by Mike Coffey
Just when we thought we were out of conference re-alignment, the B1G once again attempts to pull us back in.
Yesterday, the University of Maryland announced their move to the Formerly-Known-As-Integer conference. While the reasoning behind this move is no secret, it seems the deliberative process behind the move was much more so. And it is in that secrecy I believe the lesson for Notre Dame can be found.
More than a few Terp alums and fans were blindsided by this, even as the rumors began to leak out last Friday. They feel the move makes them look desperate, and that’s the last feeling alums and fans want to have about their school, the truth of the matter notwithstanding.
Of special note is the reaction of Tom McMillen, UMD basketball star and Board of Regents member. McMillen, while realizing the necessity of the move, was not a big fan of the process that got them there:
“When there is no time for deliberation, when commissioners flush with dollars from their conference are dictating to college presidents — when student-athletes and coaches aren’t even brought into the conversation and traditions are thrown away like dirty laundry — there is a recipe for something all right,” [McMillen] said. “In my view, how this was handled will have long-term detrimental effects on college sports.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this. I’m saying they wanted us two years ago. They will want us in two more years. To totally disregard the athletes and have this crammed down everyone’s throat over a weekend is just awful.
“This is the kind of thing that can be the tipping point for uncompensated athletes in money-making sports, who are left without any say and are basically becoming indentured servants to big schools.”
We talk about transparency a lot on NDNation. Contrary to popular belief, transparency, in the context we discuss it, is not about school administrators getting the “permission” of alumni and other stakeholders to make certain decisions. Rather, it is appropriate inclusion in the decision process and, more importantly, a straightforward discussion of the issues and solutions at hand. As McMillen said, deliberation without “cramming”.
So what should Notre Dame learn from our Turtle friends? I’m going to forego the obvious comparison to discussions lately and go with something that has garnered more attention these last couple of days — artificial turf.
Let’s establish some basics before we chat. I’m not in favor of artificial turf, but I don’t consider it a go-to-the-mattresses kind of thing. I’m still not convinced a heavily-synthetic playing surface is best for ND’s football players, especially on the injury front. There’s a reason NFL players, when polled, tend to prefer well-maintained grass surfaces over synthetic fields. But stadia at all levels have installed, uninstalled, and reinstalled turf-based systems for years. This isn’t a point of no return, so if there’s going to be an experiment, so be it.
But let’s address the decision process. The last couple of days, hints have been going out that last Saturday’s victory over Wake Forest will be the last game on grass in Notre Dame Stadium in the foreseeable future. The playing surface is due for its every-five-years replacement, so while the hood is up, will they make a change? The South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen talked about it months ago. ESPN’s Matt Fortuna wondered about it before the Wake Forest game, but then had the good sense to ask Jack Swarbrick about it. While not confirming a choice, Jack seemed to be leaning that way:
“I haven’t made a decision,” Swarbrick said regarding the playing surface of Notre Dame Stadium, which will undergo its every-five-year removal following this season. “The reasons to do it relate to the use of the stadium. We do commencement in here. We’d like to do an alumni function in here during the summer. I’d love for our team to be able to practice in here on Fridays. So you balance those things against the environment of natural turf, which feels sort of central to this place. That’s not an easy balance. We haven’t made it yet, but those are factors we’ll think about.”
It’s good to see no “official” decision has been made, because this gives Jack the opportunity to avoid the mistake UMD president Wallace Loh and AD Kevin Anderson made, and give this decision the transparency it deserves. If change is to be embraced, even at the cost of tradition, the reasons behind the change need to be shared so that as many folks as possible can be given the chance to fully understand it. If people feel part of the process and have that understanding, they won’t feel “crammed”.
For example, another change folks out there assume (erroneously) we here at NDN were against: The Stadium expansion. That was a decision handled with good transparency, which is why I don’t find it objectionable at all.
The problem: The net number of alumni is increasing every year as ND graduates more people and people are living longer. With only 16,000 seats available in the alumni lottery, chances of an individual alumnus getting seats to at least one football game goes down every year, even if that alumnus is a member of a benefit society.
The available solutions, first level: (1) Reduce the number of alumni (which, while possibly attractive to the sociopathic among us, isn’t going to happen) or (2) Increase the number of seats available in the lottery.
The available solutions, second level: (1) Reallocate existing seats away from other groups (students, development, season ticket holders, etc.) to the alumni group (which would not be fair to those other groups and possibly damaging to the University as it would lose an incentive for people to donate to the school) or (2) Increase the physical number of seats in the Stadium.
The available solutions, third level: (1) Move seats around in the current structure (impractical bordering on impossible) or (2) Modify the existing structure to allow for more seats.
The available solutions, fourth level: (1) Add a secondary structure on top of the current one (completely changing the aesthetic of the stadium) or (2) Wrap the current structure in an expansion section (slight change of aesthetic, loss of TD Jesus view).
This is how the expansion project was presented to alumni and fans well before it happened. Here’s the problem, here are the available solutions, here are the upsides, here are the downsides. We’ve thought about it, and we’ve chosen this one, realizing we have to accept the downsides as the cost of fixing the problem. That’s what made it acceptable. Yes, some things were going away, but balanced against the problem being solved, the cost/feasibility of the other solutions, and the benefits derived from solving it, the cost is worth paying. Tradition need not stop progress, but at least show us you gave some thought to saving it before moving forward.
To Jack’s credit, he starts the process in the quote above, laying out the issues. A quality playing surface is important, and expanded use of the Stadium would be a big plus. Now he can take the next step and show all solutions are being considered before the bulldozers come in and the traditional grass goes away. If he wants to avoid the alumni grumbling that he dislikes so, that’s the best route. And when the inevitable put-a-big-screen-TV-in-there discussions start — and they will — it’ll be even more important because that one we can’t walk back.
Don’t be a Terp on the turf, Jack. Talk to us.