Nov. 16, 2009
Tenth blog: Monarchs win opener, but there's more to Division I basketball than the playing and coaching
By Brendan O'Hallarn
I arrived a full two hours before Sunday's season opener at the Ted, a game Old Dominion would win emphatically, 69-38.
I walked in the service entrance, and saw the excited smiles on the workers, coaches and cheerleaders congregated at the entrance. As I travelled down one of the concrete corridors, I could hear the faint but steady drumbeat of basketballs from the court. Through the walls I could smell an industrial-sized batch of popcorn cooking. It was game day. I LOVE this job.
While I could go on and on about the impressive performance by the Monarchs - lockdown defense in the second half (holding Bethune-Cookman to 15 points), a dominant rebounding job at both ends of the court (39-22 advantage) - this blog is also designed to showcase the multi-faceted effort required to put a competitive Division I team on the court. And that includes paying the bills.
For the season opener, I shadowed Ben Murray, director of the Big Blue Club, the fund-raising arm for ODU athletics.
Part of the reason I arrived so far in advance of the game is that Murray and the Big Blue Club staff are there as well. They run three events simultaneously at every men's and women's basketball game.
In the Big Blue Room on the south end of the Constant Center, as many as 2,000 fans can sometimes cram in for the hour before tipoff, for halftime and after the final whistle.
I followed Ben into the Big Blue Room, and it wasn't more than a few seconds before a fan hailed him over to chat.
"This is my brother-in-law John, who's in from Colorado," a woman said to Murray.
Every few feet, another Monarch fan stopped him. Most just want to talk a little basketball.
"That's the hard part about game day. If I go in there, I can spend an hour before you know it," Murray said. "I'd like to stay and talk with everyone, but there just isn't enough time."
On game day, Murray's Blackberry rings nonstop. In addition to the Big Blue Room, the Big Blue Club runs a suite for larger donors called the Constant Club. And potential future donors are entertained in the Presidents' Suite on the upper level of the Ted Constant Center. Big Blue Club workers float between all three.
"We're there to make sure they're enjoying the experience of ODU basketball. But when the game is on, we all sort of stand back, because that's what these people are there for, to watch the games," Murray said.
So far this year, the Big Blue Club has raised $2 million for Old Dominion University athletic teams, the first time that figure has been crested. So every day is game day for Murray, who came to ODU three years ago, to help with the giant financial task of fund-raising for a new football team.
I chatted last month with Murray and Mark Benson, Assistant Vice-President for Athletic Development, about the never-ending task of raising money for university athletics.
"I think it's a misnomer sometimes that buying season tickets is enough for people," Murray said. "We need people to buy season tickets and get involved with the Big Blue Club. We need overall support. Buying season tickets helps it, but it's just one cog in the overall wheel."
Benson said one thing the athletic development office is pushing for potential donors is so-called unrestricted dollars.
"Unrestricted giving supports the entire athletic program, providing athletics greater flexibility in funding the department," Benson said.
In a bit of bad luck, the Big Blue Club is looking for support for a new football team in the middle of the worst recession in the past generation.
But Senior Associate Athletic Director Debbie White said a funny thing has happened.
"Our sponsorships are up 30 per cent. Our Big Blue sponsorships and contributions are up substantially," White said.
"We are an anomaly in college athletics right now. Everybody else is losing or struggling to maintain revenue. We're gaining. For a school our size to have this sort of increase is almost unprecedented. And there's nowhere to point to except football."
However, White said the football team's wildly successful start, accompanied by the construction boom on campus in the last decade (The Ted, Foreman Field, the Powhatan Athletic Complex) has been fueled by success of the men's basketball program.
"We're in a position, in the next year or two, to sell out our season tickets for basketball. Just incredible."
Murray agreed. "We would never have looked at football without the success that basketball has had."
The cherry on the sundae for men's basketball would be a run in the NCAA tournament. "It'd be huge," White said.
"I don't think you could put a price tag on something like that. There's so much momentum around ODU athletics right now," Murray said. "Who had heard of Gonzaga University 10 years ago, before they started to gain national exposure at basketball? Now someone can take a degree from Gonzaga to New York City, and their employer would know exactly where it is. It's just a burst for the school, and it gets people excited about all the things we're working on."
If the team does make it to the NCAAs, you can count on Bob and Diane Hudkins being there. An ODU grad, Bob lives and works in Philadelphia, but he and his wife come down to their home in Virginia Beach just about every weekend there's an ODU home game.
"It just gets in your blood," Bob said from his perch in the Constant Club before Sunday's game. "I started going to ODU games when I was in high school. That was in 1970."
Wearing a Monarchs No. 6 jersey he won in a trivia contest on a team charter flight to the Virgin Islands, Bob said he's happy to donate money to support ODU athletics.
"We've contributed for a long time. It's just something we like to do."
Diane isn't an ODU grad, and claims to be a North Carolina Tar Heel fan. But Bob claimed a moral victory when the two teams met in a preseason tournament a few years ago.
"She wore an ODU shirt to that game," he laughed.
"But I had my North Carolina shirt on underneath," Diane pointed out.
Three quick notes from the opener...
I wanted to know. I'm sure blog readers do too. So I asked Bethune-Cookman head coach Clifford Reed the big question.
The Wildcats played our big rivals Virginia Commonwealth University on Friday night. Who's better, us or them?
Reed smiled, then playfully dodged the question.
"Both teams are good. I think a big part of the difference is style of play," he said. "VCU plays more up and down. They just wore us down.
"ODU was a little more deliberate. They kept their man in front of them, mixed defenses, and rebounded at both ends. Both styles are very effective."
Reed said when Bethune-Cookman accepted the road trip to start the season, they knew they'd have their hands full. "The CAA is one of the best mid-major conferences in the country. It's not just VCU and ODU, there's George Mason, Northeastern. It's really good basketball and it showed today."
There was some question, right up until the moment he checked into the game, whether Monarchs coach Blaine Taylor was going to attempt to redshirt Chris Cooper, meaning he'd sit out the year to preserve a year of eligibility.
The big forward from Woodbridge, VA, was substituted in with 11:08 left in the second half, and immediately went to work under the boards, finishing with eight points, four rebounds and three blocks, one an exceedingly violent rejection of a slam dunk attempt.
Cooper said afterwards that he was happy to do what the coaching staff felt was best for the team, but that he was excited to play.
"I just tried to work at my position, establish a presence in the paint," he said. "It was a real good start for all of us."
Taylor said from his sophomore forward's physical presence, "It's obvious why we aren't redshirting Cooper." He said the younger players would have been substituted into the game earlier - for one thing, it's a four-game week for ODU - but situational defenses being used by Bethune-Cookman caused him to stay with his starters longer.
Not that he's worried about his team wearing out this early in the season. Taylor turned to Kent Bazemore on the dais after the game and asked, "Would you guys rather practice or play games."
"Games," Bazemore said, without a moment's hesitation.
The team plans to redshirt rookie players Anton Larsen and Josh Hicks.
Finally, the fun question I asked a bunch of the guys after Sunday's game was how they spent their time marooned during the big nor'easter last week:
"I must have studied the Farmers' Almanac from my days in Montana. Thursday (the worst of the weather) was a day off for us. We planned it two months ago," Taylor said with a laugh.
Brendan's Blog 46