How to fill Holt Arena — it’s not difficult

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When I was at Idaho State University I was a member of the Athletic Board. It was one of my favorite committee assignments. Part of the responsibility of AB members is to conduct interviews with student-athletes for awards, exit surveys and the like. Sitting down with these young people reinforced what I experienced with student-athletes in my own classes which was that for the most part they were pretty exceptional.

In decades of teaching physics a number of my top-performing undergraduates where student-athletes. Itís purely an anecdotal observation but I suspect that the discipline required to be both a successful student and a good athlete transfers well to the study of demanding subjects.

I hired a number of undergraduate student-athletes to work for me as teaching assistants through the years. A couple of those kids were among a select group of about 25 students who could not be slowed down very much no matter what challenge was put in front of them. Those students rocked. They made the rest of the general faculty experience at ISU bearable.

Something I noticed about the student-athletes of my acquaintance was that the closer they were to home the better they seemed to function. The correlation wasnít perfect, but it was sure close.

Part of that isnít particularly surprising. Being able to drive home for the weekend is beneficial for any young person who is just getting used to being out on their own. As one forms new support networks itís awfully nice to have the oneís youíve depended on your entire life not too far away. Thereís not a thing wrong with this.

Iím prefacing my remaining remarks with all of this to set up the contrast between whatís good for student-athletes and what the powers that be at ISU have traditionally thought about recruiting them.

ISU has, for many years, largely ignored high-achieving local student-athletes to recruit from elsewhere. When I asked about this I got the same answers every time. Itís good for student-athletes and itís good for the ISU community to diversify in recruiting ó both of which I have reason to doubt. Boosters, I was told, also supported this strategy. If thatís true Iím sure that the underlying assumption was that it was simply not possible to build winning programs with a large number of local athletes.

So let me see if Iíve got this straight. Local kids arenít good enough to improve teams that, outside of womenís basketball, are generally outmatched even against moribund competition? Iím not so sure that we agree on the meaning of the word, ďimprove.Ē

Iíve spoken with a number of parents of stellar local student-athletes interested in ISU who tell me that ISU would not even return their phone calls. Now Iím generally one of those who subscribes to the notion that the truth is somewhere in the middle of competing narratives, but this does not run counter to the arrogance that I frequently found on full display at ISU when it came to the institutional attitude towards locals.

Well, allow me to retort. ISU is not going to be another Boise State. Not now, not next year, and the next decade isnít looking too good either. Itís incredibly difficult for schools even in bigger, more upscale locations to recruit quality athletes. It works in Boise because the city itself has become a hip place. People want to go there. Pocatello is about as far from a hip destination (for most young people) as you can get. The considerable charm of our slice of heaven is best experienced up close rather than from afar.

There are a couple of ways to build winning programs. One is to win a lot of games. ISU has shown little talent for that in decades recruiting the way they do now. The second is to build programs that are what they are but have a large following because people feel invested in the programs. A lot of Universities manage to do better than ISU in terms of support without winning a lot more. You can build programs that resonate with fans without championships each year if you recruit smart.

A basic rule of show business is that one kid on a stage equals about a dozen bum-bumís in paying seats. You recruit more local athletes and the worst that can happen is that your teams have the same record but you attract far more than a few thousand in attendance at Holt for a football game.

But I also think that we could do better in terms of winning with local athletes. The talent is often there, itís the recognition of it by ISU that seems to be absent. Iím willing to bet more than I can afford to lose that you give talented local kids, of which there are more than a few, a chance to step up in front of a hometown crowd several times a year and youíd be surprised at what you might see.

Yo, ISU, you want to solve your attendance issues and make our world a better place at the same time? Give more local athletes a chance. I go to college football and basketball games every year but they are in Lexington, Kentucky, not Pocatello, Idaho. You want to change that? Give myself and others a better reason to root for your athletes than just the logos on their uniforms.

ISU has, for many years, largely ignored high-achieving local student-athletes to recruit from elsewhere. When I asked about this I got the same answers every time. Itís good for student-athletes and itís good for the ISU community to diversify in recruiting ó both of which I have reason to doubt. Boosters, I was told, also supported this strategy. If thatís true Iím sure that the underlying assumption was that it was simply not possible to build winning programs with a large number of local athletes.

So let me see if Iíve got this straight. Local kids arenít good enough to improve teams that, outside of womenís basketball, are generally outmatched even against moribund competition? Iím not so sure that we agree on the meaning of the word, ďimprove.Ē

Iíve spoken with a number of parents of stellar local student-athletes interested in ISU who tell me that ISU would not even return their phone calls. Now Iím generally one of those who subscribes to the notion that the truth is somewhere in the middle of competing narratives, but this does not run counter to the arrogance that I frequently found on full display at ISU when it came to the institutional attitude toward locals.

Well, allow me to retort. ISU is not going to be another Boise State. Not now, not next year, and the next decade isnít looking too good either. Itís incredibly difficult for schools even in bigger, more upscale locations to recruit quality athletes. It works in Boise because the city itself has become a hip place. People want to go there. Pocatello is about as far from a hip destination (for most young people) as you can get. The considerable charm of our slice of heaven is best experienced up close rather than from afar.

There are a couple of ways to build winning programs. One is to win a lot of games. ISU has shown little talent for that in decades recruiting the way they do now. The second is to build programs that are what they are but have a large following because people feel invested in the programs. A lot of universities manage to do better than ISU in terms of support without winning a lot more. You can build programs that resonate with fans without championships each year if you recruit smart.

A basic rule of show business is that one kid on a stage equals about a dozen bum-bumís in paying seats. You recruit more local athletes and the worst that can happen is that your teams have the same record but you attract far more than a few thousand in attendance at Holt Arena for a football game.

But I also think that we could do better in terms of winning with local athletes. The talent is often there, itís the recognition of it by ISU that seems to be absent. Iím willing to bet more than I can afford to lose that you give talented local kids, of which there are more than a few, a chance to step up in front of a hometown crowd several times a year and youíd be surprised at what you might see.

Yo, ISU, you want to solve your attendance issues and make our world a better place at the same time? Give more local athletes a chance. I go to college football and basketball games every year but they are in Lexington, Kentucky, not Pocatello, Idaho. You want to change that? Give myself and others a better reason to root for your athletes than just the logos on their uniforms.

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