Note: this is an initially off-topic post, which will shade into a somewhat on-topic post, which eventually leads into a post to be published later this week which is completely on-topic.
Today, Duke University fired its football coach. Not without good reason, of course, since the man was hired in 2003 and has an overall record of 6-45 (and 3-33 in conference), which is an average of less than 2 wins per season. It is hard not to feel bad for the guy, as it was a losing proposition to take this job from the beginning.
Duke Football is kind of a joke, even among those of us who love Duke intensely. However, many people forget a very illustrious early history for Blue Devil football back in the early part of the 20th century. Then back in the late 80s, Steve Spurrier was the coach at Duke and actually took them to a conference championship in 1989 (granted, this is before Florida St., Miami, Va. Tech, and Boston Coll. joined the ACC), before moving on to the University of Florida and a national championship in 1996. In other words, we were not always this bad, but we have been this way pretty much since he left. And now this. Mission statements are all fine and dandy, I guess, but the way this has been taken around campus is that this is essentially a mandate to improve the football team.
Say what? Improve the football team? If you wanted an easy job, why not just kill it off completely as a D-I scholarship program? It would be a mercy killing long in the making and richly deserved. The truth is that a football program at a major university is far too high-profile and revenue-rich to just drop, even if the team is gosh-awful.
Universities fundamentally must decide who and what they want to be, with respect to academics and athletics. Harvard, Yale, and the other Ivies decided that a while back, eschewing scholarship athletics and just putting the best white boys they had on the court/field. They ultimately concluded that nothing of their academic stature, reputation, or mission would be sacrificed in order to have good athletics. Stanford has maybe had the best luck merging the two, but it has the benefit of a great location that probably attracts people more than anything. Duke aspires to be at the level of these schools on an academic level, but to excel above them in athletics. It is not yet clear if that is even possible. Duke cannot recruit the highest levels of talent in many sports (particularly football) because of its academic requirements (which are higher than any other school in the conference and in most of the nation). And it would require a high infusion of resources into the program that are currently allocated to other responsibilities. And while Duke sits with a foot in both worlds, it will never properly be accepted in either.
The same is true for BYU. BYU will never be able to compete with the top football programs in the country (1984 was an abberation then, and college sports are a whole new game now anyway) because it requires its students live the Honor Code. It will consistently get the Mormon kids who dreamed of playing for BYU, your yearly quota of JuCo transfers who just want to live the dream of playing at a D-I school, and a bunch of people for whom BYU was the only place they could play football (and I guess they’ll have to keep the Honor Code too). But tons of top recruits will be turned off by the unavailability of booze and sex to accompany their campus celebrity status. I’m not advocating dropping the Honor Code (at least not in this post) in order to promote football; I am just pointing out that a choice has to be made. Whatever that choice is is fine by me, but at least acknowledge that choices and sacrifices have to be made. The same is true of academics. You can be the Church’s school, or you can be among the top academic programs in the country, with all the messiness of academic freedom, etc. which that entails. Like I said above, you can have one or the other. The ultimate choice is not mine to make, but no one should imagine that any university can truly have it all.