2011 Football Game 11: The Citadel vs. South Carolina

The Citadel at South Carolina, to be played at Williams-Brice Stadium, with kickoff at 12:00 pm ET on Saturday, November 19.  The contest will be televised by South Carolina as a pay-per-view event. It is also available via the ESPN3.com platform and ESPN GamePlan. The game can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network, with current “Voice of the Bulldogs” Danny Reed calling the action alongside analyst Walt Nadzak

I suspect that most of the previews for this week’s game between The Citadel and South Carolina will focus on the last time the two schools squared off at Williams-Brice Stadium. That was in 1990, and the Bulldogs famously stunned the Gamecocks, 38-35, with Jack Douglas scoring the winning touchdown in the final minute of play.

That game will be discussed in considerable detail by a number of different outlets. I’ve decided that writing about it on this blog, at least this week, is probably unnecessary. Instead of writing about that contest as part of this preview, I’m going to take a look at another game from the past, one that has been lost in the shuffle in recent years. I’m talking about an even bigger upset than the 1990 game.

November 11, 1950. Johnson Hagood Stadium. The Citadel 19, South Carolina 7.

On November 4, 1950, The  Citadel lost to Virginia at Johnson Hagood Stadium, 34-14, dropping the Bulldogs’ overall record to 3-5. The Citadel was 1-2 up to that point in SoCon play, having defeated Davidson while losing to Furman and eventual league champ Washington & Lee.

The game against UVA was, to say the least, not an impressive performance. Sportswriter Doc Baker of The News and Courier (who will be quoted extensively in this blog post) wrote that while the Cavaliers had a “strong running attack,” the Bulldogs’ own offense featured “spotty blocking”:

At…times it looked almost ridiculous as Bulldog linemen and backs got in the way of their own ball carriers.

Baker also noted that a “slim crowd” of “only 5000 (official)” had watched the game, which was “the smallest turnout to witness a collegiate football game [here] in many years, according to authorities at The Citadel.”

On the bright side, Baker did highlight the excellent play of two members of the team, linemen Jerry DeLuca and Sam Rubino, with the latter having played “almost 60” minutes of the game. Both would feature prominently against South Carolina.

The big sports news that day was the death of baseball legend Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had died of a heart attack. On the gridiron, Clemson had maintained its undefeated record with a big win over Duquesne. South Carolina had played Marquette to a 13-13 tie, the same final score of the Wofford-Furman game.

There was also a feature in the newspaper that day about The Citadel’s swim team, which was about to begin its season: “Citadel tank team loaded”.

The national news concerned General Douglas MacArthur and the situation in Korea.

The major sports story on that Tuesday was the hiring of Branch Rickey by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Alas for the Bucs, the Mahatma’s executive skills would prove to have eroded.

As the week progressed, reporting in the sports section detailed the preparation both South Carolina and The Citadel were making for the upcoming game.

While Wednesday’s papers brought news of Republican gains in the U.S. House and Senate (off-year elections were held the day before), there was also a report that coach Quinn Decker was considering some changes for the Bulldogs, specifically going to an all-sophomore backfield.

Decker, a former fullback at Tennessee, had not been able to field an all-soph backfield unit to that point in the season due to injury, but it was easy to see why he might want to plug in those players against South Carolina. The year before, the same group had played on The Citadel’s freshman team, and the Bullpups had surprised South Carolina’s frosh squad (the “Biddies”), 26-20. Players on that squad included Buddy Friedlin, Rudy Wilcox, Paul Drews, and Johnny Mamajeck. All would eventually play key roles against the Gamecocks on Saturday.

Another reason for trying out some new players would be that The Citadel was limited in personnel. While South Carolina fielded a true “two-platoon” team, the Bulldogs had several players who played both offense and defense, including four of its linemen. It made moving the ball on offense that much tougher, particularly against the Gamecocks defensive front, which was nicknamed “The Seven Sleepers”.

However, the real concern was on the defensive side of the ball, as The Citadel had to figure out a way to stop South Carolina’s great running back, Steve Wadiak. So good that he had two nicknames, “Steamboat Steve” and “Th’ Cadillac”, Wadiak (who was from Chicago) was one of the nation’s best players. To that point in the 1950 season, Wadiak had rushed for 814 yards, averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

(Highlights of Wadiak in action against Marquette can be seen here: Link)

Wadiak wasn’t the only threat out of the Gamecocks’ backfield, as Mullins native Bishop Strickland averaged 5.3 yards per rush. What South Carolina lacked was an effective passing game, so head coach Rex Enright (who had played for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame) spent most of the week working on passing plays.

That was seen as a good move in the press, as playing The Citadel was not expected to pose a challenge. The Gamecocks had beaten The Citadel 42-0 in 1949, and a similar outcome was expected in 1950. On Thursday of that week, Doc Baker wrote:

…at the risk of being called all sorts of things we will be “bold” enough to suggest there is not doubt as to the outcome of the game here Saturday…as much as we’d like to think about The Citadel staging a terrific upset we can’t help but feel the Gamecocks will win by just about any score they want.

Baker wasn’t exactly helping advanced ticket sales with those comments, although the newspaper did report that tickets could be purchased at several locations downtown, including Wehman’s Supply on King Street and the Ashley Flower Shop.

Baker wasn’t the only person not giving The Citadel much of a chance, as various sources had the Gamecocks as being 33-point favorites.

Enright was more cautious in his outlook. He told his squad, “I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t be able to beat The Citadel, but I am warning you that they have eleven hard tacklers on their team and they can make it a long afternoon for you if you’re not careful.” He also noted that the Bulldogs had played well in losses to Florida and Miami (FL). The Gators, in particular, had struggled with The Citadel, only winning 7-3 thanks to a punt return touchdown.

The Gamecocks were 3-1-2 at that point of the season, rebounding after an opening-game loss to powerful Duke by beating Georgia Tech in Atlanta and tying Clemson, 14-14. In the game against the Tigers, Steve Wadiak had rushed for 256 yards, still one of the all-time greatest individual performances in that series.

With the contest against Clemson ending in a tie, South Carolina was poised to win the “Big 4” state title in 1950, having beaten Furman earlier in the year (21-6). By defeating The Citadel, the Gamecocks would finish 2-0-1 among the “Big 4” and edge out the Tigers, thanks to Clemson not playing the Bulldogs.

(At the time the “Big 4” was a big deal, at least in the press. There were at least three different state newspapers that carried separate standings for the Big 4, and also standings for the “Little 4” — Wofford, Presbyterian, Newberry, and Erskine.)

On Friday, the Gamecocks arrived in Charleston, with the team staying at the Francis Marion Hotel. Things were mostly quiet. The News and Courier reported that there would be nine “sponsors” for The Citadel at the game. These were girlfriends of the regimental staff or the senior football players. The afternoon edition of the paper had pictures of five of them. It was a mild surprise that all nine weren’t featured, as newspapers of that time tended to insert photographs of young women into their pages at every opportunity.

The game against South Carolina was also designated as Parents Day, which may be the latest The Citadel has ever scheduled a Parents Day game. I am not aware of any other such contest played in November, except for the 1985 game (which was played on November 2).

Also of interest that day was news from Oslo, Norway, as the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced for both 1949 and 1950. The 1950 winner was Bertrand Russell. The 1949 prize had been delayed a year, apparently because the selection committee could not decide between Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce and English statesman/historian Winston Churchill. Eventually a compromise candidate was named, a year late — William Faulkner.

By gametime on Saturday, a crowd of around 11,000 had gathered at Johnson Hagood Stadium. The weather was excellent for football, with slightly overcast skies. Jack Huddle, The Citadel’s captain, greeted South Carolina co-captains Ed Pasky and Bobby Rogers at midfield for the coin toss. The Gamecocks won the toss and elected to receive.

As the two teams took the field, observers in the stands could see the disparity in size among the players. For example, The Citadel’s linemen all weighed less than 200 lbs., while no Gamecock lineman weighed less than 205 lbs.

The kickoff was returned by South Carolina to its own 44-yard line. The Gamecocks wasted the good field position, however, going three-and-out. The Bulldogs took over after a mediocre punt on their own 33, but went nowhere in two plays. On third down, The Citadel elected to “quick kick”, and Paul Chapman boomed a 62-yard punt that rolled dead at the Gamecocks’ 10-yard line.

South Carolina picked up a first down, but then lost yardage, and on third down from its own 25 decided to try a “quick kick” of its own. It would prove to be a costly decision, as an alert Sam Rubino burst through the line and blocked Tommy Woodlee’s punt. Rubino scooped up the ball himself and raced into the end zone for a touchdown. The PAT was missed, but the Bulldogs had a shock 6-0 lead with 10:20 to play in the first quarter.

Undeterred, the Gamecocks took the ensuing kickoff and proceeded to drive from their own 35 to the Bulldogs’ 12-yard line. On fourth and two from that spot, South Carolina picked up a first down — but was called for clipping. The Gamecocks went for it again, eschewing a field goal try, and didn’t make it.

The Bulldogs did nothing offensively (a theme throughout the first half) and punted. Again, South Carolina drove down the field, and again got nothing for its effort, this time losing a fumble on the Bulldogs 24.

The Citadel thus had the ball as the second quarter began. Another fine Chapman punt put the Gamecocks back deep in their own territory. The Bulldogs’ defense held, and for the second time South Carolina would be victimized by a blocked punt — and again the culprit was Rubino.

This time, Paul Drews would pick up the loose pigskin and score for the Bulldogs. The PAT was blocked, but The Citadel led, 12-0, with 11:35 remaining in the first half.

Stunned, South Carolina could do nothing with its next offensive possession. The Citadel would respond with its only sustained drive of the half (albeit on a relatively short field). The drive ended with a missed field goal.

(So, to sum up: in the first half, The Citadel blocked two punts, had one of its own PATs blocked, and missed another PAT and a field goal. Taking the 2011 season into account, I guess it’s fair to say that some things really don’t change.)

After the missed field goal by the Bulldogs, South Carolina drove to The Citadel’s 27-yard line, but got no further before the half ended. The Citadel finished the half with -14 yards of total offense, but led 12-0 thanks to the two return TDs.

There were two halftime performances to entertain the crowd. First, the South Carolina marching band played. At one point in its routine, the band moved into a formation so as to resemble the Confederate Battle Flag. I don’t know what is less likely to ever happen again — the Gamecocks band doing that, or South Carolina playing The Citadel in football at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

The other halftime show, however, has endured largely unchanged. The Summerall Guards performed in typically faultless fashion. It’s interesting to note that in 1950, General Charles Summerall was still the president of The Citadel.

The Citadel got the ball first to open the third quarter. The Bulldogs picked up one first down and then punted. South Carolina’s first possession of the half also ended with a punt, but Woodlee’s punt was downed on The Citadel’s five-yard line. The Bulldogs went three and out, and the subsequent punt went out of bounds at The Citadel’s 30-yard line. From there the Gamecocks would drive for their first (and only) score, with quarterback Pasky running for a two-yard TD. The PAT was good, and with 3:25 remaining in the period, South Carolina had cut the lead to 12-7.

The Citadel would move the ball a little on its next possession, but ultimately had to punt again, and so as the fourth quarter began South Carolina was in its own territory, trying to drive for the winning touchdown. However, the Gamecocks were victimized by a 15-yard sack, the first of three huge sacks in the quarter. After a punt, The Citadel took over on its own 41.

Bulldogs quarterback Buddy Friedlin (a native of Jacksonville, Florida) received a lot of praise after the game, and much of that came as a result of his play on this drive. First, he connected with Charles Fabian on a big 31-yard pass to get the Bulldogs near the red zone. Three more plays netted The Citadel nine yards. On a key fourth-and-one, Rudy Wilcox picked up two yards and a first down.

The next two plays did little, but on third down Friedlin scrambled nine yards for a first-and-goal on the Gamecocks 5-yard line. On first down the Bulldogs lost four yards.

On second-and-goal from the nine, though, The Citadel pulled the old “sleeper play” on South Carolina. In a maneuver that would be illegal today, Wilcox basically hid near the sideline while remaining on the field of play. The Gamecocks didn’t account for him, so Friedlin took the snap and whipped a pass to the wide-open Wilcox. The Florence resident scampered into the end zone for a TD. This time, the PAT was successful, and the score was 19-7.

Nine minutes were still left in the game, so a comeback was still possible for the Gamecocks, but those hopes were largely dashed when Hootie Johnson (yes, Martha Burk’s Hootie) fumbled the kickoff. The Bulldogs recovered. The resulting possession lost yardage, but The Citadel did manage to drain three more minutes off the clock.

Forced to abandon the running game, the Gamecocks got as far as midfield, but were derailed by a 10-yard sack by Jerry DeLuca (his second sack of the quarter). Later in the possession the Gamecocks would lose 18 more yards on another sack. The Citadel got the ball back, ran some more clock, and then punted it back to the Gamecocks with just 25 seconds left. South Carolina ran two more plays and the game ended.

Steve Wadiak did not have a bad day, rushing for 96 yards on 17 carries, but he was unable to break off a big gainer, something the Gamecocks sorely needed that afternoon.

The Citadel had won convincingly despite picking up just eight first downs. Friedlin was 3-7 passing for only 44 yards, but with no interceptions and that big completion to Fabian. Paul Chapman hurt the Gamecocks repeatedly with his fine punting. South Carolina was held to 130 yards rushing, low by its standards. The Gamecocks were also hurt by penalties, two lost fumbles, and those critical fourth-quarter sacks.

The headline of the Sunday edition of The News and Courier said it all: “Pandemonium breaks loose as Carolina is defeated by Citadel”. The A-1 story noted that it was the first win by The Citadel over South Carolina since 1926 (there had been a tie in 1928). According to the paper, Gamecock fans had planned a victory celebration at the local Hibernian hall after the game. Instead, the streets were filled with happy cadets. A group of them pushed an ancient jalopy, sans motor, up King Street, with a sign on top that read “Wadiak’s Cadillac”. Being dragged behind the vehicle on a rope was a headless gamecock.

Jake Penland, sports editor of The State, wrote that “the balloon of South Carolina players, pride, and overconfidence was punctured with a 19-7 bang by The Citadel.” He also stated that the game was “one of the most startling upsets in the history of this part of the nation.”

Penland wasn’t inclined to give the Bulldogs too much credit, though; in the days to come, he would blame the loss on the Gamecocks’ errant aerial attack. (Penland’s refusal to acknowledge that the Bulldogs had some good players of their own could be construed as starting a tradition among sports editors of The State.)

Doc Baker, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise for the local team, saying they had “made a liar” out of him, but that he was “the happiest liar.” Said Baker of the win: “It’s The Citadel’s greatest victory of all time.”

A chastened South Carolina squad would drop its two remaining contests of the season, losing to North Carolina and Wake Forest by identical 14-7 scores. Steve Wadiak would finish with 998 rushing yards and was named player of the year in the Southern Conference.

The loss to The Citadel by the Gamecocks handed the “Big 4” title to Clemson, part of a great season for the Tigers that culminated in an Orange Bowl victory over Miami. Clemson would finish the season 9-0-1, with the only blemish that tie to the Gamecocks.

The Citadel would lose its season finale to VMI, 13-7, to finish the year with a 4-6 record (2-3 SoCon). Quinn Decker would continue to coach the team through 1953, eventually returning to Knoxville to go into private business. The victory over South Carolina would easily be the highlight of his coaching career at The Citadel.

Jerry DeLuca would receive several post-season honors.

That was 61 years ago. What about the game on Saturday?

Perhaps it would be better if the game could be played at another location. The Citadel’s last three wins over South Carolina on the gridiron have taken place in Orangeburg (1926), Charleston (1950), and Columbia (1990). Maybe this game could be moved to Greenville…

I’m not going to say The Citadel absolutely can’t win the game, but it is unlikely. It is true that South Carolina is currently a bit challenged offensively, but it should be pointed out that the Gamecocks’ offensive line, even if not an elite SEC unit, would be a top unit in the SoCon. It will be a major challenge for the Bulldogs D to contain the Gamecocks, even without Marcus Lattimore. There is also no receiver in the league that compares to Alshon Jeffery.

Then there is the Gamecocks’ defense, which is outstanding, probably among the ten best units in the country. South Carolina has only struggled defensively when facing a team with multiple outstanding receivers and a quarterback who can get them the ball — i.e., Arkansas. That obviously does not describe The Citadel’s offense. It basically describes the exact opposite.

The only units on the field where The Citadel might have an advantage are the punt return and coverage squads.

South Carolina also won’t be outcoached. Steve Spurrier has been frustrated with his offense all season, but I have noticed in watching the Gamecocks play that he is willing to do what it takes to win a game, and if that means forgetting about passing for extended periods of time, he will do just that. Spurrier has largely been fair with his talent. That’s the sign of a good coach.

Ellis Johnson is one of the better defensive coordinators at the college level. He may not have been the greatest head coach in the world, but he excels in his current role.

That said, I expect the Bulldogs to be competitive this Saturday. This is not a “throwaway” game; it’s not a game to experiment or play a ton of freshmen, or anything like that. I trust the coaching staff understands that for alums and other supporters of The Citadel, a game against South Carolina is a little different than playing Arizona or Wisconsin or Florida.

It will be the final game of a season that has been instructive, if at times frustrating. It has had its moments, though.

It’s a rare home football game for me. I’ll be there, along with friends from as far away as Connecticut and Iowa. We want to see some snarlin’ Dogs on Saturday.

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.