A while back, as I was beginning my career in college athletics, I was talking shop with my uncle Paul, who is currently the athletic director at Colorado State and previously headed up Southern Illinois’ department, at some family function. It could’ve been Christmas or some fish fry. It doesn’t matter. Either way, the Kowalczyk’s were a couple of plates of pierogies deep and raiding the cooler of Genessee Light.
At one point, lamenting the struggles of CSU’s football and basketball programs, he said something to the effect of, “You can win all you want in other sports, but you’re judged on what your football and basketball teams do.”
Olympic sport boosters are sure to protest, but sadly, it’s the truth. Sure, we all feel good internally about big victories in other sports, but which truly energize and engage the great majority of students and alumni? At VCU, it’s men’s basketball, which doesn’t have to fight with a football team for attention.
With the exception of a few short periods, no VCU program has been able to fill “the football void”, something which may or may not actually exist. Baseball has enjoyed a great deal of success over the last 15 years, men’s and women’s tennis are national powerhouses, and men’s soccer looked to be a rising giant killer early in the last decade, but none have captured even a fraction of the adulation reserved for basketball.
It’s not impossible for an Olympic sport to generate buzz. I was at Penn State this year, where nearly 5,000 packed a humid, outdated – albeit strategically retrofitted – Rec Hall for a volleyball match. Yes, Penn State has won four straight national championships, but we’re discussing possibilities here. Lacrosse draws huge crowds in Baltimore every year for that sport’s Final Four. Nearby Virginia averaged 3,300 for lacrosse home games this season and helped VCU set a state record when more than 5,400 poured into The Diamond for a baseball game this year. It’s possible. Figuring out how to do it is the Rubik’s Cube of college athletics. If Walker, Texas Ranger can stay on the air for nine seasons, surely we can find a way.
In the meantime, we’ll keep working with the understanding that basketball successes and failures shape opinions faster and stronger at VCU than all the other sports combined. Ask a Ram fan, any Ram fan, if they thought VCU had a good year in 2010-11. Go ahead, ask them, we’ll wait……
Done? Good. Now answer this: How many CAA Championships did VCU win this year? More on that later.
Basketball success at VCU changes everything. Does it matter to you that the men’s basketball team didn’t win the CAA Championship game? Do you even remember the score? I had to look it up. It seems about as long ago as my high school biology class. (I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but it was sophomore year and the first day he told us, “I’m going to swear a lot, it’s what I do.” And he did. Also, my biology partner, Dave something, is doing a 25-to-life stretch). Whatever, it doesn’t matter. The Rams won 28 games and went to the Final Four. Game. Set. Match.
Until another sport is able to grab VCU fans’ attention, it’s going to be that way. It’s not going to happen overnight, however. Usually it takes a period of prolonged success, combined with savvy marketing, combined with national prominence, combined with luck.
As for how many CAA Championships VCU won this year? That would be zero.
That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of success. Baseball is a year removed from a CAA crown, the men’s and women’s tennis teams still made NCAA Tournament appearances for the umpteenth time, women’s basketball and volleyball made runs at the league crown, field hockey enjoyed its best season in decades and is a program on the rise, while men’s soccer appears reborn under new Coach Dave Giffard. Actually, it was a pretty darn good year. Additionally, for the first time in my tenure (and maybe the first time ever), there are no bad programs. Over the years, there have been some programs that have struggled at VCU. That’s not really the case anymore. It used to be that program X or team Y had about as good a chance of winning a CAA Championship as Snooki has of becoming a history professor. Now, every team feels on the verge of something great. That’s a credit to the department as a whole.
Was it a good year? Yes. I think next year will be better, judging from the arc of many of VCU’s programs. So, if basketball doesn’t reach the Final Four again next year, and the math is against us, it’s not the end of the world. It could still be a very good year.