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.

Thoughts on The Citadel and transfers

When I write about The Citadel and transfers, I want to first distinguish between basic types.  One of them is the three-year transfer.  It’s a little bit unusual, but not rare, for someone to spend his or her freshman year at another school, and then transfer into The Citadel.

Now, the “system” at The Citadel is designed for a four-year student.  In other words, the typical member of the corps of cadets spends four years at the school, and those four years have very specific benchmarks.  However, it is possible (and not particularly difficult) for a student to transfer in and spend three years in the corps, and have essentially the same experience as a four-year student.  Basically, the sophomore/junior years are combined.

I don’t know anyone associated with The Citadel who has a problem with a three-year transfer athlete representing the school.  I certainly don’t.  It doesn’t happen often, to be sure.  Recently Kenny Manigault, who played high school basketball in the Charleston area for Pinewood Prep, announced he was transferring from Wichita State to The Citadel. Manigault will have three years of athletic eligibility, and will presumably be spending (at least) three years in the corps of cadets.

Another athlete who will be transferring in to The Citadel is Blane Woodfin, who originally committed to Air Force, but was not admitted to the AFA (reportedly because of a physical problem).  Woodfin attended Montana State last year but did not play football, and will thus apparently have four years of athletic eligibility remaining at The Citadel, not three.

These are not transfers likely to cause any cantankerous old alum heartburn, even though Manigault called Chuck Driesell “real laid back”, which is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone call Driesell laid back.  The Citadel as an institution, as Manigault and Woodfin will soon learn (if they don’t know already), is certainly not laid back…

However, there is another type of transfer that has been popping up more and more at The Citadel in recent years, the “fifth-year” transfer.

This started in football, where a player can transfer from an FBS school to an FCS school and play immediately.  The “trailblazer” in this category for The Citadel was Jeff Klein, a quarterback who transferred from Auburn and played one year for The Citadel (2002).

He was followed the next season by former Clemson QB Willie Simmons and ex-Duke defensive back Anthony Roberts.  Those three players played for The Citadel under former coach (and alum) Ellis Johnson.  In recent years, Kevin Higgins has had two fifth-year transfers — his son, wideout Tim Higgins (who originally played for Florida), and tight end B.J. Phillips (North Carolina).

All of these guys graduated from their original schools and played one year as graduate students for The Citadel, except for Phillips (who had two years of athletic eligibility in football remaining after graduating from UNC).

As students in The Citadel Graduate College, none of these players were members of the corps of cadets (indeed, it’s possible none of them even attended classes with cadets, as graduate classes at The Citadel are held at night).

Reports vary on how seriously these graduate student athletes attempted to bond with their teammates, tried to understand/appreciate what cadets go through, etc.  My general impression, which could be wrong, is that Simmons and the younger Higgins made an effort to try and “jell” with the team and school; Klein, not so much.  Phillips, of course, still has one year left on the football team.

These one-year-only players were not a factor in basketball at The Citadel because there was no lower classification within Division I for them to transfer to without penalty (in other words, no FBS/FCS distinction).  At least, they weren’t a factor until last year, when Joe Wolfinger transferred to The Citadel after graduating from Washington.

Wolfinger had his degree and one year of athletic eligibility in basketball remaining, and he used that year to play basketball at The Citadel, thanks to a technicality.  As this article explained:

Wolfinger will be a fifth-year senior next season and is apparently eligible to play immediately at The Citadel because he has graduated from UW and will enter a Master’s program at The Citadel that is not offered at Washington.

Wolfinger is gone, and so is Ed Conroy, but Chuck Driesell has decided to bring in his own tall transfer for this upcoming season:

Mike Dejworek, a 6-11 center from Belmont University, will play one season for the Bulldogs as a graduate student, new coach Chuck Driesell confirmed…

…Dejworek, a native of Ulm, Germany, sat out last season with a shoulder injury after playing three years for Belmont. In 2008-09, he played in 24 games and started one for a 20-13 Belmont team, averaging 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds. He was a reserve on a Belmont team that made the NCAA tournament his sophomore season.

I presume that, like Wolfinger, Dejworek will be enterering a Master’s degree program at The Citadel that is not offered by Belmont.

There are plenty of alums who are less than crazy about athletes competing on varsity teams without ever being part of the corps of cadets.  Ken Burger, then the sports editor of The Post and Courier, wrote about this as far back as 2003:

…the school’s old guard is very vocal about this troublesome trend. They say these young men never spent a single day at The Citadel and don’t deserve the privilege of wearing the school’s uniform. Even its football uniform…

…Over the next three months we will find out how this experiment works out for [Ellis] Johnson’s program and The Citadel. And, there will be plenty of people watching and judging from the sidelines…

…While it’s easy to say the old school should stick to the old ways, there’s another side of this controversy that can’t be ignored.

The Citadel’s military counterpart, VMI, recently left the SoCon and downgraded to the Big South Conference because the Keydets could no longer compete…

Ah, yes, the old “we just can’t compete” crutch.  Poor, pitiful puppies; how can our coaches ever win?

First, the obvious.  Charlie Taaffe won a Southern Conference title in football without any non-cadet help.  He beat South Carolina and Arkansas and Army and Navy, and all of his players were in the corps of cadets.

Brief tangent:  Just for clarification, Taaffe did occasionally have some fifth-year guys who had already graduated and had an extra year of eligibility remaining after redshirting, but all of them had spent four years in the corps.  That is a completely different situation than the fifth-year ‘program’ I’m discussing in this post, of course.

Eddie Teague won a SoCon title back in the day, too, with members of the corps of cadets.  It’s not easy (after all, The Citadel has just those two league titles in football), but it can be done.

Meanwhile, the fifth-year recruits have not exactly led to dramatic success on the gridiron.  Klein set lots of passing records in 2002, but the team went 3-9.  With Simmons at quarterback (and Roberts in the defensive backfield)  in 2003, the Bulldogs improved to 6-6.  Tim Higgins’ one season at The Citadel came in 2007, the only season since 1997 in which the Bulldogs have finished with a winning record (7-4).

In hoops, Wolfinger did not prove to be a difference-maker last year, as The Citadel went 16-16, a season that followed a 20-13 campaign.  Wolfinger got progressively less playing time as the year went on, as he turned out not to be a particularly good fit for The Citadel’s style of play.

There is another aspect to this, the “recruited over” concern.  If you are a promising high school football player and you are considering The Citadel, should you be worried about the possibility that down the road, when it’s finally time for you to become a regular, the coach will suddenly bring in some graduate student to take your position?  Being recruited over is something normally associated with players at big-time college basketball programs, not The Citadel.

Those are the on-field results and issues.   What about the off-the-field repercussions?

— The essence of The Citadel, the part that differentiates it from other schools, is the corps of cadets.  Our athletic teams are supposed to represent the students at the military college.  What statement is the school making when it elects to offer opportunities to varsity athletes who have never been a part of the military environment?

— For that matter, the athletic teams represent the alumni as well.  Am I supposed to identify with varsity athletes who did not go through the same experiences that I did?

— If I have misgivings as an alumnus about identifying with these athletes, just imagine how the current members of the corps of cadets must feel.

— There is also the public perception.  Many outsiders are impressed that The Citadel can compete at all with the inherent disadvantages of being a military school.  When you bring in players from outside that environment, do you know what the general public calls them?  Ringers. (So do some alums.)

At that point The Citadel becomes “just another school” in the minds of some people.  Is that something that the powers-that-be at The Citadel want?

I might add that the perception issue is magnified when the player plays a high-profile position (like quarterback) in football.  In basketball, there aren’t that many players, so almost any player is highly visible.

Having said all that, I don’t blame any of the individual coaches for bringing in graduate students.  Coaches are trying to win.  Winning is not easy to do at The Citadel, so it’s not surprising that coaches try to work the system as much as possible.

Coaches also tend to have a narrower focus; it’s hard to expect Chuck Driesell, for example, to consider how a graduate student playing basketball may affect the school, in terms of the big picture.   Driesell is just trying to find a big man who can rebound.

The administration has the responsibility of telling the coaches to focus solely on recruiting players who will be part of the corps of cadets.  It appears that, for whatever reason(s), the current administration does not share the concerns that have been expressed by some alums.

Maybe the thinking from General Rosa and company is that one or two exceptions don’t really matter.  I don’t know.  It’s also possible that the school wants to have occasional graduate student varsity athletes, in an effort to promote the Graduate College.

I tend to doubt that having an occasional hoopster or football player in the graduate school is going to raise the profile of the CGC, although I couldn’t blame the school for trying every avenue to promote it.  The CGC is an opportunity for The Citadel to make money, which the school needs to do.

Over the past few years, the military college has gradually become simply a state school, as opposed to a state-supported school.  That’s because the State of South Carolina continues to cut back on funding for higher education (in general, the state legislature believes higher education should end after the third grade).

[Sorry for the political jibe, but honestly, our state’s lack of commitment to education is embarrassing.]

In closing, one thing I want to emphasize is that I don’t have anything against the players who enter the school as graduate students.  They are taking advantage of a great opportunity, as well they should.  I wish them well, and I hope they are successful in class and on the field of play.  I will be rooting for them, as I do anyone who represents my alma mater.

I just wish the administration would revisit the current policy.  I strongly believe that varsity athletes at The Citadel should all come from the corps of cadets.  I know my opinion doesn’t really matter, but I also know that I’m not the only person who feels this way about transfers and varsity athletics.

Yes, I’m ready for football season…

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.)


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.