April 17, 2002

Stop the Coaching Carousel

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It might have gone unnoticed by most on the Cornell campus, but last week, the university lost one of its most valued members in women’s basketball head coach Marnie Dacko. No, it didn’t catch the administration’s attention quite the way the discovery of a new tomato ripening gene did. Nor did it generate as much talk in Day Hall as the five double asteroid systems detected by Cornell scientists.

The administration’s indifference toward the woes of the athletic department is nothing new. To be sure, the bigwigs have shown signs of progress, including a sizable fund raising initiative to support Big Red sports.

But Dacko’s departure is symptomatic of one of the most troubling trends resonating from Teagle Hall these days: a frightening inability to retain many of our top coaches.

It’s happened frequently in the last few years in some marquee sports. After bringing the team to the brink of an Ivy title, football coach Pete Mangurian bid farewell to the East Hill. Lacrosse legend Dave Pietramala bolted for greener pastures at John Hopkins after resurrecting the storied men’s program. And most recently, and perhaps most disappointing, comes Dacko’s move.

Dacko’s accomplishments at Cornell would be insulted by any words, but perhaps “renaissance” best describes the transform she guided the lady cagers through. She took a program mired in failure and gradually brought it to the brink of a NCAA tournament bid. But most importantly, she restored interest in the sport among students, faculty, and above all the local community.

Establishing long-term appointments for our coaches should be of paramount importance for the university and the athletic department. Coaches such as Dacko and men’s hockey headman Mike Schafer ’86 are often figures that build a rapport between the university and the community and it goes without say that particularly here, town-gown relations can always stand to be better. With one of the largest varsity sports programs in the country, a great number of Cornell students count themselves as athletes. The fact of the matter is that in many cases, these individuals spend more time with their coaches than they do with fellow students or professors. Athletes, perhaps more so than any other group of students on campus, represent the university in an extremely public way. It should logically follow, therefore, that we ought to place a premium on attracting and keeping quality coaches.

From a logistical point of view, having tenured coaches signals stability within a program and helps to improve a team’s image and its ability to land the best athletes possible. When coaches leave, tumultuous periods of rebuilding ensue as we have learned by the football team’s debacle last season.

What’s most bothersome is the timing of the coaches’ departures. In each case cited above, the announcement has come just as the respective team is peaking. Football after nearly grabbing its first Ancient Eight title in over a decade, lacrosse after its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in several years, and women’s basketball following perhaps the best season in program history. The problem is that success in Cornell Athletics is allowed by our administration to be a transitory phenomenon. That is, for whatever reason, the powers that be are unwilling to sustain a commitment to a sport.

It would be hard to place the blame on the athletic department, which is seemingly always on the verge of financial insolvency. From top to bottom, the folks in Teagle Hall are an extremely enthusiastic and supportive bunch. Rather, the problem lies with the senior administration.

First and foremost, athletics need more of an institutional financial commitment. When a coach like Dacko or Mangurian is courting offers from another school after posting a stellar season at Cornell, it’s time our administration allows the athletic directors to step up and make a respectable counter offer to keep our coaches on the Hill. Rawlings and his associates have surely not been shy when it comes to spending and expansion. Sure, nanotechnology and material science is critical to fostering a better Cornell for students and alumni. Come on, folks, let’s distribute the wealth a little bit. If we can pledge hundreds of millions of dollars to building another science building on campus, let’s allocate a small fraction of that to keeping a successful coach here.

The athletic department must show the university that sports occupies a critical presence in the Cornell community. University athletics bring students together, create a sense of pride amongst Cornellians, increase the likelihood of alumni gift giving and attract national attention (witness this season’s media hype surrounding the men’s hockey team). To retain our best coaches, we must be committed to a comprehensive marketing campaign aimed at students and local residents that will fill our stands and generate revenue for the department. Once again the athletic department has shown the initiative in hiring a seasoned professional to act as Director of Sports Marketing.

Again the writing is on the wall. Men’s lacrosse headman Jeff Tambroni has guided the laxers to the brink of an Ivy title. Surely he will be receiving offers from other schools in the offseason. Once again the department and university will be faced with the same issue. It’s about time we made the right decision.

Archived article by Gary Schueller