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With Bowdoin football at 0-8 again, it’s time to ask the tough questions

November 8, 2019

Ann Basu
KEEP YOUR CHIN UP: Assistant Coach Matt Cochran rallies his players during a home loss to Middlebury. Bowdoin lost to Bates on Saturday, leaving the Polar Bears as the only winless team in the NESCAC.

Imagine that your car won’t start, so you open the hood, take a peek around and decide that the battery is dead. You grab your jumper pack, fire it up, but still, the ignition won’t turn over. So you toss the battery that you’ve got and go buy a new battery. But alas, still no luck. After all this, what’s your conclusion?

The problem isn’t the battery.

With Bowdoin football winless again through eight games, despite the arrival of head coach BJ Hammer and his staff, we now have enough data to make a diagnosis about Bowdoin football: it’s not the coach.

Saturday’s 30-5 loss to Bates, a result that snapped the Bobcats’ 17-game losing streak and handed Malik Hall his first win as Bates’ head coach, might stir panic (or despair) among those who thought wistfully, ‘Well, at least we’ll get Bates.’ It was all the more dramatic for its eerie similarity to Bowdoin’s own skid-snapping victory over those same Bobcats almost exactly one year ago—except this time, it was a mob of red-and-white-clad fans who swarmed their team at midfield after the final whistle.

In light of Bowdoin’s victory last year, this most recent loss might seem a sign of regress, an indicator that the state of Bowdoin football is getting worse rather than better. There might be some truth to that, but not a complete truth. If anything, Bowdoin football, despite a regime change, has almost not changed at all.

Let’s peruse some numbers. In 2018, Bowdoin averaged 13.6 points per game on 291.9 yards, while its opponents averaged 34.2 points on 429.4 yards. Bowdoin’s third-down conversion rate was 32 percent, its red zone touchdown percentage was 52 percent, and it averaged 16.9 first downs per game.

Through eight games this season, the Polar Bears are averaging 12.8 points per game on 271.1 yards, and their opponents 40.1 points on 471.8 yards. The team’s third-down conversion rate is 32 percent, its red zone touchdown percentage is 50 percent, and its average number of total first downs is 16.3.

Take a second to compare those. Have a chuckle. Now let’s move on.

On paper, the only substantive difference between this team and last year’s is the relative frequency with which they run or throw the ball. In 2018, Bowdoin threw the ball on average 37.6 times per game and ran it 31.9 times. This year, under new offensive coordinator Braden Layer, they’ve been rushing slightly more, averaging 34.1 passes and 34.0 runs per game.

Although the frequency of passing and rushing has changed, their respective efficacy has not. In 2018, Bowdoin’s average passing play covered 9.1 yards, and the average rush was good for 3.7 yards. This year, it’s 10.0 yards on the throw and 3.1 on the run. Some things change. Some things stay the same.

Which brings us back to the car. If, after replacing your battery altogether, you went out and bought yet another battery, hoping that this one would do the trick, your mechanic friends might rightfully wonder if you know what you’re doing.

It’s time to ask that same question about the people in charge of the Bowdoin football program.

To be clear, blame lies not with the players, who put a whole lot of love and labor into the program, nor does it lie with the coaches, old or new, who work doggedly to enable their athletes to succeed. Blame lies with whomever it was in in the Department of Athletics who thought that switching JB for BJ would change anything.

Remember, Bowdoin is not just paying one head football coaching salary this year but two—one for Hammer and one for former head coach JB Wells, whose contract still extends to the end of this year. And what have they got to show for it? Almost exactly the same results as last year, minus a win.

Lest I appear impatient, I recognize that turning a cruise ship around—as Wells once described his task as Head Coach—takes time. It takes time for a new ethos to take hold. It takes time for a new staff to bring in new recruiting classes. It takes time for the temperature in the “POLAR20NE” to drop below freezing.

But couldn’t it have waited a year? True, Wells’ 3-31 tenure was particularly bleak, but let’s not forget that his predecessor posted a .291 win percentage over 15 years, or that the last head coach to post a winning career record was Nels Corey, who went 22-20 (.523) between 1959 and 1964.

Ultimately, the problem extends well beyond Bowdoin. The landscape of Division III football is changing, and the NESCAC is not immune to the repercussions.

For one, competition for players is steeper than ever. Between 2008 and 2016, 12 DIII schools added football programs, bringing the total number of teams to 250. In response, NESCAC schools are pouring money into their recruiting budgets in an effort to tap talent pools outside of lily-white New England.

This is money well spent insofar as it brings more athletes of color into the pool of 79 percent white NESCAC student-athletes, but it’s not clear that recruiting spending is at all correlated with gridiron success. In the 2017-18 school year, Bowdoin spent $86,297 on athletic recruiting, and its football program is in dead last. Wesleyan, who currently sits in second place in the NESCAC with a 7-1 record, spent $47,965, around half of Bowdoin’s expenses.

The competition for qualified and talented athletes has launched a facilities arms race, which Bowdoin appears to be losing. Although the $8 million renovation to Whittier Field spun heads in Brunswick when it was announced in 2017, it looks relatively frugal compared to Williams’ $20 million renovation to its football facilities in 2014, Amherst’s $12.5 million renovation in 2013, or—hold onto your ass—Colby’s $200 million overhaul of its athletic complex, set to open in 2020. Maybe Waterville doesn’t look like such a hellhole after all.

The solution is not to throw more money at the problem and hope that it will go away. Yet that is precisely what Bowdoin chose to do when, in an unflattering attempt to play-act at being a Division I program, it fired its head coach in the middle of his contract to make way for someone new.

To almost no one’s surprise, the results have been less than inspiring. But who knows—maybe things will change. I would like nothing more than to be proved wrong.

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