This week, I have written four straight college football postings, so you knew it wouldn’t be long before I published something about making lacrosse a varsity sport at Georgia. Well, the anticipated moment has arrived, as I recently had the opportunity to interview Hoya Suxa, one of the proprietors of SB Nation’s college lacrosse weblog, College Crosse.
I posed a few questions to Hoya Suxa regarding the current state of NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse and the Georgia Bulldogs’ prospects for establishing competitive men’s and women’s varsity teams. He was gracious enough to offer his unvarnished opinions, which I appreciated. (I’m sure he didn’t mean what he said about baseball, even though he said it more than once.) Here is our exchange:
T. Kyle King: On Memorial Day, 6,500-student Loyola (Maryland) became the ninth, and smallest, school ever to win an NCAA Division I lacrosse championship, capping off a wide-open tournament that was the first since 1975 not to include Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, or Virginia in the final four. How open is Division I lacrosse to the entry of competitive teams other than traditional powers right now?
Hoya Suxa: It's definitely more open than, say, 10 years ago, that's for sure. Entering the tournament this year, I thought that 14 out of the 16 teams in the bracket had a decent chance to win the national championship. Now, some of those teams were longer shots than others, but only a decade ago you'd look at Princeton, Syracuse, Virginia, and Hopkins and pretty much assume that everyone was chasing those four teams and the winner would almost certainly come out of that pool. That isn't necessarily the case anymore.
In terms of competitive balance throughout Division I, that has opened up as well. There are 30-35 teams that have legitimate shots to pull a victory against anyone. That is probably the most drastic change in the last decade or so relative to the stranglehold that traditional powers had over the game. UMBC dropped Maryland this year; Syracuse sagged through its schedule this season; Navy dropped Hopkins in a soul-crushing performance. These are things that are somewhat new to Division I and while it doesn't necessarily signal parity, it does signal a deeper pool of competitive teams. Which is good if you're not one of the traditional elite.
What this means for teams trying to break into Division I is a little less clear. Even though there is a deeper competitive pool, that doesn't necessarily mean that a new program can pull itself up the ladder quickly. Michigan, which had been the class of club lacrosse, took some serious beatings this year in its first season in Division I. However, a program like Denver does show that with support and resources, a "new" program can get itself into the national conversation in a decade or so. That, I think, is a good thing (especially when you consider that Denver comes from what was a non-hotbed area for the game).
T. Kyle King: Lacrosse is getting more air time on ESPN and more screen time (thanks to “Crooked Arrows”). The sport is growing in areas outside its traditional sphere, leading some to fret over the future of lacrosse north of the Mason-Dixon line. The sport is expanding in the state of Georgia, at the youth, high school, and (at Mercer) collegiate levels. Why is lacrosse’s popularity booming, particularly in the South?
Hoya Suxa: Because baseball is stupid?
Outside of spring football, there really isn't another spring sport that mixes skill, aerobic athleticism, and contact. That kind of combination is Colombia-grade enticing. For kids that are looking for that kind of experience, lacrosse is kind of a perfect match. When you also throw in the fact that spring sports are kind of limited to baseball (which is stupid) and track and field, lacrosse has become a nice alternative for kids looking for a sports fix in the spring. The game, once you watch it or start to play, really grows on you and it can be addicting. Once folks get a taste of it -- and start telling all their friends about it -- it has a certain quality that allows it to grow.
The other factor that is feeding into all of this is the flight of Northerners down south (and beyond). They're bringing the game with them and their enthusiasm for it. It's an organic growth, in part, giving all you folks a little taste of what we've been doing every spring.
T. Kyle King: Which is the more feasible option for creating an NCAA Division I program at a school where club lacrosse already exists, promoting an existing club program to varsity status (as Michigan did with its men’s program) or starting a separate varsity program from scratch (as Florida did with its women’s program)?
Hoya Suxa: To me, building out a club lacrosse program to varsity status is the best method. The reason for this is simple: Program framework is already in place and the biggest support group for the program is already in place -- lacrosse alumni. Think of it this way: Is it easier to treat an existing LLC as a C Corporation for tax purposes by simply making a check-the-box election or is it easier to start a C Corporation by filing certificates of incorporation, naming a board, opening bank account, etc.? You can succeed either way, one is just more work.
Getting down to the bottom line, though, it isn't about club-to-varsity or new varsity move that is going to determine success; it, as always, is going to be program support. Funding scholarships, putting facilities in place, funding staff, etc.
T. Kyle King: Furman University recently announced that the Paladins intend to begin Division I play in men’s lacrosse in 2014, one year earlier than originally anticipated. Is Furman rushing too quickly to the launch pad, or are the Paladins wisely striking while the iron is hot?
Hoya Suxa: Yes and no. Furman, more likely than not, is going to take a beating in 2014 (and likely beyond) and if you're going to get smacked, why delay the punishment? Get your name in the paper and try and catch local programs Mercer and High Point -- which will have a bit of an experience gap on Furman -- as soon as possible. In other words, the race already started; why wait at the start line and try and catch everyone later? Plus, Richie Meade kind of knows what he's doing. The support is there from the university -- they're going to fully fund the program -- so why delay?
On the flip side, I did like the gap that Meade was going to be able to work with (especially as he was only named head coach over Memorial Day Weekend this year). He could have used his wisdom to establish a multi-year foundation, really canvas the country for recruits, build up local momentum in the community, run some camps to get kids interested in the program (and to identify talent), build out a schedule that he could work with and have his team ready to roll in 2015. That's kind of the model that Marquette used, having three seasons of fall ball and a season (or two) of virtual varsity under their belts before being thrown to the fire. But, if you're going to go after it you may as well go after it like animals. I just hope they don't end up like Presbyterian.
T. Kyle King: Michigan was an MCLA powerhouse as a club lacrosse program, but the Wolverines struggled more mightily than expected in their first year as a Division I varsity squad. Here in the Peach State, Mercer likewise found the going rather tough in its inaugural varsity season. Realistically, how long would a new Division I lacrosse program have to wait from inception to competitiveness?
Hoya Suxa: I always take Michigan out of these discussions. They're just different. The Wolverines had been competing as a virtual varsity for the last five years or so before they moved into Division I. The game in the State of Michigan is fairly strong and their university and alumni had been supporting lacrosse at the school for a while. And yet, they still took some serious beatings.
Making the move to Division I is really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really hard (especially if you're from a non-hotbed spot). Assuming there is strong support from the sponsoring university and a program is able to join a conference, Denver serves as kind of the best-case scenario: At least eight to 10 years to get things at a nationally competitive level. And that's a best-case scenario (a couple of recruiting cycles and some success kind of gets you there). That trajectory isn't for everyone, though.
Again, and I know I'm beating this to death, so much turns on university support. Funding 12.6 scholarships, willingness to pay and bring in staff, recruiting budgets, funding travel, working the phones to get into a conference that has an automatic bid (or that may get an automatic bid), etc. Michigan has that and their growth may be accelerated. Mercer doesn't have all those things, High Point doesn't have all those things, Presbyterian didn't have all those things. Even with those things, though, it isn't the path to notoriety that I think some of these athletic directors have in mind.
T. Kyle King: What would it take, in terms of facilities, financing, and recruiting, for a school like Georgia to get NCAA Division I men’s and women’s lacrosse programs established and competitive?
Hoya Suxa: Nothing on the level of football or basketball, that I can attest to. There isn't the arms race in lacrosse like there is in either football or hoops, so that's kind of a good thing. (Although, Hopkins is building a dedicated lacrosse facility (but that's their only Division I sport) and there are really some beautiful lacrosse facilities across the country. It just isn't even close to what is happening in D-1 hoops or football, though.) In terms of facilities, shared practice and game facilities are kind of the norm, and Georgia may be able to repurpose their soccer complex for lacrosse responsibilities in the spring. (You could ask if football will share, but I'm not totally blind to the pecking order in the South.) Men's Division I limits programs to offering only 12.6 scholarships (ladies are limited to 12), so you're basically funding another set of basketball teams. Most lacrosse programs share strength and conditioning facilities, so no need for brick and mortar there. In terms of travel budget, a Georgia men's team only really has Mercer and Jacksonville in its backyard; all other opponents are north or west (the closest being the Carolinas). The women have more local opponents to help fill out their schedule and reduce travel costs.
Recruiting is going to be a financial investment on two fronts: Hosting camps locally to pull in talent and evaluate them and traveling up north for the big summer camps/tournaments to identify talent. As much as the game has grown, the South hasn't been developing strong Division I talent as some other areas of the country. So, the North is where Georgia would need to make its bones. (The Florida women's lacrosse program is a great example of this (as well as Northwestern)). Financing a coaching staff is the last great hurdle: Assistants are willing to sit on their salary and turn down head coaching opportunities if the cash and resources aren't there. This is kind of odd for lacrosse compared to other college sports as there are, right this very second, only 61 Division I head coaching jobs (that number will grow in 2013 and beyond). If there's no support -- like in Manhattan's case -- that job becomes poison. (Even BU had some difficulty filling their opening for their new varsity program, and it's in the Northeast with New Balance's money helping BU out.)
(Editor’s Note: My thanks go out to Hoya Suxa for taking the time to give us the benefit of his knowledge. Be sure to check out College Crosse for all your college lacrosse coverage.)