Then Again, Who’s Keeping Score?

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Did football coach Gary Darnell fail Western Michigan University?

Class act that he is, Darnell has never sought to persuade anyone otherwise, assuming full responsibility for every aspect of the Bronco football program, losses and all.

But as Marshall football coach Bob Pruett was quoted as saying in this week’s editions of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, “sometimes you need to look around and see what else is going on.”

What’s going on, unfortunately, is what’s been going on at Western for decades. WMU’s current call for “a new direction” is exactly what was uttered when Dick Shilts, Al Molde, Bob Donewald, Bill Wilkinson, Jack Harbaugh, Eliot Uzelac and others were shown the door.

But regardless of who has taken the football helm, the results have been strikingly similar. WMU has won one MAC football championship in 57 years, occurring when there were just eight teams in the conference.

Changing coaches has always been considered the “cure,” and in that regard, WMU isn’t unique. Coach Darnell watches this happen in his fraternity every fall. He came to Kalamazoo with his eyes wide open, naturally, and he was aware that he was that “new direction” Western said it needed eight years ago.

Interestingly though, under Coach Darnell, Western actually did move in a new direction. With community support, he ignited an interest in football at Waldo that has been unparalleled in the school’s history. The top five attended home games and top four attended away games in Western history were coached by Darnell.

On a bad day — last week against Miami for example — WMU had the second highest attendance in the MAC, more than twice as many fans as at Buffalo, twice as many as at Ball State, and twice as many as at Kent State. And at Darnell’s last home game, there were more than twice as many fans as there were at Al Molde’s last home game.

By winning back-to-back MAC Western Division championships, with seven teams in the division, Darnell basically accomplished twice what all his predecessors had accomplished once. On top of that, Western has played 18 top-conference schools in the past eight years, more than twice as many as in its entire history before Darnell. And his teams and players broke more than 100 school records, including most wins, most touchdowns and fewest fumbles in a season.

In this day and age, of course, such information in the face of this won-lost record hardly merits reconsideration by Western of

Coach Darnell’s fate.

What it does merit, however, is an examination of, as Pruett puts it, “what else is going on.” This would appear to be an excellent time for Western to decide where it wants to go. Athletic Director Kathy Beauregard graciously acknowledged that the Darnell years have been a time of growth. For supporting Darnell during the good times, Western deserves credit.

Not so coincidentally, the good times for Western and Gary Darnell were seen as one and the same. At the same time Darnell was receiving public accolades, the community was looking to Western Michigan University as its economic development savior in the wake of the Pfizer drama.

The expressions, “Thank God for Darnell” and “Thank God for Western” were interchangeable at business meetings and social functions.

Three years later, because football fans are fickle and find solace in the fact that some things in life are pretty cut and dried, Darnell is out. Having changed the lives of so many young men so dramatically is something few of us can claim to have accomplished, and he can take that with him. As a man of true integrity, he needn’t look back, though he probably will because — well, pick your cliche about winning. It’s important.

But what happens to the school now? Western is in a serious financial crunch, at odds with its faculty union over contracts, at odds with the state legislature over funding, at odds with students over tuition and fees.

WMU’s role as economic development hero, quite frankly, amounted to more boosterism than anything associated with sports because, although Western is a job creator, the jobs are paid for with our taxes. It’s not unlike saying we need the post office or the police department to stimulate our economy.

I’m the first, though, to acknowledge some critical correlations. There’s a high correlation between a community’s economic success and the existence of higher education. There’s a high, though not absolute, correlation between big time football programs and big time universities. And it’s as true in education as it is in football, there’s a high correlation between performance and success. Finally, there’s a high correlation between high standards and performance.

Western’s quick to point out, somewhat fairly, that its financial misfortunes are the fault of state government, but unfairly that the football program is causing them (any more than the track program caused them).

It’s Kalamazoo’s worst-kept secret that parents are pushing their children to Michigan State and Michigan not only because their academic standards are higher, but also because of poor guidance and counseling (coaching) at Western. To blame the thousands of students who can’t graduate from Western in four years is no different than blaming the players for missed tackles, when everyone knows that every tackle is the responsibility of the head football coach.

Gary Darnell’s guidance record is better than Diether Haenicke’s and Elson Floyd’s combined. As you probably know, the football team’s senior graduation rate this year was 100 percent. And while Michigan’s student body graduation rate is 84 percent and Michigan State’s is 69 percent, WMU’s languishes at 56 percent. Conversely, ranking eighth in the nation, WMU’s football graduation rate is higher than Michigan’s and higher than Michigan State’s.

Freshman enrollment at Michigan State jumped 7 percent this fall while WMU’s freshman enrollment declined 11.5 percent. The total decline will result in a $4.4 million shortfall in funding. Is performance an issue?

More significantly, perhaps, while raising academic standards, Grand Valley State University also increased enrollment and gained on WMU by 2,000 students. And, don’t look now, but there has been a 20 percent growth trend the past three years for enrollment in community colleges, seen as increasingly relevant in today’s economy.

In what looks increasingly like a game of winners and losers, Western academic leaders are facing the same recruitment challenges as their football team. WMU spent $100,000 this fall on recruitment billboards in the Detroit area.

At the same time, the university announced that it was lowering its “cleaning standards” to Level 4 and Level 5, officially described as “moderate dinginess” and “unkempt neglect.” In other words, it is now acceptable for floors and carpets to be “dull, dirty, dingy, scuffed, and/or matted” with a “conspicuous buildup of old dirt” and base molding that is “ dirty, stained, and streaked.”

And this is supposed to attract new students?

Do you think, just maybe, that it’s time for a new direction?

Did Gary Darnell fail Western Michigan University? Certainly not by lowering his standards. Not by failing to provide leadership to the coaches and student athletes in his charge. And not by blaming others.

I came to know Gary Darnell not because he was a football coach, but because he and his wife Sandra are “total gamers,” people who show up on time, dressed to play. I’ve dedicated my adult life to making Kalamazoo a better place to live, most often as a team player but also as one who occasionally likes to tell it like it is. And this is the way it is: Gary and Sandra epitomize what this community has always needed to be a vibrant, healthy community in which our young people are loved and guided. Enduring the reality that every Saturday, half of the coaches in America “lose,” Gary and Sandra rest easy with the knowledge of how many young men found their way in life with their help.

Gary and Sandra worked so hard that it was difficult to find time to enjoy their spectacular company. But enjoy it we did, and they can consider us among the legions of lifelong friends they have made.

It breaks my heart to know we live in a community that can’t accept Gary Darnell but can accept “unkempt neglect.”

Eight years ago, Western Michigan University sought a new direction. That’s what they got with their football program and they’d be wise to apply the winning lessons of Gary Darnell to everything they do.

Blaine Lam and his wife, Bobbie, own Lam & Associates, a community relations firm with the mission “to help improve the quality of life in Kalamazoo County.”