Bona court storm

Students storm the Reilly Center court after the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team’s upset of No. 18-ranked Virginia Commonwealth in February. Athletic success, many believe, gives Bona national recognition and shapes the university’s overall identity.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Shawn Campbell, a journalism and mass communication major who graduated last Sunday from St. Bonaventure University, devoted his senior capstone project to the financial challenges of athletic spending at SBU. This is the second in a three-part Sunday series exploring the future of St. Bonaventure athletics. Today’s installment examines the value of Division I athletics.)

Dan Collins made his point clear.

“St. Bonaventure University has five living Pulitzer Prize winners,” the Board of Trustees member said. “Yet if you ask people on the street for a one-word association to St. Bonaventure, the chances are you’ll hear far more of them say “basketball” or “Bob Lanier,” if you’re my age. Perhaps “Andrew Nicholson.” You will not hear any of them name one of those five Pulitzer Prize winners.”

Despite being one of the smallest schools in Division I, Bonaventure has big-time name recognition nationwide thanks to athletics.

“Men’s basketball ... it’s the face of the university,” said coach Mark Schmidt, who is the university’s highest-paid employee. “I think if you look throughout the country, why do schools invest in basketball and football? It’s how they advertise.”

During the past season, alone, seven Bona men’s basketball games aired on national television. Marcus Posley’s buzzer-beater against nationally ranked Virginia Commonwealth, and the ensuing Reilly Center court storm, landed the Bonnies on ESPN’s SportsCenter.

“It’s hard to go anywhere and say, ‘I’m St. Bonaventure,’ and people say, ‘I’ve never heard of it,’” said Sister Margaret Carney, university president.

But with exposure comes criticism. Carney has heard the claims of an overemphasis on athletics — her university being dubbed “St. Basketball University.” It’s upsetting, she said.

“This university exists to teach. That’s our core mission,” Carney said. “That said, sport in our culture is a public face of an institution. Because people care about sports, winning teams are popular and sport gets media coverage. I am incredibly proud of the fact that we got our best-ever Middle States academic evaluation this year. ESPN didn’t care. CBS didn’t care. It’s not a story. The fact that we’re doing great academics doesn’t matter to media, and that’s why people get upset. They want to see that we’re famous for academics, and I can’t change the cultural values of the United States of America by myself.”

Baseball coach Larry Sudbrook recalled recruiting a player who was planning to attend St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester. The player and his father liked St. Bonaventure and the Atlantic 10 program. However, his mother was skeptical about St. Bonaventure’s academics, believing St. John Fisher was superior in that regard.

“‘I don’t ever hear anything about St. Bonaventure, except athletics,’” Sudbrook recalled her saying. “I said, ‘Ma'am, the reason you haven’t heard anything about the athletics at St. John Fisher is it’s Division III, so nobody gives a s---.’”

QUANTIFYING THE VALUE

In terms of value, new athletic director Tim Kenney called the exposure St. Bonaventure receives through athletics the “non-quantifiable stuff.”

If that’s the case, then how can the value of Division I athletics be quantified?

To Carney, it’s one number: 250. Having Division I athletics brings in 250 student-athletes — most of whom do not receive full scholarships — and helps a declining enrollment.

“Two hundred fifty students is a huge number of people who’ve chosen to be here,” she said.

The majority excel in the classroom, said Michael Kasperski, the university’s faculty athletic representative.

“Their academics are, on average, better than the general student body,” he said. Two-thirds of Bonaventure’s student-athletes have grade-point averages above 3.0, he said. Half are Dean’s List students, with GPAs of 3.25 or above. One-third boast GPAs of 3.5 or above.

“People don’t realize that,” Kasperski said. “As faculty athletic rep, I try to get that word out.”

Bonaventure’s number of student-athletes and overall enrollment could increase through the addition of a new sport. Kenney and Collins said the university is in the process of adding a men’s and women’s distance-only track program, which would be married with cross country.

“It makes sense. ... It will help attract more runners to be for both,” Kenney said, estimating that could mean an addition of possibly nine or 10 student-athletes overall.

“There are kids that love to run track and to run cross country,” said cross country coach Bob Macfarlane, “and there’s a lot of kids you talk to, they want to do both in college because they like the track aspect.”

Bonaventure currently fields the minimum number of sports (14) for NCAA Division I membership. If the university were to add distance-only track, Kenney said there are currently no plans to consider dropping any existing sports.

“If you add that, you’re talking the minimal cost of adding the sport and getting a significant return on investment back to the school in a form of tuition and room and board by those athletes coming, so it’s kind of a business decision,” he said.

For recruitment of non-student-athletes, Bonaventure’s Division I athletic status does not influence decisions to attend, Carney said.

“We’ve asked that question,” she said. “Unless you are a student-athlete coming to play, for the rest of the students, it’s not the characteristic that makes them want to be here.”

“I’ve done anecdotal studies for 13 years asking students if they came here because of Division I athletics,” said Paul Wieland, a lecturer of journalism and mass communication. “Except for the Division I athletes, it’s less that 5 percent that told me they did.”

It works both ways, said Barry Gan, whose son, Reid, played on the men’s soccer team at Bonaventure.

“He wouldn’t have come here if it hadn’t been for Division I athletics,” said Gan, a professor of philosophy and chair of the Faculty Senate. “That’s true with every Division I athlete here. So if we end Division I, we immediately lose 250 to 280 students. Do we gain 250 to 280 if we go Division III? Maybe. I don’t know. We haven’t done the studies to see. Yeah, I think Division I athletics brings students here. Does it bring more students that would come here than if we had Division III? I don’t know.”

St. Bonaventure’s trustees, however, recently affirmed a commitment to the Atlantic 10 upon completing a months-long study of the university’s athletic model.

“At a time of declining high school enrollments in New York, the A-10’s wide footprint expands our brand into so many out-of-state markets. Furthermore, the league’s national TV exposure has increased exponentially over the last few years and will only continue to do so,” Carney said in a statement. "Our presence in the Atlantic 10, a league with a great academic reputation, is an asset we fully intend to leverage even more.”

Schmidt said, “Athletics have become such a big part of the culture of our country. Without us being in the Atlantic 10, I don’t think the school could survive it.”

SMALL SCHOOL LIVING BIG

To many, having Division I athletics, especially basketball, makes St. Bonaventure something more than a university of 1,800 students in rural Western New York.

“It allows a small school and a small town to touch the things they see on TV, to touch something bigger,” said women’s basketball coach Jim Crowley.

It makes Bonaventure different, said alumnus Mike Vaccaro, the lead sports columnist at the New York Post.

“I think without Division I basketball, what’s the difference between St. Bonaventure and Le Moyne? What’s the difference between St. Bonaventure and Daemen College? What’s the difference between St. Bonaventure and Medaille?” he asked. “Those are fine schools and there’s nothing wrong with them. But St. Bonaventure has something that the other schools don’t.”

Right or wrong, basketball shapes St. Bonaventure’s identity, Schmidt said. Just look at the hundreds of brown-and-white-clad fans who flock to Brooklyn for the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament.

“Those people aren’t showing up for a science fair,” Schmidt said.

Citing the Flutie Effect at Boston College, Schmidt said he believes athletic success boosts academic success, increasing the university’s overall profile and potentially attracting better-quality students.

“I just think as the athletic program does better, everybody’s going to do better,” Schmidt explained.

Charles Walker disapproves of that philosophy. The longtime professor of psychology said Bonaventure places too much attention on Division I sports and not enough on academics.

Having “Division I academics,” with a commitment to developing programs, properly paying faculty and retaining quality faculty, would support Division I athletics, he said.

“We can have an academically-based university without athletics. The converse is definitely not true,” Walker said. “The issue is to get the right balance of things so that both the academic side of the culture of the university is strong and growing and then that supports the athletic side of it. It seems that we have taken a strategy that’s kind of the other way around.”

John Bartimole, a 1976 Bona grad and former adjunct professor at the university, sees a more equal balance.

“Bonaventure is steeped in tradition, both academically and athletically,” he said, “and I think that both feed off each other.”

NEXT: Planning for the future.

(Shawn Campbell, a Times Herald sports writer, can be reached at scampbell@oleantimesherald.com)

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