When one thinks of a college football or basketball game, the commonly generated are packed stadiums, tail-gating parties, and enthusiasm sparked by the student population. This common perception of college athletics is absent here at Stony Brook University where fan attendance, school spirit is extremely low. At the same time, the athletic program here at Stony Brook is struggling to draw in top recruits, build a strong foundation of success, and become competitive nationwide. Without the fans and school spirit, it becomes challenging to draw in top recruits. Without the recruits, it is difficult to strengthen teams to become highly competitive, and with the lack of a competitive team, it is difficult to attract fans and promote school spirit. It is a cycle that has plagued Stony Brook for quite some time.
Much of the struggle is due in part to the very young nature of the athletic program. To understand why many Stony Brook sports teams struggle at the Division I level, one must put the school’s athletic program into historical perspective. As Stony Brook University celebrates it 50th anniversary, it holds birth to a nine year Division I program. Despite the school being in its D-1 infancy, Stony Brook contends with the highest level of competition in the NCAA. Many of the teams Stony Brook competes against are known to hold national powerhouse programs such as North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Villanova, Virginia. Some of these schools have been in existence for 150 years, most of which were spent at the D-1 level. Such teams are nationally recognized for their athletic programs as they have had decade after decade to slowly build up their athletic programs. Stony Brook has had yet to experience a full decade on the Division I level.
The youth of the program hinders success, especially on the D-1 level, but provides a challenge the Stony Brook athletic department looks forward to overcoming. Executive Associate Director of Athletics Paul Schlickmann says, “It was absolutely the right decision to move into Division I in 1999. President Kenney has a vision to improve the university’s reputation, to make us a nationally recognized university, and to strive for excellence in athletics as well as academics.” However, success does not occur overnight and as Schlickmann explains this is still an “evolving process”.
“We are working every day to develop a powerful athletic program”, Schlickmann continues. “The formula for success is good coaching, quality players, a proud university to attract recruits, hard work, and a winning attitude.” These are excellent ideals to live up to, but they are by no means easy to attain in reality. In this time, Stony Brook has produced few accolades with the football team sharing the 2005 Northeast Conference Championship with Central Connecticut State University, the Men’s Soccer team winning the Northeast Conference only to lose in the second round of the NCAA championships. This year alone, athletics have proven to be inconsistent. Teams such as the lacrosse program appear competitive, whereas others, such as the basketball team, came up with disappointing seasons. However one of the reasons why the basketball team may have suffered this season is the recruits.
Clearly it varies from sport to sport, but Schlickmann explains the basic recruiting process as follows. The goal for most teams is to identify and cultivate athletes when they are in their junior year of high school. A coach will start out with a wide base of recruiting candidates and slowly narrow it down. Not too long ago, the only way a coach could identify recruits was by actually traveling to high school playoff games or championships in the NY area. With the advent and influence of national ranking services, coaches can track talented high school athletes across the country from a young age.
Once an athlete is singled out as a potential recruit, he or she will be contacted by a coach and invited to visit the campus either “officially,” which is an overnight stay usually paid for by the university, or “unofficially,” which is not paid for by the university and typically not an overnight stay. The key for many sports programs at Stony Brook is to expand the scope of our recruiting. Cross country, tennis, soccer, and basketball have already recruited international athletes, while many programs such as baseball have continued to recruit primarily from the Long Island area.
One of the university’s most popular and recruit-dependant sport is football. This past season the football team had a 6-5 record. This is very respectable considering the team faced nationally-ranked opponents in Richmond, Youngstown State, and Hofstra. In order to compete at such a high level, the team has started to put a focus on national recruitment.
The roster this past season included players from California, Texas, Florida, Maryland, D.C., Ohio, and Michigan, as well as many players from the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania region. Starting next season in 2008, Stony Brook football will move into the Big South Conference, where the Seawolves will compete against teams from states like Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Director of Athletic Communications Phil Hess explains this as, among other reasons, a move to garner more recruits. “Stony Brook is not well known outside of the northeast,” Hess says. “Moving to the Big South will increase exposure and recruitment. If kids in southern states see us beat or compete with their teams, they might be interested in attending our university.” Matt Larsen, the Associate AD for Business Ops and Administration here at Stony Brook University, said the move to compete against national powerhouses is because “recruits don’t necessarily want to play X university.” Rather, he explained that many eighteen-year-old recruits are looking to play the bigger teams to see how they compare on a national and competitive level.
For freshman Mazen Chami, the decision to leave Nigeria and play for the Men’s soccer team was based primarily on education. Chami said, “Education comes first. Once I get my degree then I can look to coaching or even playing professionally, knowing that I have something to fall back on.” Chami suggests that in order to build up competitive teams, coaches should recruit more international players, players with greater experience, and players who won championships. When asked about the fan attendance, Chami quickly responsed, “terrible.” Chami went on to say that because of the location, most kids go home whenever they want to, and as a result see no reason to cheer on their team. The remedy to the poison of the large number of commuters and residents who go home, Chami says, is winning. “It would be nice if we got a huge crowd, not just for finals, or a playoff game, but for a regular game. In the end the jersey we are wearing is representing them [the students]. It is not a jersey with our names on the front but the school.”
Sophomore Maeve Leng left Forest Hills, Queens to join the Stony Brook women’s swim team. Leng says that Stony Brook is different from schools like Villanova and Penn State. “With schools like that, you ask someone what they are doing that night and they say Oh I am going to the basketball game, obviously. But that is not the case here.” Sophomore Jess Peters, also a member of the swim team, chose Stony Brook for its location as it was far from home. But Peters says that the large number of commuter students makes the campus feel different as both an athlete and a student. Leng added that students and athletes tend to be in different groups, thus alienating the two. “All athletes hang out with each other and not really anyone else, and I don’t know, I think that could probably be a reason why some people haven’t heard much about sports,” said Leng. Despite the possible schism between athletes and non-athletes, Peters feels the athletic program is improving, as she said, “every year something gets better.”
Next year, the Athletic Complex will be undergoing a $20 million dollar renovation and expansion. The basketball arena will be converted to stadium-style seating replacing the high-school gym feel, according to Larsen. In addition, the basketball teams will be given new locker facilities, video rooms, and lounges. This has to do with the building of infrastructure as well as providing a fan-friendly environment, which intends to attract more fans. Often it is the fan support that is overlooked factor in building a powerful and competitive. A big draw when it comes to recruiting is whether or not the school an athlete is considering has a large fan base, especially on campus. With the exception of our football team’s homecoming game, many of our home games in football, basketball, and baseball receive little fan attendance and support.
The athletic department has done an adequate job by most standards by providing the state of the art facilities to the sports programs. Both the football stadium and indoor basketball court can seat far more than the number of fans who show up to most games. This is a bit perplexing, because most students, when asked, say they wish our teams would do better, yet they expect the teams to do better in the absence of peer support.
Associate Athletic Director Paul Schlickmann says, “If we want to make D-1 athletics part of Stony Brook University’s campus culture and student life, then campus and student support is absolutely crucial.” He cited the university’s athletic code of conduct as including commitment, passion, pride, respect, and swagger. “By swagger we mean the expectation to win every time our players step on the field or court.”
Having a huge, supportive crowd of fans screaming and yelling and cheering is central to fostering an attitude of swagger among Stony Brook athletes, and it plays a large role in influencing top recruits to choose SBU over other schools.
Overall, the athletic program is overshadowed by poor school spirit, which hinders athletic success. Larsen said the athletic program is well aware of this, but is looking to resolve this situation in the best way possible. He said that Stony Brook is building up strength on all sports, saying how other than basketball and lacrosse, how well Duke performs in other sports. “The key is to build infrastructure, have a strong foundation, and not become a one-year wonder,” said Larsen. In the end, the continuing cycle of poor school spirit will continue to slow down athletic progress, and the only way to improve school spirit is through winning and being nationally competitive. If Stony Brook builds it, the students will come.