Thursday, November 3, 2016

Lafayette sports history I: Deja vu all over again

To quote the immortal Oliver Hardy (invariably speaking to buddy Stan Laurel): “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

That was my initial reaction to the internal release from Lafayette College early this week that it would hire a consulting firm to conduct a six-month “thorough review” and come up with “precise recommendations” for a “shared strategic direction that ensures the athletic’s program’s resources are aligned with the mission and goals of the institution,” according to a quote from athletic director Bruce McCutcheon. By the way, the italics are mine, not the college’s.

A headline on the college’s website shouts, “Lafayette Seeks Blueprint for Greater Success in Patriot League.”  I want to shout back, hip, hip, hooray! Someone is finally stepping up to the plate for the coaches and student-athletes and wants to recognize the impact success on the field or the court or the diamond can have.

But, then I remember. We’ve been here before. We’ve seen the college take swings at this issue – and miss badly.  So, before I go too far with this, I thought I’d present a little history course in the form of a couple of columns I wrote years ago. Then, I’ll take my own swings.

Today’s Lesson in “Lafayette Sports History 101” is a column that appeared in The Morning Call on Nov. 3, 1998. The headline on the column was: “Lafayette plants seeds of doubt.” Does any of this sound familiar?

The column:

Lafayette at Amherst? Tufts at Lafayette? Lafayette at Williams? Middlebury at Lafayette? NOOO!!!

This is not intended as a knock on those prestigious New England universities that play in groups like The Little Three. They have carved their niche in Division III athletics, and no one complains.

It's just that Lafayette doesn't belong there. At least its football, basketball and baseball teams don't.

Neither do Leopards' sports teams belong in a league with Muhlenberg, Swarthmore, Gettysburg, Ursinus et al.

Again, this is not to diminish the Centennial Conference. They have similar profiles that drew them together. Lafayette may, indeed, share in some aspects of the profile. But sports? Please, no!

All this talk about Lafayette studying its athletic program to figure out how to be more competitive is scary. And it couldn't come at a worse time.

How would you like to be Bill Russo or Fran O'Hanlon or any other Lafayette head coach this winter?

How effective do you suppose they'll be on the recruiting trail with the possibility of a drop in level of competition staring them in the face?

Or, how enthusiastic do you think a coach will be if he or she thinks his or her sport might not even exist next year?

Conversely, it might be a great time to be Kevin Higgins or Sal Mentesana of Lehigh, or Tom Gadd and Pat Flannery of Bucknell, or Dick Biddle and Emmett Davis of Colgate.

As they seek to attract many of the same student-athletes who would be interested in Lafayette, they can -- perish the thought! -- plant the seed of doubt.

Can't you just hear it? "Son, you're more than a Division III athlete, aren't you?"

Now, these are all quality institutions, and the coaches are quality people. But they visit basically the same small pool of quality scholar-athletes, and the schools that gets the most figures to do the best. Simple enough.

No one would knock the Lafayette program per se, and no one would dare take on coaches of the stature of Russo and O'Hanlon. Those two have had enough success to speak for themselves.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. Last winter, Lafayette's men's basketball team played nonleague games against Haverford and Swarthmore. But, then, the Leopards also played St. John's and Florida International.

People have come to expect that of nonleague games -- a couple you should win and a couple you shouldn't, just to see where you stand.

But a 16- or 18-game Division III basketball league schedule at a school like Lafayette? How long do you suppose an energetic young coach like O'Hanlon would be around?

And what about Lafayette-Lehigh? It is ludicrous to think that Lafayette could somehow build the same kind of rivalry with, say, Williams. Besides, Williams already has its own rivalry.

And who could expect that Lehigh would want to continue to play Lafayette in a season-ending football game if Lafayette was a Division III team? What would the Engineers have to gain from something like that?

Yes, it is scary to think about a drop in class for Lafayette sports. And a spokesman at the NCAA says it's not that simple a process, either. It takes a couple of years, they say.

Drop sports? What sports? If that was the direction the Board of Trustees was to take, it would probably lop some low-profile programs that would result is only minimal savings.

Hey, Lafayette went into the Patriot League because it liked the entire package. Why not use that entire package. Don't drop down. Beef up. The dreaded `S' word isn't all that bad a thought.

Lesson 2 to follow.

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