In an era when most college sports administrators are fretting about what one has called the impending doom of college sports," the aura of optimism that radiates from the office of George Washington University's athletic director seems out of place.
But Bob Faris has reason in smile, even after admitting his program loses money and has no hope of changing that red ink to black. He is glowing because:
His basketball team just beat Maryland for the first time in 16 years.
The ultra-modern, year-old Smith Center, the school's long awaited sports complex, is thriving even beyond his expectations.
The school already is reaping publicity benefits from its membership in the new Eastern Collegiate Basketball League.
The independently run women's athletic program is functioning so smoothly that it could become the prototype for other schools around the country.
That's not bad, Faris reasons, for an athletic program that "could have died any number of times" over the past decade. So when his peers complain about financial woes (most major athletic programs are losing money) and worry about the power of the super football schools, he is unsympathetic.
He believes GW has been faced with problems as rugged as any school is now confronting and has managed to survive. So now is the time to be optimistic.
"Our future," he said, "is bright and optimistic. I think we've put all the negative stuff behind us. We've survived the dropping of football, withdrawal from the Southern Conference, the 'Tin Tabernacle' and a few years as an independent. Now we have the Smith center. Things never looked better."
Faris knows such bright talk is bucking the odds.Athletic programs at private city schools like GW are on the endangered species list. Limited facilities, increased tuition costs mounting student and faculty apathy and dwindling crowds and alumni support have combined over the years to eliminate all but the stronger of the city schools from the mainstream of the college sports world. And the ones who survive usually exist on a day-to-day, claw-and-scratch basis.
So far, however, Faris has not been blitzed by any administration-ordered budget reductions. He was able to finance about $3 million of the Smith Center's $7 million cost through donations from alumni and friends. Even attendance, especially in basketball, is increasing.
"I don't think we are unique," he said, "but we've tried to be reasonable. We don't make outrageous budget demands and we didn't try to build the Smith Center until we had the money to payfor it. We are doing, I hope, what the school wants."
Smith Center sits like a giant concrete box on a corner of the GW campus near the Kennedy Center. Its architecture, like most on the campus, is functional rather than splashly. But to GW athletic types, from administrators to players to alumni, it's one beautiful building.
Many GW loyalists have waited since the 1930s for such a facility to be built. And their hopes for the building have proven true: the opening of an on-campus gym marked the end of one GW sports era and the start of another that everyone feels will be much more successful.
"Before the facilities for most of the teams were awful," said Larry Omstead, managing editor of the student newspaper. "Everything was make-shift. The minor sports were lucky to have their own lockers."
There also was the Tin Tabernacle, that dilapidated bandbox of a structure once located across the street from the old athletic department offices. It was torn down last year to make way for a park, but for years its inadequate facilities served as the basketball team's practice area, the home of intramural sports and refuge for those minor sports teams that managed to squeeze in some use time.
And for squads that couldn't get in the tabernacle, it was even more of a struggle. Wrestlers, for example, had to work out in a basement that doubled as a firing range.
"Things weren't like I wanted them," said Faris, "but until the Smith Center it couldn't be helped. Now we can take care of the various teams like they deserve."
GW now has eight men's and eight women's sports financed by separate budgets and run by independent directors. Faris' program, which includes basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, wrestling, baseball, crew and newly added swimming, has an annual allocation of about $450,000 (he would not release exact figures).
Neither the men's nor women's program is expected to turn a profit. Money to run both departments is provided in the general school budget and any revenue is returned to the general school fund.
"We'd love to make money," said Faris, "but we seat just 5,000 people, and half of those are students. It just isn't possible. However, the administration feels the value of sports to the students, school and alumni is worth the expenditures."
Basketball, which receives half of the sports budget, is most definitely at the top of the GW athletic totem pole. With backing from the administration, Faris' aim is to produce a nationally prominent basketball team while maintaining a well-rounded athletic program for the under-graduate enrollment (about 4,400, including 2,000 men).
With the exception of soccer coach Georges Edeline, the men's minor sports coaches seem content with their tightly funded, low-key status. None work full time, although baseball coack Mike Toomey and swimming coach Ed Laso also are employed by the school in other capacities. Most of the coaches can give out some sort of financial aid, with baseball and soccer receiving the largest sums.
Edeline believes the school should expand its athletic emphasis. He is convinced that the soccer team "can get to the national finals and win a national championship" if GW were willing to substantially increase his budget. First priority would be at least 12 full scholarships, which alone would cost $54,000 a year, a commitment Faris is not willing to make.
In four years, Edeline, using mostly foreign students, has improved the soccer program from a 3-6-2 record to seasons of 9-4, 7-5, and 7-3-1. In 1974, GW made the NCAA playoffs, losing to Howard in the opening round.
"It's gotten to the point where I have to think seriously about my future at GW," said Edeline, a GW graduate. "We put in a lot of time, much more than we get back in pay, and I think we've gone about as far as we can go."
Faris says he tries to find programs according to their success and popularity, but he isn't so sure GW hungers for a big-time soccer program Edeline agrees.
"Do they want a natioanl champion soccer team?" Edeline said in response to a question. "I don't think so. The sport isn't that popular on campus.It would be hard for them to go any further without more demand."
Laso, backed by a beautiful eight-lane pool and a fine group of local amateur talent, thinks he can build a nationally competitive swimming program. Ten of his 13 swimmers receive some financial aid.
Toomey and wrestling coach Chuck Friday have more limited expectations. Toomey, a former GW baseball player, accepts what financial aid comes his way (three to four tuition scholarships a year) and then tries "to make good through hard work and initiative.* "
"We can have representative teams here," he said. "The Smith Center allows us to begin working out in the batting cage in January so we are ready for our Florida trip and spring season. We aren't struggling like before."
GW still has to hold its baseball games on the Ellipse, where players used to pick up parking tickets regularly. Now they go to games in a big van and Toomey sells recruits on the glamour "of being the only baseball team to play between the White House and the Washington Monument."
Friday, who wrestled at Oklahoma, hasn't had to scramble as much this year as in the past to get a team together. At least, he didn't have to go "from dorm room to dorm room asking for volunteers." But he has won only one match this season and he isn't sure of wrestlers "who were second stringers in high school and are happy just to be on a varsity team in college.
"At least they care more about winning this year. It's discouraging, though, at times. We'd like to be more representative."
Without abundant scholarships, however, GW's minor sport coaches are dependetn almost athletics, many of whom, like second baseman Joel Oleinik, play "for self-satisfaction. Not many of the students here care what happens to us.
"If you can play and also get a good education from a good school, why not do it? They treat us well and we all realize they don't want anything high powered from us. I think they are satisfied if we win more than we lose and we don't embarrass them."
What the school wants from its athletic program is somewhat of a mystery to everyone. Faris says president Lloyd Elliott has never called him in "and told me to produce or else." The only time the faculty has become involved was 11 years ago whnen GW dropped football. And coaches say Faris rarely lelcturues them on anything but budgets.
"He watches the money real close," said one coach. "You better stay within your budget or you hear about it."
"There are alumni who still haven't forgiven the school," Dallas Shirley, president of the GW athletic booster club, said of the absence of football. "They tell me, 'Don't come around and talk about GW athletics. I don't want anything to do with them.'"
In 1968, when the school decided to drop its money-losing football program, the outery from old grads was immense. To them football was king,even if few were attending games and even fewer students seemed interested in having a big-time football teams.
Alumni also were upset in 1970 when GW departed from the Southern Conference. The move was student-inspired and based on the idea that the school should be playing opponents in the Northeast, where most of the student body and alumni are from.
Faris opposed both decisions, which forced him to give up football, his first love (he came to GW in 1935 on a football scholarship), and concentrated instead on scheduling basketball games against foes he had not previously played. Until GW got involved in the ECAC postseason basketball playoffs two years ago, it was a rough period for both the school and its athletic director.
But he is less bitter now about the past. He knows that without the $2 million the school put aside from unused football funds to help finance a basketball facility, he would never have his marvelous Smith Center. And heknows that alumni support is stronger and more active than ever before.
"The alumni are delighted by Smith Center and by being in our new conference," said Shirley. We've tripled our booster club income the last couple of years and our membership is up to almost 500. Not too long ago, we'd be lucky to say we had 100."
Alumni donations also have built a $75,000 private meeting room in Smith Center and more graduates are returning every month to look at the facility and watch the basketball team.
Faris credits membership in the new Eastern Collegiate Basketball League (which will hold championships in six other sports by 1980) for helping revive alumni interest.
"We found out being an independent was no fun," he said. "A league championship gives both your players and fans something to shoot for, and it helps develop rivalries. When I heard that the league was forming, I loobied vigorously to get into it. I think our fans wanted it.
With that ECBL membership, GW has come full cycle in 11 years.It has changed from a football-oriented, southern school to a basketball-oriented northern institution.
"It's an amazing transition, I think," said Faris. "How many other schools could have done it like we did?"
Next: Basketball and Title 9.