Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Looking for "Fight " in the Fightin Blue Hens

Like many other people throughout America (and perhaps the world), I watched "Lost" last night. But during commercial breaks, I switched on ESPNU to watch Northeastern vs. Delaware (I watched a little bit of Michigan State vs. Wisconsin as well, but the Badgers were blowing out the Spartans, so not much watching there). And the reason I kept coming back to the Huskies - Dragons game because I was struck so much by the so many empty blue seats being shown on TV in the Bob Carpenter Center.

You see for people like me and Jerry Beach, we grew up on the Delaware vs. Hofstra rivalry in the America East in the late nineties, early 2000-2001. It was Mike Pegues, Mike Ames and Mike Slattery vs Speedy Claxton, Norman Richardson and Jason Hernandez. Delaware won the America East and made the NCAA tournament in 1998 and 1999. Hofstra won the America East championship and made the NCAA tournament in 2000 and 2001.

And back then, when you thought about the America East tournament, you thought of the Bob Carpenter Center. The America East tournament preliminary rounds from 1997-2001 were held at the Bob, and it would be basically sold out (remember the championship round of the America East is held at the home court of the highest remaining seed).

Having been to the Bob a few times, I can tell you that's a terrific venue to see a basketball game. Tieff and I went last year to the Bob to celebrate my birthday, and we had a great time. When there is a home game on a Saturday, get to the Bob about an hour early and come hungry. We did that for our last trip - a nice BBQ spread, hot chocolate chip cookies (seriously is there anything better than hot chocolate chip cookies?), and you get to sit at large round tables where you end up interacting with fans. In fact, last year our scouting report on the state patrols resulted in a woman sitting at our table to call her daughter to advise her to slow down as she was coming to the Bob. Hey, whatever you can do to help.

So, when I saw so many empty blue seats at the Bob last night on ESPNU, I called Tieff and Tieff's response was a low "woww". The box score for last night's game, won handily by Northeastern 67-51, stated the attendance was 2,356. I am sorry, but based on what I saw on TV, there was no way there was 2356 people in the stands. But even if there were 2356 people in the stands, the arena was still less than half full.

And there is a reason for that, as there usually is. After the end of the 2000-2001, the Gang of Four, ie Drexel, Towson, Hofstra and Delaware left the friendly confines of the America East for the CAA. From 1993-2001, the Dragons, Flying Dutchmen/Pride and Fighting Blue Hens won eight of the nine America East championships. Needing to make the CAA an even ten, the Tigers came along as well.

Thus started the downfall of Delaware's basketball program. In their first three years in the CAA, Delaware was .500 or better in conference twice with two consecutive overall winning seasons, 15-14 in 2002-03 and 16-12 in 2003-04. Unfortunately, the Blue Hens would unravel starting in 2004. In 2004-05, Delaware was 11-20 overall. 2005-06, they were 9-20 overall. 2006-07, they hit rock bottom at 5-26 overall. From 2005-2007, they won a total of seven conference games.

Monte Ross came in after David Henderson was fired in 2006, but the change in head coaches so far has made no difference. As noted the Blue Hens in Ross' first season were 5-26. In 2007-08, Delaware, thanks in large part to "Mr. Double Double" Marc Egerson improved to 14-17 and 9-9 in the conference. But last season, the Blue Hens slipped back to 13-19, 6-12 in conference. And now this season, 6-17 and 2-10 overall in conference.

Thus over time, as the program has suffered, there was a major downturn in attendance. Below are the attendance figures for Delaware's home games vs. Hofstra.

2002-03 - 4,674
2003-04 - 4,260
2004-05 - 4,583
2005-06 - 3,680
2006-07 - 2,827
2007-08 - 3,316
2008-09 - 3,212
2009-10 - ?

So the Bob hasn't been at 75 percent capacity for a Hofstra-Delaware game since the 2005-06 season. And the attendance has obviously been down overall for the Fighting Blue Hens. Here are the games and attendance figures for this season.

Temple -3080, Bucknell-2002, Hampton-2070, Ohio-2269, Lafayette-2180, Drexel-2459,W&M-2720, Towson-2298, ODU-2178, Georgia State-2380. Average Attendance - 2,363

So in ten games this season, the Bob has been filled to 50 percent or more capacity only twice. Compare that with the Blue Hens second season in the CAA, 2002-03.

LIU -4144, Penn-4797, Rider-4744, VCU-4516, UNCW -4983, Drexel -4591, Towson-4899, W&M-4846, Mason-4595, Hofstra 4674, ODU-5004. Average Attendance - 4708 (Please note that there were a few Bob games I didn't have attendance figures for in 2002-03).

In all the 2002-03 games I had attendance figures for, only the first game of the season vs. LIU did Delaware have less than 90 percent capacity attendance. And the attendance comparison between 2002-03 and 2009-10 is stunning. This season, Delaware averages less than half the attendance they had in 2002-03. Stunning, but understandable considering the woes of the Blue Hens.

The CAA has not been kind to any of the former America East teams, including Northeastern who joined in 2005-06. No former America East team has won the CAA Men's Basketball Championship. And only two former America East teams have made it as far as the CAA championship game; Drexel in 2003 and Hofstra in 2006 (both teams lost to UNCW in the championship game). Towson and Delaware each have made it to the semifinal round once Delaware in 2003 (they lost to eventual champion UNCW too) and Towson last year.

It's not like Delaware hasn't had talent on their teams. In the past few years they have had very good players such as Harding Nana, Herb Courtney, Marc Egerson and Jawan Carter. But just not enough talent overall to get them even to respectability.

I wonder often if the five former America East teams long for the days when they were truly competitive and when there were real rivalries among the teams especially Delaware and Hofstra. But they thought they all saw an opportunity in the CAA to be bigger and thus better. Hofstra has seemingly regretted the move since day one and would do anything to get into the A10. And for the rest of those former America East teams, bigger is not often better.

Just ask Delaware. Right now they are looking for any fight in the Fightin Blue Hens. If last night's weak performance against the Huskies was any indication, it's going to be a while before they find it.

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