This is my favorite topic, way to go Todd:
I watched game last night with my wife and kids. My wife went to UNC and is a basketball snob. She will root for Lehigh, but almost like she is rooting for a high school team. Her first comment is usually why is it so empty in the arena. My kids are UNC obsessed as well, and prefer the up tempo playground style they play (which I hate, and I think Roy Williams is just an awful game day coach). After the first half last night, I think they are finally converting over to big fans of PL basketball. (Well, Duke win was huge on all fronts in my house.) My wife couldn’t believe the level of basketball Lehigh played in the first half. Almost like a “Wow, these guys are pretty good”. What I have been preaching to them for years is the PL basketball is really good basketball. Any D1 basketball is high level. The good PL teams, as we all know, can compete with the best in the nation. Just look at Lehigh in their 3 big OOC conference games this year, won 2 and played a top 10 team close. ASU beat Arizona, etc., etc. Lehigh, and the PL, is a very good product.
That all said, I have been dreaming of a move to a place like the A-10 for years. I am thrilled with the increased talent that we are seeing year after year. What burns me is the lack of support for the program from administrators, fans and students. It’s a flat out disgrace.
I don’t really see a lot of upside for Lehigh football. PL football is not very good. And, even if you win the PL and get a bid into the FCS tournament, you are playing schools 6x bigger than you, and it is nearly impossible to compete. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled when Lehigh football does well, but I don’t see the potential like I do in basketball. PL will never be near the top echelon of FCS football. Wrestling and lacrosse are doing well, forever for wrestling and recently for lax, but those are not prime time college sports, much more of a niche product. That is why I think basketball has the most potential of all of the Lehigh sports. You only need a few studs to build a big program and you can do it at a small school. You can’t do that in football, unless you are Notre Dame, and we don’t have that tradition.
Unfortunately, I don’t see us going anywhere in conference or level. A-10 would be good for hoops, but what about football? I guess you would need to look at a school like Richmond, Nova or Fordham, with a blended approach. Something like A-10 for hoops only, and PL for football or maybe Colonial for football. Or, a jump to a bigger conference for all sports like UMass and the MAC. The MAC doesn’t have much appeal for me. I think it would take about 20 winning seasons, with maybe 10 NCAA appearances, and a renewed fan support to move the needle to the point where a conference change could happen. Or, a very wealthy alumni with a real love of sports who could push with dollars to make it happen (like a T. Boone Pickens at OSU). Short of that, we are pretty much where we are.
And, finally, I think the administration is very short-sited in this area. If Lehigh had a big time basketball program it would drive applications and admissions to the moon. It has been proven time and time again how athletics and notoriety can drive interest in the school and applications. Flutie put BC on the map, and now BC is in the echelon of Georgetown and Notre Dame, when they used to be more like a Villanova or Providence. Duke’s basketball program drove Duke’s profile higher and higher, now every kid in America wants to go there. A lot of kids want to go to a place with big time sports, and Lehigh falls short in that area. Amazing school, but it’s nice to go to a packed stadium or arena, and see your team on TV.
Last thought on this … I know Lehigh has the Asa Packer Society for larger donors at increasing levels. But, I don’t believe that they have an athletic supporters fundraising group, or if they do, I don’t hear about it. UNC has the Ram Club, which is dollars directly to sports, SMU (where I went to grad school) has the Mustang Club which raises huge money for sports (so they can hire guys like Larry Brown and pay their football coach $2M per season). Every big school I know of has booster clubs like this. Once you get these things going, money can come in to raise your program status, then you sell prime seats to members of your “Mountain Hawk Club” (and a $5,000 donation to get the best seats). Even Temple does this with their Owl Club, and courtside seats take a huge donation. That might be a good first step to building a sports tradition.