Is the Smart Play for DU to Abandon D-I Hoops Dream of Competitiveness?

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.

Image result for barriers to entry

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?

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16 thoughts on “Is the Smart Play for DU to Abandon D-I Hoops Dream of Competitiveness?”

  1. I love this blog, but please let it go!!!! You guys have an unhealthy obsession with DU hoops! Never has so much been written about so little.

  2. Great piece. Person you quoted is so spot on, like Dunker. As a freshman, I suffered through a 2-22 season with zero D1 wins. 2 years later, we go 17-9 with 2 pro draft picks on team. I was entertained both years, actually all 4 years.
    This year’s team not so entertaining. Still fun, but with only 6 D1 players on roster (Ade graduating) there is no bench upside to lift us other then by pure luck, some reserve gets hot from beyond the arc.
    Maybe the 2 frosh on bench develop for next year, but no production now. If nobody transfers and we bring in 2 players who can produce immediately, we will win games and be real fun next year. I’m asking a lot, but I’ll settle for competitive. Either way, let’s not make a big hoops investment. I don’t want any interference with our outstanding niche sports.

  3. The only hope for DU basketball is to somehow get into the West Coast Conference or the Mountain West as a non-football member. Both are extreme long shots as DU doesn’t offer current success or any basketball tradition. DU profiles perfectly with the West Coast schools and the city of Denver and its market would seem to be attractive to that conference. But an investment will need to be made in the program, a high quality coach hired, and a creative recruiting strategy implemented (like Gonzaga has done with foreign players). Playing in the Sun Belt or Summit conferences is a no-hoper for national or local relevance. Nobody wants to go see these schools. Its certainly a dilemma, but I think DU has to make the commitment noted above and do whatever it takes to get membership in one of those conferences (maybe paying the travel expenses of conference schools for a certain period of time or something) or drop the budget to mid-level Summit and hope for an occasional title run in that conference. If that’s the direction, the school will have to be okay with never averaging more than 1500 fans a game.

  4. We wouldn’t have these conversations if we did not care.

    Being bad at math isn’t only about the student and their aptitude.. We’ve all had bad or inadequate teachers or situations.

    The questions in my opinion are:

    Where are we?
    What are the short, mid, and long term goals?
    Where do we start?

    Loyalty on all sides of the issue are looking for hope, accountability, and progress.

    I’m not an alumni nor student. I am a Denver native who wants to take pride in my hometown school.

  5. Glad to see people do care, and that the basketball staff, the athletic administration and others can hear from DU fans about what this program could be and should be moving forward. There is a wide range of opinion out there, and voices should be heard.

    I think you all know where I stand – if you are going to do something and put your name on it, do it right.

    I’d like to see DU find the money from somewhere and build a quality program that would be at the top of the Summit, get to the dance, and change perceptions so that one day when a better conference is looking to add a team, they call us.

  6. I think there are too many D1 basketball teams. DU is just another program that should fold and the scholarships, money and focus on other university sports. Not every university needs to have a basketball program. Basketball does not define DU other sports do and the focus should be on continued success with those programs.

  7. All these complicated points made about institutional commitment, funding, transfer portals, and money. Undiscussed is the point that if DU had an excellent coach that could steal a few wins in the recruiting wars, and then coach a team to fight above their weight, DU could make their way into the national tournament, gain critical momentum for the program, sell more players on the idea of coming to play at DU, and generate thousands more fans per game in the process. It’s not the impossible rubik’s cube that this article makes it out to be. DU has just lacked an excellent coach to build momentum for the program. I saw this momentum maybe 7 years ago…DU was winning games, had a great student section, a game on ESPN 2(?), came close to making the national tournament. It was an actual buzz around the program that unfortunately could not be sustained. (I agree that Royce O’Neal’s transfer fucked the program, but a good coach wouldn’t let one player’s transfer kill all momentum.) Winning is the answer to your Rubik’s cube.

  8. Easy (and short sighted) to say “just scrap it.” But the fact remains, that if DU can hire the right coach (or if Rodney can somehow turn this thing around), and if DU starts winning and making the national tournament, basketball would be a huge asset to the DU athletics portfolio–5,000 people crowds, exposure for the school, big excitement come national tournament time, and a DU spectator sport on the same scale as the hockey program. (Of course hockey is cooler than hoops, but still.) As stated above, we got a small taste of this excitement years ago, and it looked like at that time like it could be a game-changer for DU athletics. It didn’t pan out, but a winning program would quickly get that excitement back.

    Then we’d have to deal with getting out of this conference. Winning would cure a lot of things, but it would not cure the dullness of competing against directional Dakota schools.

    Anyway, there are challenges, since 350 other schools want to do the same thing. But DU is the best non-football athletic program in the country, so it can be done. Train can’t leave the station, though, until we start scoring more points than the other teams.

  9. Okay. Here is the deal. DU made a terrible mistake when they gave a five year contract to a completely unproven coach who had no proven track record. The guy was an alum. So what? That means nothing if the guy can”t coach or recruit which he clearly can not. And then he hires some clown who got fired after two years of disastrous coaching at Detroit Mercy who lost a monumental amount of games. Good lord. He can’t coach and he can’t recruit and he hires a bozo who is a complete loser. Look. This is D-! program that can’t draw 1,000 fans after four years as a head coach. Do you need to know any more than that? Sorry but this is a dumpster fire. Now, where do you go from here. You be proud. You are in a city that is one of the great places to live in America,. This is not McComb, Illinois for crying out loud. If you have a coach that can not recruit to bring better athletes than a guy in McComb or Grand Forks, you have a coach who is clueless. DU can and should be able to recruit and compete with every program in the country if the administration brings in a charismatic coach with a winning personality and record. It is not the clown in place now. Yes. It will take commitment. It will take money. But it will reap benefits and profits far beyond the mess that now exists. The present coaching staff is clueless. Wipe the slate clean. Bring in a proven coach, fill the stands and create glory. Yes.. It will take vision and money. The alternative is mediocrity and 500 people in the stands.

  10. The above comments by William Schuetze are 100% correct. Scraping DUs hoops program is silly talk. It overlooks the simple and reasonable solution: DU needs to scrap is head coach, admit it made a hiring mistake and move on to a better option.

    This entire dumpster fire was predictable and lays at the feet of DUs Athletic Administration IMO. I looked back and read with amazement some of the statements made by DU and Billups at the time he was “anointed” — I mean “hired” as head shot-caller.

    University of Denver Magazine Jan. 9, 2017 article about Billups after he was hired. It stated: “At 34, Billups is one of the youngest division one coaches in history. It’s a fact Billups acknowledges could have worked against him. “I have no head coaching experience. DU went out on a limb to hire me. I’m going to prove to everyone who doesn’t think I should have this position that I’m worthy of it.”

    Fact: 2018-19 season (8-22 record, last in league, failed to make league tourney, humiliating historic loss to Gonzaga 40-101. And frankly, his team quit on him — not exactly the leadership DU expects from its highly paid coach).

    2019-20 season…. more of same… 5-19 so far, 340 out of 353 men’s teams, rank towards bottom of all D-1 teams in turnover-assist ratio and team defense. Certainly not the earmarks of a team that is disciplined and executes well as demanded by a competent coach. So far Rodney has publicly blamed DUs poor performance this season on: the referees, lack of fan support, and yes, even his own players at times (“I did not think my players were ready to play tonight” after loss to North Dakota. Well, who’s job is it to get the players ready Coach ?)

    5280 Magazine interview of Rodney Nov. 2016 after his hiring:
    “Perhaps more significantly, lackluster fan support has plagued DU’s program. Attendance at last years games averaged just 1675 — a 67% decrease from 2012.” Rodney told the reporter in 2016:”By playing fast and getting some energy into the building —running, dunking and having fun in transition, I think that will attract a different brand of fan”

    Fact: Attendance has now dropped to new historic lows under his stewardship to about 900 per game. It’s gotten so bad, the team is now moving to its high school, practice facility in an effort to stop the bleeding. Boy, if I’m a recruit, I can’t wait to sign with DU so I can get buckets in its auxiliary gym before fewer people than watched me in high school.. Point being: failure to play solid defense, take care of ball, and make threes has resulted in failure and a lousy fan experience. This is a bit different than promised. DU’s few hoops fans have now completely bailed.

    Finally, our own Puck Swami back on March 15, 2016 claimed DUs hire of Rodney was masterfully “strategic”. Love ya Puck, but by extension, you echoed DU’s party-line when you wrote upon Rodney’s ascension to the throne: “Hiring Billups, a George Washington High School grad and part of the “royal” family of Denver basketball (his brother Chauncey was a NBA legend) gives DU instant local credibility. “

    The faulty premise of DUs hiring criteria was obvious then and painful now: DU should have hired its head coach based on merit, proven experience and demonstrated excellence. Instead , DU dreamed to ignore sound judgment, and Peg Bradley-Doppes tapped Rodney because she felt he was “entitled” to the head gig based on his birthright and status as an alum, former player, and Denver native. Obviously a horrible decision. A head job should never be given a coveted D-1 head job based on his “royal” status. After all, doesn’t DU operate as a “meritocracy” not a “monarchy” ?

    DU needs to cut its losses at the end of the season and stop throwing good money after bad. Form a solid hiring committee, pick a new captain and move on with your program. The solution is that simple… no need to end the program. CSU and UNC are on a sound trajectory with their Colorado hoops programs and new coaches — both are getting quality wins and successfully signing local recruits. The same cannot be said about DU— and it hurts.

  11. I have to agree with SkiBum above … I cheered Coach Billups’ hiring and thought it would be a more exciting brand of basketball. But DU doesn’t need to scrap the program. Under Coach Joe Scott, we played a brutally dull scheme, but we won a lot of games. I think we need a new system while we scratch and claw our way back to credibility. Current leadership isn’t working, doesn’t mean Coach Billups is a bad guy, just not the man for the job. I’d kill to coach a D-1 basketball program, but I’d also suck at it. Not saying I could do a better job. But I’m thinking someone could. Best of luck to the team and DU.

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