|John Garrett, Lafayette's new head football coach, receives a Lafayette cap from athletic director Bruce McCutcheon. (Photo courtesy of Lafayette Sports).|
The biggest Lafayette College sports announcement of the year was made on Wednesday and there was neither rioting nor celebrating on The Quad because virtually all the students had already left Easton for their homes, with final exams having been completed earlier in the week.
But the early returns on the reaction to the naming of John Garrett as the new head football coach have been overwhelmingly positive, even from the more cynical posters on the Lafayette Sports Fan Forum. The college newspaper and an old, retired sports columnist got more negative comments than athletic director Bruce McCutcheon – except for one slam to which I don’t care to lend credence.
Like a brand new car being driven away from the showroom for the first time, Garrett may never look better than he did Wednesday. After all, he has yet to make one decision that will rustle the feathers of some Leopards “fan.” Squeaky clean. Not a dent in his armor.
Sure, there’s a segment of Leopard fans that badly wanted someone with Lafayette connections named as the head coach. One former linebacker is plenty riled up, but he wasn’t on hand on Wednesday. No Lafayette people in the final three? Not good.
But none of the blame for that could be laid on the shoulders of Garrett, whose opening-night performance deserved a standing ovation. Twenty-five years of coaching experience and a strong family pedigree in the game give him instant credibility.
I asked Mike Joseph, a 1988 Lafayette grad who was a member of the search committee, what he would say to some of his buddies who might have preferred a candidate like John Troxell or Tim Cramsey or Matt Hachmann to be getting set to take up residence in the office that has been occupied by Frank Tavani since the opening of the Bourger Varsity Football House.
“I’m going to tell them that the Lafayette men who did interview were fantastic and probably very deserving as well,” Joseph told me. “But I just don’t think it was the right time. Look at me. I always look back at myself and say, if I was still here 16 years later, maybe this would be my job. But you know what? I’m just so happy to bring John in; and those guys, once they get a feel for what John is all about, and the fact that he’s an expert, I think they’ll understand why we made the decision we did. I didn’t interview Hachmann. The guys we interviewed were a phenomenal pool of guys.”
The athletics department is really in the spotlight at Lafayette these days, with the all-sports review that began last month and won’t be completed until April. What will come of this – especially since a similar attempt 10 years ago produced no appreciable changes – will be followed closely.
In an online chat in mid-November, president Alison Byerly said the following about the study: “Right now seems to be a good time to look at athletics because a number of things have changed in that arena. We are almost finished adding in all of the scholarships that we have anticipated as part of the move to athletic scholarships. We’ll continue to fund-raise for additional scholarships but now as we see the full complement of scholarships unfold we’ll see what results that leads to for all of the teams that do have scholarships … There’s not a huge problem we’re trying to solve. There’s not a particular question we’re asking. This is very definitely not about reconsidering our place in the Patriot League or our commitment to scholarships which we have now instituted or being a Division I school that is a part of the Patriot League and very proud to be there. It also is not about a whole new campaign for athletics in which we’re planning to suddenly add millions more dollars to the athletics budget. That is not something that we’re in a position to do right now. What we do think we could think about is being even more strategic in the use of the resources we have and looking at all limits of the program to see if we are … using them as effectively as possible and being as competitive as we might be.” (bold print is mine for emphasis)
That sounds to me like groups like Friends of Lafayette Football will have to continue to raise money toward scholarships in the future rather than having them rolled into the college budget. Right now virtually every Lafayette scholarship sport is funded by the college at a level lower than permitted in the Patriot League. Football, for example, gets 56 instead of 60 from the college budget; men’s basketball gets 11 instead of 13 and women’s basketball gets 13 instead of 15.
Some people think that should be no big deal, that a team’s performance shouldn’t be affected by a couple of players. That is simply not true. Coaches have ways of stretching those scholarship dollars to bring in additional people. And especially in a sport like football, people come in handy.
I asked both Garrett and McCutcheon about the resources issue.
“I am convinced we have the resources to compete for championships,” McCutcheon told me. “Why do I know that? Because we’ve won championships.”
I should have interrupted him there to remind him that when the Leopards won championships, conditions were different. Working from a financial aid program and a
merit-based scholarship program are similar, yet not the same. But I didn‘t stop him.
“Clearly, there are some things we need to work on in my view to help us go down that path to be excellent,” he said. “Things that have nothing to do with resources. Just the way we do business in some areas. That’s what we’re doing this whole review and strategic planning on, to get a real grasp on what we need to do to be excellent in all phases of the college, including athletics.”
When I suggested that sometimes more money is the necessary fix, McCutcheon said, “Athletics always has that insatiable appetite for resources, football being one of those. But we also have really passionate alumni and friends and parents looking to help us. We have done a great job in that area and we have the potential to do even bigger things. If we need to define our resources to do what we need to do, then go get it. We just hired a new full-time major-gift officer specifically for athletics; we’ve got a second person who is an annual fund person who is going to spend at least 50 percent of the time working with Maroon Club fundraising stuff. Adam Stauffer, assistant v.p. for development, is overseeing all athletic development activities and that’s where his passion is. We have tools in place to do this. We have to shift focus on what we’re really good at and what we can celebrate and have a real positive outlook about programs generally and football in particular. People want to be associated with exciting, good things … we want to have more success on the field and I think we have the right guy helping us do that and let’s not worry about what’s happened. You can’t do anything about that. Let’s win today and keep having success today and build one day after another.”
When I spoke with Garrett, I suggested he might have to be a fundraiser as well as coach, he said, “Everybody [in the Patriot League] is working through [the scholarship issue]. How they implemented it and the current setup now is always a work in progress. I have no concerns about the support from the administration and from the athletic department so we can function as a championship football program. We need everybody. It takes teamwork. It takes support from admissions, support from the president, from all academia, the athletic department, from Friends of Lafayette Football and all those alumni out there and everyone who touches football. Everyone has to get on board and focus on the positive and generate the things and give us the resources to field the best team possible.”
BRANDON FOR THE DEFENSE
Brandon Bryant, who in my humble opinion – or IMHO in social media chat – should be Coach Garrett’s immediate choice as one of the captains of the 2017 Leopards, was a member of the search committee.
While he wasn’t able to be part of all the meetings because he had a little thing called final exams going on at the same time, he told me he “liked him right from the time I met him. He’s a great guy and he really seems like he’s ready to get after it and to change the culture and get us back on a winning track. Everyone seemed ecstatic when they found out who he was and his background. Everyone was fully onboard, from what I noticed.”
The rising senior linebacker, who said he’s “making great strides right now; I’m ahead of schedule” in rehabbing from the knee surgery that forced him to miss the second half of the 2016 season, said, “It was awesome to be a part of the whole [search committee] experience and it was an honor to be asked to do that. I knew everything that was going on for the most part.”
Bryant and his teammates really got into the process with their Facebook Live meeting with Garrett on the day he was announced as the new coach. “They had him speaking about his plans and introducing himself, and in the comment section, the players could ask questions and make comments. The questions were read to him and he would answer them. A lot of people asked different questions about his philosophy, the way he runs his teams, the way he’s done things in the past -- just kind of picked his brain about what’s coming for the future.”
The students don’t get back to the campus until late January, and they’ll certainly be anxious to meet with Garrett face-to-face at that time and also meet his staff.
Bryant said that since Tavani retirement announcement, “the biggest thing was the unknown about who’s going to be your coach. Now we know everything and it’s time to get to work.”
I asked him if everyone was going to be staying at Lafayette now, and he said, “I haven’t heard anything of anyone transferring or anyone really upset about the move. [Andy] Labudev and [Matt] Rothrock are definitely coming back [for a medical-redshirt season].” Only Robin Cepeda changed his mind about taking the fifth-year opportunity. He will now graduate with his original class.
Bryant said the pre-Christmas decision on the ead coach “puts your mind at ease. We have a great coach lined up. He’ll handle whatever needs to be done. I’m sure he’ll make great choices [of assistant coaches] who will be highly qualified. He’s very offense-minded and I definitely think that is going to help.”
THE QUARTERBACK SITUATION
During the press conference, I asked Garrett about just one personnel situation: his quarterback. With both Drew Reed and Blake Searfoss graduating, it would appear that the job might fall to rising sophomore Austin McCrum, who has yet to take a college snap.
Last season, in his only year as offensive coordinator at Richmond, he inherited a quarterback who had started every game in 2015 and had great stats. The Spiders picked right up with Kyle Lauletta, who had another big year until being hurt in the final regular-season game, when Garrett had to go to Kevin Johnson, who had played in three games the previous year and only sparingly in ’16.
“No. 1, I believe quarterback is the most important position in all of sports,” Garrett said. “He touches the ball on every play. You need to have a good one to be successful at any level. The two who graduate, we’re going to have a new quarterback [with the Leopards]. No. 1, we’re going to have competition. We will recruit and bring in some talented quarterbacks in this upcoming class, so I’m really looking forward to seeing who competes and wins the job.
“I love to train quarterbacks. Had to do it on the fly after Kyle Lauletta got hurt in our last regular-season game. We ended up playing a redshirt sophomore who hadn’t played all year. Ended up winning two playoff games with him. I’m used to it. I love it. One of the things that excites me is to be able to mold and work with a quarterback to where he gets to the point where he is a proven leader of the team, all his teammates respect him and that respect comes from how he plays. Rest assured we will have great competition and bring in some great candidates to lead this team. You’ll hear me say a hundred times: Take charge, lead the team and let ‘er rip.”
McCrum undoubtedly will be trying to make the best of the 2017 spring practices, where no incoming freshmen will be among his rivals. Garrett talked about getting players into the right positions, and I’m wondering if it’s possible that three other former quarterbacks on the roster – Tre Jordan, former Notre Dame-Green Pond star; Julian Spigner, ex-Bethlehem Catholic standout, and Josh Davis, a rising senior who was moved from QB to wide receiver for 2016 but didn’t have a catch – will get looks at their old position.
In the spring, anything can happen, and with a new staff, I think we can expect more than the usual amount of personnel manipulation. I believe only one quarterback is among the high school seniors who have already made verbal commitments to Lafayette to be part of the recruiting class of 2017.
MORE Q&A WITH COACH GARRETT
PR: Did you get any bad advice about coaching at Lafayette?
JG: Nothing. It was 100 percent that that is place where you can win consistently … with incredible support from the administration and the athletic department. They are poised and ready to provide every resource so we can be the best team we can be. I believe president Byerly and the athletic department and Friends of Lafayette Football are 100 percent committed to giving us the resources to produce the best product on the field, put together the best team in Lafayette’s history. I’m pleased and honored to be the leader of the team with everyone’s help, because it’s going to take great teamwork to get that done.
PR: Will you meet with the entire [Tavani] staff? What’s next?
JG: The next move is to meet and interview the current staff and determine if I’d like to retain anyone and then get all the candidates in for the positions so we can formulate the best staff quickly so we can get out there and take advantage of these last few weeks of recruiting.
PR: Will you serve as offensive coordinator as well as the head coach?
JG: We will name an offensive coordinator but I will be heavily involved in the offense, with its terminology and its installation. That’s my background and I will be a big part of that as well as overseeing the defense.
PR: When do you plan to get into the Lehigh Valley?
JG: Well, I think I’ll enjoy Christmas with my family and prepare to get back here on Monday the 26th to get to work.
PR: Are you a goal-setter?
JG: It’s important to have goals, but the way you achieve those goals is focusing on the process and doing what it takes that day to achieve that goal. You need to cast the vision and see it, but you need to practically see and do what you’re supposed to do each day so you can implement how you want to be as a team so you can reach those goals.
PR: You’ve coached in a lot of different places. Do you have a dream job?
JG: I don’t look at it that way. The way I look at it is, I live in the present. I’ve had unbelievable opportunities to coach at some fantastic places at every level of football and I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it. The coaches I’ve been able to work with, the players I’ve been able to coach, the games I’ve been able to be in, the competition at all the levels, that’s a thrill. The excitement and the thrill at Lafayette College is no less than a playoff game in the NFL. It’s important to everybody involved and no less important than anybody involved. I experienced that first hand at Richmond. The way these kids competed at good academic schools like Richmond and here at Lafayette, it’s a thrill to see these guys perform … a great bunch of kids. I’m assuming from what everybody told me, these guys are stellar student-athletes who want to compete and be the best they can be.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
During his Q&A on Wednesday, Garrett said some things that seemed to me to sum up what he’s about.
“What I want to do as a head coach is I want to lead men, make men better in their four years. It’s more than just football… do everything possible to make this the most incredible four-year experience they ever had. Pursue everything academically that you are capable of doing. Take a class you know nothing about so you can become a better person, become smarter, learn more. The same in football. We are going to teach them at the highest level so they can become the best football players they can be.
“Prioritize your life and do what you’re supposed to do. Be the best student you can be, the best football player you can be and the best person you can be. That’s a lot more important than being the Maddon champ of the Lafayette Leopard football team. If it’s important to you, you’ll do it. I can talk with them on their level because I’ve been through what they’ve done. It’s all worth it to get the degree and have the maximum experience.”