Friday, June 22, 2018

Pushed Too Far

Let's not bury the lead: I will not be offering my services to men's hockey as a radio commentator in the coming school year. I will not participate in the annual golf outing. I will not be renewing my season tickets.

This has relatively little to do with the team itself (although not zero), and almost everything to do with the school. With apologies to Howard Beale, I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.

There's a lot on my mind - so just click here if you just want to skip to the meat and potatoes.

During my first year at RPI, I was encouraged to run for class representative for the fall freshman elections by some friends of mine who knew my extended history with the Institute that went far beyond that of most of my classmates. I didn't really have a whole lot of interest in student government at the time, but I decided to go ahead and put my name forward to help my friends fill out a complete slate of candidates.

If I was going to run, I was going to try and win, so the challenge was to find a platform to run on - and I didn't have a whole lot to offer in terms of actual policy positions. It was OK, I was assured. Most freshmen didn't have much in the way of policy concerns, so a more generalized campaign could work.

I'm a "legacy" at RPI. My grandfather graduated in 1951, and my father graduated in 1979. My great uncle even got his master's at the Institute. To some extent, I grew up with RPI as part of my heritage. I went to hockey games. I tagged along at alumni occasions, and I even participated in youth-oriented seminars and events. When I chose RPI, it was as much because I was proud of my family's association with the school as it was for any of the other myriad reasons that the school rose to the top of my list. It was easy for that to translate into pride in my school.

That was what my friends and I decided on. "Proud to be RPI" was the slogan. It ended up on campaign posters and flyers. I emphasized it when I talked to classmates.

I lost in a landslide.

The loss slid off my shoulders fairly easily - I hadn't had any real interest in the position in the first place - but what really intrigued me afterwards was that, anecdotally, the campaign emphasizing school pride not only did not help me win, it probably actively helped me lose. "Nobody's proud of this school," I was told. "Half of us are still pissed that we didn't get into MIT." I got it, sort of. I didn't get into MIT, either.

That was my introduction to the idea that school pride at RPI wasn't anywhere near what it was at your average institute of higher learning. The alumni giving figures bore that out as well - even when I arrived on campus in 2000, the rate at which former students gave back to their alma mater was lower than the national average.

I didn't care. I was still proud to be there, and still proud of my school. That pride persisted for years after I graduated.

I was even long proud of the way the school operated. During my time at RPI and in the first few years as an alumnus, I had no complaints, and in fact thought things were being managed quite well. In the last couple of years, however, I have seen my pride battered and abused by an administration that has become hellbent on getting what it wants, when it wants, and has no time for dissension.

In February of 2016, control of the school athletics budget was unilaterally taken away from the Student Union. As chairman of the Union's Athletic Board for my junior and senior years - the subcommittee of the Executive Board that scrutinized each team's budget and ultimately submitted it for approval - I can honestly say that the move probably eliminated potential headaches down the road for athletics in general, whether from the NCAA or in limitations that the larger Institute would not have. But the Union had control of this aspect of student life for 124 years... and it was yanked without so much as a discussion, let alone input from elected student leaders. Complaints were summarily dismissed.

It was a blueprint for more daring usurpations to come.

From there came a more unfettered move to seize control of the Student Union in general, stopped after pushback in 2016 but only for a short time - a tactical retreat from the administration turned into a more forceful move to take over in 2017. That campaign featured aggressive measures meant to silence students, including the systematic removal of posters, a walling off of a sizable chunk of campus, and intimidation tactics used against protest leaders, adding to an already considerable culture of fear that has been nurtured in the last decade.

Alums took notice, and unbridled by that atmosphere, registered their own complaints at an inopportune time for the administration - right at the beginning of a capital campaign meant to raise $1 billion. The administration's response to this growing alumni dissatisfaction with news story after news story from Troy was to send out to all alums an internal letter from Professor Chris Bystroff laden with such slavish devotion to the administration that it bordered on the absurd, while at the same time lashing out at unhappy alums with brazen ad hominem attacks.

I took zero umbrage at Prof. Bystroff calling me and those like me a racist, a sexist, and... heightist, if that's a thing. Whether someone is a racist or not is objectively true or untrue, and I know I'm none of those things. I know most if not all of those who have been critical of the administration are similarly none of those things. His assertion to the contrary, as a matter of demonstrable fiction, simply made me laugh. (Unfortunately for Prof. Bystroff, whether or not someone's an asshole is completely subjective, and I have some bad news for him. But congrats on your grant, sir. Hope you can use it to change the world.)

That the Institute thought attacking their alumni would be a useful way to get them back in line and re-open the wallets is a testament to just how out of touch its administration has become. They may have cowed faculty, staff, and many students through intimidation, but alumni do not have their futures controlled by the school and are far less susceptible to such tactics.

Now, this administration has proposed a collective punishment for the Greek system that threatens to lay waste a crucial element of the school's social environment, and doing so during summer recess, a time during which pushback from students can be blunted until plans are advanced ahead of their return in August.

College is about more than just going to classes and receiving grades. It's about personal growth on many planes, not simply on the intellectual level. My fraternity played an integral and positive role in shaping the man that I became during my experience at the Institute - more important than any one class, professor, or advisor.

I'm not pollyannaish enough to claim that the Greek system is without flaws. I'm certain there are things that could be done to improve every single house on campus, including my own, and I've seen some of the truly awful things that have gone on around the nation. There are probably some houses on campus that require very serious structural changes. But not all of them. In all honesty, not most or even half of them.

It does not require essentially banning Greek life for the fall semester, as has been proposed. The ban on recruitment is especially odious. It could be a virtual death knell for some of the smaller houses on campus. All houses depend on certain expected recruitment levels in order to keep their books balanced, especially for those who have mortgage payments to make. Dropping this bomb without warning - and indeed, in a manner clearly meant to minimize student outrage - makes one believe that the idea of houses closing is a feature and not a bug in terms of the end result of this "Greek Life Task Force" in the eyes of the Institute.

It's another underhanded move by an administration that has engaged in far too many of them over the last few years. It's another move that has outraged stakeholders across the board, and the early reaction to that outrage is becoming familiar: the administration simply does not care. They know what they want to achieve and the anger is easily dismissable.

(TL;DR - I've long been proud of my school, but enough is enough.)

I first considered doing something along these lines a couple of years ago, when it first became apparent that the RPI administration was seeking to usurp student control of the Union. Feeling relatively helpless about the unfolding situation, I thought perhaps the school losing one of its more dedicated contributors for one of its more visible media elements might be a wake-up call.

I let it go at the time. Truth be told, I enjoyed it too much to let go of it and I felt a sense of obligation - many times, if I was unavailable for a broadcast, there might not have even been a broadcast, and I frequently took it personally if there was no broadcast, even if it was because of something more important, like my family. No broadcast means plenty of fans, alums, and parents who would need to seek an alternative option to listen to the game. (I settled on thanking the "independent, student run Rensselaer Union" before the start of periods as a quiet pushback.)

Loyalty was the touchstone.

But as outrage began to pile upon outrage, it has finally pushed me to the point where I would be utterly unable to reconcile a deep and growing concern with the actions of this administration and my own sense of right and wrong. The problems have mounted to a level that precludes my honest continued association.

This administration has actively attempted to undermine student-self governance at the Rensselaer Union, without cause.

This administration has presided over falling rankings in the engineering programs that made this school prominent, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

This administration has presided over a continuing decline in alumni giving - levels of which were well below the national average when I was a freshman, but also represented a high that has never again been reached 18 years later.

This administration has presided over a massive increase in institutional debt, a decline in the value of the endowment, and a decline in overall net asset value.

This administration has presided over declining metrics in general with relation to peer institutions.

This administration has presided over a decline in the Institute's bond rating to a position hovering just above junk status.

This administration has for years ignored serious concerns about adherence to nationally accepted standards for academic governance.

This administration has watched talented members of the school's faculty and staff depart in disgust for years, and it is extremely doubtful that this exodus is ending any time soon.

This administration has surrounded itself with a bloated bureaucracy that seems forbidden to offer courses of action that have not been pre-approved from above, and which refuses to engage in self-criticism.

Now, this administration has moved to decimate a vibrant Greek system that has long been a model for Greek life nationwide.

This administration, over the last three years, has done something remarkable. They've taken a person who had an uncanny and certainly unusual amount of pride in a school that rarely seems to engender such pride in its students and alums, and turned him into someone who is quite ashamed.

My nephew, who is about to graduate from high school, showed some interest in RPI during his junior year. I gave him a personal tour of campus, topped off with an evening at the Field House where we watched the Engineers play Dartmouth. The experience seemed to pique his interest.

But several months later, as he began his senior year and began preparing to apply to colleges, I had to tell him my true feelings. In the aftermath of the crackdown against student protesters at the capital campaign kickoff in October, I had to tell my nephew - with a lump in my throat - that I could not recommend my beloved alma mater, not given the way they were treating their students. He did not apply. He will be attending SUNY Geneseo in the fall.

I've shown my loyalty. This season, it was turning out to the Field House on a Saturday night, sick as a dog and unable to hold anything down, because no one else was available to call a home game against Princeton (be glad you couldn't see me on the radio or on RPITV). It was driving three hours through total white-out conditions and partially along roads that were closed in order to make sure there was a broadcast for Game 1 of the playoffs against Colgate - not because I had anything to gain, because expense reimbursement and free entry are the only perks. It was because I have been loyal to a fault despite having to endure watching four losses for every win in the last two seasons.

I know this decision comes at a time when walking away is "easier." If the Engineers had been on some kind of tear recently, or if this coming season were one filled with expectation and big dreams, I'm certain that it would have been more difficult for me to reach this conclusion.

This is not an indictment of those tough times, although I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the administration was playing an outsized role in creating them. Their blasé reaction to concerns lodged by prominent hockey alums in 2017 during the coaching change - including some of the most legendary names in a proud history - was shocking. The outright dismissal of criticism registered by Adam Oates in particular was enough to make one's jaw drop. But then again, when you compare it to everything else going on at the Institute at the present time, the downturn in results and the tin ear toward criticism fits right in with all of it.

After watching the administration's thuggish tactics against student dissent, it was easy to resolve not to participate in the Institute's capital campaign. You will imagine my shock, then, to receive a letter late last year thanking me for my $40 donation to that campaign. It was my wife who ultimately called to ask about the donation - I was far too angry to be able to make a rational inquiry. It was, she learned, the donation I had made to attend the end-of-season banquet in 2017, well before the capital campaign was even announced.

Enough is enough. I have been pushed too far. If a donation to the hockey program is now considered a gift to a campaign I have no intention of supporting for an administration that is completely out of control, I must consider what other contributions are in danger of bolstering this insanity. It is therefore with great reluctance that I must decline to enjoy the annual golf outing that has long been a highlight of my summer, and must relinquish my season tickets in Section 17. To the extent that this blog and its associated Twitter account was still active, that activity will now cease.

I know this screed has been long (even for those who skipped a bit), but I don't want anyone to feel as though this is some kind of exercise in self-indulgence. I don't harbor any delusions that I hold any sway whatsoever over anything at all, or that this action will be that kind of magic wake-up call I considered last year that will change anything at any level. This is about not feeling helpless, and it is a sincere apology for those who have come to enjoy my contributions. I do not want to do this, but I don't feel like I have any other choice.

I will continue to follow this team, and my heart still pumps the Cherry and White through my veins. I'm sure I'll drop in for a game or two. I wish Coach Smith and his charges nothing but success that I fervently hope that they achieve.

Let's go Red.

Jackson out.

Tom Reale '04

Monday, March 19, 2018


I was asked at the last home game this season whether RPI was "in danger of becoming irrelevant," with Lake Superior State and Dartmouth offered as examples of "irrelevant."

Sorry in advance to any Laker or Big Green fans who may have stumbled upon this. It wasn't my example - but I did have a hard time arguing the logic.

Lake State had a dynasty in the 1990s with three national championships among nine straight NCAA appearances with four CCHA titles in that stretch. They haven't won a lick of hardware since 1996 and have had just five winning seasons since then. Dartmouth had a couple of moments of national prominence, in the late 1940s and the late 1970s. Otherwise - not a whole lot. The Big Green were awful in the 1980s and 1990s, and while they've been much better under Bob Gaudet since the turn of the millennium, there's still not a whole lot of "there" there. A shared ECAC regular season title in 2006 and a shared Ivy League title in 2007, and that's about it. No ECAC title games, no NCAA tournament appearances despite coming close on both fronts a number of times.

So that got me thinking. What makes a team "relevant?" Winning is really what it comes down to, and there are several great benchmarks to tell you if a team is winning. Let's explore. (TL;DR - If you want to skip the nitty-gritty, just scroll down to the final bold line near the bottom.)

National championships. It's an elite club - only 21 out of 60 programs have even won one, and RPI can count itself among just 14 of those with more than one to their name. So there's a historical aspect here of which the program can be rightly proud.

So when I say that RPI's title drought (now the longest in school history, as 1985 is farther from 2018 than it is from 1954) is the fifth longest in the country among schools with a title, that's really nothing. There are almost 40 schools out there, including some historically heavy hitters like Clarkson and New Hampshire, who don't even have one. This one's not something that should weigh heavily on our minds.

Frozen Fours. I'll skip the honor of even reaching the national championship game, even though we've now had to watch half of the ECAC reach that level (including three champions) since RPI's last one in 1985. Let's just cut to the entire last weekend of the season. The creme de la creme. The top dogs. A party that unites the college hockey world. If you've ever been to a Frozen Four, you know you can see practically every sweater in the country in the stands (and checking them off is a fun pastime there).

21 schools have never been, so again, this isn't a whole lot to quibble over. But since the Engineers were last there, 33 different programs have had this honor. That's more than half of all teams in the country. 22 different schools have been to the Frozen Four just in the last decade.

Since RPI's last turn in 1985, we've watched Clarkson (1991), Colgate (1990), Cornell (2003), Harvard (1989, 1994, 2017), Quinnipiac (2013, 2016), St. Lawrence (1988, 2000), Union (shoot me), Vermont (1996), and Yale (2013) reach the promised land. That's 9 out of 14 ECAC schools, 14 times. The balance? Army, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton... and RPI.

The Engineers just haven't been close ever since hoisting that national championship in 1985. Not even a single NCAA tournament win since then. Not even a goal, but let's explore that further.

The NCAA tournament. Just making it into the tournament field in any sport is a great achievement. Watching those last few days of the conference tournament tick down, keeping an eye on the Pairwise, it's all great fun. We've done it occasionally here at WaP, and the Engineers even snuck into the tournament once during this blog's tenure, backing in for the 2011 edition, where RPI were thoroughly destroyed by North Dakota. That was RPI's first NCAA appearance in 16 years, and it's now been a further 7 years without a bid.

Division I hockey actually has a fairly large tournament for its size - 16 teams out of 60 makes for over a quarter of programs in any given year playing a tournament in which four wins makes you a national champion. Consider that in that other sport that gets all the attention in March for some reason, 68 teams make the tournament out of 351 - 19.3% as opposed to college hockey's 26.7%.

So it's not terribly surprising that since 2012, 38 different programs have earned NCAA bids - nearly two-thirds of the nation has been dancing since RPI last had the opportunity. Only St. Lawrence (2007), Brown (1993), and Dartmouth (1980) have gone longer in the ECAC without a bid (to be very fair, Princeton and Clarkson in 2018 are both on their first bids since RPI's last turn).

The Engineers didn't score an NCAA tournament goal in 2011 (6-0 losers against the Fighting Sioux). Nor did they score in their 1995 appearance (1-0 to Minnesota). Nor in 1994 (2-0 to New Hampshire). In fact, in a stat that will undoubtedly crop up should the Engineers ever reach the tournament again, RPI has gone over 10 and a half NCAA tournament periods without scoring a goal, reaching back to George Servinis' unassisted, short-handed (and, yes, offsides) goal at 3:49 of the second period in the 1985 title game. That's a stretch of 216:11 of tournament play over the last 36 years without scoring even a goal.

So I went and checked. Literally every program that has played in the NCAA tournament since 1986 has scored at least one goal. That makes Dartmouth (1980) the only school in the country with a longer drought by total years since their last NCAA goal, and only seven teams have never made the NCAA tournament, of which Army is the only one that doesn't have the excuse of not having had a D-I varsity program in 1985.

And when it comes to NCAA wins in general - only Michigan Tech (1981), Dartmouth (1980, or 1949 if you don't count the defunct third-place game), and Brown (1976, or 1951 discounting third-place games) have gone longer since winning their last NCAA game. 14 D-I programs have never won an NCAA tournament game, and of those only Alaska, Army, Princeton, and Western Michigan lack the longevity excuse. (And, of course, Michigan Tech and Princeton have the opportunity to remove their names this year.)

League championships. For most programs, just being the top dog in your own conference can sometimes be bragging rights enough to signal a very successful season - Princeton's title this year certainly qualifies as being plenty for them this go round, with the NCAA tournament very much an opportunity to play with house money.

There are only 18 programs that have not won a league championship since the Engineers last enjoyed one nearly a quarter-century ago. 11 of these have never won one (although, to be fair to Arizona State, they've never had an actual opportunity to compete for one). Four are in Atlantic Hockey, which doesn't have a history as long as RPI's current drought. Two more are Omaha and Penn State, who also doesn't have a history that long.

Taking them out, we're left with Lake Superior (1995, along side RPI), Northern Michigan (1992), Colgate (1990), Alaska and Bowling Green (1998),  Alaska-Anchorage (1987), and Colorado College (1978) among teams that have won league titles in the past, and Brown, Dartmouth, Merrimack, UMass, and Vermont among those who haven't.

That means there are only three other ECAC programs that haven't won it all since the Engineers were last on top in the league: Brown, Colgate, and Dartmouth. Four if you want to include Vermont's 10 chances during that time.

League championship game. Just the opportunity to play for a title is enough to send thrills through the spines of supporters around the country. The Engineers last had this chance in 2000, when they fell 2-0 to St. Lawrence in the ECAC championship game in Lake Placid.

2000 was also the last time Omaha (falling 6-0 to Michigan State) and UConn (beating Iona 6-1) played for a league title - titles which no longer exist with the CCHA and MAAC now being defunct (along with Iona). Lake State last appeared in the CCHA title game in 1996 (losing 4-3 to Michigan), while Dartmouth's last hurrah playing for hardware was way back in 1980, a 5-1 loss to Cornell.

AIC, Arizona State, and the two Alaska schools are the only ones that have never appeared in a conference tournament championship game.

Every other school in the nation has had that thrill of seeing their team 60 minutes away from being crowned kings of their conference since 2000. With the notable exception of St. Lawrence (2001), every other team in the ECAC besides the Engineers, Saints, and Big Green have had that experience in the past eight years.

League semifinals. Now we're really lowering the bar - but even just the opportunity to reach what is frequently a neutral-site celebration of the league in general is a chance for fans to hitch up the wagon and go watch their team play as one of the conference elite with a title within reach. This is, as we've seen, sometimes an easy bar to clear, to the point where failing to reach this level can be seen by itself as a total failure for a season. RPI was more or less at this level of expectations when they last reached the semifinals in 2002, their 7th such visit in 10 years, and 9th in 15 years.

At worst, in 12 team leagues like the ECAC, 1/3 of the conference can be among the final four, which is still a significant chunk. It's even "easier" in places like the Big Ten, where the last four comes out to being more than half of a seven team league.

RPI's long-running drought of failing to reach Albany, then Atlantic City, and now Lake Placid again are well known and painful to what can now be termed RPI's long-suffering fans. 2002 was the last hurrah, marking the beginning of what is now a 16-year drought. Only one team that has ever been to a league semifinal currently has a longer ongoing drought - Omaha, who last appeared in a league semifinal (in the CCHA - two leagues ago) during the 2001 season.

This is where I point out that the Mavericks have been to three NCAA tournaments during that stretch, including a Frozen Four appearance in 2015. I'd trade our experience in the last 17 years with theirs in a heartbeat. (They'd probably ask for our prior 50 in return, so no deal.)

Only two other programs haven't been in that timeframe - Arizona State, who again, doesn't have a league semifinal to reach and have only completed their third Division I season, and American International, who came within a win this year of doing it for the first time.

Regular season titles. These mean absolutely nothing anymore, but they're at least good indicators of a great season over the course of four months of league play.

Let's cut right to the chase. RPI hasn't done this since the national championship in 1985, and every other ECAC team has won at least a share of what they apparently call the Cleary Cup since except for Brown and Princeton (and Army).

12 teams nationally have never won even a share of a regular season title (again, this includes Arizona State, who have never been able to), but of the ones who have, only Providence (1983 in the ECAC) and Ohio State (1972 in the CCHA) have gone longer without accomplishing the feat.

Is RPI irrelevant?

I don't know. I don't have a very good vantage point because the team is relevant to me and it probably always will be.

But there are a whole lot of gaps in the line when it comes to benchmarks of success, benchmarks of relevancy. Some of the same teams of comparison keep popping up when you take a hard look at them, and Lake Superior State and Dartmouth do seem to be frequent cohorts. The other ones that are coming up often are Brown and Army - and I will leave it to other observers to determine whether all that adds up to "irrelevant." I don't personally see Lake State and Dartmouth as being irrelevant - especially considering that the Big Green are the conference opponent that RPI has gone the longest without beating at present - but I can see how others might feel that way.

What I can say is that, more immediately, the program has just endured its worst back-to-back seasons in modern history by winning percentage. This can't be pinned on any one person, especially since there were different head coaches in both seasons and a great deal of turmoil with the roster between seasons in part because of that change. So if you're looking for me to point fingers at Seth Appert or Dave Smith, you'll be waiting for quite a while.

It's not a question of whether I or any other observers think RPI is irrelevant. It's a question of whether players think RPI is irrelevant. According to Chris Heisenberg's master sheet, at least 24 programs (including RPI) have at least one committed recruit who wasn't even born yet the last time the Engineers made it to the ECAC semifinals - and the longer it keeps up, the bigger that number will get until it maxes out at every program. There are only five players slated to be on next year's RPI roster who were alive the last time RPI won the ECAC title.

No college hockey player in over a decade was alive the last time the Engineers scored a goal in the NCAA tournament.

It is the players who will decide whether RPI is irrelevant - and if that's the decision they are starting to make, there is not a whole lot of time left to make some of these droughts referenced above start to disappear.

But there is hope. After all, Union was irrelevant for decades before they finally started breaking through and climbed all the way to the top. Michigan Tech needed a shakeup of conferences to help clear their path back to relevance and the NCAA tournament, but that alone can't account for the fact that the Huskies were ranked #1 in the country for a week in 2014. Even if we've found irrelevancy, anything is possible.

We've been searching for rock bottom for a very long time. Let's hope we've found it.