PHILADELPHIA -- Malik Rose asked me to go to Drexel. Not in person, but through a TV set. It was a somewhat elegant request, though -- it came in the form of two-point dunk shots and sweet jumpers, as he led the Dragons to a stunning 12-over-5 upset over Memphis in the first found of the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
I was living in Oregon at the time while I looked for a school to attend in Philadelphia, so I could be closer to my girlfriend. I'd already been back east to visit Temple (she thought the campus was too scary), Villanova (too religious for me), and the University of Pennsylvania (which had standards far too high to accept the likes of me). I hadn't even heard of this little America East Conference school, even though I'd driven across its urban campus on my college scouting trips. The name "Drexel" didn't end up reaching my consciousness until I saw a two-hour infomercial for it on CBS.
Like I often say, an athletic budget is an advertising budget. Once I knew about Drexel, I was able to do more research and find out that it was the perfect school for me -- it had a design school and
an information science department. And most importantly, it didn't have American-Style Football.
Life is full of these little coincidences and conjunctions. Think about your own path, how different it would be if you had chosen a different college to attend, or if you hadn't have gone at all. Your alternate realities collide and spark with those of others, people whom you will never meet, creating a billion broken shards of lost and non-existent possibility. For me, no path other than this one would have led me here, to right now. I wouldn't be writing about mid-major basketball to a national audience if it wasn't for Malik Rose.
Drexel is a private, non-reliigous university shoehorned into West Philadelphia between Penn and a series of old low-income neighborhoods. And I arrived there at a key moment in its history -- it was the eve of the college's centennial, and the school was struggling through a decade of mismanagement, debt and layoffs. A new administration swept in, led by Greek engineer and businessman Constantine Papadakis
. Drexel, without the constraints of church or state, would be run like a corporation; Dr. Papadakis would make sure that nobody ever drove through the campus again without realizing it was a real institution of higher learning.
Drexel was going to get big.
DU in the late Nineties and early 2000's followed the same rules of any large entity in the last days of the American Dream: expand, acquire and conquer. The size of the population quickly doubled, and its legendary engineering school was eclipsed in student numbers by its business college. Drexel established a Drexel Law and merged with MCP Hahnemann, a local medical school, turning it into the Drexel School of Medicine. From vacant lots sprung skyscraping dormitories. Buildings went up in every spare corner, construction funded by a boom in five-digit annual tuition checks and a massive influx of research funding.
Athletics serve as a looking-glass for a school's perception of itself, and Drexel decided it had to get big there as well. In 2002, the school joined an exodus out of the America East and into the Colonial Athletic Association. From a fan's perspective (and there weren't many of us in those days due to Drexel's well-earned reputation as a "suitcase" campus that emptied out at 4 p.m.), it was swapping out one set of strange and distant schools for another. New England state schools like Maine and New Hampshire stopped coming around, replaced by DelMarVa institutions such as Old Dominion and VCU. Back then, Drexel couldn't fill its 2,300-seat gym for either group.
The Colonial wanted to get big, too, so it was a match made in heaven. The conference had spent most of its first 15 years as a conference based in Virginia and North Carolina, bringing the area's private colleges with medium-sized endowments together in athletic combat. In 2001, Drexel, Towson, Hofstra and Delaware made up its first wave of northern expansion. Four years later, the CAA struck into Boston (Northeastern) and Atlanta (Georgia State) to become a 12-team basketball league. The conference had doubled in size since its inaugural year in 1982-83, back when it was a tight circle of William & Mary, James Madison, Navy, George Mason, East Carolina and Richmond.
Now it was in northern cities, seeking higher prestige and increased visibility. In the new, spread-out CAA, the only sort of simpatico Drexel could engage in was with the two other smaller, upwardly mobile private universities in big metro areas, the ones that had once been stuck in the America East along with us. But both Hofstra and Northeastern were football schools.
American-Style Football, at the college level, is like cocaine. Not "crack," I'm talking about the real stuff. There are quick, short highs that make you feel big. But it's expensive, the drug of the rich. Anyone else who gets hooked ends up strung out, addicted, and in a worse place than where they started out from. All for the brief illusion of being big.
In the first season of the new mega-CAA, there was magic, but it was no illusion. Two teams, George Mason and UNC Wilmington, went to the NCAA, giving the league two bids for the first time in two decades. A third, Hofstra, had a suitable NCAA profile, but ended up taking out its frustration on the NIT field, where it met Old Dominion in a thrilling all-CAA quarterfinal. Old Dominion prevailed and went off to Madison Square Garden. It was an amazing time, and the whole league was in it together. From BracketBusters to the Final Four, the chant rang out: C! A! A! C! A! A!
But after two teams from the historic Virginia core earned bids to the 2007 NCAA Tournament, and after VCU dispatched Duke with Eric Maynor's "Dagger," the CAA all but vanished from the national radar. The signature non-conference wins stopped coming. Attendance dropped on the outer perimeters of the sprawling league. The Northern teams found it difficult to recruit for a Southern league, just as the Mason-Dixon and Midwestern schools of the Atlantic 14 found difficulty selling top local players on the joys of extensive northern travel. The national TV opportunities never truly materialized. And few accepted the two-year multibid run for what it was -- a confluence of hot coaches, NBA-quality talent and unselfish basketball teams. It all came together, and then it fell apart.
Finally, in 2009, Northeastern and Hofstra dropped football, effectively kicking the habit. It's still too close to the twin decisions to separate the truth from the wounded defiance, the reasoning from the overheated conjecture. But from a macroeconomic level, it's hard to imagine how city schools with sub-Red Line budgets could maintain competitive gridiron programs while sending its basketball teams (and its lacrosse, field hockey, baseball and football squads too) up and down the eastern seaboard.
We'll never know if Hofstra and Northeastern would have been able to maintain football outside of the current Colonial Athletic Association, just as it's impossible to ever know what would have happened to a thankfully mythical Drexel football program under the same conditions. But these things are connected, and the structural cracks will continue to pop and spread like spiderwebs. The new CAA is a failure in progress, even if those inside can't bring themselves to admit it yet.
The Great American Novels of the previous two centuries have mostly been allegory-heavy tales of class friction and struggle, the rise and fall (and occasional redemption) of family empires, the guilt and shame of ill-gotten gains and their penalties. I wonder what literary metaphors capture the strange new age we've been thrown into, where debt and subservience have replaced unchecked expansion and possibility.
What I keep coming back to is the idea that it's not as complicated a story as the old ones -- a protagonist fueled by ambition and promise, working within the rules to build a powerful far-reaching empire. The tragic twist is that he or she grows so big that they can't find or recognize their own home, and that they forget their own name -- unrecognizable (and therefore unlovable) to others, but to themselves as well.
I haven't figured out the ending yet. I do know, however, that it can't end on a down note. But it's a recurring template in today's society -- the metro areas that are all suburb and no city center, the merged amalgamated megacorps with four names, the athletic superleagues with large geographic footprints and little souls, and institutions that grow for the sake of growth and greed.
Walking across Drexel's urban campus on an unseasonably mild January night -- no need for ear protection -- I was reminded why I'd originally missed the signs when I drove through back in 1995. More than ever, the blocks between 30th and 35th, Powelton and Chestnut, are a mish-mash of unmatching buildings. There's 2000 glass and steel alongside 1978 blocky brick next to 1930 stucco, tied together by a string of blue and gold street banners bearing the school's dragon logo. Unlike Penn to the direct south, there is no prevailing style of architecture, even though the buildings of Drexel's modern boom were erected within a decade of each other.
My time at Drexel was filled with closed sidewalks, drywall dust and Turner Construction signs. I remember the buzz when the school announced that Michael Graves
would be designing a new dormitory in his familiar brightly colored, Lego-esque, dot-window style. Problem was, they got 15 other architects to do the other buildings. The new late-night food court on 34th Street, just a block from my old apartment (could've used that back then), looks like some kind of Apple product. Maybe even the side-view of the new "tablet."
The off-center center of campus is the 1892-vintage Main Building
and the gorgeous and graceful Paul Peck Center
, bearing reminders that the school is indeed over 100 years old. There's a building across Chestnut Street in the same style as the Main Building, but it's a non-aligned block of loft apartments. It's a campus with no clear borders, a jumbled place where it's hard to know where you are, or who you are.
A Dragon, I guess.
There's a new glass shoebox attached to the athletic center, but the Dragons still play in the same little 2,300-seat gym I remember from the good old America East days. And they still have trouble filling it on a weeknight, even for VCU, the two-time defending conference champions. The only real difference is that there's a loud and proud student section now
, something my friends and I failed to accomplish back in 1998
But it's the same arena where I fell in love with mid-major basketball, where I learned to appreciate small things like cardboard-flavored pizza and plastic butt-molding benches, where I embraced the aesthetic after years as a mindless Pac-10 drone. I watched a young Dragon team shoot out of their minds and ride a first-half run all the way to a 75-72 victory
. It was the first time that Drexel had beaten the Rams at the Daskalakis Athletic Center since 2001-02, that first CAA season, and it was a fairly uncommon win for a northern city team over one of the league's old guard. In the expansion era, none of the new schools have made the NCAA Tournament. In other words, no Colonial team from outside Virginia, North Carolina or the D.C. area has ever won the league.
Nine years on, it still felt like an adopted sibling besting big brother and earning a little respect. So there was cheering on press row, a little more than NCAA regulations typically allow.
But nine years on, a game with VCU doesn't have that feeling of a rivalry -- the packed gym, the chants, the carefully hand-inked signs that disparage members of the opposing team and their mothers. (These are all in long supply down south when VCU, ODU, UNCW and William & Mary face off, as I've more recently learned.) Here, it's just two teams playing basketball, separated by hundreds of miles -- the same night-in, night-out experience found up in Conference USA.
Drexel and the CAA, in their twin desires to get big, have somehow become two sides of the same tragedy. The DU athletics department is just as much of an outsider as it was in the America East days, clinging to an awkward interstate rivalry with the University of Delaware
. And if there's any sad poetry in the CAA's current condition, it's this: the league has expanded up and down the East Coast, but its spiritual March home, the Richmond Coliseum, is crumbling from the inside
. Sometimes the metaphors write themselves.
There's a home for wayward Drexel, and for the lost boys of Northeastern and Hofstra too. There's a place for all the northeast colleges in urban areas, the ones with size L dreams and size M athletic budgets. The only thing is that it's a league that doesn't exist in what we currently know as reality.
It's where Boston University lives, the school who was left behind in the flight from the America East. This conference is a welcoming place for the ones who ended up in the wrong situation, the Fordhams and La Salles. All the misfits belong here, even the Mason-Dixon straddlers like Towson and Loyola. Eight teams, bound together by city-school status and strung together in a 400-mile line along the BosWash corridor, paired as perfect travel partners.
But the past can't be rewritten. The contracts can't be shredded, and the decisions that set off the dominoes can't be rethought, back when "get big" won out over "make sense." The promises can't be taken back. But in one of those alternate realities, one of those lost and nonexistent possibilities, is the right way. We're never going to get get back there; it's much too late now.