Change is coming to the athletics program at the University of Delaware and, like most change, it could be good or bad. It all depends on your perspective.
Delaware wants to grow up. It’s no longer content to be a big fish in a small pond or even a medium-sized pond. The Blue Hens want to splash around in a big pond and the bigger the better.
When we talk about these changes in Delaware athletics, we’re primarily talking about football and basketball, the two revenue-producing sports.
They drive college athletics and, depending on your school, you’re driving a Cadillac or a Ford.
The Blue Hens have always been in a Ford, albeit a nice, late-model one. Many of us remember what some of us call the good old days, back when Delaware used to play teams like Bucknell and Lafayette and win almost all of the time. It was small-college sports at its best, even though nobody cared about it except us. Delaware athletics was a mom and pop operation and people like Tubby Raymond and Bob Hannah and Mary Ann Hitchens and Barb Viera came here as young, dedicated coaches and left decades later as local legends who now have stadiums and buildings named after them.
But that mom and pop approach has changed. Over the last decade, the Blue Hens have become members of what is called the mid-major level – too big to be called small and too small to compete with Texas and Southern Cal.
But Delaware wants more and it’s already taken the first big step to the big time, drawing up plans for a new, state-of-the-art athletics complex. That’s not because it wants to remain competitive at its current level, but because it wants to move up to the next one – the one that you see on ESPN all the time.
Why would Delaware leave the security of mid-major status, where in football it can compete for a national championship every year and in basketball it should be able to compete for an NCAA berth every year? C’mon, you already know the answer to that one – money. OK, prestige, too, but mostly it’s about the money, because college athletics has grown into a billion dollar industry.
And there’s no reason the Blue Hens can’t make the jump to the big time if they’re willing to invest the necessary time, energy and money. There is precedent, and all Delaware fans have to do is look around at some of the Hens’ peers over the years to see that this is not an impossible dream.
The Massachusetts football team is leaving the Colonial Athletic Association and I-AA level to join the Division I Mid-American Conference. The Minutemen – who are also building a shiny, new athletics facility – will play at Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots. That’s pretty impressive, and UMass finished its 2010 CAA football season at 4-4 and in fifth place, while Delaware was 6-2 and in first.
The Blue Hens’ arch-rival in football, Villanova, is also considering a move to Division I. Like Delaware, UMass and Nova have won a national championship at the I-AA level. Like Delaware, those schools now dream bigger dreams.
And even though football is king of Blue Hen country and always will be, the UD administration also knows basketball can be high-profile and highly profitable. And, unlike football, they don’t even have to leave their current conference to take that big step forward, just as a couple of their CAA neighbors have done in recent years – since 2006, both George Mason and VCU have made it to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
And in this case, size doesn’t matter. We may be the second smallest state, but the third smallest state has had remarkable success – Connecticut has won national championships in Division I basketball (men’s and women’s) and its football team just won the Big East title and played in one of the big-boy bowls, the Fiesta Bowl.
UConn’s main campus has an enrollment of about 17,000 and Delaware’s has an enrollment of about 16,000, so there isn’t much difference in the size of the schools. If they can do it, the Blue Hens can do it.
But do the Blue Hens’ fans want them to do it?
With the benefits of growth come the drawbacks. The bigger a program gets the less personal it becomes. One of the joys of Delaware football in the past (other than watching them whip Muhlenberg by 50 points) was that you could have the fun of tailgating, etc., without the headache of the massive traffic jams and parking lot nightmares you see at the football factories of the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences.
Delaware fans are already grousing about having to pay extra fees to keep the parking spaces they’ve had for decades, and that kind of stuff will only become worse if the Hens move to a higher level.
But the times are a-changing, whether the fans like it or not.