Red Storm Rising

By Michael Spinner

The last time I wrote about a St. Johns University lacrosse team it was about the team's demise. The article, written for a large weekly newspaper in Queens, New York, did not delve much into gender equity, but instead just replayed the words of then St. John's Athletic Director Ed Manetta, "an issue pertaining to the quality of life in and around the University Community." I assume this was code for Title IX change because I can't imagine how dropping men's lacrosse enhanced the quality of life at the Jamaica, Queens school in 1995 when 100% of St. John's students were commuters.

Apparently, much has changed in seven years as the school has seemingly taken an about-face and will now bring back men's lacrosse for the 2003 Fall and Sprng 2004 season.

It what had to be one of the more stunning turns of events for Division I Men's Lacrosse in recent memory, a University administrator spoke of Title IX compliance and adding men's lacrosse in the same breath this week, perhaps unveiling a new trend in the college sports world. Even more stunning, the school dropped football to add lacrosse to it ranks - considered taboo among many institutions.

The question is…what does all of this mean? The New York City Columnists have been brutal at times this week in their analysis of the decision at St. Johns and SJU coaches were left scratching their heads. After all, St. John's football was non-scholarship and carried a roster of 45. Adding what will probably be a scholarship men's lacrosse program with its roster of 35-40, really makes no sense in regard to gender equity. Add to the mix that SJU will actually drop women's swimming during the same year that men's lacrosse is added and it's very difficult to comprehend what is going on at SJU.

Difficult, if you fail to read between the lines.

If you think about it carefully, the decision to add men's lacrosse at SJU has nothing to do with Title IX, gender-equity, or any other political stress that faces college athletics today. It has to do with the reason why schools support athletics in the first place - winning and losing.

I grew up nearly walking distance from St. Johns University when Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, Mark Jackson and others dominated the basketball headlines. Back then the term, "Lou" represented a coaching icon and St. John's athletics was identified with only one team (basketball) but it represented the institution as a whole. St. Johns won a Men's Soccer National Championship in 1996 and despite the fact that very few people paid attention to their efforts, everybody rejoiced. In short, to one community - my community - St. Johns athletics means a great deal. Their success represents something important here.

Since the year SJU dropped men's lacrosse, coincidentally I'm sure, the institution as a whole has seemed to have been reborn. A new baseball stadium was built and was so impressive that it even housed a minor league team for one season. This year, a new soccer stadium was built on-campus that is undoubtedly one of the most impressive college sports complexes on earth…and if it is the future home of Red Storm lacrosse, we have a lot to look forward to. Add to the mix that SJU built top-of-the-line on-campus housing for more than 3,000 students and it is clear that the University is in a much different place than it was in 1996. There is a major push for St. Johns Athletics across the board to mean something and mean something in a hurry.

Enter men's lacrosse.

The football team at SJU was dropped for one simple reason-there was no way that under any circumstances St. John's football had any shot to be anything better than a mediocre I-AA program. With nearby Hofstra and Fordham holding powerhouses at that level, Stony Brook building a stadium that should house a powerhouse, and fairly local C.W. Post building a top-10 Division II team, the local market was saturated with too much competition for a non-scholarship program like SJU to compete with. Despite a long tradition of football at SJU, its hope for a simply decent team in the near future, let alone a national power, were dismal at best.

The prospects for men's lacrosse at St. John's is a whole different story. While the Red Storm or Redmen, as they were known, were never more than an average Division I team back in their day, lacrosse was also different back then. The fact that there are the same number of Division I teams fielding men's lacrosse now that fielded men's lacrosse in 1996 but the number of High School participants has grown enormously puts SJU in a position to create something special.

With a new facility that would be the perfect lacrosse venue and an older turf stadium that is pretty darn nice, dorms that allow a coach to recruit nationally, and a name that continues to mean more and more in the college athletics world, SJU adding lacrosse made perfect competitive sense. The school has the academics, location, and budget to make a splash in the lacrosse world. Now they have the facilities to do so as well.

While certainly the St. Johns administration could not have said, "we dropped football because football here stinks and lacrosse can really do something," the writing is on the wall once again. If done properly, men's lacrosse at SJU could be a powerhouse that lives up to the image SJU is trying to present.

However, supporting men's lacrosse "properly" is the one thing the school has not commented on yet. How much can be expected from a program that will have no more than four lacrosse scholarships to draw talent to its new program and great facilities. What hope can the school have to field a top lacrosse program with such institutional support? Maybe the program will be strong enough to win the MAAC and compete in the NCAA Tournament, but such a disparity of support between MAAC and programs from other Conferences, St. Johns would have virtually no shot to be nationally competitive. This is not a knock on the MAAC, just a fact that a program with 12.5 scholarships is in a far better position than even the best-supported MAAC program. End of story.

So the question that remains is whether or not the institution has the foresight to understand that despite its improved facilities, the only way to make men's lacrosse really mean something is to do it the right way and either function as an independent or push for a new conference. Division I women's lacrosse has a Big East Conference that has become so competitive that UConn, Virginia Tech, and Boston College have varsity teams because of the national recognition the programs receive. If SJU pushes for such a conference with Rutgers, Syracuse, Villanova, Providence, Notre Dame, and Georgetown, could the other Big East Schools be far behind? And what a conference it would be!

One might say that SJU fielding lacrosse and fully supporting the sport would not help to expand Division I lacrosse because of Title IX…well St. Johns did. SJU dropped football because football was non-competitive and lost money for the school while adding men's lacrosse gives them a shot at a national contender. Let's hope that other schools around the country see the wisdom here and consider the opportunities that abound in lacrosse.

December 16, 2002

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