Two weeks until gameday for The Citadel: the scrimmage before the storm

I didn’t think I was going to be able to attend Saturday’s scrimmage at Willson Field, but sometimes the sun shines when you expect rain, and I am quite grateful for that. I am not going to claim to have any fantastic observations about what I saw.  That won’t stop me from typing, though…

I got to campus a little late, but that was okay.  Venturing into McAlister Field House, looking for one of the new football posters, I was almost immediately accosted by a gentleman who asked me if I wanted to eat something.  He pointed to a long table filled with hamburgers and hot dogs, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was hungry.

I was a bit dazed, to be honest, and probably looked like I was on drugs (not guilty!), but no matter.  I grabbed a burger and a cookie (which was very good) and wolfed them down.

Then I got one of the new posters (I took the glossy kind, as I didn’t need it autographed), a magnet schedule (nice), and a team roster (very handy) and made my way to the field.

Jeff Hartsell has a nice writeup on the scrimmage, with some unofficial stats (link). You can also read about it at citadelsports.com (link), which also has a lot of cool photos (link) of the scrimmage, along with the meet and greet that followed it.  (I took some pictures myself, but they are mostly awful, and even the decent ones aren’t nearly as good as the school’s offerings.)

Some quick thoughts:

— I really liked the setup for this event.  Good job all around by the department of athletics.  As always, quality cookies are an easy way to please the masses.

— There were several hundred people there, which was nice to see.  I think that if there had been many more spectators in attendance, though, the venue would have been a little too small, something for the administration to keep in mind if the team enjoys a successful season in 2011.

— The Class of 2015 (i.e. the “knobs”) surrounded the field to cheer on the players. Big fan of that move.

— Maybe for future scrimmages Spike (the cartoon mascot) could make an appearance, to entertain some of the kids.

— The officials working the scrimmage wore long black pants.  In August.  In Charleston.  Luckily for them, while it was kind of muggy it was just overcast enough to keep things from becoming truly oppressive.  I left Charleston before the inevitable thunderstorm (at least I assume it was inevitable).

— Aaron Miller, the freshman QB from Clover, had a big run and seemed to have a presence about him.  He’s a very interesting prospect; one of those guys who doesn’t seem super-fast but nobody seems able to catch him anyway.

— The best pass of the scrimmage was thrown by Luke Caldwell, who is a receiver.  It was a really nice pass, though.  Just like the Samford game last season, it went Caldwell-to-Rickey Anderson, who this time caught it in stride.  Anderson seems to be good at making those downfield catches, which can’t be said for every running back. Kevin Higgins will undoubtedly try to take advantage of that.

— There wasn’t an avalanche of turnovers, so unlike last year’s GSU game I won’t be having nightmares about fumbling for two weeks, but there are still some kinks to be worked out.

— The hitting was solid.  No over-the-top pops, although Rod Harland stood out for his enthusiasm in putting people on the ground.

— The placekicking wasn’t awful, but there is still work to do.

— I didn’t see Larry Leckonby, but I assume he was there.  If so, that would mean that every living person who has served as the director of athletics at The Citadel was at the scrimmage.  (Okay, so that’s just three guys.)  General Rosa was also there, resplendent in bermuda shorts.

One thing I found interesting was the undercurrent of intensity in the crowd watching the action.  The players acted with purpose and intent, but that is to be expected.  What struck me was you could also describe many of the spectators as watching with purpose and intent.

I live in a town where the local school’s squad has high expectations for the season to come, as preseason prognosticators have it contending for league and national honors.  Anticipation is mixed with some anxiety.  There is a lot riding on the upcoming campaign.

The Bulldogs are not expected to contend for league or national honors this year. However, in the crowd today you could feel anticipation and anxiety not unlike that present in the capital city, and for good reason.  There is a lot riding on The Citadel’s upcoming campaign, too.

Two weeks until Jacksonville comes to town.  Two long weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope so.  Losing isn’t any fun…

Review: Samford

The Citadel 13, Samford 12.

Victory!

It wasn’t a dominating performance, to say the least, but a win is a win, especially after losing seven straight games.  Almost all the numbers favored Samford except the ones on the scoreboard that actually count.

That’s why I wouldn’t put this game down as a triumph for The Citadel’s triple option offense.  In truth, Samford’s defense did a good job handling the option attack, much as it had in games against Georgia Southern and Wofford.  The Citadel was held to 119 yards rushing, and just 203 total yards.

Samford outgained The Citadel by more than two to one, had almost twice as many first downs, and did not turn the ball over.  Neither team fared well on third down (The Citadel converted just one of eleven third-down opportunities).

The Citadel won the game thanks to winning the special teams battle (courtesy of a blocked punt by Milford Scott, who you knew was going to get one eventually), and by outstanding red zone defense.  Going into the game, The Citadel’s opponents were scoring touchdowns 71% of the time when in the red zone, but in this game Samford did not get a TD, as The Citadel’s defense held the Birmingham Bulldogs to just three field goals on four trips inside the 20.

Even with the great defense and Scott’s big play, The Citadel still trailed late in the game when Kevin Higgins called for some “trickeration”.  The circle of the season was completed when Luke Caldwell, who served as quarterback for the spring game before moving back to receiver, threw a pass to Rickey Anderson for 55 yards.  Both players deserved that moment.

One play later, Ben Dupree was in the end zone, and after some anxious moments late, the Cadets had their much-needed win.

This was the last game of a trying season, one with very little to cheer about, and that makes it all the more impressive that the team was focused and motivated on Saturday.  Now, I’m on record as stating that the team should always be ready to play — after all, there are only eleven games in a season — but it would be understandable if the concentration level had not been particularly high for an end-of-season road game against a largely faceless opponent, following a bye week, and leading to the Thanksgiving break.

Instead, the defense held on and did not break, despite allowing Samford to march down the field on multiple occasions, and forced the home side to settle for those field goals.  The offense struggled, but did not give the game away, and grabbed the win when presented with the chance.

To the surprise of almost nobody, Larry Leckonby confirmed on Monday that Kevin Higgins would be back.  I am fine with this, having outlined my reasons in a prior post.

“I don’t think I would say I was satisfied (with the season),” said Leckonby, who was hired in June 2008, after The Citadel had agreed to a five-year extension for Higgins. “I had hoped the outcome would have been a little better in terms of wins and losses, and some of our performances were marred by multiple turnovers.

“I would not say I was satisfied, but I think we did improve from start to finish with the triple option, and that we’ve got a base to build on for next year.”

Leckonby’s statement that he thought the team “did improve from start to finish with the triple option” is debatable.  The lack of turnovers in the final two games (just one in those two contests) was the biggest improvement in the offense.  However, the point production and total yardage really was not much different than from the Bulldogs’ first two league games.  Of course, after the nightmarish game against Georgia Southern, anything would be an improvement.

That isn’t to say that the second season of Triple O’Higgins won’t be a smashing success.  It’s just that there aren’t any obvious markers from this year that would lead one to conclude that a breakthrough is coming.

I hope it happens, of course.  For Higgins’ sake, it needs to happen, because next year it will be now or never.  It won’t be easy, either.

The non-league slate is tougher, with Jacksonville and VMI coming to Johnson Hagood Stadium and the Bulldogs making the trip up I-26 to face the Gamecocks. There are no Chowans in that group (and I suspect that Jacksonville will be much better than some fans of The Citadel might anticipate).  The SoCon will be tough, like it always is.

Of course, it’s never easy at The Citadel.  That’s why it is important to be patient. Patience is a virtue.

Winning is a better virtue.

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: Western Carolina

Western Carolina 24, The Citadel 13.

It was a dismal performance in just about every respect.  There are basically no positives that can be taken from this game.  None.

Blame will be placed on the anemic offense, and it’s certainly true there was no visible progress on that front in this game (and arguably some regression).  However, the defense was even more disappointing. particularly the secondary, which as a unit was terrible all day long.

The play that best summed up the game occurred on Western Carolina’s second possession of the contest.  The Catamounts faced a third-and-six on their own 24. Quarterback Brandon Pechloff, under some pressure, floated a pass that traveled almost 30 yards in the air, and I mean floated.  While the ball was in the air, it would have been possible to sing the national anthem in its entirety, including holding the “free” note as long as a diva could desire.

Despite the lack of sizzle on the pass, no Bulldog defender was able to make a play on the ball.  As a result Catamount wideout Josh Cockrell was able to make a 20-yard reception, cradling the ball as he fell backwards, with three Bulldogs within six yards of him (and a fourth rushing into the mix).

This happened a lot.  On the next WCU drive, the Bulldogs committed pass interference on consecutive plays, setting up a first-and-goal situation.  The Catamounts scored two plays later.  On both PIs the defender did not know the ball was headed in his direction, resulting in penalties when he made contact with the receiver (the second one was a close call, although I thought it was a correct one; a number of other people did not agree with me, however).

The Catamounts’ second TD came after a fumbled punt.  Pechloff’s pass to Jacoby Mitchell was underthrown and should have been intercepted or at least batted away, but the defender, while in good position, mistimed his jump.  Mitchell caught the ball and strolled into the end zone.

The fourth-quarter play that basically iced the game was another instance of a defensive back lacking ball awareness.  Pechloff floated a 30-yard pass that was badly underthrown (again), but the DB never saw it and the WCU receiver (Mitchell again) came back to the ball to make the catch at the Bulldog 5.  Western Carolina scored on the next play for an essentially insurmountable two-score lead.

Pechloff competed very well in this game, showing a lot of composure for a true freshman making his first career start.  However, he is slow afoot and his injury-riddled offensive line is not very good.  The Bulldogs’ defensive line probably should have sacked him more than once, although he did a good job getting rid of the ball.  In doing so, though, he threw several passes that would have been intercepted by a better defensive secondary.

As for the offense, the first half was abysmal.  There were five possessions, and they went like this:  3 yards and a punt; 8 yards and failed on 4th-and-1 (from the Bulldog 45 — I liked the decision to go for it, but not the play call); 33 yards, two first downs, and an 8-yard punt; 3 yards and a FG (this was after a WCU turnover); 42 yards, two first downs, and failed on 4th-and-10 (from the WCU 38).  If anything, it was worse than how it reads.

The offense struggled running the ball outside, a season-long problem, thanks mostly to the lack of good perimeter blocking.  No slotback had a rush longer than nine yards.  (The one good outside rush in the game, by Van Dyke Jones in the second quarter, was called back by an obvious, and pointless, holding penalty by a receiver.)

There was hope in the third quarter when a nice drive by the Bulldogs was finished by Terrell Dallas’ 45-yard touchdown, a play much like his 80-yard gallop in the PC game.  The Citadel then kicked a FG and was in a position to score again early in the fourth quarter when it faced a 4th-and-11 at the WCU 30.

Kevin Higgins elected to have Ryan Sellers attempt a 47-yard field goal.  Sellers had a good game on Saturday, stepping in for regular placekicker Sam Keeler (who was ill), but I thought attempting the FG in that situation was a mistake.  It’s a tough decision, but a field goal there still doesn’t give you the lead, and the odds of making a 47-yarder with your backup kicker probably aren’t that good.  On the other hand, it was 4th-and-11.

At any rate, Sellers narrowly missed the try, and then the defense just folded.  A missed tackle resulted in a 33-yard run, just about the only decent rush WCU had in the entire game.  That was immediately followed by Mitchell’s reception inside the 10. The Catamounts scored on the next play.  Four plays, touchdown, fans getting up and leaving.

It was a very frustrating game to watch.  Kevin Higgins was apparently frustrated as well.  I want to highlight one of Higgins’ quotes in Jeff Hartsell’s game story, though:

“In the first half, we just didn’t block like we needed to up front. They came out in a 4-3 defense, and we had been working on a (five-man front) all week, and we just didn’t make the adjustments up front and couldn’t get any first downs.”

It’s one thing to struggle on the first series of the game while trying to figure out what defense is being employed, but for an entire half?  That’s not good enough.  This has been a bit of a theme this year, with the Bulldogs allegedly being more of a “second quarter” team while spending the first quarter deciphering defenses.  The problem, of course, is that there are only a limited number of possessions in a game, especially for a triple option attack, and The Citadel can’t use one (or two) quarters as some sort of recon mission — it has to score (or at least possess the ball) early in the game, too.

I’ll have more on-the-field thoughts when I preview the UT-Chattanooga game, but for now I want to briefly discuss some off-field issues, notably attendance (or the lack thereof).

Larry Leckonby has a problem.  The attendance on Saturday (10,207) would have been embarrassing just a few short years ago, but now is almost old hat.  Leckonby finds himself in the position of presiding over the worst run of attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium in at least four decades.

I’ve written about attendance before, and I understand there are multiple issues at play, but I am really surprised at the continued decline.  The easy answer is that The Citadel hasn’t had a good football program for a decade-plus, but there is more to it than that (although that’s a significant factor).

If The Citadel can’t stop the attendance downturn, that will undoubtedly have an impact on future scheduling.  In the upcoming years where The Citadel can schedule 12 games, perhaps the Bulldogs will wind up playing two FBS schools and not play an extra home game.  It may be that five home games will become the norm, regardless of whether the team plays 11 or 12 regular-season games.

On Saturday I had the opportunity to survey the club section for the first time during a game.  I have to say that, in general, the club setup is not meant for someone like me. During the game I am prone to glaring intently at the field, occasionally muttering to myself, and getting up and walking around if there is space available to do so.  The club section is a bit more relaxed, and that’s okay.

It’s a very nice setup.  It’s the kind of thing The Citadel is usually very good at managing, and so I wasn’t surprised at how neat it was.  It had TVs (watching Clemson commit six turnovers against Miami was sort of entertaining in itself), a bar (of course — this is The Citadel!), a buffet, seating…the works.  If you ever have a chance to go up there for a game, I would encourage you to do so.

I learned one thing on Saturday while in the club section:  sweet tea is a godsend during a college football game.  How did I not know this?

I do wonder if space in the club section might become more of an issue if game attendance (and presumably club seating attendance) was better.  Unfortunately, that’s a potential problem Larry Leckonby and Jerry Baker have yet to encounter.

I’ll close this by including some pictures I took during the game, mostly of the offense.  Some of these are of the same play (as it is developing).  If you’re wondering why I don’t have an entire play photographed, it’s because I’m a terrible photographer with a cheap camera.  The first three pictures of the offense are of the beginning of Terrell Dallas’ touchdown run.

The first photo, though, is a shot of the corps of cadets.  I took this picture because I want interested observers who don’t get to go to the games to see just how many cadets are actually in the stands during a game.  This is an issue I would really like to see addressed by the administration.  It was even more noticeable during last year’s Homecoming game.

A quick look at The Citadel’s future football schedules

One of the many curious things about college football is that fans often are just as interested (if not more interested) in what will happen in the future than what is happening right now.  I’m talking mostly about recruiting and scheduling, of course.

With this post, I’m going to wildly speculate on potential scheduling options for The Citadel.  This is something Jeff Hartsell briefly mentioned Tuesday.  The Citadel will play eight Southern Conference games each season.  In 2011 and 2012, that means the Bulldogs will play three non-conference games (11-game regular season).  In 2013 and 2014, the calendar will allow for a 12-game regular season for FCS schools, meaning The Citadel can play four non-conference games.

Each year one of The Citadel’s non-conference games has to be a road “guarantee” game against a BCS opponent, for budgetary reasons.  Also returning to the Bulldogs’ schedule in 2011 is VMI.  The battle for the coveted Silver Shako will resume at Johnson Hagood Stadium, with the teams alternating home-and-home for six years. It is my understanding that those years are consecutive, although I haven’t been able to confirm that yet.

Another non-conference game each season will take place against a non-conference opponent that won’t demand a return trip — in other words, teams like Chowan and Webber International (or more preferably, Presbyterian and Newberry).  I’ll call this game the Designated Home Opener, or DHO.

The 2011 non-conference schedule will feature VMI (home), South Carolina (away), and a DHO to be determined (home).

The 2012 non-conference schedule will feature VMI (away), North Carolina State (away), and a DHO to be determined (home).  In that season, the Bulldogs will only play five games at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

Starting in 2013, things get a little interesting.  Again, assuming the VMI series is for six consecutive years (assumptions always being dangerous), The Citadel’s non-league slate would feature VMI (home), Clemson (away), a DHO (home), and another team to be determined.

The 2014 season would include a road game against VMI, a DHO, and two games to be determined (with one of them definitely having to be a guarantee game).

That leaves Larry Leckonby with important decisions to make about scheduling in 2013 and 2014.  Do you add a second BCS guarantee game in those seasons?  Or do you add a second DHO-type team?

There is another possibility, one that would be very popular with alumni, and that is to schedule a game against Army or Navy (or Air Force, I suppose, although I don’t think there is nearly as much interest in that potential matchup).

A quick scan at future schedules for Army and Navy shows that there is a spot possibly available for an FCS opponent in 2013 for Army and 2014 for Navy (in 2014, Army has scheduled Fordham, which would have been a tough ticket seven decades ago; Navy is playing Delaware in 2013).  Of course, there is a chance that none of the academies would be interested in playing The Citadel anyway.

Scheduling a service academy or a second BCS school would be more problematic in 2014, as the VMI game would be played on the road that year.  I don’t know that Leckonby wants to put the team in position to play only five home games and seven road contests, with two of those being against FBS opponents (and that’s assuming he can find two FBS opponents).

One of the things that will be a factor is attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium.  If The Citadel continues to have disappointing numbers at the gate, Leckonby may be more likely to eschew a possible sixth (or seventh) home game to grab a more lucrative road guarantee.

Another possibility would be a series like the one The Citadel had with Princeton, a two-game home-and-home (in 2013-2014) against an FCS school from outside the SoCon.   That seems a less likely option to me, but you never know.

We’ll see what happens.  All of the above is mostly uninformed guesswork by yours truly, of course, and should be taken with a grain of salt, assuming that it even deserves the grain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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