It’s no secret the DU athletic department is hitting on all cylinders. Nearly every Pioneer sport is excelling except for hoops, both men’s and women’s these days. DU gets great bang for its buck as the top non-football Division I athletic department in America for 11 of the last 12 years, but what is even realistic for a school like DU? Is the chase for relevance in hoops even worth it when the sport can only be currently funded to be competitive in a mid-major conference like the Summit League?
DU’s niche sports excellence is funded well for sports like men’s hockey and lacrosse, where DU’s budgets are at the top of the range for those sports nationally. With only 60 teams competing in hockey and 75 in men’s lacrosse, for example, DU can win NCAA titles in those essentially regional sports. But when the numbers of DI teams soars to 347 teams competing nationally in basketball, the climb is much tougher, as DU’s hoops budget is only a fraction of most nationally relevant programs.
DU has been chasing the DI hoops dream since 1998 (in the modern post-1979 era) since former Chancellor Dan Ritchie helped elevate the DU athletic program back to full Division I status for all sports with the 1999 building of the Ritchie Center. The thinking back then (and still today among some) was that DU had the potential to be the “next Gonzaga” – a small private school in the West that could become an NCAA Basketball Tournament regular with the right league and steady investment, allowing DU to move up to better conferences, as men’s basketball success is the measuring stick for improving revenue and conference standing. Making the 68-team NCAA hoops tournament has always been DU’s ultimate goal, as a relevant NCAA hoops tourney-level program would provide a national institutional visibility and revenue opportunities that all other DU sports simply cannot match.
Despite DU becoming powerful in many other sports since then, that DU hoops dream just hasn’t come true and struggle is the usual result. DU spent the first 15 years since 1998 stuck in the Sun Belt Conference (the only conference interested in taking DU back then), and has spent most of the rest of the time in the Summit League, with no NCAA hoops tournament bids, only a pair of conference regular-season co-championship back in 2005 and 2013, no conference tournament titles and three NIT games to show for it, in more than 20 years of trying. In most of the last 20 years, DU men’s hoops has been mediocre and more recently, the results have been poor. Given last year’s last-place league finish and another bottom-of-the-league performance increasingly likely this year for the DU men, can DU even compete at the Summit League level? Do you DU fans find it acceptable to have a basketball program mired in mediocrity at best, or a bottom-feeder at worst? This is about more just than coaching or players – it’s about institutional ambition level.
The college hoops landscape is changing, making a DU climb to relevance even harder. DU is not trying to lose games but the Pioneers should be competitive in the Summit League. And the Pios are spending comparable basketball money to their Summit league peers, likely on the upper end of the conference’s hoops budgets. But DU is playing a delicate game of resource management with the high cost, high risk, low return world of mid-major basketball.
Things are likely to get worse before they get better. Fewer at-large NCAA bids are going to non-power 5 schools (Pac 12, Big 12, Big 10, ACC and SEC). And the costs increase in relation to expectations. For example, in 2018, 32 of the 36 teams that received at-large bids to the NCAA tournament spent more than $6 million a year each on men’s hoops, which is likely more than twice what DU spends on hoops each year today. Proven basketball coaches, even at the high mid-major level, cost a minimum of $500-800k/year – and that is no guarantee of victory or NCAA bids. And the cost of their assistant coaches continues to grow as well. The roads are littered with the carcasses of high-buck coaches who came to college basketball programs touted as saviors and could never deliver. And, even if a program develops a young successful coach, those coaches often depart for bigger bucks and a bigger program if successful – just look at South Dakota’s Craig Smith, who generated some Summit League success and promptly bolted for Utah State several years ago.
Another barrier includes student-athlete transfer rules which are getting more student-athlete-friendly, helping the big schools while allowing student-athletes to transfer with relative ease, often without even having to sit out a year, as long as the transfer was classified as a “hardship”. For example, DU lost junior-to-be Royce O’Neale (now making $9 million per year in the NBA) to hardship transfer to Baylor in 2013, and the DU program has never recovered. A recent proposal by the Big 10 hopes to bypass the sham of the hardship clause altogether and establish next-year eligibility for first-time transfers in all sports without sitting out a year, which, if passed nationally, will quickly turn mid-major schools like DU into de-facto farm teams for larger D-I schools. Why would a top hoops player stay at DU if a Power 5 school offered him/her a roster spot without a year wait?
This year, DU sophomore Jase Townsend (averaging 18.0 points & 5.4 rebounds per game) is having a breakthrough season, and will likely get interest from larger schools seeking his talents this spring. If Townsend were to get poached from DU even under hardship rules, Denver would be left with the remaining four rising juniors who have not developed as quickly as anticipated, removing a lot of hope that DU would even have chance to be a factor in the Summit next year.
Unlike the schools at the top or even in the middle of the NCAA hoops food chain, Denver hoops does not receive any TV money or an influx of conference cash to foot the bill on a big basketball growth gamble. With a relatively flat budget for athletics every year, DU hoops would either need to find more donor(s) for money for an upgrade or money would need to be extracted from existing sports programs, potentially stifling those programs’ success. Do you recommend DU athletics take money earmarked for Hockey, lacrosse, and/or gymnastics – three of the most successful programs Denver sponsors – to fund a hoops upgrade effort? And, by siphoning money away from other athletic programs, does Denver start to lose coaches who have developed winning, dominant programs, but must pay a larger price in order to revive basketball?
Said one LetsGoDU reader, “I doubt anyone would lay a big chunk of money on us [Denver], especially in the Summit League. I’m sort of ok with sucking most of the time. I’d prefer we be good enough to be at least entertaining. Every now and then we can make some noise. DU is more attractive than most mid-majors. If we can recruit smartly, some good players will attend. Also, we can find the right kind of players in the portal who must transfer down; well maybe 1 per year. We need to get realistic and realize no frosh we get will be good enough to elevate us right away.”
Successful companies or institutions rarely want to be all things to all people. They target their resources and efforts. DU has to face the proposition that while NCAA D-I (and conferences) are required to field a basketball program and does not allow a school to compete at other divisional levels, DU does not have to invest at a high level in that hoops space. DU’s ‘bread and butter’ niche sports, cultivated over years of success, do not include hoops – and may never. The only university in the land that is really good at everything, year in and year out, is Stanford and that school has the prestige, TV money from the Pac-12 ($500+ million/revenue per year) and a school endowment of $27.7 billion dollars. Yes, that’s billion with a “b”. DU’s endowment, for comparison, is less than $800 million.
Figure 1. Barriers exist in all industries.
And then, of course there is Denver’s basketball history. DU does not have a winning basketball tradition that DU athletics and fans can leverage, such as DU hockey, lacrosse and now, gymnastics. Add the fact that the entire Rocky Mountain region is not exactly a hotbed for DI hoops talent creates a fundamental barrier to developing a consistent basketball program worthy of investment by DU or its fans.
Of course, DU Athletics will never say that they don’t care about basketball – that would be brand suicide. And DU can’t move down to a lower playing level in hoops without moving all of its other sports teams to Division II, which is unthinkable. But the fact is that DU can drift along, paying for a Summit League level budget while other DU core sports are hitting on all cylinders. And, DU can continue to rack-up Director’s Cup points in soccer, volleyball, swimming, tennis and golf in the Summit League along with their other league and conference affiliations.
It’s not what many DU basketball fans want to hear, but it may be a smart reality. We can always watch D-I basketball on campus pretty much as things stand today, but a full-house, 20+ win seasons, championship dreams and NCAA tourney appearances may never be in DU’s future unless some donors decide to change the DU landscape.
What do you think?