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Spring Season Wrapup: Bucknell

In Part One of my "Patriot League Spring Wrapup" series, I talked about the excitement building at Lehigh, Lafayette, Colgate and Holy Cross for the upcoming fall 2010 football season.

That's not to downplay the interesting developments at the other fine Patriot League schools.  But the three schools I didn't mention last time deserve their own section because this offseason so far they've been doing a whole lot more than simply putting in the plays to help them win football games in 2010.

At Georgetown, a gaping hole in their athletics department was finally filled - and with that, brings the hope that they will soon see vast improvement in a whole host of areas of the football program. At Fordham, the decision to allow football scholarships - and some important new infrastructure - makes them, as always, someone to watch very closely. But it's the new developments at Bucknell - with the new, no-nonsense coach in Joe Susan (pictured) and the new president Dr. John C. Bravman - which might actually be the most interesting developments of all. We'll tackle them first.  (more)


Start with former "Dean Bravman", who, starting this summer, will be replacing current Bucknell president Brian C. Mitchell, who had served as the Bison president since 2004:

"John Bravman is a highly accomplished teacher, scholar, strategist, and passionate advocate for the liberal arts who is also a person of great character," said Board Chair Kenneth W. Freeman. "He has led many aspects of Stanford's renowned undergraduate programs and is very well prepared to guide Bucknell as it continues moving forward as one of America's finest liberal arts universities. We look forward to John's leadership, and welcome him to the University with the greatest enthusiasm."

For the last 11 years, Bravman, 52, has overseen Stanford's undergraduate program as Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and served as dean of Stanford's Freshman-Sophomore Residential College, which he founded in 1999.  A world-renowned scholar in the field of thin-film materials, he is the Bing Centennial Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and, since 2001, has been a professor of electrical engineering by courtesy of that department in recognition of his related achievements. He has won almost every Stanford teaching and advising award, including the Walter J. Gores Award, Stanford's highest teaching honor.

"It is a deep honor and privilege to be selected to lead such a great institution," said Dr. Bravman. "Those of us who are privileged to work at selective and relatively well-resourced institutions have the opportunity to educate some of the most talented youth of each generation and are obliged to embrace that mission with vigor and honor. I will do everything in my power to serve the best interests of this university and prove worthy of the trust that the Board of Trustees and the Bucknell community has placed in me."
It didn't seem at first as if he was ever going to leave Stanford, by his own admission:

Bravman said he initially turned down the offer from Bucknell, finding himself content at Stanford. He was persuaded, however, to attend dinner in San Francisco for 30 minutes with the chairman of Bucknell’s board.

“The rest, as they say, is history, but we really hit it off,” Bravman said. “I really found it a very compelling two-hour conversation instead of a 30-minute conversation, and I immediately resonated with him, and that opened my eyes and my willingness to explore a bit more.”

“And I start meeting people, and I find this is a school in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, and people were just tremendous,” he continued. “And the students, the staff, the faculty, they really believe in the school, the alumni, the parents…like Stanford, it’s a beloved institution by its people. And that spoke volumes to me. It wasn’t just a place to go to school.”
The choice of Bravman has not shown proven documentation of Bucknellians chest-bumping and first-bumping about the choice, but the reaction among folks in Lewisburg seems to a person that the choice of Bravman is a complete success.  From the students at Stanford ("There is a beautiful line from Shakespeare in which Hamlet expresses how unique his father was, saying he will never 'look upon his like again.' Stanford could say the same: it will not see two John Bravmans.") to a long, long list of official well-wishers on the webpage of his announcement, it's clear that he's a superb guy to lead Bucknell on a whole lot of levels.

He seems like a man dedicated fully to undergraduate education in a world where sometimes it seems like some presidents are attempting to operate their institutions as a gigantic mutual funds.  He knows academia backwards and forwards, and did a tremendous amount on the Stanford campus to improve student life there, too.  His work on the Freshman-Sophomore Residential college invariably comes up a few sentences after you read about him anywhere in a Stanford publication.  He is no flyover, guy, either.  He hosted weekly barbequeues, and so clearly touched the lives of a lot of undergraduates.

And for the folks who care about Patriot League football, the announcement of Bravman is even more encouraging: that pigskin, that appeared to suffer from benign neglect at worse from his predecessor, was something that Bravman rallied around and Stanford and even was used in his language in talking about his philosophy on the future:

This commitment to moving forward and seeking improvements, which he called “one of the hallmarks of Stanford University,” was one Bravman said he recognized in Bucknell.

“We can pat ourselves on the back occasionally, but we don’t do that very often,” he said. “We’re always talking about, how are we going to be better? How are we going to do more? We do it in physics, we do it in football, we do it everywhere in between. The same thing is true at Bucknell.

That's an interesting choice of words from the same board member who saw the football-loving Condoleezza Rice leave as Stanford provost to usher in a new academic administration that was - reportedly - unfriendly to athletics:

Robin Mamlet [Stanford dean of admissions from 2000 to 2005] was not a fan of major college athletics, sources said. The inconsistency of her decisions and poor communication between her office and the coaches caused problems for many Stanford teams. (Mamlet could not be reached for comment.)

Most people within the Stanford program believe that admissions standards for athletes, which were already high, were even tougher while Robin Mamlet was the admissions director from 2000-05.
Many Stanford folks who were unhappy with what they perceived as Mamlet's role in the decline of Cardinal athletics were happy to see a new admissions dean happen in 2005.  (One of the casualties of the decline of Cardinal football was none other than current Dartmouth head football coach Buddy Teevens, who was rehird by the Big Green after he was fired from the Cardinal.)  And the search for the appointment of his successor as dean of admissions - David Shaw, formerly of Yale and members of the Big Ten - was led by none other than the man who will be running Bucknell starting this summer:

As vice provost, [Bravman] led the search committees that chose Greg Boardman as vice provost for student affairs and Richard Shaw as dean of admission.
To the untrained eye, such a declaration could fly underneath the radar.  But for folks who have followed Stanford athletics for a long time, that mention probably put a really big smile on their faces:

Shaw said Mamlet’s approach was never discussed with the Stanford administration prior to his appointment, but from the outset, sources said, he took a more opened-minded view of athletics — not surprising given that he was once the dean of admissions at Michigan.

“He’s a straight-shooter,” Harbaugh said. “He says, ‘Bring me a guy with a certain (academic) profile.’ And then it’s up to us to take those parameters to the high school coaches and the kids and the parents and say, ‘Here’s what it will take.’

“When you can get the process started with sophomores and juniors, it’s easier. And if the kids know the bar they have to hit, they’ll get to it.”
To be fair, just like supreme court justices, you never know what a university president will do until he (or she) actually gets down to the business of making decisions that affect academic programs, admissions, and athletics.  And lest we get carried away, there's no reason to believe that Bucknell will now be pursuing big-time athletics in the same way that Stanford has.  (I don't think the Big 10 will be beating down their door to ask Bucknell for admittance any time soon, let's just say.)

But Bucknell's selection of Dr. Bravman has the potential to be a giant step forward for Patriot League athletics - while, importantly, still not taking the eye off the academic ball.  It's hard to envision him arguing against the merits of merit-based athletic aid for football, for example, or letting the Bison football program slide into obscurity.  In a very short time he had a key role to in the resurgence of Stanford's athletics programs - and did so while maintaining Stanford's excelsior academic requirements.

Best of all, though, he seems to have an intimate understanding of both the academic and athletic side of the institution.  He's living proof that you can root, root, root for the home team on the weekend and be serious about square roots during the week.  Loving academia and athletics are not mutually exclusive.

*****

That has to suit new Bison head coach Joe Susan just perfectly.

This offseason, former Bucknell head football coach Tim Landis announced that he would be moving back west to join the staff of San Jose State, leaving a sudden vacancy at head coach.  It was not surprising to see someone from Rutgers on the list of folks to replace Landis - head coach Greg Schiano is himself a Bison alumnus - and when Schiano's right-hand man was announced as the new head coach a month later, it seemed like Bucknell had "taken their time and found the right guy."

This spring, it didn't take long for Coach Susan to show himself as a no-nonsense, straight-up football coach.  In Bucknell's report of the first spring practices, it was very evident:

"They catch onto the pace," mentioned Susan about how the players were adjusting to the new coaching staff. "The pace is a fast pace. I don't know how the pace was prior to this, but we make the most use out of our time. Some of it is the program. It is the coaching staff. It is the managers. It will help us win games."

"I still think we are ahead defensively compared to our offense," said Susan. "I thought the passing game offensively really took a step today in terms of both definition of the routes, the quarterbacks making decisions and just the pace of everything was better today. That's refreshing." 
That would make sense, considering the Bison are abandoning the triple-option under Landis to run a more balanced offense, and the return of junior DT Josh Eden to the lineup as he returns from his Mormon mission means an already good defense could be even better next year.  The 20-0 win by the "Blue" team over the "Orange" reinforced that perception: sophomore QB C.J. Hopson and sophomore QB Burke Batten, who are battling for the starting QB position, combined for 21-for-44 passing with 1 TD and 4 interceptions.  But with a banged-up offensive line, and the absence of senior WR Shaun Pasternak, probably meant that the Bison team that will be seen in the fall will be pretty different than the group that was seen the weekend of the spring game.

Almost more than the actual game, though, it's that buy-in that seems to be the real story so far.  Not just by players, but fans as well.  It feel like there is a lot of very, very positive groundwork being laid for next year and into the future.  Not just with the appointment of a new president; not just the hiring of coach Susan, and not just the fact that Bucknell worked with Colgate to bag an 11th game with Dartmouth and fill out the Bison's 2010 schedule, which had a real chance to be filled by a sub-D-I school or to be a 10 game schedule, either.  It's a genuine feeling of optimism that something really good is going to be happening at Lewisburg.

When Bucknell hosts Dartmouth this fall, it could very well be that the new president will be sending what he knows about Big Green head coach Buddy Teevens' coaching style to his football coach, fresh off the staff at Rutgers.  A date which was for a long time a void in the schedule is now an intriguing must-see matchup - and a home game, too - for the new president of Bucknell.  It's not hard to see why Bucknell fans are optimistic.

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