Fairfield Now - Summer 2007
Steps Toward Achieving Growth and Success, 2007-2012:
The Athletic Strategic Plan
By Barbara D. Kiernan, M.A.'90
When Ted Spencer arrived at Fairfield University in 1995, the varsity lacrosse coach knew he had some building to do. First, the Division I men's team needed to climb out of the league basement and onto a level playing field. No easy task for a young coach who would soon discover the full complement of his team's equipment - sticks, heads (the crosse), helmets, pads, and gloves - stored in metal shopping carts under the bleachers in Alumni Hall. It was, to say the least, a humble beginning.
|Ted Spencer, head men's lacrosse coach, has a clear direction in mind for his nationally ranked varsity program.|
Twelve years, thousands of practices, and bucket loads of strategic planning later, the varsity men's lacrosse team is ranked nationally. With Spencer at the helm, Fairfield University has won seven lacrosse championships in 11 years, and garnered five post-season appearances. Most impressive, the team stepped up to new levels of competition in the process, playing in progressively tougher leagues (Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), Great Western Lacrosse League, and now the Eastern Colleges Athletic Conference). Competing successfully in the country's two best lacrosse leagues has placed the varsity team in Top 20 company three years running.
Clearly, coaching competence has played a significant role in this transformation. But exactly how does a team move from league-basement, equipment-in-shopping-cart status to a feared opponent on the national scene? "Hard work, strategic planning, and institutional commitment to the program and the athletes," says Spencer. Not to mention the additional fundraising he does with members of the University's Advancement Division as part of the 12-hour days - seven days a week, 11 months a year - that he says have made his wife, Denise, "a platinum member of the Lacrosse Widows of America."
Aiming for similar success
Director of Athletics Gene Doris and Vice President for Student Affairs Mark Reed point to men's lacrosse, as well as to the men's and women's soccer, women's volleyball, and women's softball teams as examples of the success Fairfield University is determined to attain across its intercollegiate varsity programs. "Our goal is to have Fairfield dominate the MAAC and become known as Connecticut's best mid-major school," says Doris. "What's different is that we are making a strategic effort to move up in more than a few sports. Every team is expected to contribute to raising our Commissioner's Cup standing, not lowering it."
And every team is being given the tools to make that happen. Strategically.
Three years ago, Fairfield University hired an athletic consulting group to examine and assess the entire program, from the 19 varsity sports played by some 365 student-athletes to the club sports, intramurals, and fitness activities in which more than half of Fairfield's other students are engaged. Having invested significant funds in athletic scholarships and facilities upgrades in the early 1990s, Fairfield was intent on understanding why those investments began to lose momentum in the win/loss column within a decade. This study would become the basis for creating an athletic strategic plan designed to reverse this downward course during a five-year period ending in 2012.
A look at core values
For centuries, athletics has played a life-giving role in Jesuit education - both for the students engaged in competition and for those who were cheering them on. The sense of purpose required of an athlete, coupled with the repetitive nature of practice and the need for self-discipline, reflected in the physical realm the very qualities needed for success in the classroom. Thus, the pursuit of athletic excellence became a purposeful part of Jesuit education, which, after all, was seeking to form spiritual athletes as well.
The early Jesuits, who served as prefects in the living quarters of the students they taught, found competitive sports valuable on two other fronts as well. They created a physical outlet for young men bursting with energy. And they built connections - a sense of camaraderie and spirit, both among those who played and among those who cheered for victory.
Seen in this light, the quest for knowledge and the quest for victory served as but two means to an even more purposeful end: a fully integrated human life that, by its very nature, would reflect the glory of its Creator. Such integration, the Jesuits knew, is best refined and made real in the context of community, be it a classroom, a chapel, a club, a dorm, or a team.
The role of athletics at Fairfield
|Mark C. Reed '96, vice president for student affairs, stands in front of an athletic facility that may well have outlived its useful life.|
Granted, those early Jesuits were not dealing with the allocation of multi-million-dollar budgets to shape and build athletic programs serving the varied needs of varsity athletes, intercollegiate club sports, intramural teams, and fitness seekers. Nor were they dealing simultaneously with the incredible costs of technology, the need to pay competitive salaries to large numbers of lay faculty, or the pressure to raise ever-more scholarship dollars (students back then paid no tuition). But down through the centuries, as Jesuit education has adapted to the times, it has consistently affirmed that nourishing each aspect of a person - body, mind, and soul - contributes to a God-given fullness of life.
That same principle permeates the current University Strategic Plan (Learning and Integrity: A Strategic Vision for Fairfield University), approved by the Board of Trustees last June. It's a document that reflects the vision University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., set forth in his inaugural address three years ago. Each of this plan's major goals focuses on an intentional effort to create and/or illuminate connections between and among what are often viewed as separate entities (e.g., courses in the 60-credit core curriculum; classroom, service, and extracurricular endeavors; Jesuit values and graduate education). Aware that at no other time in life does a person have as many options ready-made for their choosing as in the college years, Fairfield University has committed to a strategic effort that offers students an expanded mental roadmap, one that can move them beyond the human tendency to live compartmentalized lives.
Rooted in the institutional vision, the athletic strategic plan seeks, more visibly, to connect the lives of student-athletes with the rest of the student body; to make available to every varsity team the conditions for competitive success; to leverage its athletic programs for regional and national exposure; and to provide high quality recreational, fitness, club sport, and intramural programs that engage the majority of undergraduate students.
The truth about scholarships
Clearly, no scholar-athlete wants to be recruited by a Division I university, as is Fairfield, only to play on a team that consistently loses. What would be the point? After all, Fairfield's scholar-athletes expect to rise to the challenges of the classroom (nearly 200 have GPAs of 3.0 or higher). Compared to the national average, they have a remarkably high graduation rate (94 percent as compared to a Division I average of 77 percent). And most go on to successful careers, shaped, in large part, by the excellence of their academic preparation.
During their playing seasons, student-athletes devote up to 20 hours per week to practice, conditioning, game film review, travel, and competition. Teams like lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, golf, baseball, softball, and rowing play not only an official league championship season, but also an opposite-season, one scheduled by the coaches to keep the team sharp and in shape. Weight training and conditioning take place year round not to mention the community service each team engages in, be that tutoring, providing sports clinics for area youth, building playgrounds, or participating in regional clean-up days. It's a rather large commitment on the part of student-athletes.
"People think that our varsity players are all here on scholarship," says Reed, who oversees the entire University athletics program. "In reality, the majority of them receive low- to mid-levels of athletic-related financial aid." Coach Spencer, for example, had nine scholarships to distribute among his 42-member squad during his first 10 years at Fairfield, then 11.6, and now 12.6, which is the NCAA's full allotment for that sport.
"To be able to sign a certain caliber of kid makes a real difference in competition," says Spencer. "In men's lacrosse, each class now has three scholarships, which I divide between full and partials so I can upgrade them if a kid with financial need does a great job. But I have to recruit kids who have the means to pay as well, or we'd have no team."
Weep no tiers
Like many other colleges and universities, Fairfield implemented a tiered system in the 1990s to allocate athletic scholarships and travel budgets among varsity teams. "Given the issues around Title IX and gender equity, creating tiers and funding certain teams the same way within a tier seemed like an obvious remedy in those legally conscious days," says Doris.
What gradually emerged, however, were problems on two fronts: competitiveness and morale. If one school in the MAAC placed baseball, for example, in Tier I and allocated nine scholarships, but a competitor school placed the sport in Tier II (limiting it to six scholarships), the lower-tiered team was less able to recruit the talent it needed to be competitive. In fact, the University consultant's analysis of the MAAC conference showed, in all sports but basketball, a direct correlation between a school's win/loss column and the way it allocated scholarships to a given team.
On the morale front, players on lower-tiered teams also experienced lower standards for travel to away games, in food and housing stipends as well as transportation. "It was never a judgment about quality," says Doris. "But what took hold among student-athletes was that if they played in a Tier III sport, they were not well thought of, when really it was about the scholarship dollars awarded to a team."
Under the new athletic plan, the tier system has taken its place in Fairfield University history, replaced by a strategy that gives every team some scholarship funding and creates a baseline standard for travel, meals, and hotels, based on the number of games played. "When these students put on a uniform, they become our ambassadors," says Reed, a hint of pride in his voice.
"Our goal," says Senior Associate Director of Athletics Alison Sexton, "is to get all our sports to a level where they have a chance to be competitive, as a team and as individual members. But remember, you can't tie the student-athlete experience to wins and losses alone. Equitable does not mean equal, but with the implementation of the athletic strategic plan, student-athletes at Fairfield do have a comparable experience. We want kids to walk out of here saying, ‘I had a great experience.'"
A numbers game
|Charged with implementing the five-year athletic strategic plan, (l-r) Alison Sexton, senior associate director of athletics, and Gene Doris, director of athletics.|
If winning were the only goal, an institution could simply move funds from one budget line to another, add scholarships, extend multiyear contracts to cherry-picked coaches, and wait for results. But the role of intercollegiate athletics at Fairfield, a Jesuit university, is such that a reallocation of this nature would be inconsistent both with the primacy of academics and the obligation to provide all students with an outlet for their recreational, competitive, and fitness needs.
Thus, while the NCAA determines the maximum number of scholarships a given sport can offer, the institution must determine how many it can afford. The coaches then decide whether to allocate what they are given as full or partial awards. In the early 1990s, Fairfield was at the high end of the MAAC in terms of its investment in intercollegiate athletics. "Our competitors began investing and stretching, too," says Doris, noting that in the early 2000s, Fairfield placed what would become a five-year freeze on athletic operating funds. By the time the consultant's study was done in 2005, Fairfield's investment in intercollegiate athletics (at 5 percent of its institutional budget) had fallen below the MAAC and national average of 6.7 percent. In other leagues - schools with high national visibility such as those in the Atlantic 10 or Big East - member institutions were investing, respectively, an average $2.5 million more and $13 million more in athletics than Fairfield.
A closer look at that yawning gap reveals the biggest factor as fundraising to support athletics, which has not been a strong tradition at Fairfield (although the Lyons-Lademan Athletic Fund, established 20 years ago, has helped considerably). Currently, 88 percent of Fairfield's intercollegiate athletic funding comes from the operating budget (as compared with an average 50 percent in Division I AAA schools nationally). By contrast, the average in the Atlantic 10 is 47 percent. In the Big East, that figure falls to 22 percent.
Thus it comes as no surprise that one component of the University's athletic strategic plan is an emphasis on working collaboratively with the University's Advancement Division to raise greater funding for varsity and club sports. Another is the kind of spirit-building success that will lead to increased recognition and greater visibility, which in turn has the potential to spur ticket sales and generate sponsorship revenues.
Solutions on the horizon
As an institution, Fairfield also faces a challenge in that it shares practice space and facilities with Fairfield Prep, which hosts 31 freshman, junior varsity, and varsity teams that practice in coveted afternoon time slots. "Only Fordham has a comparable situation, and no one in the MAAC," says Doris. Not only does this mean Fairfield's varsity players must practice at very odd and inconvenient hours, but so much use adds to the wear and tear of Fairfield University's already busy facilities. Meanwhile, observes Reed, "Alumni Hall, built back in 1959, is near the end of its useful life. Actually, it probably passed it 10 years ago!"
Equipped now with an independent professional assessment, the University administration is evaluating creative solutions to these many challenges, with hoped-for implementation continuing during the next few years.
"The best way to be attractive to athletes and peers is to be near the top every season," says Doris. That's why the athletic strategic plan will hold coaches accountable through reasonable, but measurable benchmarks. The University will increase the number of athletic grants-in-aid by 30 over the life of the plan; each varsity team now gets at least one. With the freeze on Athletic Department budgets lifted, each team now gets a comparable equipment, uniform, and travel allocation.
The decision to bring athletic accomplishment into alignment with the high academic standards for which Fairfield is known comes with high expectations. Measurements for success, which began in fall 2007, include an overall four NCAA bids per year; an average winning percentage of 60 percent in all programs with high levels of grants-in-aid; and men's and women's basketball qualifying for post-season play two out of every five years.
"It is critically important for men's and women's basketball to be competitive, year in, year out," says Doris. "Like it or not, our best opportunity to leverage athletic success is to increase our reputation and exposure."