White now faces a more important decision.
What should FAU do with a basketball program that has been, for most of its existence, irrelevant and, in recent years, nothing short of dreadful?
Echoing his predecessor Pat Chun and other athletic directors before him, White intends to develop the resources to make FAU a Top 25 contender.
Which begs another question: Why bother?
The truth is, there probably isn’t enough money to make FAU relevant, let alone a consistent winner.
There’s no reason to think May won’t be a fine coach – but Matt Doherty, Rex Walters and Mike Jarvis were pretty good college coaches, too. Yet aside from one good season under Jarvis in which the Owls won the Sun Belt Conference title, FAU fielded losing team after losing team.
And even during that 2010-11 championship season, the only 20-win season in program history, FAU couldn’t sell out a 3,000 seat arena. Sure, FAU announced sellouts, but anyone in attendance that year remembers empty seats at every game. The truth is, Boca Raton isn’t a basketball town. Is it wise to keep spending money attempting to make it one?
Building this basketball program will take plenty of time – and money. White signed May to a five-year contract that pays him $350,000 per year, only $25,000 more per year than predecessor Michael Curry made. That’s only the beginning.
FAU’s game day experience is a miserable over-modulated-noise-qualifies-as-excitement car crash – and that’s when the Owls are winning. The Owls play in a practice gym because they don’t have a Division I arena, and to think FAU will attract the kind of talent it wants without a new arena puts a tremendous amount of faith in May, and those who will follow him.
May has to build from scratch. The graduation of center Ronald Delph leaves FAU without a bona fide Division I player on its roster – save perhaps Jailyn Ingram, who might be better served hitting up Lane Kiffin and reviving a once promising football career.
Both May and White professed their desire to recruit South Florida talent. May’s count of Florida natives he coached at La. Tech includes Erik McCree of the Utah Jazz, but of the seven names he rattled off, only one, current role player Derric Jean, hailed from South Florida.
May could soon learn that FAU’s biggest selling points, warm weather and proximity to the beach, are far more enticing to recruits from New York, Chicago and Detroit, prompting them to overlook dilapidated facilities. Jarvis said many times that if he could get a northern recruit to come to campus in January or February, that recruit was signing with the Owls. Kiffin is finding similar success with national recruiting.
But suppose FAU does find talent, raises funds – something it has never been able to do – spends money on facilities overhaul and the Owls do start to win. What then?
If FAU couldn’t fill a 3,000 seat arena while winning the Sun Belt, why would it be able to fill an 8,000 seat arena in Conference USA? Remember, football won big last year and it barely filled half the stadium.
And even if FAU becomes a Conference USA power, so what? Ask Middle Tennessee what comes with that. The Blue Raiders were actually ranked this year, but they were left out of the NCAA tournament following a loss in the C-USA tournament. Old Dominion won 25 games this year and didn’t even get invited to the NIT.
Conference USA teams consistently win NCAA tournaments games, yet the league still receives zero respect nationally, and there’s no reason to expect that to change. The eighth place team in the Big 10 or SEC will always get the nod on selection Sunday because that’s where the fan bases (read: money) are.
Getting a basketball team into the NCAA Tournament is a financial windfall for an athletic department, but if the team plays in a one-bid lead, it’s only chance at that lottery ticket is winning the conference tournament. Doing so requires at least as much luck as it does skill – one weekend of hot shooting. Proof is that FAU actually won one conference tournament, stealing the Atlantic Sun bid in 2002 after ending the regular season with only 16 wins.
“I think athletics has great value for the university and being successful in athletics, especially in a key sport like men’s basketball. does have great value,” White said.
The pot of gold that is an NCAA tournament bid is a mirage. The only true long-term reason for pouring money into basketball is that at some point, if FAU is going to be seriously considered for a move to a major conference, the Owls will need the facilities.
Until then, however, why not devote the energy and resources where they are deserved? Under baseball coach John McCormack the baseball program is once again on the verge of being ranked despite lacking indoor batting cages or even a true clubhouse – necessities at this level.
FAU baseball earned NCAA Tournament berths 12 times – three in the past five years – despite playing in a facility that screams rec league. When the Porta-potties are in bloom, the stench actually resembles the basketball team’s play.
“We owe John, I owe John, a great uplift to that stadium,” FAU President Dr. John Kelly said. “We should be hosting Regionals here, with the way he plays.”
Again, this type of talk from an FAU president or athletic director is meaningless. It’s been said for decades. Make it happen. Or stop talking about it.
During his tenure, Chun was fond of referring to football and basketball as the “revenue sports.” Change the paradigm. Baseball (and softball, for that matter) has a built in South Florida fan base that FAU has only marginally tried to tap.
If White is ready to prove he’s an inventive, creative athletic director, he’ll watch tonight’s Villanova vs. Michigan NCAA tournament championship game and wonder not how he can get FAU basketball into the NCAA tournament but rather how he can raise the profile of his new school by spending the money to help baseball coach John McCormack get to Omaha.