What metrics should we use to design a successful college sports program?

Joseph N Abraham MD, University of LouisianaPreviously I have offered essays asking about the future direction of UL athletics, in an attempt to stimulate some discussion about what our program should look like. I would like to see some public reflection about the areas where we might do well by emulating other athletic programs, and where should we go our own way.

So let me ask this: What would the ideal sports program look like?

According to most observers, the ideal program is the one that wins the most games. If our only goal is winning games, then clearly, winning is a self-contained objective.

But what if there are bigger things to win, than bragging rights?

Say we we were given a choice. We can choose an athletics program that wins more games than anyone, but doesn't get much community support. Or, we can choose a program that doesn't win all that much, but has enthusiastic community support.

It's not a theoretical choice. The team, hands down, that wins the most games is Stanford. For 14 consecutive years, the Cardinal has won the Sears Directors' Cup, the award for the 'best' overall athletics program.

But given our choices above, is it really the best? Stanford averaged less than 40,000 at home football games last year. That puts it among the worst in the BCS, and ranked near the middle of the 119 teams in Division 1A.

Stanford basketball fares no better, averaging about 7K at home, trailing schools like Missouri State, Bradley, Southern Illinois, Utah State, and others. And in baseball, where the Cardinal is perennially stronger than in football or basketball, for the last home game, where Stanford hosted in-state rival Pepperdine in the NCAA Regional Championship, there were just over 2,000 people in the stands.

Heck, in a 30-29 season this year, Cajuns baseball averaged over 1,800.

Then consider that, again, this is supposedly the best sports program in the US, and that it is located within the the fifth largest urban center in the country, one that comprises over 7 million people.

Clearly, your teams can win, and not get much community support.

Then consider South Carolina. At the end of Lou Holtz's first season there, the Gamecocks were 0-10, hosting arch-rival Clemson. The crowd was SRO.  When UL's Rickey Bustle coached at USC, the team had never-- ever-- won a bowl game. Nevertheless, they were ranked #5 in attendance in the US.

So which would you say is the better program, one that creates wins? Or one that creates community?  If the latter, then which is the critical part to a successful program: the teams on the field, or the community that surrounds the University?

In essence: are you and I more important to a great program than the coaches and the teams?

Of course we can certainly have both a winning program, and community support.  But only if we design it that way. All ambitious projects have critical decision points, where the builders have to make trade-offs, where we will need to be clear about our priorities. I would just like us to decide now, before we start building.  Which comes first? 

Winning? Or community?

It can a very slippery slope. We can find schools all over the country that weren't clear about their priorities, schools that never had a discussion about how athletics, the university, and the community all articulate. So they cut a corner here, turn a blind eye there, and all of a sudden they have a stable full of studs who win games, but many of whom don't go to class, don't graduate, and frequently are not the sort of people we would invite into our homes. The schools gain their bragging rights by building programs around coaches and athletes who are very poor role models for their families and their schools.

On the other hand, if we decide-- now-- that we want to build a program carefully, intelligently, and we want it to be one that has the maximal impact on our community, we can avoid those problems.   Then we will win a lot more in the long run: in the record books, in our community.

This is particularly pressing for UL. We don't have to travel very far to find any number of programs that place winning above academics and community. There are many institutions across the South, and the US, where the fans are content to root for a college that not only lags behind peer institutions in educational attainments, but much worse, has no academic ambitions beyond mediocrity. And frequently, the communities that host the colleges are as bad, or worse, than their colleges.

So as we design the UL athletics program, we need to look at the tension between winning and community, and how we want to approach the trade-offs between them. When we arrive at points where the two conflict, then we want to be clear about which supports which, and proceed from that position.