Friday, July 28, 2006

Dog days

Is it football season yet?

Aside from the ruffle of fantasy magazines as a nation prepares for its drafts (mine's in mid-August...I'll probably get some sleeper picks up in the next couple of weeks), there's just not much noise being made in the sports world these days. There's that beautiful whiffing sound just before A-Rod heads back to the bench, and the steady refrigerator-esque drone of cliche emanating from SEC Media Days, and that's it.

But there's been a few things happening here and there of interest to this blog. Think of these as stocking stuffers ... I'll start unwrapping the serious presents when football season grows a touch closer.

-- To the surprise of no one who knows anything about anything, Duane Reboul resigned as Birmingham-Southern's head basketball coach after 17 years of ... I guess "excellence" would be the word here, but it's really been something even better than that. Even in the official BSC version, Reboul doesn't really try to hide ("with the many changes occurring here on the Hilltop...") that coaching basektball isn't the issue, it's coaching D3 basketball. Who can blame him? (It goes without saying his cross-town buddy doesn't.)

The news really deserves its own post, but between the babbling I've already done here and an aloha-means-goodbye piece on the situation I've done for (when it might be posted, I don't have a clue) I just don't feel like covering the misery of this situation anymore. Besides, I've discussed the mountain of respect I have for Coach Reboul before, and no matter how much I write it doesn't really get any more complicated than this: Of all the coaches for all the sports teams I've ever rooted, Duane Reboul is the one whose hand I would most like to shake and tell him, "Good job."

--As you've likely heard, Charles Barkley is once again making noise about trying to become governor of Alabama. And, naturally, we now have preening know-it-alls who have probably never set foot inside the state discussing how Barkley will get elected because, basically, Alabamians don't know no better.

Now, if you'd asked Bayless a year ago who Alabamians would vote for--the guy who famously sacrificed his career in defense of the Ten Commandments or the incumbent governor who tried to push through the most comprehensive tax increase in state history--I'm sure he'd have said the first guy. He wouldn't just have been wrong, he'd have been double-digit wrong. Same thing this time--it's possible-bordering-on-likely that Barkley's opponent in the 2010 Democratic primary would be Artur Davis. Davis is extremely well-spoken, well-respected both in Washington and especially back home in his Congressional District, and has already discussed running in 2010. He would flatten Barkley. Even if Davis doesn't run (there's talk he'd move to the Senate), Alabama voters aren't going to pony up to Barkley just because he 's funny and on TV and once upon a time he grabbed a lot of rebounds for Auburn. His name recognition would help, sure, but despite what condescending jerkwads like Bayless would have you believe, it takes more than just notoriety to beomce Governor in Alabama--just ask Roy Moore.

--As expected, nothing to see here.

--Because old habits die hard, I feel like I ought to link to ESPN's SoCon Summer Session, in which Kyle Whelliston relates the details of a meeting between Bobby "Runaway Bride Basketball Coach" Cremins and the Big South's Gregg "The New Bobby Cremins" Marshall. I'm telling you, irony rules the world with (ironically) an iron fist.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Auburn's summertime blues

I'd like to think I'm a man. And as a man, I can admit when I'm...well, not wrong exactly, but over-the-top. My last post was an overreaction. This issue isn't worth the level of, ahem, vitriol I expressed. But that does not mean that it's irrelevant and that Auburn fans can blithely get back to their Alley Broussard/Justin Vincent voodoo dolls.

Well, check that. If you're the kind of Auburn fan who adores Auburn football and could care less if the university became Auburn College of Cosmetology and Auto Body Repair, so long as the Tigers kept racking up Sugar Bowl appearances, then carry on. Football-wise, the news that Auburn's second-string corner has left the team is, quite frankly, a bigger deal than the Times investigation.

Because this is not an athletics issue. Sure, some of Auburn's football players got a leg up this way, but as this rather excellent blog post points out, many more non-athletes took advantage of Petee's academic generosity than non-athletes. Petee wasn't calculatedly trying to boost the GPA of the entire football team; he was just a congenial putz who decided he'd play Good Cop to the sociology professors' Bad Cops. The more I read the NYT article, the more and more its "Sinister Conspiracy to Give Braindead Football Players Free Grades Uncovered!" vibe strikes me as shoddy, sensationalistic, slanted journalism.

To boot, every time Gundlach opens his mouth--and this has been an awful lot of times by now--the less and less I can see him as an academic do-gooder out to preserve the integrity of his department, rather than an embittered blabbermouth delighted to be hogging the football team's spotlight for once. I don't mind his whistle-blowing--in fact, as someone who would like Auburn to take their academic responsibilities more seriously, I encourage it. But to blast Auburn's investigative committee (a committee headed, I might add, by Dr. Constance Relihan, a terrific instructor who was one of my very favorite professors at Auburn) before the committee has even concluded its investigation smacks of motives born out of selfishness and resentment rather than concern for the school's academic name. In short, he needs to shut up.

Because the more this story becomes about Gundlach's vendettas and the Times' journalistic biases, the less it becomes about the real issue: namely, that Auburn has once again failed in holding itself up to even basic academic standards. Say whatever you want about Gundlach, but his essential complaint is a valid one. Petee has no business teaching high-level courses outside his field as direct-study classes, and even less business taking on hundreds of direct-study classes with students he never sees and handing out grades for work that doesn't get done. Sure, he was much, much more likely bending the rules out of a misguided need for student approval than to boost Auburn's standing with the NCAA--but either way, it's academically intolerable. It's the exact sort of thing that SACS is going to hate and that Aubun can't afford. Petee knew that and threw Auburn's academic standards in the trash anyway. I don't have an ounce of sympathy for him. More than any reporter, more than any rival colleague, the reason Auburn is a national joke right now is because Petee decided not to uphold Auburn's integrity and good name. That bit in my last post about him--and the toothless administration that allows this sort of thing to go on--hawking loogies all over my degree, dragging the good work of my professors, colleagues, and friends in AU's English Department through the mud? I stand by that 100 percent.

There's the argument, of course, that there are Petees on every college campus and that the only reason this happened to Auburn is Gundlach's yapping and the Times' agenda. But this calmly ignores the fact that if Petee just plays by the rules, Gundlach has nothing to yap about and there's nothing for the Times to report. The presence of this attitude amongst Auburn fans, the problems with it, and the right way of responding to Petee's transgressions were nicely summed up in an exchange in Stewart Mandel's "Mailbag" column this week. But Mandel's hoary "bridge" analogy isn't quite apt. It's more like driving on the Interstate well above the speed limit. Sure, lots of people do it. Sure, lots of people get away with it. But you're also well aware that it only takes one state trooper hiding under one underpass to make you pay for it. And Auburn--with the Times' well-known peculiar interest, history of probation, and run-ins with SACS--is driving the equivalent of a red Corvette. Petee and the administration had to drive the speed limit. They didn't, they got caught, and just as you can't blame the trooper who busts you going 90, so Auburn fans can't blame Gundlach and the Times for Petee's screw-ups.

So, in the end, Papergate won't lead to NCAA sanctions. It won't cost Auburn any player suspensions or wins in the record book. On the field, it's business as usual. On campus and in the halls of the Haley Center, though, the level of embarrassment just rose again, morale just dropped a little lower, and the ability of good professors to look their peers in the eye just got a little harder. It's long past time Auburn's administration and Board of Trustees put an end to these kinds of embarrassments for good, before SACS does it for us.

Friday, July 14, 2006

For the love of...

All right, you know what, I am sick to death of this kind of [fill in your favorite variety of animal excrement].

I'll have more to say about this in a couple of days, when I calm down and can write, say, 1,000 words without half of them being unfit for children. But for now, two things:

1) There are going to be a lot of Auburn fans (I wouldn't go so far as to say the majority, but a lot) who will read this article and see Gundlach, the whistle-blower, as the villain. There are a lot of Auburn fans (the same ones, natch) whose faces I would like to spit in. I have a Master's degree from Auburn. I know firsthand that there are hundreds of terrific faculty and staff members putting in massive hours and tons of patience for a peanuts paycheck--all to try and teach the students who want to learn something, to try to make an Auburn the sort of place people actually associate with a good college education, a place where good teachers and researchers would actually want to work.

And jackasses like this Petee, Lowder and the Board of Trustees, and the hapless administration instead take that effort, those accomplishements, and those faculty members' good names and drag them straight through the mud. They're hawking loogies all over MY degree and the degrees of my colleagues and friends. F*ck them. Kudos to Gundlach for taking a stand and saying his work and his name are worth something.

2) The next time I read a national article with a quote by "Auburn U. Interim president So-and-So" I'm going to hurl my fist through a wall. For how many years running now has Auburn been led by an "Interim" President? Five? Six? How can Auburn possibly be taken seriously as an institution of higher learning when its leadership can't even find anyone qualified who wants to be its President?

Monday, July 10, 2006


So, hard as it might be to believe there were things I didn't write in my last post (seeing as how it was the most longwinded piece of writing since Remembrances of Things Past), well, there were. Here they are:

--I should have perhaps made a disclaimer that my reaction is the reaction of one particular BSC alum, one who's been following these developments at a distance. I haven't been in Birmingham since early June, haven't been on campus since hoops season, haven't been a student since 2001. I wouldn't dare call my response the right one, the definitive one, or even the representative one: talk to anyone involved with athletics or even much of the student body, I'm guessing, and you'll hear a lot more anger than I expressed.

--That said, talk to the faculty and I'd imagine you'd hear much less. (They voted in support of the D3 move a few days ahead of the Board vote.) Not surprising, I know, but in my experience the faculty at BSC are much more supportive of athletics than their peers at larger institutions. It's worth noting.

--A handy chronicle of the Birmingham News's coverage of the move can be found here.

--Lastly, an announcement about the future of the JCCW. The blog will continue, starting this winter, to cover mid-major college basketball. It will no longer, however, be exclusively devoted to the Big South. There will always be a proverbial soft spot in my proverbial heart for the Flyin' Falwells and Fakecocks and Gregg Marshall's exquisite suits, but I think I can be excused for lacking the interest necessary to cover the league as I did last spring. Instead, I'm currently planning to provide daily (or near daily) analysis of overlooked mid-major results across the country. More Big South / SWAC / Sun Belt / Mid-Con than Missouri Valley, if you get my drift. Akin to the old "Daily Dribblings" on the Mid-Majority before Whelliston started playing with the big boys.

Until then, it's Auburn and SEC football and whatever else strikes my fancy--I feel a Hawks rant coming on in the next week or so. Please do keep, uh, tuning in.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

DI BSC, 2004-2006, R.I.P.

OK, it took me longer than the week I mentioned and this post--I'm warning you now--is insanely long. I had a lot to think about.

Since the JCCW is first and foremost a Big South basketball blog--for the time being, anyway--maybe its first real post in more than three months should deal with the conference’s biggest summer news: Gregg Marshall, who has lorded over the Big South with an El Presidente-esque iron fist lo these many years, agreeing to move on to other pastures before deciding they might not be greener after all, and staying put. Here’s to hoping he gave C-of-C the news by calling, saying “Hey, this is Gregg. PSYCH!” into the phone, and hanging up.

But, of course, Marshall’s bait-and-switch is far from being the biggest summer headline at the JCCW. That would be, in the unlikely event you’re here and haven’t heard, my alma mater Birmingham-Southern College deciding to drop from NCAA Division I to non-scholarship NCAA Division III.

Speaking as a BSC sports fan, this sucks. It blows. It bites. Whatever verb you can think of to indicate something being…how to put this…shockingly, unbelievably terrible, it applies. Consider the many levels on which this sucks:

1. Not surprisingly, following the announcement that BSC was no longer a DI program our DI-quality athletes fled in droves. The men’s basketball and baseball teams, the campus’s most popular and successful programs, will not compete in ’06-’07. The thought of the great Duane Reboul finishing his DI coaching career with March’s lackluster defeat to Charleston Southern, followed by a non-season spent in something that can only aspire to be limbo, makes me want to break things. Loudly.
2. Our NAIA national championship-winning baseball coach, Brian Shoop, and his staff are now at UAB. If Shoop was just a baseball coach, this would still be a damn big deal. But Coach Shoop had also been one of the campus’s most popular and prominent fixtures, having been closely involved with BSC’s campus Christian community for years. He’ll be badly, badly missed.
3. All the money, all the effort, the neverending years of wandering the athletic wilderness that went into going Division I…all it got us was two seasons of real DI in hoops and one or two more in other sports. And now begins several more years of wandering, which from here sounds about as appealing as full-body electrolysis. Our AD, Joe Dean, put it pretty simply in one B’ham News story: "The sad thing is, after next year, we'll have two or three more years of not playing for anything. That's not fun. We went through that going up to Division I."
4. There are who knows how many BSC seniors who would have spent next spring painting their bodies black-and-gold for hoops games, and screaming various obscenities at the refs, and chanting Dwayne Paul’s name, and generally re-creating that same best-ever atmosphere for Panther basketball games we saw last year. Instead, they’ll spend their last year on campus not doing any of that. What a blast they’ll have.

With all of that said, there are many levels on which, say, highway construction sucks as well. And I think we can agree that sometimes the DOT doesn’t have any choice but to follow through with highway construction. That’s essentially the first of many questions I, and I’m sure many BSC alums and fans have:

Was this really necessary? Did the Board of Trustees have any other choice?

The consensus amongst the very small sampling of BSC alums I’ve spoken to: No, probably not. The college has spent bajillions on campus construction projects over the last several years, the economy hasn’t always been great shakes, and admissions (while increasing) haven’t exactly gone through the roof. I still remember my first reaction to the announcement that we were going DI: “Really? How are we going to pay for it?”

Well, according to BSC President David Pollick and the Board of Trustees, we couldn’t. In the end, it’s not so surprising: 116 athletic scholarships to BSC (the most expensive school in Alabama) plus facilities upgrades plus plenty of extra staff don’t come cheap. Even the most fervent of BSC supporters can admit that. Apparently, they didn’t even come as cheap as we were hoping—Pollick and the Board both cited expenditures above estimated costs for the DI move.

But one problem I’ve had with the announcement is that there’s been very few hard figures to take into account regarding the decision. Apparently, I’m not alone. An e-mail sent by Pollick June 2 to the BSC community-at-large reads in part:

Many of you have expressed frustration by your inability to obtain accurate information in recent days The process for the examination of athletics had to be, by necessity, conducted confidentially by the Board of Trustees so that it could be done in as efficient a timetable as possible… The data that was the basis for these discussions was privileged to the Trustees and not appropriate for the press or any audience that does not share the legal responsibilities which belong to these Trustees. Therefore, much of the commentary in the press and among many in the BSC community was done so without the relevant data or the full and complete explanation from the Board.

OK, but I’m not sure we’ve still really gotten all of the “relevant data” or a “full and complete explanation.” We heard the day of the announcement that the department was running a $5-5.7 million deficit yearly, with an operating budget of $6.5 million. Obviously, that won’t work financially. But if there were any options for reducing expenditures or increasing revenues, we never heard them. And there were never any figures released by BSC directly to the alums: neither Pollick’s e-mail nor the school’s website FAQ include any numbers at all. Save, of course, for the smiley-happy estimate of how much additional tuition the members of our new football team will fork over. If the school’s financial hands are as hog-tied as we’re being told, why doesn’t the school want us to see the numbers that show that?

Frustrating as that remains, however, in the end I’m in the camp that believes Pollick. I believe the Board. DI athletic programs everywhere hemorrhage money; it seems pretty likely that BSC’s athletics would hemorrhage so much that, long-term, continuing in DI just wasn’t viable. There’s also the rumor that BSC’s decision to jump to DI was made, in part, with the promise of massive donations from Richard Scrushy. (And unless BSC’s in the need of recommendations for either a good lawyer or tailor, Scrushy ain’t gonna be much help at this point.)

Whether you believe that or not--I hope the word of one guy, however rich, wasn’t enough for my school to take that big a leap of faith--the fact remains that one way or another, BSC didn’t have the money for Division I. But that’s not the only issue here. It’s the biggest one, yes. But there are other pivotal questions to be answered, like…

Could--should?--Dr. Pollick and the Board have handled making this decision differently?

On one hand, I admire Pollick for openly campaigning for a policy he feels is what’s best for the school, all while knowing that policy would cost him the support of sizable chunks of the student and alumni bodies. I strongly disagree with the notion (voiced here by an ex-BSC baseball player and surely echoed by any number of BSC students/athletes/etc.) that Dr. Pollick has some kind of anti-athletics vendetta. I think he simply saw a major financial problem for his institution and took the steps he believed proper to correct it. It’s not as if he acted alone, either, when the final decision was the Board’s.

On the other hand, Pollick must have known how deeply divisive this decision would be within the BSC community--and he and the Board did next-to-nothing to soothe over those divisions.

Consider what things were like for Joe Dean Jr., our athletic director. In early March, BSC is fighting for various Big South titles and he’s overseeing one of the South’s brightest up-and-coming DI athletic programs. Two months later, after only a brief flaring of public debate and with no real say of his own in the decision-making process, Dean’s now running a transitional D3 program and there’s no basketball or baseball teams. Who could blame Dean, the athletic department, or any of its supporters for being furious? Not only was the rug pulled right out from under them, I’m not sure they even had time to realize there was a rug to pull to begin with.

What’s worse, to my mind Pollick hasn’t exactly been a model of sympathy since the decision came down. He was fairly contrite in his statements the day of, but in the aforementioned e-mail he writes:

Much has been written and said regarding the Board’s Athletic Affairs Committee, the coaches, and the Athletics Director not being involved as far back as January when [Board chairman] Mr. Stephens began to gather general information. The Board’s Athletic Affairs Committee was established after the adoption of Division I athletics for the purpose of supporting the program. It is not a committee with Board financial responsibilities, as are the Executive Committee and the Finance and Investment Committee. Mr. Stephens felt it would have been inappropriate and illogical to ask such a committee to review the question of having a Division I athletics program. The same applies to the athletics staff. This was strictly a Board issue since it pertained to the financial health and long-term future of the College.

In other words: The athletic department wasn’t going to have a vote on the matter, and we knew what they’d say anyway, so why should we have asked them what they thought? It wouldn’t have made any difference in our decision to tell them what we were discussing, so why tell them?

Because, of course, that would have been the sensitive, empathetic, right thing to do. For coaches, staff, players, recruits, everybody. It’s true that, in the most literal sense of financial decision-making, this was “strictly a Board issue.” But in so many other real-life aspects, an issue this massively important is anything but. By (as far as I can tell) keeping their deliberations secret from the athletic department and the campus for so long and by boldly reasserting that they weren’t any of the athletic department’s business, BSC’s decision-makers come across as a group of cigar-smoking CEOs trying to hide the fact they’re about to move their small-town factory to Mexico.

It’s true that being up front and public about the danger the DI program was in wouldn’t have made any difference in the end about whether BSC dropped or not. But it might have made a huge difference in the level of hurt and anger in the athletics department and its supporters. Too bad that that anger--whatever the truth might be--appears to have been substantially less important to Pollick and the Board than simply getting the whole mess over with as quickly and quietly as possible.

OK, Mr. Smarty-Pants, what would you have done differently?

In my perfect world, an announcement would have been made this summe--or even summer 2005--that the Board was going to make a one-year review of the financial impact of BSC playing DI athletics. The athletics department would have been charged with cutting corners where they could, bumping up donations and attendance, and generally trying to make DI work financially. Of course, it’s extremely likely they’d have failed. But they would have had a chance. There would have been a full understanding of the condition of the program. I probably shouldn’t speak for them, but I would have rather seen BSC athletics spend a year underneath the guillotine--even with all the recruiting problems, added pressure to perform, etc.--than believe everything was hunky-dory right up until the moment it was so un-hunky-dory the program was dismantled.

I’d like to believe that a lot of the “We have to drop down NOW” sentiment has to do with BSC’s (now successful) application to join the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, which had an opening they very well might not have had in a year’s time. But even if Pollick had been up front in January or February--or whenever he realized the school’s athletic finances were officially in “Uh-oh” status--it would have at least given the BSC community and the athletic department ample time to respond and prepare for the possibility of the drop. And, oh yeah, Pollick and Stephens wouldn’t have had to face accusations from people like me of cloak-and-daggerism. There’s also the looming question of…

If the school’s finances are in such disarray, why are we starting a team in football, the most expensive sport of them all?

Apparently, not even the Trustees know the answer to this--just ask Bishop Goodpaster (who I met once and yes, he’s cool and yes, he really is a preacher named Goodpaster).

This exact question is asked in the BSC D3 FAQ. Apparently, we would not have gotten into the SCAC without it, which is admittedly a big deal. And there’s the chance--I’ll believe it when I see it--that the program will actually boost the athletic program’s bottom line.

So, in the long-term, perhaps it makes sense to introduce football. And it’s true that north Alabama could probably use a D3 program. But it’s going to take quite some time before that team is competitive. It’s going to cost a lot of money to build the necessary facilities. Unlike basketball, there will be precious few BSC students who won’t have their football sympathies squarely elsewhere, and it’s not like BSC has ever been head-over-heels even for its basketball team.

So forgive me for being underwhelmed--and for wondering if the football team is something of a sop to opponents of D3.

Uh…could we finally get to the bottom line?

Sure. I’m not happy at all about the drop. I’m not happy at all with Pollick or the Board.

But it’s not fair to blame Pollick and the Board for the drop. It’s fair to blame them for handling the decision in what seems like the least compassionate, campus-friendly way possible. But, again, when it comes to the decision itself I’m sure the finances had already made it for them.

The blame for the drop, I’m afraid, lies with the people who took us to Division I in the first place. It says something, I think, that even an, uh, intense BSC fan like myself was somewhat ambivalent when the announcement was made. Do we really belong in DI? I wondered.

No, we don’t. Which set of schools does BSC’s profile truly fit in with: Liberty, Winthrop, Charleston Southern, Radford, and Coastal Carolina, or Rhodes, Oglethorpe, Centre, and Sewanee? As a small liberal arts academic institution, which set do we want to rub shoulders with? Without question, the latter.

Division I was a hell of a lot of fun. I can understand the motivation behind the decision to move up. Lord knows plenty of schools have made the same one in recent years. But it was a huge mistake for many of those schools and, hard as it is to admit, it was for BSC, too. I can’t be too critical of BSC’s leadership at the time; I mean, Neal Berte was our President, and there’s not one BSC student who doesn’t know that without Dr. Berte there wouldn’t be a BSC. But I can’t help but think that in 15 years, this decision by Pollick and the Board--if not the manner in which they arrived at it--will be seen as an unpopular-but-necessary correction to an incorrect course of policy.

Sort of, you know, like highway construction.

One last question: so what happens to the JCCW now? I’ll get into that in the coming days, but suffice it to say for now that there will be changes. ‘Til next time.