The Big 10’s (Successful) Attack on Philly Mid-Majors!

It is ironic that most fans of college basketball are completely unaware of one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Published in 1962 by the University of Chicago Press, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, authored by Thomas Kuhn introduced term “paradigm shift” to contemporary discussions of organizational change and intellectual progress. Fans of Philadelphia’s rich college basketball tradition have, perhaps unknowingly, experienced a massive and consequential paradigm shift.

Thomas Kuhn can help us understand what has taken place over the past quarter century. Kuhn’s work is important because he singlehandedly changed the way we think about mankind’s most organized attempt to understand the world: science. Kuhn focused his considerable analytical acumen on our view of science and scientific progress. However, the power of his analytical approach for lay persons lies in it’s ability to shed considerable light on organizational change in general.

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Wednesdays at 4:00 pm on 610 ESPN Philadelphia

Prior to Kuhn, the standard account saw steady, cumulative “progress” in organizational development. Kuhn, trashed that traditional mode of thinking… Instead, he saw “paradigm shifts” or abrupt discontinuities – a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual.

The fact that Kuhn’s version seems unremarkable now is, in a way, the greatest measure of his success. But in 1962, almost everything about it was controversial because of the challenge it posed to powerful, entrenched philosophical assumptions about how organizational change and intellectual progress did – and should – work.

I strongly anticipate that many will find this application of his framework to subject of Philadelphia college basketball controversial. This essay will directly challenge some powerful entrenched assumptions about Philly’s mid-major hoops programs.

Here, I assert that the world of college basketball has been in an extended period of turmoil, uncertainty and angst for the past decade or so. This revolutionary phase – the transition from a high/mid/low major model to a far more narrowly circumscribed high/low major model – corresponds to aggressive Power 5 Conference geographic expansion and serves the basis for a new succeeding phase of business as usual. In this new phase, the mid-major category or classification will become extinct.

Increasingly, we are left with the BIG BOYS and the rest of us… Ain’t no more middle ground…

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Jim Delany, Former (1990-2020) Big 10 Commissioner  

The present discussion will center around very specific cases in the mid-Atlantic region, but I would argue the logic is applicable to Division 1 college basketball in general.  Let’s focus on the strategy of encirclement deftly deployed by Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany and it’s deleterious impact on Philly mid-major basketball programs, namely: Temple; Saint Joseph’s; La Salle, and; Drexel.

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Quinton Rose, Temple University

Encirclement is a military term for the situation when a force or target is isolated and surrounded by enemy forces. Delany and the Big 10 have effectively encircled the Philly mid-majors: Rutgers to the north, Penn State to the West and Maryland to the South. This situation is highly dangerous for the Philly mid-majors: at the strategic level, because the Big 10 programs are attracting top recruits that would otherwise serve as reinforcements, and on the tactical level, because the Philly mid-majors are being subjected to an attack from several sides. Lastly, since the Philly mid-majors cannot retreat, they must either fight to the death or surrender.

Surrender does not appear to be imminent. These programs are gonna fight to the death…

In what can aptly be described as as stroke of genius, Delany added Penn State to the Big 10 in 1990, twenty-four years later he added Maryland and Rutgers. With the latter two additions, encirclement was firmly in place. Delany has publicly stated how significant the mid-Atlantic presence is to the Big 10’s long-term plans. “I don’t think people should evaluate this in the short term. But in a 25-year or 50-year period, I think they’re going to be very competitive. They are added value. And if the Big Ten had stayed at 10 and not taken on any of the risk associated with expansion, we probably would be tied for the fourth-largest conference.

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Philly guys, Donta Scott, Hakim Hart, Sr, & Hakim Hart, Jr.

Delany further adds, “Rutgers is a fabulous institution, as is Maryland. And the corridor they occupy with Penn State might be the most important in the Western world — great students, political institutions, financial institutions. So we’re not only recruiting students to play basketball but students overall.”

“If you don’t venture out,” Delany said, “you never gain anything. I don’t want to go back and read all the articles about (criticism for) the Big Ten Network or instant replay or expansion. You have to do what you think is right. And if you make mistakes, you course correct or you double down.”

The Big 10 doubled-down and it is now reaping the rewards.

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Lamar Stevens, Penn State

 

DJ Newbill, John Johnson, Shep Garner, Lamar Stevens, Tony Carr, Nazeer Bostic, John Harrar, Mike Watkins, Izaiah Brockington, Kyle McCloskey and Seth Lundy were Penn State Nittany Lions that may have found their way to Philly mid-major programs under the old paradigm. Eric Ayala, Hakim Hart and Donta Scott are plying their trade in College Park, Maryland instead of the Wynnefield or Olney sections of Philadelphia.

Shit is real… The paradigm has shifted… But not everyone is convinced…

The alums, season ticket holders and athletic directors of the Philly mid-majors remain entrenched in the outdated paradigm. They have yet to fully comprehend the extent of the paradigm shift. Hence, they are striving maintain a “mid-major” status when the existence of the category itself is tenuous at best.

Collectively, they have pinned their hopes on a “Messiah Model” of intervention.

From their perspective of the “Messiah Model”, status as competitive mid-major program hinges on finding the right head coach. Operating within this model, the competitive struggles of the Philly mid-major programs on the court and on the recruiting trails are attributable to the “poor performance” of head coaches. Hence, Billy Lange replaces Phil Martelli… Ashley Howard replaces John Gianinni, Aaron McKie replaces Fran Dunphy and Zach Spiker replaces Bruiser Flint…

Just gotta get the right guy in there and we’ll be alright… So they think…

In this way, the Philly basketball community has developed a collective messiah complex. There has emerged a state of mind in which the alums, fans and athletic directors hold a belief that the “new coaches” – Lange, Howard, McKie and Spiker – are destined to become a program savior today or in the near future.

They seemingly lack an appreciation of the much more complex and insurmountable sets of problems and issues facing these programs.

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Montez Mathis, Rutgers

For those that understand a paradigm shift that has taken place, it’s just not that simple. For those that have recently ventured into the athletic facilities at Big 10 programs, it becomes immediately apparent that the Philly mid-majors are deficient and at a serious disadvantage. There’s one notable exception… Temple has been able to build and renovate it’s facilities in a manner that renders them on par with Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland.

Saint Joseph’s, La Salle and Drexel are simply not on the same planet. The gap is humongous and ever-expanding.

Then there are the significant differences in travel accommodations and living arrangements. Simply stated, money matters and Delany has delivered ungodly amounts of cash. For the fiscal year 2019, Big 10 athletic departments each received $52,100,000 before they sold a single $88 ticket, $1,000 seat license, $5 hot dog, $20 parking pass or $125 hoodie. The student-athletes travel and live differently in Big 10 programs. Kids and their parents have become savvy comparison shoppers. Private Jet travel, 5 star hotels, luxury apartments are de rigueur in the Big 10 Conference.

Philly mid-majors ain’t playing in that ballpark. People, even 18-19 year old prospects, like nice things…

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Big 10 Commissioner, Kevin Warren

Then there’s the subtle but tremendously important leadership question…The Big 10 has a long history of progressive policies and righteous behaviors in the area of race relations. That means, in addition to tremendous advantages in athletic facilities, travel accommodations and living arrangements, the Big 10 has people in charge that look like many of the top high school basketball student-athletes in America. Jim Delany’s successor as Big 10 Commissioner is Kevin Warren (pictured above). Warren is the only Black commissioner among the Power 5 Conferences.

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Michigan Athletic Director, Warde Manuel

 

Warde Manuel is the 12th athletic director in the 118 years that the University of Michigan has had a formal title for the job. And he’s the second African-American man in that office. Tradition-rich Michigan has a consistently given Black men an opportunity to serve in leadership positions. Michigan has 31 teams and more than 950 student-athletes. The self-supporting department has an annual budget of $197 million and a staff of 400.

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Ohio State Athletic Director, Gene Smith

Gene Smith  currently serves as Vice President and Athletic Director for the Ohio State University. He was named the university’s eighth athletic director on March 5, 2005. The Ohio State athletic department sponsors 36 fully-funded varsity sports with more than 1.000 student-athletes competing for Big Ten Conference and NCAA championships. Smith has additional oversight responsibility for the Business Advancement division of Ohio State which includes: Schottenstein Center, Nationwide Arena, Blackwell Hotel, Drake Union, Fawcett Center, and Trademark & Licensing.

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Maryland Athletic Director, Damon Evans

Damon Evans was named the Director of Athletics for the University of Maryland on June 25, 2018. He oversees a department with 20 varsity sports and 500 student-athletes, a full-time staff of over 200, and an annual budget of $95 million. Evans joined the Terrapins in December of 2014 and served as Executive Athletic Director and Chief Financial Officer. He had overseen all day-to-day operations for the athletic department since October of 2017 prior to his appointment as Director of Athletics.

The Philly mid-major programs have widely varying track records in this area. One has a long and strong legacy of diversity and inclusion. Another has made significant progress over the past few years. The others lag considerably behind in this regard.

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Temple University COO, Kevin Clark

Temple has a long-standing track record of identifying and appointing Black males to leadership positions. Temple currently has a Black male COO, Kevin Clark (pictured above). Temple has a Black male basketball head coach and a Black female women’s basketball head coach. Historically, Temple has had a Black male athletic director, Black male football head coach, 3 Black female women’s basketball head coaches and two Black male basketball head coaches. Without question, Temple University has long valued Black participation above and beyond the playing field.

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La Salle Athletic Director, Brian Baptiste

La Salle University currently has a Black male athletic director, Brian Baptiste (pictured above) and a Black male basketball coach. La Salle has also had a Black male women’s basketball coach. La Salle demonstrates a commitment to diversity and inclusion at the leadership level.

Drexel has had one Black male basketball coach.

Saint Joseph’s has never had a Black male basketball coach. Saint Joseph’s has never had a Black female basketball coach. Saint Joseph’s has never had a Black athletic Director. Currently, Saint Joseph’s has zero Blacks in leadership positions in the Athletic Department.

As my Grandpop used to say, “everything ain’t for everybody…”

Taken together, one could easily surmise that these factors do not bode well for coaches of Philly mid-major programs competing with Power 5 programs for elite basketball recruits. In addition to talent drained off to Penn State and Maryland, Miami (ACC) has successfully recruited Davon Reed, JaQuan Newton, Lonnie Walker and Isaiah Wong from the Greater Philadelphia region. Virginia snatched DeAndre Hunter. Kentucky landed Quade Green and Lance Ware.

Surprise… Surprise… Kids like really nice new things…

And, who would’ve thought? Kids and parents respond to people that look like them in leadership positions.

Alums, fans and the ADs of the Philly mid-majors have convinced themselves that they can overcome these hurdles by simply identifying the “messiah.” Lange, Howard, McKie and Spiker are expected to deliver these programs from the depths of mediocrity they currently inhabit.

Through the sheer force of their personalities, by exercising their exceptional “X & O” knowledge and just working VERY HARD they will compete…

So what the BIG BOYS have NBA arenas on campus… So what the BIG BOYS travel exclusively on private jets… So what the BIG BOY players live in luxury apartments…

Who needs a garbage disposal and washer and dryer in their apartment anyway?

Unfortunately, once one realizes and accepts that the paradigm shift has occurred it becomes apparent that alums, fans and ADs of Philly mid-majors have somewhat grandiose self-images that veer towards the delusional.

Shit has changed! And… It ain’t changing back…

By the standards of a present-day high major/low major rubric, alums, fans and ADs of Philly mid-major basketball programs look misinformed and naive at best. And yet we know they aren’t. They are fervent and passionate supporters of programs with wonderful basketball traditions.

They have no idea they are well behind Towson, Monmouth, Quinnipiac, UMBC, Fairfield and Coppin State in the facilities arms race… They just don’t know…

Kuhn’s blinding insight into the problem at hand comes from the sudden realization that if one is to understand these alums, fans and ADs, one must know about the intellectual tradition (outdated paradigm) within which they are operating. One must understand, for example, that for them the term “mid-major” means a program outside the Power 5 that was truly capable of challenging the BIG BOYS year in and year out on the recruiting trail and on the court.

Those days, I fear, are a thing of the past.

Ashley Howard & Bashir Mason: Bruiser’s Boys!

On March 7, 2016, Drexel University severed ties with Men’s basketball Head Coach Bruiser Flint.

That one hurt…

Flint, assumed the helm at Drexel in 2001 after five years as the head coach of the UMass Minutemen. Fifteen years later, he left as the all-time winningest coach in Drexel program history (331-289) and a four-time winner of the CAA’s coach of the year award.

Flint elevated the Drexel program to unimaginable heights… His Dragons were, at times, the best the City of Philadelphia had to offer.

Seriously… Drexel was the BEST the City of Philadelphia had to offer…

In one memorable stretch, Flint’s Dragons walked three blocks over and knocked off St. Joseph’s 72-56 at the Palestra in front of 7,622 on December 2, 2006. Exactly a week later, they drove about 20 minutes up Lancaster Avenue and spanked Villanova 81-76 at the Pavillion while 6,500 sat in silence as the final buzzer sounded.

Yup… Drexel…

Ten days later, the Dragons took a four hour ride to upstate New York and smacked Syracuse 84-79 at the Carrier Dome. This time 16,328 Orange fans got to watch the giant slayers do their thing.

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Drexel players celebrating their Dec. 19 victory over Syracuse, which was ranked 23rd at the time. Credit Dennis Nett/The Post-Standard, via A.P.

Ohhhh… Bruiser and Drexel were ready for anybody… anywhere…

Three days after the ‘Cuse game, Bru and his boys jumped on the El, transferred to the Sub and down went Temple 69-54 in front of 4,677 at the Liacouras Center. For good measure, in February the Dragons hopped on one of those commercial flights to Omaha, Nebraska and took down Creighton in front of 17,607 rabid Blue Jay fans.

Let’s recap… Drexel… On the road… Knocked off…

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Villanova
Syracuse
Temple
Creighton

Get the FUCK outta here! Naaaaah… You’re making this shit up…
Except, I’m not making it up… I was there… I watched it unfold…

Then in 2011-2012, I watched the Dragons win 29 games… TWENTY-NINE fuckin’ games… Drexel? Yes… Drexel!

During his tenure, Bruiser led the Dragons to four NIT appearances, including a trip the quarterfinals with that 29 victory squad in 2012.

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Damion Lee (Golden State Warriors) played 3 seasons and graduated from Drexel University

However, the Dragons experienced a steady decline in performance following that 29-win season. Flint’s two best offensive players Chris Fouch and Damion Lee experienced major knee injuries forcing them to miss entire seasons. After Lee decided to play his final year of eligibility with the Louisville Cardinals, Flint limped through his final campaign severely undermanned and posted a 6-25 record to close out a great run at the program about 30 or so blocks from his childhood home in Southwest Philly.

When he reappeared in the the Big 10 on the bench with Archie Miller at Indiana, many probably thought we had seen the last of Bruiser Flint coaching in Philadelphia.

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Bruiser Flint and Indiana Head Coach Archie Miller

Well… That is certainly not the case… On Wednesday December 18, 2019 at the Tom Gola Arena on the campus of La Salle University, Bruiser Flint roamed sideline in front of both benches. All you had to do was look closely…

You saw the finely tailored suits, the polished and elegant shoes and the charismatic smiles masking the burning desire to win the game. The unyielding effort on the defensive end of the floor and of course the unforgiving nature of the interactions with the referees.

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Bashir Mason, Wagner Head Coach & Ashley Howard, La Salle Head Coach

The Head Coach of the visiting Wagner Seahawks, Bashir Mason was the man with the ball in his hands when Flint’s Dragon’s knocked off all the BIG BOYS in 2006-07. From the moment he arrived at 34th and Market as a freshman, Mason was Drexel’s point guard. Executing Flint’s game plan from 2003-2007, Mason scored more than 1,000 points while dishing out nearly 500 assists. Those that watched him play know that Mason’s calling card was defense. He was first four-time member of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) All-Defensive Team, he also became the first player in league history to be named Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman following the 2003-2004 season.

A true student of the game while playing for the Dragons, Mason told me then he wanted to be like then Drexel Assistant, Geoff Arnold and Bruiser Flint. He has certainly made his mentors extremely proud. Mason graduated from Drexel with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Management. After earning a Master’s Degree of Science in Education from Wagner in December of 2013. Mason, who was the youngest head coach at the Division I level when he was named the 18th head men’s basketball coach in school history on March 26, 2012, and at age 35, remains one of the nation’s youngest head coaches, checking in as the sixth-most youthful head coach heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

La Salle’s Head Coach, Ashley Howard, was introduced to the coaching profession by Bruiser Flint. Howard began his coaching career as a student assistant coach under Flint at Drexel University, in 2002, after medical concerns effectively ended his playing career for the Dragons. Flint and Arnold, embraced Howard and immersed him into all aspects of the coaching profession while he was still an undergrad.

Like most young athletes in the prime of their playing careers, Howard was understandably frustrated about his inability to compete on the court. But, he is extremely grateful that Flint and Arnold had the foresight to give him a set of tools, skills a a perspective that have served him well during his rapid rise through the coaching ranks.

After his apprenticeship under Flint and Arnold, Howard was fully prepared to embark upon a Division 1 coaching career. In 2004, following graduation, Howard was hired as an assistant coach at La Salle by Dr. John Giannini. He spent four years with the Explorers before returning to Drexel in 2008 as an assistant coach. He was part of a staff that led the Dragons to consecutive 20-win seasons, including a school record 29 victories in 2011-12. Howard successfully recruited Damion Lee (Golden State Warriors/NBA) to the Dragon program.

In 2012-13, Howard served as an assistant on Chris Mack’s staff at Xavier University before landing back in his hometown with Villanova. Prior to taking the reigns at La Salle, Howard most spent five seasons as an assistant coach at Villanova, helping the Wildcats to a pair of National Championships.

During his tenure at Villanova, Howard was involved in all aspects of the Villanova program including on-court teaching, player development and recruiting. He was instrumental in helping the Wildcats win two NCAA National Championships and setting a new NCAA record for the most wins in a four-year span.

Howard and Mason are the progeny of Flint and Arnold. Their success can be attributed directly to the time they spent being nurtured and “cussed out” by Flint and Arnold. We can certainly expect both to continue the tradition. And, we can also expect them to do so while wearing some of the nicest threads you will see on the sidelines. Flint and Arnold wouldn’t have it any other way.