The Big Issue: The rapid decline of Boston College athletics
It was the night of Oct. 25, 2007, and the Red Sox were playing Game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park.
The Celtics, who had acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to team with Paul Pierce in the offseason were a week away from starting their most anticipated season since the Larry Bird-era.
The Patriots were 7-0 and there was talk of an undefeated season after a dominant road win at Miami just days prior.
One could easily make the case that this date was THE height of sports popularity in the history of the city of Boston.
Indeed, the Red Sox playing a home game in the Fall Classic is on par with the Patriots playing in the Super Bowl. In other words, it’s as big as it gets in these parts.
But on that night, there were more than a few TV sets in the Greater Boston area clicking over from FOX to ESPN.
BC football, which had captured the imagination of the region in the 1980s during the Doug Flutie era, was back and possibly better than ever.
Matt Ryan, now a legitimate Heisman trophy candidate, had led the Eagles to a dramatic 14-10 victory over Virginia Tech on that magical Thursday night and BC had improved to 8-0 for the first time since 1942.
They were ranked No. 2 in the country and unbelievably enough, thoughts of a national championship were realistic.
Just 19 months earlier, the Boston College basketball program was having similar national championship aspirations. Had it not been for an overtime goaltending call in the Sweet Sixteen against Villanova, the Eagles would have been just one win away from the Final Four.
During this period, Boston College owned arguably the hottest athletics department in the NCAA, an organization which is fueled by men’s basketball and football.
Less than five years later, the Eagles barely register on the college sports landscape. The football program, which fired highly successful head coach Jeff Jagodzinski (20-8 overall record) following the 2008 season, went a paltry 4-8 in 2011.
The basketball program, which fired highly successful head coach Al Skinner in 2010 just wrapped up a 9-21 regular season, finishing dead last in the ACC.
The BC athletic department simply says that it’s going through a down period. But former Eagles players, millionaire donors and former athletic department staff say that the current situation at the school is one that is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
As for getting back to the glory years of 2006 and 2007, the group says that the damage done since that time will take “decades to repair.”
Boston College responds to Lively’s letter
Steven Lively, a former Boston College offensive lineman who played in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants in the early 1980s, penned a letter to the board of trustees and CC’d Father William Leahy regarding the decline of the athletic department.
The letter, which offered few specifics of inappropriate action by Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo or the athletic department, did catch the attention of Boston College as they quickly responded to the letter with a statement.
University spokesman Jack Dunn wrote in January:
“Steve Lively’s letter regarding Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo is perplexing and unfortunate, and filled with irresponsible and baseless claims. It has caused a number of people, including several of Steve’s former football teammates, to express concern for him and his judgment. ?
Under Gene’s leadership, the BC Athletics program has remained true to its traditions and the pursuit of excellence. Boston College has one of the highest student-athlete graduation rates in the country, its athletics facilities have been upgraded significantly, and its athletes have succeeded on the field and in service to the wider community. Gene DeFilippo has the confidence, respect and support of countless members of the Boston College community, including University President Fr. William Leahy, as well as colleagues in intercollegiate athletics throughout the United States.”
DeFilippo, who was in Greensboro, N.C., for the ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament, was unavailable for comment regarding this story during the weekend.
Group calls situation ‘toxic’
Over the past three weeks, a group of former Boston College football players, donors and athletic department staff alleged an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation” surrounding the current state of the athletic department in a series of interviews with Metro.
“The last two years I was there it was very toxic, it’s not a good place to work right now,” a former athletic department staff member said. “You never knew which (Athletic Director) Gene (DeFilippo) you were going to get when you walked into his office. You never knew if he would be nice to you or bite your head off. There were lots of mood swings and he rules by fear. I didn’t want to be in that environment.”
The group spoke of DeFilippo undermining former basketball coach Al Skinner, former football coaches Jeff Jagodzinski and Tom O’Brien and many other BC head coaches over the years by speaking directly to student-athletes and assistant coaches and questioning game plans and coaching methods.
The group believes that much of the reason why Skinner, Jagodzinski and former women’s basketball coach Cathy Inglese were dismissed is directly tied to DeFilippo’s controlling ways and had “absolutely nothing” to do with on-field results.
“I’m sure a lot of people will say why aren’t more people speaking out? Well there are reasons for that,” said Bill Stephanos, a 1981 BC graduate and draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings. “There are a lot of people that still would like for their kids to go to BC and I understand that. As for the former coaches, there are severance packages tied to requirements that they don’t speak.”
Former big-time donors, like Greg Barber, say that many former alumni have given up on the direction of the athletic department. “I believe (the negative tone of the athletic department) goes back to the period of time when Tom O’Brien was head football coach and was about to leave,” said Barber, a former trustee who gave BC a gift of $2.5 million in 1997 to endow the head coaching position. “Today we have almost nothing to do with BC despite having three graduates in the family.
“Under (DeFilippo’s) own admission, he spends 24/7 worrying about the football program. He’s said that (current head football coach) Frank Spaziani is the best coach he’s seen at BC in 15 years even though you have (hockey coach) Jerry York in place, and he just won his 900th game. There’s been tremendous turnover under his watch and based on the results, I’m just not impressed with (DeFilippo’s) management style. I’m not involved today and I’m disassociated with BC. It’s a shame.”
Lively, who has spearheaded an effort by BC alumni to get these issues public, said that Father Leahy is also to blame for the decline.
“Father Leahy wants to create his own legacy and frankly isn’t concerned with athletics,” Lively said. “There’s a fundamental shift going on and the student experience is taking a hit for it.”
Metro first contacted DeFilippo’s office last Wednesday for a response to this story. Arrangements could not be met prior to press time for a sit-down interview, which Boston College requested.
DeFilippo’s office declined Metro’s request for a phone interview during the weekend.
Follow Metro Sports Editor Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBos