There wasn't much to disagree with in yesterday's Boston Globe takedown of Boston College athletics, at least as far as the state of the football and basketball programs are concerned. On-field performance, attendance, donations and interest are all way, way down - and ultimately, that falls on the feet of the current administration to take responsibility for and fix.
Brad Bates has come under heavy criticism here and elsewhere, and it's not unjustified. This was obviously a historic level of failure for football and basketball, and the jury is very much out (to say the least) on whether the coaches he hired to right the sinking ship he inherited, Steve Addazio and Jim Christian, will pan out with any level of success.
That said - say whatever you'd like about it - I ultimately think he inherited a much bigger mess than any of us give credit for. Bates has made a number of incremental improvements to the department in terms of staffing, fan outreach, tailgating, ticketing policies and the like, building on an absolutely horrid platform. He strikes me as a genuine, intelligent person who loves BC and has the right vision for what the athletic department should look like. That said, if his football and basketball coaches fail, he will rightfully be the one to face the consequences.
I felt compelled to write this article because Sunday's Globe piece - while not inaccurate - had the fingerprints of Gene DeFilippo and his long-time errand runner Mark Blaudschun all over it. And I can't let that pass without reminding everyone that GDF, leading at the moment when BC athletics was in the strongest position it has ever been in, took BC's opportunity to shine and unceremoniously flushed it down the toilet.
I think part of the frustration when we've had our disagreements on BCI has come from my feeling that people don't realize how big of a hole we're in, and the necessity of walking before we can run.
It takes a long time to rebuild a college football program even under good circumstances. Given the well-known obstacles BC faces, the task of recruiting and rebuilding gets harder. As such, if we're going to get to where everyone agrees we want to be - contending for ACC championships - we need a platform to build off of. So yes, 7-win football seasons are welcome. An NIT would be tremendous. Winning a Famous Idaho Potatoes Bowl would be cause for celebration. Not because any of these things are the "end goal," but because if we're going to get to a higher level than that, we need to start with a base, and a success level and narrative to sell. 16 year old kids don't remember Matt Ryan or Jared Dudley playing at BC. They know us only as a cellar dweller.
So when people were flying off the handle over Addazio going 7-6 in his first two seasons, that frustrated me. Addazio may or may not be the guy who can get BC to double-digit wins and an ACC title game. But if he can get us to that first step- competitiveness- and leaves the program in good condition for a successor, the hire was a success. (Obviously, the 3-9 season changes the narrative completely. That's worth being frustrated over.)
We had that much-needed platform for success back in 2007.
While this might cause some rabble-rabble among certain segments of the fan population, I'll stand steadfast to this: sometime around 2007 was the greatest overall moment for BC athletics. The football team was a consistent contender, with a reputation for being tough to beat, consistently good, and combining get success on the field and in the classroom. We out-Notre Dame'd Notre Dame during this era, owning them on the field head-to-head while maintaining high standards. The basketball team was in its run of making the tournament almost every year, and competing at a high level against elite competition, be it the Big East or the ACC. Hockey was in the middle stages of the Jerry York golden era. We were one year removed from a Sweet 16 in women's basketball, and our soccer team was #1 in the country, producing two players who would go on to play for the US national team.
Does Gene DeFilippo deserve some credit for this period of success from ~2000-2008? Of course he does. Though he did not hire Tom O'Brien, Al Skinner or Jerry York, he was the steward of the program during a great run. I'm sure he thinks of himself as deserving credit for that decade and he's not entirely wrong.
But it was ultimately what he did with the platform he had that put BC in a deep, deep hole.
Think back to December of 2006. I was happy to learn that TOB was leaving, and so were many, many BC fans. Imagine that - being excited about the winnngest coach in program history leaving. It feels kind of silly in the current context. But I don't regret my excitement for that moment and I don't think anyone should regret it.
What BC had at that moment was an opportunity to build off the platform TOB build and take the program to the next level. I don't need to rehash for anyone the fact that the program had grown a bit stale and devoid of energy, and there was a real sense that TOB had hit his ceiling.
At the time, the BC job was a GREAT job and BC had a number of solid options to choose from. BC had a reputation for success and gave a coach a chance to build a legacy as The Man who took the Eagles over the top.
To some extent, we got that with Jags. I liked Jags; I still like Jags. I still wonder what would have happened if Jags had stuck around. I know there were doubts about his long term ability to recruit and manage a program, but I do know that in the short term, the energy boost he provided, and the aggressiveness of the offense he and Steve Logan installed, brought BC up a notch. I really don't think they would have finished top 10 in the country in 2007 under TOB. And I don't think TOB and Bible would have coached up a patchwork offense in 2008 well enough to make a return trip to the ACC title game.
That said, if all the criticisms of Jags and his ability to recruit are true, BC squandered a colossal opportunity to hire the right guy for the next 5-8 year run in 2007.
It should be self-explanatory what a disaster the next move was in 2009. There's still debate over whether Gene should have fired Jags or not among the fan base, and we probably don't need to rehash it. But really, it's not a good look to prospective employees when you give a giant middle finger to the idea that employees should look to advance their careers. Who would want to work in that kind of environment? Would you? I, for one, would LOVE to have a BC coach that does well enough that a top end program or pro team poaches him (see Brown, Don). That means he did something right. Does anyone regret that Tom Coughlin coached BC?
Obviously, the other thing that doesn't need to be rehashed is the disaster that Spaz was, when once again BC was still a really good job that people would WANT. Who would want the BC job right now other than someone desperate or completely unproven? But at the time, that's exactly what BC went for. We all know the result.
There's nothing worse for a college program than instability, and BC is living in instability thanks to Gene's mistakes. Period, end of story. Fire Addazio in to the sun if you want - all that would do is create even more instability and further set back recruiting. Nick Saban isn't walking through that door. And neither is Brian Kelly, though he may have, in another era.
That's just the mistakes with football. That's not even touching basketball. While I don't regret being happy that TOB left, and still think the transition out of TOB could have been a successful one, I'm willing to say I was wrong in being excited about the potential of moving on from Al Skinner. I think we all probably agree at this point that we had it a lot better than we ever realized.
That said, when Skinner was axed, BC once again had an opportunity to hire the right guy to lead the program in to a new era of success. Gene went with Donahue. We all know what happened next. The strategy he used in the Ivy League - starting with all freshmen and trying to play them together for (as he famously said over and over again) 100 games to the point where they could beat more talented opponents - simply got steamrolled in the ACC, which basically transitioned in to the NBA D-League while Donahue was fighting Princeton and Dartmouth for recruits. Swing and a miss.
I think the job BC has in rebuilding the basketball program is a lot harder than the task they have in football. BC needs to pass a LOT of solid basketball programs just to be top half in the ACC. And unlike in football, where coaching, schemes, toughness and a team concept can elevate you above your talent level, you simply need top-end talent to win in power conference basketball. And BC hasn't shown an ability to land it.
Cathy Inglese was another highly successful coach GDF forced out in an attempt to put his own stamp on the program, a stamp that failed miserably. BC is still cleaning up that mess, too.
It's worth noting here that in all of these cases - getting rid of TOB/Jags, Skinner and Ingelese, and replacing them with Jags/Spaz, Donahue, and Crawley - these were pretty much all GDF's decisions. They weren't caused by any restrictions imposed by the University; they weren't because of BC's facilities, or the salary levels made available to hire coaches. Gene picked who he wanted to get rid of, then picked their successors based on who he thought was best. And every indication we have suggests that the coaches he brought in were "his guys" - the ones he wanted. They didn't have to settle for second or third choices. The hires weren't on Father Leahy, the Board of Trustees, the BC student body, the Boston media, or the Pope; they were on Gene.
Gene DeFilippo got BC in to the ACC and played the conference shuffle correctly, and for that, BC fans should be grateful. He also presided over the most successful period in BC sports history, and for that, he can feel good about his tenure.
But aside from the ACC, most of what he left behind wasn't good. He left behind disastrous football, men's basketball and women's basketball coaches that required a total purging and rebuild of the program. He left behind DBS policies, tailgating prices and procedures, and a marketing and fan relations situation that alienated long time fans and slammed the door in the face of potential new ones. And the coaches that have found success in recent years (with the notable exception of Katie King Crowley) - Jerry York and Ed Kelly - predate Gene's tenure.
So yes, I'm going to lay the blame for our current situation at his feet, even as he giddily gives quotes to the Globe throwing jabs at the guy who came in to clean up his mess. By all means, be critical of Bates and his coaching hires and by all means, move on if things aren't going well. But let's not forget where BC was a decade ago, and how that opportunity was squandered by the administration in place at the time.
It could be a long time before BC has a similar chance to shine; we'll never know what might have been if the moment was not screwed up so badly.