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The Citadel Bulldogs battling costly attrition
In seven seasons as the football coach at Lehigh University, Kevin Higgins won 68 percent of his games, including two 12-win seasons, one 10-win campaign and four Patriot League titles.
Entering his seventh season at The Citadel, Higgins has won just 27 of 67 games, a winning percentage of 40. The highwater mark, thus far, was a 7-4 record in 2007, his third season with the Bulldogs.
Asked recently to explain the disparity, Higgins could have cited any number of reasons – the increased level of competition in the Southern Conference, the difficulties in recruiting at a military school.
After all, Higgins’ 40.2 winning percentage is not that far off the average (45 percent) of all coaches at The Citadel. Of The Citadel’s last five coaches, dating back to 1987, only Charlie Taaffe (54) has a higher winning percentage than Higgins.
Instead, Higgins said his chief difficulty has been retention – hanging on to the recruits the Bulldogs are able to sign.
“That’s really what has hurt us here in years five and six,” Higgins said. “We lost a bunch of players in there that really could have helped us.”
The numbers are startling:
–In 2006, Higgins signed 28 players in his first full recruiting class. Four years later, in 2009, only 16 of those players (57 percent) were still on the roster as redshirt juniors or seniors.
–In 2007, The Citadel signed 32 players. By 2010, when they would have been fourth-year players, only 15 remained on the roster, a paltry 47 percent.
Little wonder, then, that the 2009 and 2010 teams went 4-7 and 3-8 with much of their senior classes missing in action.
Some of those players were lost to reasons common to most college football programs – injury, playing time, homesickness, grades.
But The Citadel, with its honor code and tradition of weeding out the weak, presents extra challenges. School president Lt. Gen. John Rosa recently told the S.C. Board of Higher Education that one way the school can deal with budget cuts is to increase retention rates, even though The Citadel’s overall graduation rate is 63 percent, highest in the state.
For Higgins, as for many Citadel coaches before him, it’s been a steep learning curve.
“Like anything else, you learn a lot about the place, things you can and can’t do, how to be successful,” he said. “We’ve been putting things in place to deal with that.”
Those measures include:
–An academic advisor tasked with helping student-athletes. In May 2009, J.B. Weber began running the new academic services program for athletes, making sure football players and other athletes had equal access to the school’s tutoring and advising services.
“With their travel and practice schedules, it can be hard for student-athletes to get the help they need,” Weber said. “We help coordinate study halls, tutoring and counseling so they get the same access regular cadets have.”
Said Higgins, “That’s something we haven’t had, and we lost players for various reasons because of it.”
–Helping players understand the school’s honor code – “A cadet does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do” – and honor court system.
“This summer, we had the head of the honor court come in and talk to our players about that,” Higgins said. “A lot of players coming into college have no idea what a footnote is, or what plagiarism is, and we’ve lost players because of that.
“Now, we’re trying to be more proactive, getting our guys to learn those things at an early point in their careers.”
–A summer school program for incoming freshmen to get a head start on classes and voluntary workouts with the football team.
–"That has really helped us with retention the last couple of years,” Higgins said.
–Getting more involved with the military side of The Citadel.
“Every morning, we have three coaches at all five battalions,” Higgins said of the barracks where cadets live. “We spend time with the TAC officers (who oversee the barracks), get around our players and the student body.
“That has really helped with the relationship with the Corps of Cadets, and that’s something I didn’t even think about doing the first five years I was here.”
The efforts seem to be working. Of 41 players signed in 2009 and 2010, 33 are still on the roster this year (80.4 percent). The 13 recruits signed last February marked Higgins’ smallest recruiting class, a sign that he had fewer gaps to fill.
And the 24 seniors on this year’s squad make up the largest senior class in Higgins’ seven years, up from just 11 seniors in 2009.
“It has paid off the last couple of years,” Higgins said. “We have more depth at all positions.”
The question remains, of course, as to when the increased retention will lead to more wins on the field. That answer will begin revealing itself on Sept. 3, when the Bulldogs open Higgins’ seventh season against Jacksonville.
By Jeff Hartsell, Post and Courier