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.


Brad said...

Sorry yo hear about your school droping divisions. The whole Gregg Marshall saga is over now thanks in large part to the hiring of non-other-than Bobby Cremins. It's ironic that Marshall pulled a "Cremins" on C of C then C of C hired Cremins. The media around here has been all over this story, they still aren't done w/the honeymoon.

Fly Swatter said...

Thanks for spelling things out to the rest of us in the Big South. I admit the whole saga still has most of us scratching our heads. As someone who is rather familiar with the SCAC having covered some of their schools I still find it bafling that BSC would head in that direction. But its all water under the bridge.

Sly Fox
Liberty Alum '89

Rod said...

That royally blows. Sorry to hear about that, J.