Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Negative Perception

(published in The Davidsonian, 8/30/06)

Fall is upon us. A new school year has started. The days are beginning to get shorter, and the leaves will soon be turning. For the past 20 years of my life, this has signified one thing: it’s football season. Somehow, that fact always seems to get overlooked at Davidson. Maybe it’s because we don’t have all the pageantry of our neighboring Southern colleges and universities. Maybe it’s because we don’t have to actually go to the football games, but can rather watch them from the union while we do our Saturday afternoon studying. Or maybe it’s because somewhere along the line we collectively agreed not to care about Davidson football.

When Tripp Merritt agreed to become Davidson’s head football coach in the summer of 2005, he knew that there was work to be done. It had been five years since Davidson’s perfect 10-0 season, and a combined record of 5-15 over the last two seasons had created a pall over the program. Merritt knew that his football squad needed to establish a positive image both on and off the field.

“I talk the guys all the time about our image,” said coach Merritt. “There are certain things they should be doing on campus to put this team in a positively light, both academically and socially.”
Last season, Coach Merritt re-ignited the ride-in program where football players had to ride alongside campus police for their nightly patrols. Not only did players garner a greater appreciation for the responsibilities of law enforcement on campus, they were also able to cultivate a greater sense of community and better image.

This season, the ‘Cats will unveil a new helmet design that references the design from several decades ago while still being trendy and energizing. The white helmets with the block D will be a bold statement that this team embraces Davidson’s rich football history while at the same time looking forward and not accepting an image of mediocrity.

“The design harkens back to the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, but it’s also us putting a physical mark on this program and on this campus,” said Merritt. The uniforms serve as physical reminders that Davidson football cares about image and the success that is required to cement that image.

Like all sports at Davidson, Wildcat football has always fought an uphill battle with financial support. Several teams in Pioneer Football League have recently opted to supply scholarships for their players and move up to D-I scholarship football. With every one of our football players essentially being a walk-on, one has to wonder about the success potential for this program. How much can they really achieve?

When major college football is plagued with excessive scandal, bribery, and sanctions, perhaps playing good football for its own sake is good enough.

“Davidson needs to be the beacon for non-scholarship I-AA football,” said Merritt. “Our kids do it because they love the game and the academics. That’s something that is hopeful and appealing in and of itself.”

Underneath all of the talk of image and ideology, Merritt knows that his team will speak for itself when it goes on the field this year. With 15 returning starters from a team that upset Georgetown in its final game last season, the Wildcats look to link their off-field images with on-field improvement.

“You don’t change negative perceptions overnight. We’re just trying to put ourselves out there a little bit at a time.”

If the pre-season confidence and image can translate into victories on the field, those perceptions might be changing more quickly than we thought.

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