Welcome to my Countdown to Kickoff opinion week column, the annual column I write to discuss the links I see between football and the non-revenue sports. Or at least allude to them.
As it stands, this is the state of Georgia Tech athletics, outside of the gridiron:
- Women’s Tennis: Sweet Sixteen, ACC Runner-Up
- Women’s Basketball: Sweet Sixteen
- Golf: NCAA Top 15 Finish
- Men’s Basketball: ACC Champions, NCAA Appearance
- Baseball: ACC Coastal Campions, NCAA Result TBD
- Men’s Swimming and Diving: Top 30 NCAA Finish
- Women’s Cross Country: Top 30 NCAA Finish
- Women’s Swimming and Diving: Top 30 NCAA Finish
- Volleyball: NCAA Round of 32
- Men’s Tennis: NCAA Appearance
- Men’s Cross Country, Men’s Track and Field, and Women’s Track and Field: Several Notable Individual Performances
- Softball: ACC Tourney Appearance
For those keeping score at home, this is pretty darn good. Up and down the roster of sports, there were a bevy of record finishes, drought-breaking NCAA performances, and exciting returns-to-form. There were surprises and delights, and on the whole, the good things we saw from all 16 non-football sports at Tech far outweighed the bad.
Plenty of ink was spilled, virtual and real, and it was spilled by plenty of writers. These exciting and productive seasons of growth brought joy and notoriety to many, and their endeavors were spread and made known. In the world of social media and streaming services, it is ever-easier to follow along with the teams that historically haven’t had the benefit of large amounts of media attention. The added benefit of this is the increased ease of which people are able to learn about new programs and develop attachments to these sports.
There’s only one problem. There’s only so much oxygen in the room. There’s only so much attention people give. There’s one primary front door that people make their impressions of a program on, and that’s football. Everything else, from social media follows, to traditional media coverage, to even content on this here Tech sports website that I do my darnedest to promote the less heralded sports as best I can, skews dramatically in favor of football, and, to a lesser extent followed by the basketball teams and baseball/softball/volleyball.
This metaphor, that a rising tide lifts all ships, is often used in the world of college sports. This is a phrase used to describe the Alabama athletic department, or a place like Ohio State. The notoriety and success of Alabama football has done great things for the rest of their program - they have a well-deserved reputation of success on the field and institutional commitment to making sure a program is successful.
Rarely, though, do you hear about that working the other way.
I think it is a fair thing to say that football has an outsized influence on the perception an outsider or a casual fan has on a school’s athletics programming as a whole. When that reputation is that of underwhelming or underperforming, you can be a literal conference of champions (looking at you, Pac 12) and dominate the Olympic sports like no one’s business, but still have the “what have you done for me lately” attitude about football success cloud your reputation and success away from the pigskin. The athletic reputation of a school is not tied solely to the successes and failures of a team, school, or conference on the gridiron, but there’s darn sure a lot of attention and gnashing of teeth that gets pegged to the successes of that one particular program.
The tide, it can be said, at Georgia Tech, is about as high as one can reasonably ask it to get on a yearly basis. Of course, in any given year, a basketball team could make a final four or a non-revenue sport can have an individual champion or even a team champion. Heck, Tech baseball could still make a run to Omaha this weekend, and that would by no means go unnoticed. Tech’s edition of the national pastime does happen to have over 30,000 followers on Twitter alone and a sterling reputation for past success and player development, after all.
But there’s a reason that whole websites exist to track football uniforms and historical records. There’s a reason that players returning to campus for the summer workouts warrants a hype video. It is often said that athletics is the front porch to the mission of a university off of the field. If this is true, the sports can be assumed to be other parts of said porch. Basketball are the stairs and the bannister. Baseball and softball can be the porch swing or some chairs. Football is the dang front door.
This is how the sport hierarchy perceived by outsiders and newcomers, at least. While you, dear reader, or I might favor the Thrillerdome or O’Keefe, it is undeniable that football has the biggest budget, and the sport has an essentially eternal presence on radio, written journalism, television, and podcasts. It is the sport that, barring the annual novelty of filling out a bracket, is best able to capture the minds of casual sports fans without particular ties to a school or team. And when the perception of that marquee program is poor, there are perception-based consequences.
As of last month, I’m now a graduate of this fine Institute. But last fall, I was still in school, enjoying one last season as a student. The predominant narrative from ever underclassman I spoke to that came into this whole “Georgia Tech fandom” thing by nature of becoming a student and picking it up when they got here (i.e., they weren’t a fan until around then) is that Georgia Tech is a school which is not all that great at football, and are generally under-informed as to the state of the rest of the program. Two years of three win football will do that. Four years of football that maxed out with a Quick Lane Bowl appearance and six wins will do that, too. This isn’t a matter of triple option or not, it’s a matter of popular perception. The crazy thing is, though, I found myself saying a lot, is that Georgia Tech won nine games, beat the Athens and Blacksburg boys on the road, and won the Gator Bowl all while I was at Tech, and all of it in the same year. The Orange Bowl was very much so a living memory of the campus that first fall I was around. But perception is king. It is very difficult to convince a sports-ambivalent or sports-antagonist student to just keep holding on and wait for the turn around, or to get amped up about recruiting rankings they don’t understand, or to wait until baseball season. The same can be said for children or friends of alumni, or casual fans, or new transplants to Atlanta, although I can’t say I personally can vouch for those exact experiences yet, because I haven’t lived that like I lived the life of being the Ramblin’ Reck Club football chair.
There’s only so much winning can do when those wins don’t register on the same magnitude as one does on one of 12 Saturdays in the fall.
I wish that weren’t true. I love writing about non-revenue sports, and I wish that 55,000 people would or could pack a Georgia Tech volleyball game or, heck, even a men’s basketball game, aside from the obvious physical impracticalities of that, of course.
But the light at Georgia Tech is on. The stairs are swept, the flower boxes are weeded. It’s time to blow the door wide open. It’s time to fill the porch with students, alumni, fans, and family. It’s time to step out on a field and for toe to meet leather.
It’s time to win.
It would shine light on the successes of this department, from its other sports, to the improvements in marketing and branding, as well as the successful fundraising and support cultivated in recent years. It would boost our profile in football, in recruiting, and in the eyes of potential athletes in other Tech sports. It would validate the hard, determined work of the staff and coaches of the program. It would be a financial boon, and improve NLI value for the athletes on the field. It would help attract students and fans, the lifeblood of any school or program, and help forge stronger ties among people and between them and the Institute. It would help grow support for the very programs we talked about in the beginning.
It would lift every ship.
94 Days Til Kickoff