How Do Some Universities Succeed in Their ‘Other’ Sports?

I have been very frustrated with Clemson basketball this season. When I was a student, sell-outs were assumed and we never missed the tournament. Now we can’t even fill Littlejohn for games against Georgia Tech. It’s mind-boggling, because even when our now glorious football program sunk to 6-7, butts were still in seats. So I asked our college athletics expert to weight in on how some schools can find success in their “other” sports while most of us are left to enjoy success in only one major program. Enjoy the guest post below, and please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

In the world of major college athletics many schools are known for only one specific sport. You have your football schools, your basketball schools, and in some cases even Women’s equestrian schools (I’m looking at you South Carolina). No matter where you go, there are schools that are known more for one sport than the others, and this often comes at the expense of the others. Despite this trend, a number of schools manage to find success in those “other” sports. I wanted to explore this idea, to see why some schools can excel at those “other” sports that they are not traditionally known for, while most universities are confined to the one sport that has always defined them.

To discuss and grasp this topic fully you must first understand one simple rule: every school has a favorite sport. This seems silly to say as it is obvious to most, however when delving further into the idea of why some schools do not excel in the sport they do not favor the rule will reiterated and some will be inclined to argue that the schools respect their sports equally. Wrong! No matter what anyone wants to say, there is always a sport that is seated atop a pedestal in the school’s and fans’ collective eyes. Once we all accept this truth we can begin to delve deeper into the topic.

When we think about certain sport schools we typically think in terms of “basketball schools” and “football schools.” How this comes to be at a school has to do with some combination of geography and whatever sport achieved success earlier. For example:  Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Ohio State are all “football schools” due to both their locations and history. The SEC schools and the two Big XII programs are all located in a part of the country that worships college football and thus tend to focus more on their football programs. Even Michigan and Ohio State are in parts of the country that prefer football, not to mention their history of success. The same can be said of the “basketball schools”: Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Syracuse.

The question now is how do some of these schools excel at both sports while others fail? To answer this we will look at the success stories as well as the failures.

There are two programs that stand out as successes over the past decade plus: Florida and Ohio State. Both of these programs are

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synonymous with football yet they have both achieved greatness in basketball as well. The Buckeyes tout multiple national championships in football as well as 1960 national title in hoops. Meanwhile the Gators have been one of the more successful programs in the country winning three national titles in football and back-to-back titles in basketball all in the last 17 years. Not only have both of these programs been good in the past, but they continue to be in the hunt every December and March. How do they do it? There simply is not a set formula for success in athletics because there are so many variables in play, but there is a loose blueprint that schools follow in hopes of crossing the chasm and excelling in several sports. It all starts with a strong Athletic Director. To become a school that is willing to focus beyond its prized sport, the AD must be willing to swim upstream. This is what both UF and Ohio State have in Jeremy Foley and Gene Smith, the latter’s recent NCAA issues aside. Meanwhile schools that have failed at success on both the gridiron and hardwood such as Kentucky and Kansas lack these great leaders. With all due respect to Mitch Barnhart and Sheahon Zenger, neither man is at the level of a Jeremy Foley. Both have recently made strides in making their football counterparts more successful with the hiring of Mark Stoops and Charlie Weis; however to this point neither has achieved success in their lesser sport.

From there these AD’s must find boosters that are willing to fund and push for more success in the “other” sport. This is a difficult task in many instances as most boosters are typically as invested in their favorite sport as most of the fan base. Despite the difficulty this is an essential part of the process. To succeed in the less celebrated sport, there must first be some attention paid to it along with some help given. Once the other sport has received the help it needs to catch up to its bigger sibling sport, then it is ready to make the next step.

That next step is hiring the right coach. This step includes an element which cannot be overstated: the school needs to get a little lucky. There are a multitude of coaches out there and many seem like fits for the position, but the AD must find once that he believes is willing to take the extra steps necessary to building a successful program. This can be seen with coaches Billy Donovan and Thad Matta. Both coaches had a lot of great attributes that made them right for the job, but so too did many other coaches vying for their positions. What separated them from their competition were their shared characteristics with their AD’s. Both coaches have gelled well with their employer and fit in. This, coupled with a touch of luck, is what has taken them to their great heights. It is not to discount these coaches’ abilities as they are both at the top of their profession, merely just to reinforce the idea that luck does indeed play a role. We need only look at Kentucky and Kansas to prove this. UK and KU have made “splashes” in their hiring in the past with coaches like Guy Morris and Turner Gill, yet neither achieved marketable success. Morris peaked at a bowl berth or two and Gill was an absolute crash and burn. Luck, and according to them, their schools were simply not on their side.

Finally, to be able to succeed in both sports there needs to be a family atmosphere at the schools. This seems like a foolish sentiment, but in my years being around both successful and not-so-successful athletic departments, I have found this to be a key. If a school’s coaches and sports are competitive with one another than the priority sport will eventually smother and suffocate the other sports. If the sports fight for control and do not embrace each other, the smaller sports will never get a chance to thrive. However a school that has coaches and sports that not only respect one another, but also care for each other, has the best chance at success across the board. By having a vested interest in the other coaches and sports the program will gel together better and in turn give each other the best chance to succeed.

So what truly separates Florida from Kentucky and Ohio State from Kansas? The Gators and Buckeyes have strong AD’s, coaches, boosters, and family like bonds. The Cats and Jayhawks are more focused on excelling in their established sports. This is not meant only as a look into why these programs are the way they are but also to serve as a warning to other schools that are teetering on becoming a one trick pony. Schools like Clemson, Florida State, and Texas that all have a strong football identity and have had past basketball success yet continue to backslide on the court. All three schools have the ingredients to get back to being success stories it just takes a new direction from a strong leader and fan base to do so. In the end, no matter the success on the smaller sport; it will always be the smaller sport. The big sibling will always reign supreme, draw the most attention, and garner the most support. However, living in the shadow now is not reason to strive to succeed and maybe become the big kid on the block one day.

If you enjoyed this post, please click the Facebook “Like” button on the right sidebar. You can share your opinions in the comment section below or by tweeting to @Ryan_Kantor. Thanks for reading!

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5 thoughts on “How Do Some Universities Succeed in Their ‘Other’ Sports?

  1. I don’t see collegiate baseball mentioned. Clemson, South Carolina, as well as some of the Florida universities have excellent baseball programs.

    And then there are schools in California where baseball and basketball vie for the top spot. Their football programs are just an afterthought.

    • I understand that point. My primary focus for this post was on football and basketball because they are the two most dominant sports in terms of viewership. I completely agree with you but for the sake of time and space I decided to not open up that pandora a box and look at all sports.

      • I agree with your post. Football and basketball do get the big headlines and TV viewership.

        But thanks to ESPN and their various offshoots, college baseball is becoming more mainstream. Granted, it will never eclipse football and basketball.

        Thanks for your guest posts. They are very informative and I’ve learned things I never knew or really thought about before.

  2. Clemson is just one of those schools that will only support basketball when we’re good. Our time at Clemson was the best 4 consecutive years the program has ever had, it was an exception, not the norm unfortunately. We also really have no tradition in basketball either, where as programs like Indiana and Kentucky can slip for a few years but still have strong support. Same goes for Clemson in football.

    • I didn’t write this, but unfortunately I have to agree with you. I think with college football dereg we need to make sure it is well funded. I’d like to get a practice facility built for basketball and a skybox put in for baseball, but I’m uneasy about this dereg business.

      College baseball is obviously big for us, but it’s not covered by the media much so it is really about football and basketball. They comprise all the profit for the athletic department anyway.

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