The Leahy Legacy, Column, Sports

Gokarn: Leahy’s Tenure Has Left BC’s Revenue Sports Behind. Where Did Things Go Wrong?

When Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., assumed the role of University president in July 1996, Boston College athletics was riding a hot streak. 

In the three years prior, Boston College football deprived then-No. 1 Notre Dame of a national title bid in a road upset, while its men’s basketball program completed a Cinderella Elite Eight run just four months later. Both moments were forever memorialized in Sports Illustrated covers cherished by Eagles fans to this day. 

Nearly 30 years later, however, Leahy’s tenure has left BC’s two main revenue sports starving for national relevancy. 

Fourteen seasons have passed since football last reached the eight-win mark. It’s been just as long since men’s basketball earned an NCAA Tournament bid, and if it weren’t for DePaul, the Eagles would own the longest March Madness drought among high-major programs. 

And that’s not to mention the athletic department’s rock bottom—a laughably disastrous 2015–16 campaign in which BC became the first school in ACC history to go winless in both football and men’s basketball. 

BC’s athletic woes under Leahy extend well beyond just wins and losses, too. 

Over the course of Leahy’s tenure, the University has cycled through eight different athletics directors, struggled to facilitate a competent gameday experience, and allowed relationships with prominent alumni to fray.  

How have things gone so wrong? 

It begins with a president who has consistently made athletics little more than an afterthought. Whether it’s virtually nonexistent public support or insufficient funding, it’s obvious that athletics have not been a priority for Leahy. 

Granted, Leahy has presided over multiple national championships in both lacrosse and men’s hockey. Those banners were raised in spite of Leahy’s leadership, however, and serve as more of a testament to BC’s recruiting pull as a college hockey blue blood and Acacia Walker-Weinstein’s talent as a lacrosse head coach. 

Meanwhile, almost all of the University’s other varsity sports have largely been hung out to dry

What makes BC’s Leahy-led mediocrity all the more maddening, however, is that the University did briefly discover a winning blueprint. During the 2000s, Chestnut Hill was home to head coaches like Cathy Inglese, Al Skinner, and Jeff Jagodzinski—leaders capable of building winners within BC’s unique institutional and geographic constraints. 

Just as recently as 2023, BC might have had one of those leaders in former baseball head coach Mike Gambino. Though Gambino’s 13-season tenure wasn’t always smooth sailing, his final season on the Heights was among the strongest in program history. 

But instead of receiving the opportunity to build upon that virtually unprecedented success, Gambino watched as both of his full-time assistants vanished, each poached by other programs in lateral transitions. 

The reason? “Budgetary constraints,” according to D1Baseball’s Kendall Rogers

Facing an athletics department reluctant to pay the price of winning, Gambino understandably bolted for Penn State—a program far more committed to sustained athletic success than BC. 

BC football may have landed its difference-maker in head coach Bill O’Brien, but if the athletic department doesn’t commit to retaining his staff down the line, who’s to say he won’t follow Gambino’s path?

But worse than Leahy’s unwillingness to muster financial courage is his inexcusable lack of urgency.

The collegiate athletics landscape has shifted at a dizzying rate over the past decade, and Leahy’s administration has utterly failed to meet the moment. 

New football, basketball, and baseball facilities were welcome improvements, sure, but each of them arrived years later than they should’ve. The same goes for BC’s NIL collective Friends of the Heights, which arrived well after those of most other Power 5 programs.  

Not all of these delays are directly Leahy’s responsibility, of course, but these slow developments reflect the mindset of the man in charge. 

Leahy’s lethargic leadership has come amid the specter of conference realignment, which threatens to upend the future of BC athletics. If BC’s moneymakers—predominantly football and men’s basketball—can’t quickly demonstrate value, the University will be left behind for good. 

Yes, Chestnut Hill is a uniquely challenging place to build winning programs in football and basketball. That’s a reality no shiny new facilities can change. But BC’s unique status as one of two Catholic Power 5 institutions is not the school’s main impediment to athletic success—administrative indifference is. 

Leahy’s impending retirement puts the University at a crossroads. 

If BC is unwilling to move beyond the Leahy model of half-hearted commitment, then it would be better off directing its money elsewhere and following the path established by our Patriot League neighbors down Commonwealth Ave. But if the University is serious about keeping its sports relevant—and reaping the well-documented benefits of a national athletic profile—then BC must approach this new age of amateurism proactively and urgently.

Despite what current students have seen, BC owns a storied history of athletic success in sports beyond hockey and lacrosse. But if a change in attitude does not accompany the coming change in leadership, then that history will remain little more than a distant memory. 

June 10, 2024

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