One can lead while advancing. Contrary to popular belief, one can lead while in retreat. It’s standing still that makes a leader hard to find. President Fry and the Board of Trustees have led Drexel into a sprawling, competitive future throughout the prior six years. While still a work in progress, the business minded pursuit of excellence was most recently shown in the announcement of Schuylkill Yards, the 3.5 billion dollar expansion plan announced earlier this month. The leadership and quest for better is also what led to the dismissal of Drexel Men’s Basketball Head Coach Bruiser Flint just a week later.
That Drexel Athletics has not kept up with the growth of the rest of the university is not question, it is fact. From the Armory debacle of the early ought’s to the significant empty seats at all athletic competitions this year, things at the NCAA level in the department have been at a relative standstill when compared to the overwhelming growth and construction seen throughout the rest of the University. Some of that can be accredited to Coach Flint’s lack of success, as a rising tide in basketball would certainly rise all boats. There are more challenges in today’s NCAA atmosphere than there were when Coach Flint was hired, and as Drexel looks to hire their next Men’s Basketball Coach it’s not the coach, but rather the leadership and symbolism shown by the administration that should be the main concern of Drexel supporters and donors.
The newest, largest burden for the school is the NCAA’s admission of the Cost of Attendance stipend for athletes. Some CAA schools are going to pay this stipend, it appears others will not. Both Athletic Director Eric Zillmer and President Fry have been outspokenat a national level about the concerns that the COA will bring and the rise in spending within college athletics departments – many of which are a cost center and not a profit center for the school. That they have been so outspoken about cost control in athletics while the rest of the university grows at impressive rates seems telling. There appears to be a clear belief that Drexel Athletics will remain a cost center for the broader University. It almost begs for a new slogan - Drexel Athletics: DragOn Growth.
While these statements by Dr. Zillmer and President Fry were recently spoken , it’s also worth noting that Eric Zillmer brought Drexel Athletics forward by taking the leap from the America East Conference to the CAA in 2001. And when President Fry hit campus, one of his first major moves was to give Bruiser Flint the longest and most expensive contract extension a coach has received at Drexel. DAC renovations are continuing. Money is being poured into the squash program. These are all signs of investment and a desire to grow.
If the reader is confused by all of this, please note that the writer shares your company. On the one hand their words and outspoken criticisms of the finances of college athletics seem to make Drexel primed for a step backwards to the comforts of the America East Conference, Patriot League or even down a Division. On the other hand the growth of the university, the contract that Coach Flint was working under and his recent release lead to the belief that the university would like to push forward and become a prominent name on the Athletics scene in a Philadelphia market. There may be financial opportunity in becoming a local, conference or national leader.
Perhaps the largest reason for the confusion is the lack of clear and concise standards shown by either Dr. Zillmer or President Fry. In a letter to season ticket holders the dismissal of Coach Flint was said as “[Taking] the men’s basketball program in a different direction” without stating what direction the department is looking to go in. Are they looking for a surge in spending to catch up to the rest of the university? Is it time to acknowledge the rampant spending in D-I and take a step back? What are the standards that Drexel Athletics ascribes to that Bruiser Flint didn’t meet? All of those are unknown, and with them being unknown comes significant challenges towards advancing ticket sales, donations and other development.
What program donors, ticket holders and other stakeholders do have to look towards is this next coaching hire. It may be the most clear statement they receive as to the aspirations of President Fry and Dr. Zillmer. A rising young assistant from a high major school is a clear nod towards future growth. A more seasoned coach from a lower, academically focused league presents a less clear message. A D-II coach may present a clear message in the other direction. That is generalizing and it’s important not to do that here – each name brings its own opportunity to the table, but the point remains. This hire is a message. The message of this hire can, and should, determine development efforts within the department for years to come.
When Oklahoma State hired a coach, the school's goal was known. Similarly, when Dartmouth hires a coach later this month, their goal will be known as well. At Drexel, there is a unique situation. A turning point, and there are arguments to be made for transition in either direction, let it be acknowledging the challenging climate of D-I and the CAA today or playing catchup with the rest of the University. The one thing, and the only thing, that fans should find unacceptable is doing neither. As Ryan Koechig acknowledged in yesterday’s post on prospective hire Zach Spiker, this athletics department has stood still while their peers, both internal and external have moved.
The one thing that stakeholders should find unacceptable with the next hire is a parallel move. The school needs to show decisiveness, in either direction, or else they will continue to pay large dollars for very few returns. As the empty seats of the last few years have shown, including that sad scene in the game against James Madison where President Fry sat alone in the President's Suite, a lateral move is not a profitable move. One can lead while in retreat. One can lead while advancing. It’s standing still that makes a leader hard to find.