Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Response to President Fry

The below is written by Dr. Nathan Hemerly, Drexel Class of 2006, who has continued to follow and support Drexel Athletics while living in Iwakuni, Japan.

I was directed by a fellow Drexel alum to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal written by Drexel President John Fry. It's a fascinating article because it gives us some good insight into his views on athletics. He spends most of the article beating up on other schools that are blowing millions of dollars on college football while painting a rosy picture of Drexel because it doesn't do the same.

You won't find a bigger college football fan than I am - I've been lucky enough to see games all over the SEC, a conference whose teams probably spends more money on football than anybody - but even I recognize how wasteful it is. It's become a have vs. have not business like everything else in the American economy and unfortunately there are many more programs struggling to survive. Bowl games are an outright scam where schools shell out thousands of dollars to play a meaningless game in mostly empty stadiums. I agree with Dr. Fry that Drexel is doing the right thing by avoiding the business. They'll never beat Alabama or Ohio State in football anywhere outside of video games.

The problem with Dr. Fry's apparent self-righteousness about avoiding football is he's currently sitting on a basketball program that's a disaster. As decisive as he makes himself sound in this column, he could not appear any more indecisive in how he's managed Drexel's only Division I
sport of financial concern.

Let's not kid ourselves that being nationally ranked in anything other than football or basketball gives our administration permission to brag about their business practices to other schools. Most of us aren't going to dress ourselves in Drexel gear from head to toe and run down Market Street screaming after a big squash win. I don't mean to diminish their accomplishment, although I inevitably am and unfortunately offending these athletes is almost unavoidable, but their success must be put into perspective of what it means on a larger scale. I hope the young men and women from sports not named men's basketball use the lessons they learned playing sports to represent Drexel positively in whatever career they choose.

But as we experienced in 2006, beating Villanova and Syracuse at basketball will fill the DAC and bring back Drexel alums who have wandered astray. Beating them at pretty much any other sport will undoubtedly be a milestone event for those participating, but will cause only a fleeting sense of pride
for the rest of the university community. So in the only sport that can have the greatest positive (or negative) impact on the perception of Drexel University, we fail. Our last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 1996 when most of the DAC Pack alumni were still in grade school.

The only postseason tournament run the men's basketball program has had of significance was the 2012 NIT which ended in an epic collapse that saw the team blow a 20 point lead.  Many other seasons have ended in first round CAA Tournament losses to lower seeds that the team should've handled easily. The struggles of this season have been well documented so I won't get into it too much. They're 2-12, but worst of all, they're still guided by the same head coach who has made the same excuses after failed seasons for a decade and a half.  His postgame interviews put the blame squarely on his student athletes because they "didn't make a shot".  Bruiser Flint couldn't get away with his performance record at any university that's making an effort to have a successful program.  We've been beyond patient as supporters.  Firing a coach after 2-3 years of mediocrity is another example of the dark side of college athletics, but what we've had to watch in the DAC for years has given even the most enthusiastic Drexel supporters no good reason to continue following the program.

Which brings us back to Dr. Fry. He seemed careful to focus on football rather than basketball as he only very briefly mentioned the sport that's sadly become so embarrassing to Drexel. It couldn't have been by accident. A more interesting column would be his philosophy on the major Division-I sport he does have. It wouldn't make his overall business model look too great so he's smart for this omission.

We're only left to speculate, and given his attitude towards football along with the mediocrity turned failure he's allowed over the last few years under Bruiser Flint, my guess is he would pull the plug on basketball in a heart beat. It would be really unfortunate if he's keeping basketball around just to collect enough TV money to keep the squash team running. I'd call that hypocrisy and wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

It's been even more frustrating to watch the Drexel program fade because we've have a front row seat to VCU basketball's rise to prominence.  Even La Salle has been treated to a Cinderella run within the last 5 years.  We've chosen to let ourselves become stale which should sacrifice our right to tell any other university how to go about their business.

I guess my response to Dr. Fry is it's time to either fish or cut bait. Either you're willing to spend enough funds to at least get us an NCAA Tournament appearance every decade or let's scrap basketball all together.  We could drop down to our level of competition with teams that have already beaten us like University of the Sciences.

One last note: it drives me nuts that this article was in a business magazine. Higher education is not a business. It shouldn't be wasteful and should be wise with how it spends money, but mixing business with education is dangerous. It ignores things like the value of having an actual professor teach you a course instead of a computer. And it ignores the value of setting a campus on fire with enthusiasm during an NCAA Tournament run or the life experiences and friendships that are made by supporting your school all over the country.  Some of those friendships have unfortunately faded because we don't have a basketball program we're proud of to talk about.  A once vibrant online message board where fans from as far away as Asia and Europe gathered to talk Dragons basketball just recently
went offline after months of little to no traffic.  I've driven hundreds of miles to see us play Kentucky and I'll get up at 3 AM to see a game from over here in Japan while proudly wearing my Drexel gear in a foreign country.

Sorry ladies and gentlemen, but I haven't set any alarms for squash matches.


  1. Well written sir. I especially like "Higher education is not a business." Better stated in today's sad state of affairs, higher education should not be big business.

  2. I used to defend Bru by saying, "he may not win you a championship, but at least he'll put a competitive team on the floor and you can watching winning basketball." Now, he can't even do that. If I did this poorly at my job, I'd expect to be canned long ago.

    You know it's bad when you used to go to 20-25 games a year all over the east coast and on your birthday someone says, "Happy Birthday and let's hope for a DU win." You then have to look up the schedule and you realize they are playing Penn State at the Palestra. A game that should be big and you should care about, but you just don't. The only way I even know they are playing any more is when I see the score come up on the ESPN ticker while watching something else.

  3. I've been pro-Bruiser for a long time, cutting lots of slack, but this program has turned into a complete disaster.

    - Down here in the DC region Drexel games use to be on TV at least a half dozen times a year. So far this year, zero, and I don't expect that number to increase as the team struggles to win 5 games.
    - My name is on a banner/plaque in the DAC Pack walk, I haven't been there to see it yet and have no interest, driving 3 hours to watch us lose to Elon doesn't sound like much fun.
    - I work with 2 other Drexel alums, both went to a lot of games when they were in school (one pre-DP, one was in the DP)... we NEVER talk Drexel hoops anymore.
    - The best player Bruiser has ever recruited is now routinely scoring 20 ppg for LOUISVILLE.
    - The Drexel Athletics App... how can a school that prides itself on technology not have a half-way decent mechanism for letting alums that actually want to see their school play basketball games get that opportunity from their phone, tablet, etc.? This might actually be the biggest joke of all. How hard can that be to work out?

    I'm with Brian, the only way I ever know they're playing anymore is from the ESPN alerts on my phone, and most of the time I'm not even inclined to check the box score.

  4. Well stated, and very close to what I was getting ready to send into The Triangle for the start of this season at the end of last season. Then I let time go by and lost most of my anger by the start of this year. I've stated on a couple of occasions, and on different types of media, that I feel we are D1 in men's hoops only to allow the higher regarded programs to remain D1. For example, I don't think we could win the Dad Vail without being D1.

    At this point, all I'm asking for is clarity. If he and the BOT don't like how D1 is being run, we aren't being forced to participate. Moving forward, cost of attendance stipends are going to be part of the cost of doing business for hoops. Freaking Rider is offering them, as is every other school in the area save Penn and Delaware. Charleston and Towson are offering them this year (I think) with Wilmington coming online next year. Zillmer didn't sound like we were keen on the idea in August, but then an ESPN article stated that we were studying it and Fry didn't sign the letter that 9 other presidents (including 5 CAA prezes) published stating they would not pay stipends. So there seemed to be hope that we wouldn't fall behind in hoops any more than we already are. The Fry piece seems to have squashed that notion. If giving only certain athletes anything more than the scholarships awarded make you feel dirty, then disassociate yourself from those that make you feel that way. Don't come off as an elitist a-hole talking about how we do things the right way.

    And that's the thing, I actually agreed with everything he wrote up until the last paragraph, which is one of the most mind numbingly tone deaf things I can ever remember reading. "Our student athletes in other sports win conference championships," yes, 4, out of like 212 CAA seasons. If you include regular season titles, maybe you get to 10. To think if we had football we wouldn't have been so blessed by success. If he really wanted to make a statement, he should have written how they aren't comfortable with the money involved in D1 and that it undermines our mission and that we will drop down to D3. I wouldn't necessarily like the decision, but I'd understand it (low student/alumni support, no athletic scholarships). Right now I don't know or understand what our direction is, but I sure as hell don't like it.

  5. Alan, Nate, I actually disagree. Colleges, especially private ones, need to, and benefit from, being run like a business in this day. Having said that, the athletics spending hasn't shown an appropriate ROI, which is exactly why we need a change. It's why I agree with Ryan when we talks about the Athletics wide lack of success as well.

    I want to pull in the notes from Ryan, Mike and Brian with one common theme. While Nate speaks at length concerning the basketball program, across the Department success has been tough to come by. And off the court, we've seen complaints on the video feeds, and the app that Mike spoke of looks below the expectations one expects from a technology school. Fan apathy has peaked, and fan retention has been miserable. I believe there are more supporters willing to write or comment on this blog right now than there are fans that the External Relations department has strong ties to at this point. In the fundraising campaign for the Drexel Athletic Club, mens basketball isn't in the top 3 programs for receiving donations - a tremendous, significant, and unacceptable untapped resource. The men's basketball team doesn't have an on the court issue. The Athletics Department has an in the building leadership issue, and that is the call that John Fry needs to hear.

    As far as the last paragraph of the Fry piece is concerned, it can be taken as tone deaf, certainly. And maybe, if Dr. Zillmer is painting an untrue picture for President Fry, that really is his perception, that this is a regionally, nationally and conference competitive Athletic Department. More likely, his words were simply that of a marketing piece, painting a rosy picture for perspective students, or potential faculty members concerned about university spending. It could also be a test balloon for exactly this, what will alumni reaction be if he makes a statement like that. So I encourage you all to reach out to the alumni association, and not just on this blog, to let them know how unacceptable you feel that the current Athletic Department performance has been.

    I continue to say what I said last week. The biggest challenge we have right now isn't within the fan base, or performance, or a gentleman's ego. It's apathy. We badly need people to care. The response to this blog, all season long but especially today, says that we still have people who care, they just need to be motivated. I'm very happy that we can send that message and I certainly hope this situation can be turned around.

    1. If you want to run a business, do you want to pay your workers, i.e. your so called student athletes? The problem with big business, out government, corporate America, is to make money or in this instance to win at all costs. That creates a sleazy, dirty atmosphere, full of corruption. It is exactly what college athletics has become. It is not what higher education intended. Yes, you need to make ends meet. It should be not be done via so called student athletes. Yes, I may be anachronistic. Yes, I am also very principled. Sadly truth and big business do not go hand in hand. I can not endorse colleges, so called places of higher education, to go down that path. Cheers.