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Yellow Jacket Year in Review: The Director’s Cup Conundrum

How can Tech compete in a holistically with just seventeen varsity sports?

The sun sets on another beautiful day on the Flats, and another year of Tech sports. But the sun also rises the next day. And so the season starts anew.
Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

MUNICH, GERMANY - Nearing the halfway point of the summer review, it’s a good time to take a half-step back. Looking back at the past year of each of the non-revenue sports, it’s important to not forget about the future of the program as a whole. So, where are the non-revenue sports going? What comes next? What developments can Tech fans reasonably expect in non-revenue news in the future?

If you haven’t already seen the results for this year’s director’s cup, I’d advise against going to look for them. I warned you. Carter didn’t mince words in Friday’s Technical Tidbits, but, to everyone who wants us to be Stanford: no one is Stanford. Everyone wants to be Stanford. Only one school in the history of people measuring this kind of stuff, the very first year, did anyone beat Stanford at the art of the holistically excellent athletic department. So let’s establish our baseline. There are 42 NCAA-sanctioned varsity sports. The Georgia Institute of Technology has 17. Schools must have at least seven sports for men and women or six men’s sports and eight women’s sports. Each gender must have at least two team sports. While Tech isn’t at the minimum, it’s not nearly as many as your a lot Division 1 schools have. Tech begins any holistic evaluation with a systematic disadvantage, which is why looking at the Director’s Cup numbers without context is a fallacy.

NCAA Sports and Scholarship Limits 2018

Sport Men's Women's
Sport Men's Women's
Baseball 11.7
Basketball 13 15
Beach Volleyball 6.0
Bowling 5.0
Cross Country/Track and Field 12.6 18.0
Equestrian 15.0
Fencing 4.5 5.0
Field Hockey 12.0
Football 85
Golf 4.5 6.0
Gymnastics 6.3 12
Ice Hockey 18.0 18.0
Lacrosse 12.6 12.0
Rifle 3.6
Rowing 20.0
Rugby 12.0
Skiing 6.3 7.0
Soccer 9.9 14.0
Softball 12.0
Swimming and Diving 9.9 14.0
Tennis 4.5 8
Triathlon 6.5
Volleyball 4.5 12
Water Polo 4.5 8.0
Wrestling 9.9
Sport Total 17 21
Scholarship Total 221.3 237.5
Track and Field and Cross Country have weird scholarship rules. Obviously other caveats apply. Numbers with decimals are equivalency sports, others are counting sports.

For comparison, here’s the full list of Georgia Tech varsity sports:

Georgia Tech Sports 2018

Sport Season Coach 2017-18 Finish Scholarship Equivalent Funding Level
Sport Season Coach 2017-18 Finish Scholarship Equivalent Funding Level
Baseball Spring Danny Hall 31-27, ACC Pool Play 11.7 Full
Men's Basketball Winter Josh Pastner 13-19, ACC First Round 13 Full
Women's Basketball Winter MaChelle Joseph 20-14, WNIT Quarters 15 Full
Men's Cross Country Fall Alan Drosky 8th ACC, 12th NCAA Regionals 12.6* In-State
Women's Cross Country Fall Alan Drosky 12th ACC, 5th NCAA Regionals 18.0* In-State
Football Fall Paul Johnson 5-6, no bowl 85 Full
Men's Golf Spring Bruce Heppler ACC Champions, 6th NCAA Regional 4.5 Full
Softball Spring Aileen Morales 28-26, ACC Quarterfinals 12.0 Full
Men's Swimming and Diving Winter Courtney Shealy Hart no. 25, 9th ACC 9.9 In-State
Women's Swimming and Diving Winter Courtney Shealy Hart NR, 10th ACC 14.0 In-State
Men's Tennis Spring Kenny Thorne ACC Quarters 4.5 Full
Women's Tennis Spring Rodney Harmon ACC Semis, NCAA Semis 8 Full
Men's Indoor Track and Field Winter Grover Hinsdale 8th ACC, 1 NCAA Qualifier 12.6* In-State
Women's Indoor Track and Field Winter Alan Drosky 13th ACC, 1 NCAA Qualifier 18.0* In-State
Men's Outdoor Track and Field Spring Grover Hinsdale 13th ACC, 2 NCAA Qualifiers 12.6* In-State
Women's Outdoor Track and Field Spring Alan Drosky 13th ACC, 1 NCAA Qualifier 18.0* In-State
Women's Volleyball Fall Michelle Collier 13-18, no postseason 12 Full
*Cross Country/Track and Field have weird rules. Also of note: anything with a decimal is an equivalence sport. Without a decimal is a counting sport.

As you can tell, the idea of the Director’s Cup as a useful comparison to the likes of, well, most other schools, isn’t too helpful. Is this to say Tech had a fantastic year, and they just didn’t get rewarded because of the nature of the game? The answer to that is also probably a resounding no.

That’s because, across the board, most sports had somewhat of a down year. The women’s tennis team had their fantastic run to the NCAA Semifinals this past spring, but, other than that, what did Tech have to show for the 2017-2018 year? The next best team on the Flats was the men’s golf team, who, for their part, won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, but sputtered in the NCAA Regionals. They were seeded first, the highest ranked team in the field, yet finished sixth, narrowly edged out of a spot in the national championship field. This was less than ideal.

Men’s tennis lost transcendent star Chris Eubanks before the season started. It was a rebuilding year for women’s volleyball. Track and cross country did about the same as ever - a middle-of-the-pack finish. For their parts, men’s tennis and the running teams sent individual entries to their respective NCAA championships. Don’t get me wrong, as a swimmer by trade, I fully respect the power of an individual entry. As the saying goes, if you have a lane, you have a chance. But competing for individual titles isn’t the same as taking home the team crown. Sure, Jeanine Williams, to cherrypick an example, deserves every bit of the praise she gets for being a world-class hurdler, but does that hold a candle to the school in Athens picking up two top-two finishes at that same NCAA outdoor track and field championship? I think not.

Men’s and women’s swimming and diving are an interesting combination of the frustrations of the aforementioned teams. The men’s team is almost always nationally ranked, yet they placed just 9th overall at the conference meet. Head coach Courtney Shealy Hart regularly recruits acclaimed men. They theoretically should finish higher than they did, yet they underperformed. Meanwhile, on the women’s side, similar to track, they compete against the best of the best, and though they look fantastic against the same or lower competition, they get blown out of the water by the top half of the conference. If we are to compete for championships, like Athletic Director Todd Stansbury preaches, having multiple sports squeak out tenth place finishes is not ideal.

Meanwhile, softball, volleyball, and women’s basketball, either from strong signing classes or recent staffing changes, are either already trending upwards, or looking to take solid strides from last year. These are good things not necessarily reflected in the standings of the Director’s Cup.

The ACC Championship Men’s Golf team.
Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

This one ranking system is flawed, even if Georgia Tech’s teams aren’t perfect themselves. As we’ve seen so far this summer, and will continue to see as this series moves on, there are many reasons behind any given team’s result. Each exists in their own microsystem, with their own successes, failures, graduates, recruits, and coaches. Looking at the program as a whole won’t really tell us what happens to them year-over-year. However, looking at how athletics as a whole is trying to comprehensively strengthen the portfolio of varsity sports, that paints a better picture of where the department is headed.

It’s important to realize Stansbury just finished his first full athletic year at the Edge. This doesn’t excuse everything, from the nitty-gritty of athletes’ performances on any given day, or coaches and how they are shaping their programs, but one does not simply revamp an entire department with a wave of the hand. Stansbury has made just one major coaching change in his time on the Flats: the hiring of head softball coach Aileen Morales. Everyone else, be they seemingly eternal like baseball’s Danny Hall, or as new as basketball’s Josh Pastner, was hired by a different man. And, for what it’s worth, the hire of Morales looks to be a stroke of genius by bringing a decorated alumna back to the Flats, with how much the team improved in less than a year under her leadership. More on that team in a few weeks.

Sure, change happens with time at the coaching positions, but what about recruiting initiatives? Eight of our seventeen varsity sports funded at only the in-state level. Those teams, not surprisingly, are track and field, cross country, and swimming and diving. Improvement comes with an improvement in funding, namely in scholarships. Currently, those sports aren’t fully funded, but a noted element of the Georgia Tech Athletics Initiative 2020 is scholarship endowment. These programs can and will be brought up to the level of tennis, volleyball, softball, golf, and basketball. Being able to fund scholarships at the highest level will improve recruiting, no matter how much fans think the pure allure of Tech should be enough of a draw on its own. Russell was a detractor. Not funding the significant cost of education at Georgia Tech is a detractor. One of those problems is gone. The other is dead to rites. The Athletics Initiative will improve operations, funding, and facilities across the board, helping both recruit, train, and maintain the Jackets with the very best. Of course, throwing money at our problems only helps if there’s money to throw. So, it’s time to give Stansbury something to warm up his arm.

And, in 2018, at least, the department was off to a good fiscal start, posting 2.1 million dollar surplus this past fiscal year. This is thanks to good ticket sales and the benefits of hosting the Atlanta Dream and Atlanta Hawks at McCamish Pavilion, Atlanta United at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and part of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Philips Arena. Obviously, the financial situation changes year-to-year, but Tech isn’t overspending its means. The Athletics Initiative and the new ACC Network, which becomes a linear channel in time for the 2019 football season, both require time, energy, and investment, but will pay off in the long haul.

Women’s Tennis had a magical run to the national semifinals this spring.
Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

What does that mean for non-revenue sports? Obviously, the previously noted scholarship, support, and student-athlete benefits will be profound. Stronger showings across the board raise Tech’s profile for that flawed Director’s Cup. But could there one day be a chance Tech at least has some more sports to compete with? After all, Tech is the only Power Five school in the country without a women’s soccer team. It’s one more team to invest in, fourteen more scholarships to fund, another coaching staff to employ, and more travel.

Stansbury wouldn’t necessarily rule it out. In a talk on sports innovation at Create-X this spring, he stated, “we will at some point be adding sports just because of the changing demographics at the Institute...and women’s soccer will be at the top of the list. We’ll also look at lacrosse and beach volleyball, but soccer’s looking like the top pick.” This is smart since soccer and lacrosse for both women and men are some of the highest-publicized sports Tech lacks. Tech builds from a strong culture in both sports, be it from the worldwide interest in soccer, as well as its explosion of interest in the Atlanta area thanks to the rousing success of Atlanta United, or from the successful Tech club men’s lacrosse team, which regularly places at the top of its league and draws well to their home games at Roe Stamps Field. Healthy television ratings for non-revenue sports from women’s soccer and men’s lacrosse on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network don’t hurt, either. These would be solid adds, but so would that sneaky third sport, beach volleyball.

Beach volleyball is a young sport in the NCAA. Having been one of the governing body’s most recent additions as an “emerging sport,” popularity is growing, and, across town, Georgia State recently started their own team, complementing their existing indoor volleyball program. In fact, two of Tech volleyball’s best recent players, the Van Gunst twins, are using their collegiate beach volleyball eligibility on Georgia State’s fledgling program while they complete graduate degrees. We have the talent at Tech to have this program already. Similarly, Tech recently completed beautiful golf facilities near Atlantic Station, which could potentially host a women’s team as well, though it wasn’t a sport Stansbury mentioned. Like women’s golf, there are more possibilities, but you get the point. Expansion, at some point, will happen.

Diving on Senior Day, a victory against Emory.
Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

The hardest part, it seems, is the investment required, which isn’t all that surprising. Luckily, Stansbury also offered insight into maximizing revenue from nonrev. Simply put, he said, “it ends up being a return on investment problem. What can we do the move the needle? You know, winning changes things.” It brings us almost full circle - when our non-revenue teams compete for championships, a rising tide lifts all boats. Interest, investment, and sustainability increase when teams are successful. To see Tech soccer or lacrosse, look no further than the Director’s Cup. It’s pointless to expect Tech to win it - we can’t with only seventeen varsity sports. But when Tech, to borrow a phrase, moves the needle, all the sports feel a boost. And, as for Stanford? Stansbury has some words on them, saying “I look at the Stanford brand. My hypothesis is that [athletes always look to Stanford] because they’re good at everything. I feel like we should have the same brand - there’s no reason Georgia Tech athletics shouldn’t be one of those schools that student athletes look to.” It’s a hard road to get there, and Stansbury and his department are making progress, but that’s an awfully lofty goal. Achieving it means everyone has to do their part. After all, a rising ride lifts all ships.

Coming next week: Women’s Basketball

Bonus link: here’s a blow-by-blow analysis of the rest of the Create-X talk for those who are interested.

Stay tuned for more investigation into the state of non-revenue sports, mild soapbox editorializing, and, hopefully, some productive discourse to get us through the summer. As always, fell free to leave any questions, comments, and feedback below.