was plenty to be optimistic about in 2008, especially since the major renovation work to Johnson Hagood Stadium had been completed in the off-season.  Lots of folks were expected to come out to see if the Bulldogs could maintain their success while enjoying the comforts of a stadium with actually decent restroom facilities.  Instead, the school averaged almost 1,500 fewer fans per game than it had in ’07 (and 2,000+ fewer than it had in 2006).  What happened?

Well, the answer to that is complicated.  I want to address some of the issues related to attendance, and attendance specifically at The Citadel’s home football games.

I want to start, though, by pointing out something that is obvious, but gets forgotten about sometimes when alums talk about attendance.  For a school of The Citadel’s size, its historical football attendance is great.  Not good, great.  Even in a disappointing year (last season the average attendance per home game was just 12,261), The Citadel had an attendance-to-undergrad ratio of 6 to 1.  Do you know how many schools out there (especially FCS schools) would kill for even a 2 to 1 ratio?  Schools with just 2,000 students and a small alumni base really shouldn’t be doing that well.  It says a lot for the school’s loyal alums and fans that the attendance is as good as it is.

Having said that, attendance has been better before, and needs to be better again.  Anyone who looked at the budget numbers presented in an article by Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier a few weeks ago can see the importance of having Johnson Hagood Stadium filled with fans.  If attendance doesn’t start to get better, Ed Conroy is going to have to start scheduling road games against every Big XII school, not just Texas and Missouri.  The money from football props up the entire department of athletics.

The key to increasing attendance, of course, is winning.  Win more games, get more fans.  It’s a simple concept.  The only thing you have to remember about it is that success on the field generally leads to more ticket sales in the following season; there tends to be a one-year lag.  Of course, that’s if you have just one good year at a time (like going a decade between winning seasons).  Putting together a string of successful campaigns usually (but not always) leads to a more permanent base of fans.

When I opine about issues, I tend to illustrate my points in a statistical manner.  Numbers usually don’t lie, so I use them to back my point of view.  (Also, I use them because I’m a dork.)  Now, there are plenty of stats available when it comes to attendance, and I’m going to use some of them, but with a little bit of a caveat.  Let me explain what I mean.

The Citadel has had four modern-day directors of athletics — Eddie Teague, Walt Nadzak, Les Robinson, and the current AD, Larry Leckonby.  I have no way of knowing how each of them approached counting attendance at home games.  There are different ways to add up the numbers, and there is no guarantee that the way The Citadel’s numbers were counted was consistent over time.  It may be, for example, that sometimes season ticket holders were counted whether they were at the game or not, and it may be that sometimes they were only counted if they actually showed up.

I have occasionally wondered if other schools secretly counted the folks tailgating during the game, along with the teams, on-field personnel, the working (and non-working) press, concession stand employees, and mascots.  That’s not likely to be the case at The Citadel (and in the case of the non-game attending tailgaters, you’re talking about a not insignificant number.)

I have had multiple sources suggest to me that Larry Leckonby counts people who actually show up — no more, no less.  If that is the case, I applaud his philosophy.  I would count attendance the same way, although I would also count General, because he certainly deserves to be counted.

This uncertainty about published attendance figures was brought home to me one day while I was looking at the 2006 football media guide.  I spotted game writeups for the two playoff games in 1992, the win over North Carolina A&T and the loss to Youngstown State, each played at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

I attended both of those games.  I distinctly remember there were worries about the attendance, particularly for the first game against the Aggies, which took place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day, while the cadets were on furlough.  The Citadel had to have at least 12,000 folks show up to A) not lose money (there was a guarantee to the NCAA involved) and B) show that it merited hosting another playoff game.

Well, everything came up roses for The Citadel.  Plenty of folks showed up on a beautiful November afternoon to watch the Bulldogs pummel the MEAC champs, 44-0.  The next day’s edition of The Post and Courier featured a column by Ken Burger in which he detailed the “drama” behind the scenes, as representatives from the NCAA seemingly kept putting up roadblocks to the Bulldogs’ chances of hosting another game, only to eventually be bullied into submission by a pushy Walt Nadzak.  Burger wrote:  “although Citadel officials cannot announce the official attendance until after an NCAA audit, crowd estimates are about 17,000 were on hand.”

I was one of those on hand, seated right next to The Man From Macon (my ears are still ringing from his delirious shouting), and that estimate of 17,000 sounds about right to me.  Even more fans attended the game the following week; I would say that slightly over 18,000 came to see that matchup.

Then I came across the box in the ’06 media guide, and there were the “official” attendance figures:  12,300 for the North Carolina A&T game; 13,021 for the Youngstown State game.  What?

The NCAA came up with those numbers, after an “audit”.  Both figures are laughable.  I’m fairly confident that 5,000 people didn’t sneak into each game for free.  At any rate, it’s just another example of how you have to be careful when evaluating historic attendance trends.

While I wouldn’t want to bet my life on the complete accuracy of the numbers, I think evaluating them under certain parameters is instructive.  Also, I’ve got a theory on attendance that needs at least something solid behind it.  Anyway, here we go…

If you take the per-season home attendance average of the last four seasons, and then average those seasons together, you get a cumulative season average of 13,073.  That’s for 2005-2008.  If you then go back exactly twenty years, to the 1985-1988 seasons, you get a cumulative season average of 14,582.  That’s a difference of 1,509.  One reason I picked those years as a comparison is that the record on the field was very similar — 20-25 (2005-08), and 20-24-1 (1985-88).  It’s not an exact match, to be sure — the ’80s record includes Tom Moore’s last two campaigns and Charlie Taaffe’s first two seasons, while the last four years are the sum total of the Kevin Higgins era — but I think it’s a pretty good comparison.

If you go back to 1975-1978, the cumulative average for that four-year period is 16,584.  However, The Citadel in those four seasons had a slightly better record (22-22).  That period marked the transition from Bobby Ross to Art Baker.  Perhaps a better comparison to the two eras in the preceding paragraph would be the first four seasons under Ross, 1973-1976, when the Bulldogs were 19-25 overall.  Attendance in those seasons averaged out at 14,902.

So basically, from two and three decades ago until now, with similar teams, there appears to be a dropoff of between 1500-2000 fans.  You will find a lot of longtime Bulldog fans who will tell you that over the years the “base” has declined by just that amount (some will say even more, but I believe they’re thinking about stretches when the school had several successful seasons in a row).  1500-2000 fans is a big deal for a school of The Citadel’s size.  That would be like South Carolina or Clemson drawing 10,000+ fewer fans per year, and we’re talking about a longterm decline, not just a one- or two-season blip.

In comparing recent attendance to that of past seasons, I had to be careful and select similar, or at least remotely similar, circumstances, both on and off the field.  For instance, you can’t compare anything to 1989, when Hurricane Hugo disrupted not just the season, but the entire Charleston area, nor can you match “apples to apples” with 2004, the year following demolition of the West Stands, when the seating capacity of JHS was listed at 12,500.

2004 also featured the cancellation of a game against Charleston Southern (thanks to another hurricane threat), a season finale against Western Carolina that took place at the same time as a televised Clemson-South Carolina game, and a Thursday night “special” against Benedict that turned out to be an attendance disaster, with only 5,127 fans showing up.  (What I remember most about that Benedict game was “voice of the Bulldogs” Sam Evans beginning his public address announcements by saying, “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to what’s left of historic Johnson Hagood Stadium.”)

I also didn’t want to compare the recent attendance issues to periods of consecutive winning seasons, like 1979-81 and 1990-1992, or to the malaise of the late 1990s-early 2000s.

The key to the difference in the compared eras lies in the makeup of The Citadel’s base of supporters, which can be divided into two groups:  alums and their families, and those fans without an obvious connection to The Citadel.  I believe the eroding of the base has much more to do with the second group.

First, however, I want to discuss the “alums” category, including some things on which not everyone may agree, and for which I can’t point to a specific statistic.  What I believe, though, is that by and large graduates of The Citadel are significantly less likely to be natural supporters of the school’s athletic teams than, say, alums of larger state schools.

Not only are there more students at larger schools, but a higher percentage of those students grow up rooting for that particular school.  Quite a few of them actually choose to go to school based on their lifelong support of its athletic teams.  Those students eventually graduate, and so there is a fairly sizable base of true-blue fans just from that group.

Nobody who is not on athletic scholarship chooses to go to The Citadel because of its varsity sports teams.  Because of this, I think that a smaller percentage of its students are destined to become lifelong devoted fans of college football, hoops, etc.  That’s true of most small schools, of course.  (I believe The Citadel has fewer sports fans among its students than even among other small schools, however — at least, that was my impression when I was in school.  That also applied to things tangentially related to sports.  Was there buzz on campus for Bull Durham or Hoosiers?  No.  Full Metal Jacket, yes, a thousand times yes.)

That makes the fact the athletic teams are supported as well as they are by the alumni all the more remarkable.  I think it has a lot to do with the natural camaraderie built up by four years in the corps of cadets.  Alums come back for the games, but they really come back to see each other, or just to be part of the experience that is The Citadel again, even for just a Saturday afternoon.  It’s a nice vibe, complete with the justly-celebrated tailgating scene (which may be too good a scene when it comes to trying to increase attendance inside the stadium).

One of the things I have noticed, though, is that there is a bit of a “doughnut hole”, if you will, among alums attending games.  Basically, when I go to games I see a lot of alums representing the over-50 crowd, and I see a fair number of young grads, but there is a gap between those two groups in the gameday support.  You don’t really see a lot of guys in their 30s and 40s, at least in comparison.  Some might disagree with me on that, but this has been my observation.  I could be wrong, of course.

Obviously those alums in their 30s and 40s are more likely to have school-age kids, and perhaps because of that, they don’t have as much free time (or discretionary income).  I would guess that’s not particularly unusual for a college alumni fan base.  That isn’t to say there aren’t a good number of kids at the games, because there are.  However, the lack of grads in that age group at football games is noticeable (at least to me).

Okay, that’s my riff on alumni support.  Now I want to talk about the other potential game attendees, and why there aren’t as many of them as there used to be.  Here comes my theory.  (Drum roll.)

Television.

Back in the good old days (which weren’t really all that great), the NCAA controlled regular-season college football broadcasting.  It had extremely restrictive rules on how often schools could appear on TV, and also limited the number of overall telecasts.  As late as 1978 there were a total of 58 college football games broadcast on TV during the regular season (13 of which were televised nationally).  Last season there were 58 televised games involving FBS and FCS schools just in the third week of October.

Change came as a result of a 1984 Supreme Court decision that ruled the NCAA’s way of doing things violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.  Schools (and conferences) were thus free to negotiate TV deals for themselves.  The decision also coincided with the rise of cable television, notably ESPN.  Suddenly there were outlets that needed programming, and schools and conferences that had programming to offer.  The world of college football hasn’t been the same since.

It used to be that if you lived in the Lowcountry and wanted to see some college football action, but you didn’t want to drive up I-26 to Columbia (or further up the road to Clemson/Athens/Atlanta), your one option was to head to Johnson Hagood Stadium to watch The Citadel.  The odds that you could watch one of the state’s major college teams on TV instead were not good.  Between 1969-1978, there were seven televised Clemson regular-season football games  (one national, six regional).  In that same period, South Carolina only appeared on TV during the regular season five times (all regional broadcasts; the Gamecocks did not have a nationally televised regular-season game until 1980).

Even after the Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates, South Carolina did not draw a lot of TV time; for example, in 1989, the Gamecocks appeared on television during the season just once (in a 45-0 loss at home to Clemson — ouch).  This was partly due to South Carolina still being an independent in football at the time.  Once the Gamecocks joined the SEC, appearances on the tube became a more regular occurrence.  Clemson was on TV more often during the 1980s, thanks to deals the ACC had with Raycom and ESPN, although the Tigers’ appearances on TV during the early part of the decade were mostly on tape-delay, due to Clemson being on probation.

Now, of course, you can see the Tigers and Gamecocks almost every week on TV, along with many other major college programs, at every time of day and night.  You can also see a select number of FCS teams in action, but not nearly as many, and mostly as part of regional telecasts.  The Southern Conference has a modest agreement with SportSouth to show eight league games all season (The Citadel will appear in just one of them).

The constant TV exposure for Clemson, South Carolina, and the rest of the FBS schools is great for them.  It promotes their programs, and increases their respective fan bases.  For schools like The Citadel, though, it can be a problem.  Trying to attract fans who aren’t naturally affiliated with the program means competing against a lot of other entities, especially in a city like Charleston.  The Citadel isn’t on TV enough itself to get the publicity benefits that accrue to the bigger schools, and then football fans have the option to watch those other schools on television.

As an example, let’s look at last season and what the folks selling tickets at The Citadel were up against for each home date:

  • The home opener (8/30) was a night game against Webber International.  Attendance was announced as 11,247.  Quite honestly, I think The Citadel was lucky to get that many fans for what was a de facto glorified scrimmage.  South Carolina had played on Thursday night, but Clemson played Alabama in primetime in a much-hyped affair (the lesson, as always:  don’t believe the hype).  Locally, the ticket office also had to compete against a bluegrass/BBQ festival held at Boone Hall Plantation.
  • The next game at JHS came against Princeton on 9/20.  13,120 fans attended that game, most of whom would be mystified by what went on at halftime.  This was an afternoon game.  South Carolina played Wofford at night in Columbia (that game was on PPV).  Clemson played an afternoon home game against South Carolina State.  Another game of interest in the region, Florida-Tennessee, was played that afternoon as well.  An extra local competitor was the Scottish Games and Highland Gathering, held at Boone Hall, which drew 6,000 people that Saturday.  I’m guessing bagpiper groupies were not sure which event to attend.
  • On 9/27, Western Carolina came to town for a 1pm showdown.  Clemson played Maryland that afternoon in a game televised by Raycom.  South Carolina had another PPV home night game, this time against UAB.  North Carolina played Miami at noon in the only other regional game of any consequence.  Attendance for this game was only 11,216, and I don’t think the presence in town of the MOJA Arts Festival had a whole lot to do with it.
  • Elon played at The Citadel on 10/11 in a game slightly impacted by rain (but more impacted by hideous SoCon officiating).  This day was a good example of how 21st-century college football TV choices are different from those in the ’70s and ’80s.  The Citadel hosted Elon at the same time as the all-important Texas-Oklahoma game (that ultimately wasn’t quite important enough for the Longhorns) AND a road game for South Carolina that was televised by Raycom.  Also on TV that day were Georgia-Tennessee and Notre Dame-North Carolina.  The City of Charleston also conspired against the ticket office with its Taste of Charleston weekend (although the main event was held on Sunday).  Total attendance:  12,582, on a Parents’ Day Weekend.  Oof.
  • Georgia Southern played at Johnson Hagood on 11/1, opposite the Coastal Carolina Fair and a host of locally interesting TV games:  Georgia-Florida, Tennessee-South Carolina, and Clemson-Boston College.  11,190 people made it to JHS.  Many of them probably wished Kevin Higgins had gone for two in overtime.
  • Homecoming (on 11/15) was held opposite South Carolina-Florida (on CBS) and Duke-Clemson (on Raycom).  14,213 fans watched The Citadel escape (thanks, Andre) with a win over a wretched UT-Chattanooga squad.

Another thing that wasn’t around in 1978 (or even 1988) is the Charleston Southern football program.  Heck, back then CSU wasn’t even CSU; it was Baptist College.  I’m not sure how much of an effect the Buccaneers’ home games have on Bulldog home games played the same day, to be honest.  They may not have much impact, but every potential ticket not sold counts, in a manner of speaking.  For the record, last season CSU and The Citadel played at home on the same day on 9/27 (CSU attendance:  2,541), 11/1 (3,213), and 11/15 (2,434).

In 2009, incidentally, CSU and The Citadel will again have three home games on the same day, the first three home dates on the Bulldogs’ schedule.  Clemson or South Carolina will play home games on each of The Citadel’s five home dates, although for none of them will both of those schools be at home.  Times for those USC/Clemson games won’t be known until later in the season because of television.  Those TV “windows” also mean that it’s impossible to guess what other national/regional games might have an impact on the schedule (other than Florida-Georgia, which is pencilled in for 3:30 pm on 10/31; The Citadel plays Samford at 1 pm that day).  Also, as far as special local interest events are concerned, this year’s Scottish Games will take place the week before The Citadel’s home opener, much to the relief of the bagpiper groupies.

Compare today’s options for local area sports fans to those of 1978.  South Carolina had no games televised that year.  Clemson had only two regular season games televised (despite an 11-1 season).  If one or both were on the road or playing a rather lame opponent at home, then your choices were usually limited to a sole TV game, often featuring teams of limited interest.  A big football fan might very well be inclined to watch the local team play VMI or Delaware or Marshall (all of which were on the home schedule that year).  He would probably bring his transistor radio along and listen to Bob Fulton or Jim Phillips (or perhaps Larry Munson, which might have been more fun) while watching The Citadel.

I think that’s a big deal.  It’s hard to get the casual fan to the stadium these days.  Now, once you get him to Johnson Hagood (or at least to the tailgating areas), then you stand a decent chance of keeping him.

Anyway, that’s my theory.  The non-affiliated fan who might have been a potential customer/convert twenty and thirty years ago has more sporting options on a gameday Saturday, because of television.  He is probably more inclined to become a fan of an FBS school if he wasn’t already, because it’s easier to follow those teams now even from a distance, because of television.  FCS schools like The Citadel don’t benefit from increased exposure because they simply aren’t on the tube nearly as often as the FBS schools.  They could make up lost ground if they were on at least as often, but they’re not, so they don’t.  It’s a triple whammy.

So, what to do about it?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question.  The Citadel has hard-working, competent people whose very jobs involve trying to improve its numbers at the gate.  They know what they’re doing, and I’m not going to pretend to be as expert as they are on the subject.  Having said that, I have some opinions, some of them of the macro variety, some micro…

Obviously, I think it’s most important to cater to the local “outsider” to bring up the numbers.  At this particular time, though, it also wouldn’t hurt to redouble efforts with the alumni base, which has seen a decade of poor on-field results overseen by a series of coaches, and games played in an aging stadium with facilities that were, frankly, unacceptable.  Out-of-touch alums need to be introduced to the “new” Johnson Hagood Stadium, which is clean, has a cool video board, is wheelchair-accessible and family-friendly, has an electrical system that won’t fail when the french fry machines are turned on, etc.  Plus, the current coach is entering his fifth season.  Stability!

I think it’s important to emphasize what makes going to a football game at The Citadel unique and fun.  The essential uniqueness, of course, is the corps of cadets.  That’s what The Citadel has to offer that other schools don’t.  It is key that the corps be energized for those three hours on a Saturday afternoon or early evening.  I believe the administration needs to make it worth the cadets’ while (weekend/overnight privileges, that type of thing) to be a primary source of entertainment.

The corps needs to be at least semi-organized for providing its special brand of mayhem.  I actually like that the cadets have been moved to the East Stands; it makes them more visible (and, for the visiting team, noisier).  Now it’s time to accentuate their enthusiasm, preferably in as zany a fashion as possible.  All I ask is that “Hey Baby” gets dropped.  Please?

Speaking of music, the band needs to be more incorporated into the scene than it is now.  There needs to be some coordination between promotions and the band in terms of not just when music is played, but what is played.  Note to some alums:  quit asking them to play “Dixie”.  Those days are over.

My other comment about music is that (old fogey alert!) the pre-game rap/hip-hop/heavy metal routine at about 200 decibels is extremely grating and, to me, not in keeping with the general gameday experience at The Citadel.  I know the football players like to get wound up by listening to some of that stuff, but there is too much of it right now.  I’m not asking for the current mix to be replaced by Frank Sinatra tunes (although that would cool in a retro-hip way), but there needs to be a little balance.  Also, I can go to any game and listen to somebody abuse the sound system while playing the latest in headbanging drivel.  Games at The Citadel need to be (and should be) different.

In keeping with trying to impress potential new fans, it never hurts to accentuate the military aspects of the gameday experience.  Pre-game flyovers are always good.  Guys parachuting in with the game ball, halftime shows featuring various specialty outfits (military marching bands or drill units) — those things tend to go over well.

That reminds me — what happened to the Touchdown Cannon Crew?  Now there just seems to be a Touchdown Cannon Dude.  Where are the riflemen?  There is probably a story behind their absence.  One thing this brings to mind is that, whenever possible, it’s nice to keep some continuity in the school’s gameday traditions.  The Citadel is big on tradition, although you would never know it by looking at its football uniform history.

Another thing to emphasize when trying to recruit new fans is the affordability aspect of going to games at Johnson Hagood.  In the current economy, in particular, this has to be a plus.

If you want to have decent seats at South Carolina games, for example, you have to give a lot of money to the Gamecock Club just to have the option of buying season tickets.  Then you have to pay a “premium” on those same seats.  Then after finally getting to buy the tickets the sucker customer needs to buy an expensive parking pass just to be able to park near Williams-Brice Stadium.  When you include travel costs, concessions, etc., soon (to paraphrase Everett Dirksen) you’re talking about real money.  All that for USC games, and we’re not talking about the USC that wins Rose Bowls, but the USC that has never played in a major bowl.  38-35!  Enough said.

Another thing to emphasize, or improve, is to make the games “kid-friendly”.  There are plenty of kids at games, but there needs to be a lot more.  Ticket promotions, giveaways with children in mind, the whole nine yards.  Some of this is already happening, which is good.  Another idea would be to have a specific organization just for youngsters — the Junior Bulldog Club, say.  Members could get perks, like being able to go out onto the field with the players before the game for the coin toss or some other type of ceremony, not unlike what you see at international and domestic European soccer matches.  After all, indoctrination should occur early in life.

Speaking of kid-friendly, one of the best things The Citadel has done in recent years is re-establish the live mascot program.  General and his good buddy Boo are kid magnets, as is their cartoon friend Spike.  I’ve actually heard a few gnarly old codgers grumble about Spike (some of the gnarliest codgers aren’t that old, either).  Those people are morons.  Mascots, in general, aren’t really meant to entertain somebody who is busy trying to figure out where he put his flask.  They’re largely there to keep children entertained while their father is screaming at the coach for running the ball on third-and-ten.  Just keep that in mind.

Finally, I have to say something about the cheerleading program.  Larry Leckonby needs to take a hard look at that issue and make some decisions.  It’s a part of the gameday experience that is currently a complete disaster.  Whether we outfit the cheerleaders in camo and go the gung-ho route, or revert to the days of importing them from other schools (probably not feasible), or simply not have cheerleaders at all, something needs to be done.  The current situation is not good at all.  The lack of enthusiasm for the program from the corps of cadets (and from the cheerleaders themselves) is disturbing.

In conclusion, I do think attendance should improve this season, barring something unusual happening.  The home schedule is much more interesting, with games against instate schools Presbyterian, Furman, and Wofford, along with a visit from Appalachian State.  The best way of increasing attendance going forward, of course, was best expressed by former Bulldog assistant coach Al Davis:  “Just win, baby.”  Since you can’t always count on wins, though, you have to do all the “little things” to try to fill a stadium.  Here is hoping that Johnson Hagood will be packed with fans this season and beyond.