The Davidson Model in the Atlantic 10 Conference

Andrew Kenneson – The landscape of college athletics changed dramatically between 2010 and 2014. The Big East collapsed. The SEC bolstered its already fearsome lineup of football powerhouses. The ACC solidified its claim as the best basketball conference in the land. The PAC-10 became the PAC-12. However, these shifts did not only affect big football conferences. When the dust settled, dozens of smaller schools and conferences remade and rebranded themselves, including Davidson.

Davidson is not a typical Division I school. Academically, our peers are schools like Pomona, Williams, Carleton, and Swarthmore. These small, private, academically rigorous liberal arts colleges look a lot like Davidson, except for the fact that when Davidson athletes take to the field, court, mat, track, or pool, they aren’t facing off against schools like Williams or Swarthmore. That’s because our athletic peers are bigger: often public universities such as the UNC schools, or, more recently, schools like George Mason and VCU. Because, in the midst all that conference shake-up, Davidson moved to Atlantic-10.

This was a big step up in most respects. First, we face a fiercer competition. Most of the moves made in that tumultuous time period were either lateral or upward moves for big sports like football or basketball. Davidson’s move to A-10 was not only a promotion for our flagship sport, basketball, but for almost every other sport as well.

There’s more travel involved too. Davidson moved from the cozy confines of the Southern Conference, with destinations like Greensboro, Charleston, and Boone, to the distant and unfamiliar territories of Washington D.C, New York City, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.

Then, of course, the schools got bigger. The average size of schools in the A-10 is 15,700 and some, like VCU, George Mason, and University of Massachusetts, have almost fifteen times as many students as Davidson.

We also don’t have nearly as many scholarships as A-10 schools. Although it’s hard to get exact figures, most coaches say they are in the bottom two or three in terms of funding in every sport. The basketball teams are the only exception. Of all the moves made amidst these conference realignments, Davidson’s move to the A-10 is among the most ambitious.

It’s been two and a half years since that move. Every team has either played three seasons, is in the midst of their third season, or is gearing up for it. Campus buzzed with talk of the move when it happened, but now it’s the new normal. Three years ago, people in and outside of Baker asked, “Can we handle this?” More recently, however, there has not been a campus-wide discussion around the question, “Are we handling this?” Overall, how has Davidson benefited from this move? And what could Davidson do better?

Front Porch Renovations

Let’s back up. The A-10 move really started at Georgia Tech, where Jim Murphy, Davidson’s athletic director, and Bernadette McGlade, the A-10 commissioner, worked together for ten years before moving on to their current postings. The two stayed in touch and McGlade would often ask Murphy if he would be willing to have a conversation about moving to the A-10.

Every time the presidents meet, McGlade said, they all thought Davidson would be a good fit.

Two other things were happening around that time. One, we were having some consistent success on the basketball court. The men’s basketball team won the Southern Conference (SoCon) regular season six out of the previous eight years before the A-10 move. The other was that the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) conference asked if we would be willing to join them.

The first meant that Davidson had, in at least our biggest sport, outgrown the SoCon. The second clarified our priorities. Moving to the CAA, which includes teams like UNC-Wilmington and William and Mary, would be a step up in competition, but it would still keep Davidson mostly in the South. Plus, of the schools that were outside the South, only Drexel and Northeastern were in big cities.

If we were going to do this, Murphy said, we were going to use a move to raise our national profile and move into markets where we didn’t already have a presence. So he and the athletic department turned down the CAA. About a year later, Davidson announced it would be moving into the A-10.

This history is important because it shows why Davidson made the move. It wasn’t just so our athletes could test themselves against tougher competition. We wanted to use athletics to spread Davidson’s footprint out of the South. As one Davidson coach said, “If a college is a house, athletics are the front porch. For better or worse, it’s often the first thing people see.” By moving to the A-10, we made our front porch much larger.

Footprint Expansion

We realized that when students go look for jobs, most employers in Charlotte or Atlanta know about Davidson. But up in Washington D.C., New York, or Philadelphia? Less so. The same goes for admissions; smart kids in the South have probably heard about Davidson more than kids in the northeast. On top of all that, alumni who already live in the Northeast could feel more connected to the school as a result of the move to the A-10. This shift could help raise Davidson’s profile to a more national level. Level of competition was important, but it wasn’t the real reason Davidson choose to make such an ambitious jump.

The footprint expansion seems to be working, too. Two and a half years isn’t all that long when it comes to these sorts of things, but the early signs remain promising. Alumni Relations reports that alumni in the Northeast have been thrilled with the opportunity to see Davidson play close to home. The department has been able to host events at games that get alumni together and connect with Davidson again. This is great news for the school: alumni who feel connected to their alma mater are more likely to give back.

On the other hand, the numbers of students taking jobs in the Northeast right out of school has not increased significantly, though it might just be too early to tell. Plus, those numbers don’t take into account the alumni who try to break into Northeastern job markets after starting off in the South.

The same goes for admissions. While we had a record number of applications last year, the numbers coming from the Northeast didn’t increase dramatically. It’s too early to say if the A-10 move has embedded Davidson into these markets yet. The early signs, however, are generally positive. Coaches, for instances, are getting more athletes from Northeastern areas. Hopefully, more applications from non-athletes will arrive in the years to come.

Money

The financial side of the move is working, as well. It costs more for us to be in the A-10, due primarily to increased travel. Since competition levels have gone up, we’ve increased scholarships in some areas. We’ve paid off the exit fee for leaving the Southern Conference, and the entrance fee for entering the A-10 will be paid off in a few years.

But we’ve made money too. The new deal with Under Armour, for example, saves the department money, and, it would not have happened without the A-10 move. However, perhaps the biggest way Davidson will make money off the A-10 move is through basketball.

The NCAA allocates money to its member schools partly based on how often those schools compete in the NCAA’s tournaments. The NCAA makes money off broadcasting and marketing the teams, so those teams get a cut of that money if they are part of those tournaments. This is not, however, true for all sports. The NCAA does not make enough money off the soccer tournaments, for example, for any of that money to trickle down to the schools. This makes the basketball teams our money-making sports.

Because the Southern Conference was a weaker basketball conference, Davidson essentially had to win the conference to get a bid to the NCAA tournament. The A-10, on the other hand, often gets three or four teams in. By moving to the A-10, we increased our chances of getting into the NCAA basketball tournaments, thus increasing our chances of attaining more revenue. All that being said, the point of the move was not financial. Murphy said, “I’d be happy just breaking even.”

The marketing and financial aspects of the A-10 move are also, so far, working out. It’s putting Davidson’s name in new places at a generally low cost. But this is only part of the picture. Another aspect is that we don’t just want to be in new markets, we want to win in new markets, which would also help us make a name for ourselves. The final part is how athletes have handled the move. After all, the weight of ambition in moving to the A-10 fell mostly on the shoulders of Davidson’s athletes. The games got harder. The travel got longer. The academic demands did not change. None of those athletes came to Davidson thinking it would be easy. But the move to the A-10 has raised questions of how much we can demand from our student athletes, and whether the “Davidson Model”, where athletes are treated like regular students, is still feasible.

Wins and Losses

On paper at least, the move indicated a step up for every sport except men’s soccer and baseball. The former was a lateral move, while the latter was a small step down. Across the board, however, we compete against bigger schools with more resources. In the SoCon, we were playing schools that were two or three times bigger than us and usually had more scholarship dollars. In the A-10, most schools are ten to fifteen times bigger than us, and as a result almost always have more money.

These charts show how we’ve done so far. The highlighted rows are conference records in the A-10. For cross country (XC), Swimming and Diving, Golf, and Track, the places are finishes in conference tournaments. Neither wrestling nor football moved to the A-10, so they are not included here. Asterisks denote seasons still in progress.

Two trends emerge here. One is that despite being the smallest and often the least-funded school in the A-10, we don’t play like it. Very few teams have finished their seasons at the bottom of the conference. We periodically beat teams that should, on paper, wipe the floor with us.

Second, there are more games out there to be won. We are not far off. Any coach or athlete will tell you that the difference between winning and losing in college athletics often comes down to inches and seconds; the difference between teams is five or six percent. Every year, one or two teams will win finish first or second in conference, and it usually isn’t the same teams. Small improvements in the right places can take a team from seventh one year, to second the next. Now, with almost three seasons completed in the A-10 and more attention and resources in Davidson athletics than ever, everyone from student athletes to Jim Murphy think it’s time we start winning more consistently.

Are We Handling This?

Talk to athletes and coaches for a while and you’ll hear a range of opinions on the A-10 move. A lot of it is positive. Across the board, coaches enjoy competing against better competition. They feel like they are building better teams to compete against better opponents. Some even said the teams they have now are the best teams they’ve ever had. They also enjoy the increased credibility for the athletic department. Most said they can get better recruits, which is especially true for sports like lacrosse and field hockey, which are mostly played in the Northeast. They like being able to take their athletes new places, like New York City or St. Louis. Some have even gotten more scholarships.

Many athletes echo these things. They like playing against better competition. Some feel like their teams started buckling down, working harder, and taking athletics more seriously since the move. They’ve enjoyed going new places and seeing new things with their teammates. For the most part, they’ve embraced the challenge.

However, there have also been downsides. The biggest disadvantage is travel. In the SoCon, the average travel time to a conference game was about two hours. Now the closest school, VCU, is over four hours away. Other trips that teams take include six hour drives to Washington D.C., eight or nine hour trips to Pittsburg, Dayton, or Philadelphia, flights to New York, St. Louis, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Conference games that used to be one-day affairs now consume the entire weekend, with a flight out Saturday morning and a red-eye flight Monday morning to make it back for class.

Despite the new challenges, athletes aren’t missing any more class than they used to. Prior to the move, professors were worried that athletes would miss more than the allotted three Monday, Wednesday and Friday classes or two Tuesday and Thursday classes with the increased travel time. But, as Dean Shandley reports, they really haven’t. This confirms that the Davidson Model of athletics remains intact. Athletes are still 100% athlete and 100% student 100% of the time, despite greater demands. Even after a move to a bigger conference, Davidson treats its athletes like regular students.

The Davidson Model

The issue at hand, therefore, is not whether we should be in the A-10 conference. It’s whether the school should do more to support athletes given the new challenges. The “Davidson Model” says that athletes don’t get special benefits. They don’t have a special dorm or cafeteria. They don’t get to choose classes before anyone else. There aren’t tutors available for athletes that aren’t available to everyone else. A few take summer classes, but most do not. And yet, these athletes compete against other schools where athletes get all these benefits and more. The question the A-10 move raises is whether this model is still feasible.

Because, at the end of the day, most athletes don’t feel like regular students. They have practice six days a week, often for two hours or more, and lifts two or three mornings a week. If they are hurt, they are expected to be in the training room every day before practice. And now with the A-10 move, they leave campus for extended trips almost every other week in season. Plus, all these obligations are non-negotiable. Most athletes might miss two or three practices for extenuating circumstances in their entire career, and very few have ever missed a game.

Non-athletes, of course, have obligations outside of the classroom as well. But although it’s impossible to measure, it’s hard to imagine that any more than a handful reach the sheer number of hours that athletes put into their sport, week in and week out.

As established early, Davidson moved to the A-10 to expand our footprint, to use athletics to spread our name outside the South. Logically, this could mean athletes are not regular students; they are ambassadors of sorts for the school. However, as several athletes noted, nothing really changed when moved to the A-10. More was asked of athletes by the school, but the same amount of support was given.

These time commitments, coupled with the rigor of Davidson’s academics, and compounded by the Davidson Model of treating athletes like regular students, has taken a toll on some athletes. They say that being an athlete at Davidson has always been difficult, and they knew it would be difficult when they came here. Since the A-10 move, many are, at least while in season, stressed and anxious all the time. They can’t separate academics from athletics; they think about the tests coming up and what they’ll miss when they fly to New York this weekend. Many also wonder why Davidson insists on treating them like regular students when they clearly aren’t. It’s as if there’s a line of asking too much from athletes, and the Davidson Model has always crept toward it. But with the A-10 move, we may have stepped over it.

On the other hand, not all athletes feel this way. It’s hard for everyone, but some, for whatever reason, have handled it better than others. But enough have voiced concerns for it to be troubling. With that in mind, a few ideas have been kicked around to tweak the Davidson Model without completely overhauling it.

Possible Alterations

One possible alteration is priority scheduling. Every athlete can look at their schedule before a season starts and know what days they’ll miss the most and what days they’ll most likely have off. They can also look a class schedule and know which ones they can’t afford to miss, not even two or three times. Guaranteeing in-season athletes one or two classes, especially if they’re labs or seminars, could help them compete and learn better.

The big problem is that there aren’t enough classes, which the registrar has looked into and a common problem. Even if athletes got priority scheduling, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference unless they got priority on all classes, which would be grossly unfair to non-athletes. What could happen, according to Murphy, is a move to cutting Friday classes. This might have a number of benefits for all students, but it would especially help athletes with weekend away games. Summer classes could also be an option. Some teams, particularly basketball, do this already. This allows the athletes to take three classes in-season and train on campus over the summer, both of which can make a big difference. The problem here is that very few professors want to teach in the summer, and getting them to do so can be expensive. Most teams, and the athletic department in general, don’t have the resources to pull this off on a large scale. And for that matter, many athletes wouldn’t have interest in spending their summers in Davidson anyway.

More on the competition side, we could encourage and allow more athletes to stay for a fifth year if they didn’t play much or got hurt in a prior season. This might help teams develop better players. But like summer classes, the big hurdle is cost. Financial aid only covers eight semesters, and most teams don’t have the scholarship dollars to cover the difference.

The football team, however, is trying out a program where underclassmen take a spring semester off, and intern with an alumnus, thereby extending their careers. If this is successful, other sports might implement it as well.

These are the challenges, and perhaps the conversations we need to have, about athletics at Davidson. How much is too much? Can we still treat athletes like regular students? What would we lose if things did change? One athlete put it nicely and said, “It’s not about making it easier. It’s about putting us in a better position to succeed.” The A-10 move has already been a success. The question now, two and a half years later, is how we can improve.

Thanks to all the athletes, coaches, and administrators who spoke with me for this article. Thanks also to Jonathan Swann, who contributed reporting