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Spring Season Wrapup: Georgetown

Spring football ended last month, but there's plenty of buzz to report around a host of Patriot League football programs.

I've covered the goings-on at Lehigh, Lafayette, Colgate and Holy Cross, and I made a special section about the exciting new developments at Bucknell. But as much or more is in the wind at Georgetown - with, potentially, an event in the near future that could fundamentally change the type of athletics program Georgetown currently runs.

When most members of the Patriot League hear about rumors like the Big Ten's interest in expansion, most probably shrug - after all, the Big Ten or Big East are hardly going to be going approaching Bucknell, Colgate or Holy Cross for potential membership. Georgetown fans, however, are very much paying attention. Their athletic department may be fighting to keep the Big East together for all their other sports - or at least battling for security no matter what happens. That battle affects all of Georgetown athletics - and football, too. (more)


In a January interview with Georgetown president John DeGioia, the reporter from the student paper the Georgetown Voice asked a very good straightforward question about the Hoya football program.  "This year was probably one of the most frustrating seasons in the history of the football program.  There’s been some talk about the future of the football program. And does the university still plan on fielding a team in the future five, ten years down the line?"

To passionate observers of the football program, it was a great question and a fair one - and one that seemed to take president DeGioia off guard.  Since Georgetown joined the Patriot League in 2001, they have not enjoyed a single winning record.  The Hoyas have won a grand total of five Patriot League games, and the only conference team they have beaten multiple times is Bucknell.  Last year's 0-11 season was a particularly rough one to endure - for the second straight season, the Hoyas failed to score more than 27 points in a single game.

President DeGioia's answer, however, provides a key insight into the school's philosophy on not only the football program, but also the entire athletics program in general:

That we now have the programs that we do is a reflection of commitments over generations—and beginning when I was a student in the 1970s, the impact of Title IX has enabled us to essentially double what we do. We really believe as a university community in the significance for our students, because we have 700 of our undergraduates at any given time engaged in intercollegiate athletics. We really believe in the importance of that kind of experience for those who have an interest in continuing that here—and football has been one of those experiences that we’ve now offered for more than two generations consistently.

It was a disappointing season, but we’ve been at this awhile. We have a sense of what it takes to become more competitive. And you know, we don’t have quite the resource base of our peers, but we’re in a very good league for Georgetown to be in. We like the schools we play with, we like the schools that are in our conference, we like the fact that we’re able to bring Ivy League schools into our schedule and I think we’re just going to stay at it, work hard at it and it try to ensure that we’re in a place we can be more competitive and be able to provide that better of an experience for all of our team.

He didn't say it explicitly, but looming over the answer was the Hoya's membership in the Big East in all other sports.  DeGioia's "commitment over generations" comment does also apply to football - Georgetown has indeed offered modern football in some form since 1964 - but it also applies, significantly, to the Big East as well.  The Hoyas made a commitment - a huge one - to the foundation of the Big East.

Georgetown wasn't only "lucky" to be in the Big East since its inception - they were crucial members of its formation in 1979.  The nucleus of the infant league was Georgetown, St. John's, Providence and Syracuse, and their goal was to start a conference based primarily on Eastern basketball rivalries.  Three of the institutions were religious in nature, and soon thereafter religious institutions Villanova, Seton Hall and Boston College signed up, among others.  (Current Patriot League member Holy Cross was invited as well into the Big East at this time - but declined.  In addition, Penn State made overtures to be included in the Big East - but were rebuffed.  Had either of these two decisions been different, we'd be facing a very, very different future in college athletics today.)



It's easy to look back now and see how the Big East was such a success for the Hoyas - raising Georgetown's athletic profile, and with the money that flowed in through TV deals, the NCAA championship in basketball, and payouts from the NCAA in regards to tournament victories - but at the time it happened, the fledgling league's success was not at all assured.   Only after the NCAA tournament proved to be a consistent ratings hit - which coincided with Georgetown's legendary teams in the early 1980s, coached by John Thompson and featuring players like C Patrick Ewing - did the Big East really take off.

One of the secrets to the Big East's success was TV, and their deal with ESPN to show their basketball games.  "Back when the Big East was formed, nobody was on [national] TV - it was hard to get on TV," said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. "One of the first things we ever did, we went to ESPN and struck up a little deal. We basically grew up together."

*****

Fast forward to 2010, and we see the Big East in the middle of a $250 million dollar contract which includes basketball and football (which includes their football contract and basketball contract with CBS and ESPN).   Sounds like big bucks - until you consider that it's a pot that needs to be split sixteen ways, with nine schools having the additional expenses of football (South Florida, Syracuse, Rutgers, UConn, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Pitt), two schools that compete at the FCS level (Georgetown and Villanova), and five schools that don't offer Division I football (St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette and DePaul).

The rumors have been that the football-playing schools are unhappy to be tethered to schools that don't have the same commitment to football, while institutionally some of the folks at places like Georgetown wonder what they have in common academically with the Universities of Cincinnati or South Florida, two schools that offer solid athletic programs but little else.  Academically, Georgetown has a lot more in common with Cornell than Cincinnati.

But even since its inception, the Big East has seemed a ragtag bunch of disparate institutions.  While the founding institutions were mostly private, religious institutions, UConn and Syracuse were most definitely not.  When the Big East started sponsoring BCS-level football, they added Miami, Temple, West Virginia, Virignia Tech and Rutgers - all secular, public institutions that were very different from Georgetown.  Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College would eventually bolt to the ACC, to be replaced by Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, DePaul and Marquette, meaning the Big East was now present west of the Mississippi river and contained a strange mix of public and private institutions sprawled across two time zones.


Unsurprisingly, a conference with 16 teams will always have a lot of headaches that are not simply solved by more revenue.  Is it fair that Syracuse sponsors 20 sports, including football, yet fellow member St. John's only sponsors the NCAA minimum?  Syracuse should probably get more money from their TV deals, but how much?  Is it worth it for Seton Hall to sponsor a Big East golf team and then have to fly them to Milwaukee to compete with Marquette in league competition?  And in basketball, who gets to play DePaul twice, and play Syracuse once?


Furthermore, the Big East's "triple play" TV deal for broadcasters is a lot less attractive nowadays when conferences can now pit broadcasters in bidding wars against each other.  The Big Ten - so far - has done this expertly, successfully creating competition between Fox (The Big Ten Network) and ESPN for games.  (It may not be sustainable, however.)


For most Patriot League teams, the activities of the SEC and Big Ten are mere academic exercises that don't really affect them much, if at all.  For the Hoyas, discussions of the Big Ten poaching Big East schools is very much germane to the shape of their athletic program.  It affects all of their other sports and their overall athletic profile in the NCAA.  When Big Ten expansion scenarios involve historic basketball rival Syracuse leaving the Big East, it's not just about losing revenue: it's about losing a "generational" partner in the formation of their existing league and a rival that is part of the core identity of the school.  Georgetown has been part of the glue that has kept the Big East together despite repeated reports that it is on the brink of extinction.

Georgetown has other "rivalries" - you can argue that St. John's, or Villanova, are also big Hoya rivals, and are more similar institutionally - but Georgetown's rivalry is special with Syracuse fundamentally because they are different.  Georgetown is always "little" Georgetown against "big" Syracuse.  The Hoyas are the "little" Jesuit school against the "huge" private research school in upstate New York.  It's John Thompson vs. Jim Boeheim.  And it's a rivalry that will not be easily relinquished by the Hoyas.

Fittingly, Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner and former Hoya basketball player- was recently enlisted by the Big East to "consult" with the conference in the current swirling rumors of the Big East's demise.  

The Big East has been counted out before.  They will survive, I bet, probably as tightly coupled football and non-football divisions - or two separate conferences - with two autobids to the NCAA basketball tournament.  As two divisions or two conferences, they will continue to be close and schedule each other often. But what is clear is that Georgetown will fight for its games with Syracuse and UConn, and its generations of basketball programs that have poured value into the Hoya athletic program.  Any Big East split will have to involve something in place to ensure those rivalries don't just go away.

*****

Going into this year, the Hoyas were on the back foot when it came to its clout in preserving the Big East from talks of being raided from other quarters.  That's because Bernard Muir, the former athletic director, left in the summer of 2009 for Delaware, and by early 2010 the position still had not been filled permanently.  The interim acting athletic director was Dan Porterfield, but it was clear that a nationwide search was underway for Muir's successor.

Finally, on April 15th, Georgetown announced their new athletic director, Lee Reed.  Coming out of Cleveland State, at first glance it doesn't seem like his experience as an athletic director at a public, state school would have as much in common with being an athletic director at a highly selective, private Big East school.

Certainly knowledge about basketball success might come in handy - in 2009, his Vikings upset Butler in the finals of the Horizon League tournament to give Cleveland State their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1986.  In addition, he knows something about having an urban campus and the vital need for on-campus practice facilities.

"Asked about an on-campus practice facility, which he called 'critical,' Reed promised to work towards improving facilities for student-athletes and coaches,"  the Georgetown Voice reported.  "And Reed said he was excited to meet with Georgetown’s football staff, offering hope that the new athletic director, who worked with a Division I-A program at Eastern Michigan, may be able to revitalize the moribund program."


Reed's first order of business will most certainly not be football.  It will be to - in a short period of time, mind - to organize the Georgetown program so that its on-campus training facilities are on par with the rest of the Big East (in one of the dearest real estate markets in the country), to raise money to endow more scholarships (in  basketball, not every scholarship is endowed, which puts them behind other Big East schools), and to do this while - as superfan DFW Hoya says - to ensure that their teams "maintain superb grades, have no trouble off-campus, and compete for NCAA championships."

And - oh by the way - he needs to be keeping current on the latest expansion rumors, where he could conceivably learn that the Big East as we know it today may not be around.

*****

One thing is clear, though: Reed is no football-hater.

At Eastern Michigan, he helped the Eagles grow their football program.  He also helped pave the way for Cleveland State to consider sponsoring non-scholarship FCS football by commissioning a feasibility study and student referendum.  (68.7% of students said they wanted a football team, and a slim majority said they would be willing to spend more per credit hour to support the program.)

And despite grumblings from Hoya football faithful - and they are passionate - head coach Kevin Kelly continues to move forward to build the Hoya program.  And when Reed met with Georgetown's football staff, he found a few brand-new members in place to rebuild.

In April, Kelly announced that David Patenaude would return to the Hoyas as offensive coordinator in an effort to kick-start an offense that had barely scored 200 points in two seasons.  Patenaude has a lot of experience, as he originally came from Fordham and Holy Cross (with a head coaching gig at Division II New Haven and a variety of coordinator positions in between) and became available when his former employer, Hofstra, suddenly discontinued football this past December.  "He's someone who can take control of the offense and run with it," Kelly said.  "He's a high-energy guy that will be a good motivator for the players."  High-energy and new ideas seem to be a theme with Patenaude's hiring, as well as Matt Dence, now the Hoyas receiver coach after his stint as offensive coordinator at D-III Bates.

Patenaude is bringing with him a brand-new offense, which has the kids feeling some "excitement", according to coach Kelly.  "I think it's a feeling of starting over."

A theme with many of the teams around the Patriot League is one of quarterback battles, and Georgetown is no exception.  Sophomore QB Isaiah Kempf is the "incumbent" and coach Kelly mentioned at least two quarterbacks which were "neck-in-neck" with him - presumably junior QB Tucker Stafford or senior QB James Darby.  Georgetown has some quality skill players in senior WR Keerome Lawrence, migrating from slot back to more of a slot receiver type, junior WR Patrick Ryan, named most improved offensive player from the spring, and senior RB Charlie Houghton, who (when healthy) has shown to be a potential quality back.  The key to their season will be how their "O" line comes together, and for the second straight year their offensive captain will be a lineman, senior OL Dan Semler.

On defense, "last year we were a 4-2-5", coach Kelly told Hoyas Insider.  "We've changed that because of our personnel.  The core of our team is our linebackers, so we're going to a 3-4 scheme."  Senior LB Nick Parrish will not only be the talent which the Hoya defense is built around, he'll be wearing the prestigious No. 35 jersey, "which is given annually to the most exemplary member of the team in honor of a former player killed on Sept. 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks", the Georgetown news release said.  In addition to Parrish, Kelly is bullish on the depth he has a linebacker, notably senior LB Patrick O'Donnell, sophomore LB Pat McCabe and senior LB Patrick Sant'Ambrogio.

*****

For Hoya football this spring, it appears to be a time of fresh starts, with a new athletic director, new coaches, and (again, I hear Hoya fans groaning) a "back to the drawing board" in terms of the football program.  There seems to be an energy to get football's ship turned around - which can only be a good thing for the Patriot League.

The billion dollar question, however, involves Georgetown's other sports and the Big East.  Depending on which rumor you believe, the Hoyas could navigate through the rocky waters this summer with a wobbly but secure Big East with a brand-new scheduling arrangement and TV contract - or they could see their biggest rival jump to the Big Ten, and face the possible dismantling of the sports conference they helped create.  Nothing is certain; there are many rumors and few facts.  But the rumors can't be sitting well with anybody who's a Hoya.

Will Big East rumors be a distraction?  Georgetown football can ill afford it if they hope to improve.

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