As Delaware and Binghamton have shown, bigger isn't always better
As a student at Delaware, the thrill of the basketball team made be love sports
But then the program got bigger, a new arena opened and innocence was lost
Binghamton had same problem; a proud institution was rocked by hoops scandal
The photograph hangs in my basement, a black-and-white image so vibrantly vivid that, even all these years later, I can't help but stop, stare and wish for a modified DeLorean to take me back to March 11, 1992.
That was the evening when the picture was taken; when an obscure University of Delaware forward named Anthony "Sweet" Wright slammed a basketball with such force, with such optimism that all of us in attendance momentarily believed Newark, Del., could be the center of the hoops universe.
Just look at the image. At Wright's knees, covered with braces from years of wear and tear. At the faces situated behind the basket, frozen in time. At the hope. We were 18-, 19-, 20-, and 21-year-olds, dressed in baggy jeans and sweatshirts, sporting high-top fades and backward baseball caps.
Inside the small, dark Delaware Field House -- a joint once appropriately described as a "moldy sardine tin" -- the Blue Hens (my Blue Hens) were destroying Drexel in the North Atlantic Conference championship game. Never before had Delaware qualified for the NCAA tournament. Hell, never before had Delaware come close. So when Wright dunked that ball, all but sealing the 92-68 triumph, the place exploded. Chants of "We want Duke!" filled the air. Andre Buck, the last man off the bench, scored a basket, then pranced joyfully along the bench. Students stormed to court, looking to scream, looking to dance, looking to hug.
It was at that moment when I really loved sports.
The year is 2010.
On the Delaware campus, little is remembered of that magical run of 18 years ago. Recently, this YouTube clip made its way around the athletic department, eliciting mostly guffaws over the short-shorts and pitiful mascot.
Based largely off of that season, the folks at UD thought big and bigger and BIGGEST. They wanted the team to become -- in coach speak -- "A program." Hence, a new cookie-cutter arena, the Bob Carpenter Center, opened up. Then, in 2001, a switch was made, from the so-so NAC to the highly competitive Colonial Athletic Association. In one of its brochures, the university even had an artist paint a banner reading: "University of Delaware -- NCAA Men's Basketball Champions."
So where are the Blue Hens? Wallowing in a pit of putridity. They enter today's CAA tournament as the 12th seed, sporting a 7-23 record and a New Jersey Nets-like chance of pulling out a victory. An arena that can hold 5,000 fans is usually 80 percent empty, and the coach, Monte Ross, is rumored to be fighting for his job. The Hens haven't had so much as a .500 season since 2003-04.
In short, the team is in shambles.
What went wrong? Simple. In the world of big-time college sports, good is never enough. Winning is never enough. If you went 23-5, well, you should have gone 24-4. If you reached the regionals, well, you should have reached the finals. There's always a need to jump to a larger conference; to recruit a higher caliber of player; to "take that next step" -- even if happiness seems to reign as is.
Last year at this time Binghamton, the academic gem of New York's state universities, shocked the college basketball world by winning the America East Conference and reaching its first NCAA tournament. On the school's campus, administrators surely patted themselves on the backs; a crowning achievement for an operation that had jumped from Division III to Division I a mere eight years earlier. The motive behind the move, according to a 2006 university magazine piece titled "Binghamton's Climb from NCAA Division III to Division I is paying off," was that, with big-time college sports, Binghamton would rise from obscurity to greatness.
Well, the rise-from-obscurity part was right. Across America, everyone knows Binghamton -- as a place you would send your kids to only if DeVry and the Coastal College Truck Driving School fall through. Just a few days ago the university dropped out of this year's America East tournament because of "possible distractions." Which is a quaint little euphemism for "Since last season we've had some problems here -- including our star point guard being arrested for possession of crack, six players being dismissed, the athletic director resigning, the head coach being placed on leave (for improper contact with recruits), an academic scandal and an assistant coach allegedly arranging cash payments and completed work assignments for players."
In other words, Binghamton -- like Delaware -- lost its identity and, as a result, its way.
Luckily, I have a solution. A crazy, wild, wacky solution that nobody in their right mind will listen to. Delaware -- return to a smaller conference. Play for the love of the sport; for the excitement of competition; for a shot at making an NCAA tournament, even if you'll lose to Texas or Kansas or Kentucky by 40. Think back to those days of Wright and Buck and Spencer Dunkley and Rick Deadwyler, when minimal expectations equaled great reward.
Binghamton -- return to Division III. Invoke the name Chris Ballerini, your scrappy little point guard from the mid-1990s, who scraped his knees and cracked his teeth and played not for scholarship dough or a free academic pass, but because he felt pride in seeing BINGHAMTON spelled out across his chest.
Oh, just have the DeLorean back by 10.
I've got Cleveland State tickets. They say this Mouse McFadden kid is pretty good.
Jeff Pearlman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org