On a brisk Saturday afternoon last November, the members of Georgetown’s football team walked off Multi-Sport Field defeated. They were defeated by account of the scoreboard, of course, having just suffered a 41-14 drubbing at the hands of Fordham, but their defeat also went deeper, as the Hoyas left the field for the eleventh and final time without having won a single contest.
The 2009 season was objectively the worst year in over a century of Georgetown football. The Hoyas’ 0-11 record marked the only winless campaign the school has experienced since 1887. There was rarely even a glimmer of hope for the team; only two of its games were decided by less than a touchdown.
Worse, last season was no aberration. Head Coach Kevin Kelly, now entering his fifth year at Georgetown, is 5-38 in four seasons. The 14 seniors on the current roster have won three games in their college careers. Since joining the Patriot League in 2001, Georgetown is 23-75 overall and an even more abysmal 6-49 in conference play.
But the blame can’t be placed solely on this current group of players. In fact, the Hoyas’ pitiful on-field performance can be largely blamed on a single factor: money.
The simple fact is that Georgetown doesn’t allot as much funding to football as its competitors. As the lowest-spending university in the seven-team Patriot League, Georgetown finds itself at a disadvantage in attracting recruits and improving its players once they are on campus.
According to data submitted to the Department of Education under the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, in the 2008 season (the most recent year for which data is available), Georgetown’s football expenses totaled just $1.5 million for the academic year, easily the lowest in the Patriot League. The league average was over $3.5 million, and Bucknell, the second-lowest spender, allotted nearly twice as much as Georgetown.
“We don’t have quite the resource base of our peers, but we’re in a very good league for Georgetown to be in,” University President John J. DeGioia said last January. “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 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.”
Without expanding its resource base, though, it’s hard to imagine how DeGioia hopes to make the football program more competitive—or just competitive, period. But the Hoyas were a team on the rise just a decade ago. After returning to Division I in 1993, Georgetown ended the ‘90s finishing on top of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for three consecutive years.
However, the other MAAC schools’ programs began to decline, leading to many cancelling football entirely and the league dropping the sport following the 2007 season. So Georgetown accepted an invitation to enter the Patriot League, joining some of the premier non-scholarship football programs in Division I-AA (now called the Football Championship Subdivision).
Patriot League schools, like those in the MAAC and the Ivy League, are only able to grant need-based financial aid to their football players, so Georgetown players cannot receive any financial support to attend school based on their athletic ability.
But that could soon change. Last year, Patriot League member Fordham announced that it would begin offering athletic scholarships to its football players in order to increase the quality of its program. As a result, the Patriot League has made Fordham ineligible for the conference title and all its games against Patriot League opponents will not count for league standings.
Fordham’s move has forced the Patriot League’s hand. Without Fordham, the league would only have six members, the minimum number required for an automatic berth in the FCS playoffs. It would only take one more team making a similar move to seriously jeopardize the future of Patriot League football.
Unsurprisingly, Patriot League Executive Director Carolyn Schlie Femovich announced that the member schools’ presidents would vote on football scholarships before the end of December—a vote that could have serious ramifications for the future of Georgetown football.
“Nobody seems to have a handle on which way it’s going to go,” Frank Tavani, head coach of fellow Patriot League member Lafayette said. “It seems to be split down the middle.”
A vote for football scholarships could force Georgetown to confront its meager investment in its team. For the time being, Kelly says he can’t worry about the future. The Hoyas have more immediate problems to attend to.
“It’s at a higher level right now and the president is going to make those decisions,” Kelly said. “I have no idea which way it’s going to go…Right now my job and our players’ job is to have success on the field.”
Still, no matter how much success Georgetown has on the field this season, the decision in December could be the most important indicator of the health of Georgetown football for years to come. And while the ultimate ruling is anyone’s guess, already votes are being anticipated and predicted.
“I don’t think it’s any secret about the teams who are kind of voting no, and who’s voting yes, and who’s on the fence,” Tavani said.
Fordham obviously falls in the “yes” camp, likely along with big spending, high prestige programs such as Lehigh. Georgetown, however, based on preseason media reports and financial logic, seems likeliest to vote against scholarships.
Without question, scholarship players would improve Georgetown’s on-field performance. Kelly readily admits that the lack of merit aid has cost the school recruits.
But the University is likely to balk at the prospect of adding the cost of scholarships—a full slate of 60 scholarships would cost around $3 million. The Patriot League would not necessarily commit to such a large scholarship program, but if its fellow members choose to move toward merit aid, Georgetown would have to make a decision: to seriously increase its commitment to football, or possibly look to play football elsewhere.
In either case, as long as the University’s financial commitment to football remains a question, the program seems likely to suffer. It’s a situation Tavani, the Lafayette coach, experienced when he took over the faltering Patriot League program in 1999.
Before Tavani’s hiring, Lafayette had suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons. After some early struggles, Tavani turned the program around, winning three straight Patriot League titles from 2004 to 2006 and subsequently posting three consecutive winning seasons.
Tavani said there was a simple recipe for his success.
“The three ways you turn around a program are recruit, recruit, recruit,” he said. “And that takes money.”
Of course, it all comes back to funding. But Georgetown’s tight purse strings don’t necessarily preclude football success. As Tavani found, there’s another way football programs can get money.
“My overall budget hasn’t changed that much,” he said. “Where we’ve gone gangbusters is with our Friends of Football group.”
According to Tavani, Friends of Football, Lafayette’s booster group, brings in nearly as much annually his operating budget.
The comparable organization at Georgetown is the Gridiron Club, which, according to the University athletic department website, raised $267,848 from 259 donors in the 2007-2008 academic year. If Tavani is correct in claiming near parity between Lafayette’s donations and operating budget, the Gridiron Club’s intake represents a fraction of Lafayette’s Friends of Football’s. The Gridiron Club declined to comment for this article.
“It’s the lifeblood of your program,” Kelly said of the booster organization. “It helps supplement your budget, number one. Our Gridiron Club also helps our players in terms of jobs. And we have a mentoring program that is something that people don’t see on a Saturday afternoon, but it helps our players post-grad. We have a parents group that also supplements our budget.”
The Gridiron Club seems devoted to providing the best to Georgetown’s football players both on and off the field, but increasing donations are clearly as important to fielding a winning team as an increased University budget. However, there may only be so much the members of the club can do—alumni dollars are not likely to be flowing freely after a winless season.
The lack of cash is certainly apparent in Georgetown football’s subpar facilities.
Multi-Sport Field, where the Hoyas play home games, has been waylaid by lack of funding and delays. Improvements have inched along, and last year saw the installation of new lighting, but Georgetown and its opponents still have to use the nearby facilities in Southwest Quad for game day locker rooms.
But that’s only the beginning of Georgetown’s facility issues. Perhaps more pressing than a glamorous stadium is the need for improved training facilities, not just for football but for all sports.
“Our training room, weight training room, locker rooms, and team rooms are not sufficient for a department of our size and caliber,” Interim Athletic Director Daniel Porterfield wrote in an open letter last fall.
New Athletic Director Lee Reed echoed Porterfield during his introductory press conference in April, calling a new training facility “critical,” but the facility seems no closer to construction than it was a year ago.
The facilities issues do little to help Georgetown win cutthroat recruiting battles in the Patriot League. With a limited pool of qualified athletes who can play without scholarships, the league members, as well as those of the Ivy League, often go head to head. But in spite of those disadvantages, Georgetown still has enough strengths that it is hardly stuck with the dregs of the recruiting pool.
“Coach Kelly is out there everywhere, you’re always running into him,” Tavani said. “It’s very competitive and you lose people. We’ve lost top quality kids that we really wanted to Georgetown all the years I’ve been head coach.”
Still, recruiting at Georgetown has unique difficulties. Besides having to overcome the barriers of the facilities and the team’s recent performance, Kelly and his staff also have to deal with other restrictions.
Kelly and his staff are beholden to an academic index, which demands certain academic qualifications from his recruits. Kelly said Georgetown’s standards exceed the rest of the Patriot League, leaving him in a sort of recruiting no man’s land.
Georgetown finds itself pinched between the rest of the Patriot League, who can accept athletes with weaker academic profiles, and the Ivy League teams, who can offer greater prestige and often better need-based financial aid. The margin for error in recruiting is miniscule.
If Georgetown and the Patriot League move to scholarships, part of the recruiting problem is surely alleviated. But Georgetown will likely fight against scholarships, and even if it were to begin offering merit aid, it would hardly be a panacea. It will be tough work to instill a winning culture on the heels of an 0-11 season.
To his and his players’ credit, Kelly and the team have not stood idle since last season. Kelly shuffled his staff, moving around his position coaches on the offensive side and bringing in new offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude to implement a new attack.
“Offense is just a completely different thing [this year],” senior offensive lineman and co-captain Dan Semler said. “The coaches’ personalities dictate a lot about how the team runs. And [Patenaude] is just a real tough guy.”
Meanwhile, the hiring of Patenaude has allowed Kelly to return his focus to the defense, even overseeing the instruction of the linebackers.
“He’s coaching a position now,” Parrish said. “He’s a lot more hands-on now with the defense. I think it’s enabled him to be a lot more free as well to let guys go out there and fly around.”
Georgetown will certainly have a chip on its shoulder this season, but while they’re ready to show off a new and improved squad, the Hoyas were still picked to finish last in the Patriot League in a poll of league coaches.
There is no easy cure for Georgetown football’s ills. In the end, it comes down to unwavering commitment from everyone involved. The University has to back the program with its full financial and administrative support. The coaches have to always keep working, whether on the field, in the film room, or on the recruiting trail. Fans and alumni need to show up and pay up. The players need to go hard on every play in games and in practice.
For those who have watched the Hoyas flounder in recent years, that may seem impossible. But just over a decade ago in Easton, people were expressing the same doubts to Frank Tavani.
“This was a huge undertaking when I took over in ’99, how we were going to get this thing pointed in a different direction,” he said. “But there had to be commitment by obviously the school and obviously the alumni as well.”
Come December, Georgetown—not to mention its league—will be at a crossroads. The coming season is the time to find out who is truly committed.