Commentary

Lingering in shadows isn't always bad

For a basketball coach, life at a "football school" is all about how you approach it

Originally Published: September 10, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Maybe if he'd grown up somewhere else, he'd think differently.

Maybe if his late father, Charles, hadn't spent his career coaching high school football, he would come at it from a different perspective.

[+] EnlargeDoc Sadler
AP Photo/Donna McWilliamDoc Sadler knows football will always be No. 1 at Nebraska, but that hasn't slowed down the enthusiasm he has for the school.

But Doc Sadler's childhood roots, dug deep in the athletic fields of Arkansas, are the best barometers for realism that the Nebraska basketball coach knows.

And those roots, attached in childhood in what is now SEC country and stretched as a head coach in the heart of the Big 12, know one thing for certain: In those two conferences, football is king.

"This is never going to be a basketball league that plays football," Sadler said. "I do think basketball has closed the gap significantly, but do I ever think it's going to change altogether? No, not as long as we've got schools in places like Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska."

Last weekend the cheers of the masses greeted the crunch of shoulder pads (or if you're an OU fan, just the crunch of a shoulder), signifying the start of an all-American holiday season, the official kickoff of college football. In some places it is merely a pastime, but it is a religion in others where the faithful flock to their concrete and steel churches every Saturday to genuflect at the altar of the pigskin.

It is an overwhelming scene that can swallow up everything in its path.

Which can be problematic when you're trying to grow a basketball team.

"Sure we have to fight it because other schools use it against us," Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. "Certain programs send out negative mailouts or will just tell kid, 'You don't want to go there. That's a football school.' If we can get in front of them, get them on campus, we can show them that isn't the case at all. But we have to fight it because it's being said."

Certainly the early years aren't easy. Capel, who spent his college career in front of the adoring Cameron Crazies, played to sparse crowds in his first season at OU while folks tried to figure out just who this young new outsider was. Even as the Sooners were sprinting toward a 30-win season in 2008-09, they were outdrawn by an Iowa State program that finished 4-12 in league play.

When Billy Donovan arrived at Florida, the Gators were in the midst of a 77-year SEC title drought. In other words, things were a touch stale. Convincing players to take a flier on a team that had no real tradition at a school knee-deep in football mania wasn't easy.

"How hard? It was hard," Donovan said. "You needed to find players to believe in a vision that didn't exist. That first class with Mike Miller, that's what really started to change the perception."

There is plenty of evidence that top-flight football and high-end hoops can coexist happily. The embarrassment of riches stuffed in the Florida trophy case serves as Exhibits A through C, after the school went for a back-to-back-to-back tango of men's basketball and football titles from April 2006 to April 2007.

Since 2003, Texas has appeared in three BCS bowls, won a football national championship, appeared in a men's basketball Final Four and thrown in an additional pair of trips to the Elite Eight. Oh, and the Longhorns also had that Kevin Durant guy.

Oklahoma finished as runner-up to Florida in last season's BCS title game and the basketball Sooners went to the Elite Eight. Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy, while Blake Griffin won just about every national player of the year award and went as the first pick in the NBA draft.

But there are just as many bad comparisons as good. In 2006, the last time Alabama went to the NCAA tournament, the Tide averaged 10,503 people at Coleman Coliseum. That's not bad, but it's 5,000 shy of capacity. Average attendance was 9,960 last season.

The last time 'Bama didn't fill 92,000-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium was 1988. The last two spring football games have drawn crowds of 78,200 and 84,050.

[+] EnlargeJimmy DeFilippo
Jimmy DeFilippo/US PresswireTwo national titles have made Florida fans care about basketball. That's not exactly the case at some other Southeastern Conference schools.

Fellow SEC schools Georgia and Auburn finished among the nation's top 10 in football attendance last season, but averaged 6,700 (UGA) and 5,108 (Auburn) in hoops. USC drew an average of 87,000 to the Coliseum, but a total of 95,507 in 17 home dates at the sparkling new Galen Center. Penn State was second in the nation in football attendance (108,254), but its improved basketball team drew just 8,020 a game, about half-capacity at the Bryce Jordan Center.

The examples go on and on.

But the way most basketball coaches figure it, you have two choices: scream and rail about the injustices or ride the coattails to your own success.

Rick Barnes has logged more time at football schools than Keith Jackson, working at Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama and now Texas. But he's also pit-stopped at places like Providence and George Mason, where there is no football.

Given his druthers, he'll take the perceived competition from football.

"Football is a major help," he said. "You bring kids in for visits on home weekends, the exposure your school gets, you can't match that," Barnes said.

But there is one simple common denominator that makes the two alpha dogs cohabitate peacefully, he said.

"It's all about your administration," he said. "When I first came to Texas, our athletic director told me, 'We want a basketball program that mirrors the University of Texas.' He didn't say one that mirrored football or baseball. When we built our practice facility, the only thing he asked is that I not build something that needs to be torn down a few years later, to not waste money and do it right. We have never been on hold."

The same holds true with all the success stories.

At Florida, thanks to athletic director Jeremy Foley, the Gators put up a hoops-only practice facility in 2001. When Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who grew up in ACC country and started his career at Wake Forest, arrived in Knoxville he realized immediately that the basketball facilities weren't up to snuff.

In 2007, the Vols -- buoyed by the success of Bruce Pearl's first couple of teams -- opened their own practice facility and then underwent a two-year, $35-million renovation to Thompson-Boling Arena. Last school year, Tennessee was the only university in the country that ranked in the top 10 nationally in attendance in both football and hoops (fourth in each).

Even at Nebraska, where football legend Tom Osborne is the AD, fundraising and planning is underway for a new basketball facility.

"When you start talking about training table, life skills, travel, equipment, we have everything you need to be successful," Sadler said. "Coach [Osborne] understands two things. He understands winning and recruiting. If you go to coach and you say, 'This is going to help recruiting,' he'll get it done for you."

But here's the poetic twist. The high-end practice facilities and tricked-out locker rooms that have become required gear in the come-hither world of recruiting exist because of football. Those buildings cost money -- lots of money -- and nothing generates cash flow like football.

[+] EnlargeSEC Basketball
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyThe bottom line is golden in the SEC, where $132.5 million will be dished out among member schools.

Of the top 20 revenue-producers in 2008, 12 came from either the Big 12 or SEC (the other eight came from the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Notre Dame). That's not coincidental.

Put 85-to-100,000 ticketholders in a building six or seven weekends in the fall and do the math.

But it's more than that.

The projected payout to the lucky conferences that score the two spots in the BCS Championship game is $17.5 million. The same is true for the other four BCS games. So last season Colorado finished 5-7, but thanks to Oklahoma and Texas, who played in the BCS Championship game and Fiesta Bowl respectively, the Buffs received a nice slice of the Big 12's $35 million pie.

And those were just the two BCS games, thank you very much. The other bowls generate sweet revenue, too.

The SEC, which averaged an NCAA-record 76,844 at its football games last season, reported in June it would distribute a record $132.5 million to its member schools. Between TV and bowl money, football was responsible for $91.7 million.

Some basketball programs turn a profit, but none can come close to matching that. With revenue sharing factored in, even 2009 national champ North Carolina took home only around $1.4 million for this spring's NCAA tourney appearance.

"At the end of the day, football feeds us all," Pearl said. "We're the icing on the cake. Sometimes the icing can make the difference. Basketball over the last few years put Tennessee over the top, but without football, none of us eat."

The trickiest part? Egos. No one wants to play second fiddle -- not coaches, not players, no one. But the reality is, basketball isn't going to put 80,000 people in a building or score the ultimate cha-ching.

So smart coaches have learned a simple lesson: play nice.

"It depends on how you want to look at it," Sadler said. "If you think you're going to go in and fight football or be jealous of football … well, then I'd say you better not take this job."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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