A Conversation with Mike Waddell (Part II)
The numbers don't lie. Whether it's 16 straight losing seasons, last year's 1-31 or a record 41-game game losing skid, Towson Men's Basketball has been going through a very rough period. Yet as the team closes in on its final season at the Towson Center, optimism abounds. Not just for Towson Director of Athletics Mike Waddell, but for those close to the program who have seen the progress made by Head Coach Pat Skerry and his staff.
In this part of my interview with Mike Waddell, we discuss CAA expansion, how the men's basketball program handled its difficult 2011-12 season, which was capped off by a one-year probation from the NCAA due to prior years' low APR scores and also talk about the men's team's new home - Tiger Arena.
"There's a spotlight on us [due to the streak]," said Waddell. "I knew we had a tough road, but [Towson head coach] Pat Skerry was the guy to take us through along with his staff. To look at what we are now as a basketball program and what we were three years ago is not even a comparision. The talent is there on the court, off the court and now the focus in the right direction. It's a great time to be a Towson basketball player right now even though we are going to miss the postseason. Those kids will make a statement this year in a variety of ways - socially, academically, athletically - for where we are going to be in the long term."
In June, the men's basketball team was ruled ineligible for postseason play on both the NCAA and Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) levels for the 2012-13 season based on the team's past cumulative NCAA Academic Performance Rate (APR) scores. The ban is a one-year penalty and applies only to next season.
"When I interviewed [for the position of Director of Athletics] in September of 2010, I knew then, by doing my own research, that the numbers don't lie," said Waddell. "There was going to be a penalty. The penalty structure was much different in September and October of 2010 than what it has evolved into in the fall of 2011. We can't do anything about it. The NCAA and Committee for Academic Performance went a step further to put an exclamation point on what their priorities are.
"What you look for now is whether the change is happening on the campuses where this has been a problem in the past. What are the campus leaders doing to make sure that it doesn't happen again? At Towson, we've been proactive before we were penalized. We took measures against ourselves to make sure from Day One from my administration that we were going to put the proper emphasis on the student-athlete."
In his second season, Head Coach Skerry had to upgrade the talent of team on the court as well as in the classroom. Waddell sees the whole situation as trying to turn a negative into a positive.
"Our men's basketball program just completed a year that when the final numbers are tabulated in October, that we could have the highest APR and will have the highest GPA that we've ever had in men's basketball," said Waddell.
"We just brought in a freshman class where academics were never an issue for all the kids coming in. We're looking forward to investing even more than we ever have. We've added two full-time positions just in basketball academic support. I don't see this as a negative. I see this as a positive and opportunity to use these sanctions to tell our story of what we are doing right. How we've positioned ourselves for the long term to never have this issue again."
The men's basketball team played a challenging schedule last year, which would be fine for more established programs like Drexel or George Mason, but for a team that was returning just one letter winner [Erique Gumbs] from the previous season, this was an incredibly difficult task for any coach with a brand-new staff. Facing Kansas, Michigan, Virginia, Oregon State and Massachusetts in one season was tough on such a young team. This year, with no postseason, in the CAA or on the national level, the Tigers will try to play as many regular season games as possible.
"We are going to play the maximum number of games," said Waddell. "When we play our final regular season game, that will be our final game of the season. We will do some fun things for our kids on campus.
"We are going to do things to make these kids feel special because they've done nothing except carry the academic and athletic bar to a higher plane. We don't make any promises about the basketball program because we had years of bad basketball. Promises are empty until they are fulfilled. What we can say is that every day we are getting better. We have taken the position that we are going to put academics first and athletics second. Where life gives you lemons, we are going to make lemonade."
When you drive around the old Towson Center, you can see the progress of the new "Tiger Arena," which has grown from a pile of dirt to a massive structure that is nearly complete on the exterior.
"The arena will be done by March 2013," said Waddell. "That's ahead of schedule. We'll have Commencement exercises in May of 2013. We'll have the first Athletics event for the public in September or August of 2013.
"It's a 5,000+ seat arena that costs $73-75 million. It will involve the renovation of the Towson Center with new locker rooms for our remaining teams that don't have [renovated] locker rooms in the field house. It will lead to other projects that are going to be very exciting facilities developments for the entire Department. It's going to be an outstanding arena, showing where Towson University is going to be right now and where it's going to be for the near future.
"If we blow this program out like we think we're going to, there's going to be some opportunities to play downtown [at the 1st Mariner Bank Arena]. There's going to be some opportunities regionally and nationally. Having a tough ticket would be our first order to fill right now. To have a tough ticket, you have to have a tough program. That's what's Pat [Skerry] has been growing."
But Towson isn't done building. With a new arena taking up parking lot 20, Towson has to find more parking spaces and eventually look to improve other outdoor facilities for the program.
"There are plans for a garage on the south side of Unitas Stadium," said Waddell. "[And] there will be spaces that will be returned for Towson Athletics from the construction site. That area will be black-topped. There is potential for some other new parking areas on the back side of the Towson Center and Tiger Arena.
"One of the things that was done in the past, when athletics would look to develop new facilities, they would develop the facilities and then try to match it with the Master Plan instead of looking at the Master Plan for the whole of campus and trying to match the need of campus with Athletics. We are looking to share facilities. Unitas Stadium is used by more than just Athletics. It's used and managed by Events and Conference Services for Special Olympics, outside camps, high school events and outdoor events. The same thing will be done with Tiger Arena.
"We will look for other facilities to parnter with as we've done with the Towson Rec Council. That's a key initiative with us - for Athletics to be more a part of the community. That's what we'll look to do with all of our facilities and future facilities that we develop. Right now, we have facilities, namely tennis, that are on Pluto. They are not near any residence life options or student rec options. We need to look at things as a whole and think about what is the best thing for Towson in positioning us for 2016 when we celebrate our 150th anniversary, in 2020 and beyond. We need to look long-term."
In the final part of the interview, we'll get to the football program and the women's gymnastics team's move back to the EAGL.