Leader Blues

Saturday, September 05, 2009

SPORTS >> Progress marches on at University of Cabot

Leader sports editor

Humor is most effective when it has a ring of truth to it.

So when Jacksonville coach Mark Whatley made a crack about playing the “University of Cabot” before Tuesday’s “Backyard Brawl” at Panther Stadium, it was clear he was joking about the disparity between Jacksonville’s facilities and Cabot’s bigger, more modern setup.

It wasn’t excuse-making before the fact. Whatley was simply pointing out, as he had done in different ways during the game-week hype, that Jacksonville, of the 6A-East Conference, was facing a real challenge against its neighbor and rival in the larger 7A-Central.

The final score would bear Whatley out: University of Cabot 35, Jacksonville 6.

It was quite a high school spectacle. Both stands were close to full, though Jacksonville had a little help from its band; the game was aired in a groundbreaking broadcast on statewide commercial television and, in one of the few highlights for Jacksonville, Mayor Gary Fletcher won 20 bucks in the lucky program number drawing.

The Red Devils played hard — senior offensive lineman Jacob Hicks praised his teammates for their effort afterward— and they didn’t let down, as D’Vone McClure scored on Logan Perry’s 67-yard pass to avoid the shutout.

But for much of the night, Cabot’s swarming defenders reminded me of dogs fighting over an old T-shirt, while the Panthers’ dead-T offense ground up yards and bled long minutes off the clock.

I hadn’t seen Cabot play in at least two years, and the Panthers just looked bigger to me, faster, more athletic than I’d remembered. And I recalled how, maybe a decade ago, the Cabot-Jacksonville game was a real brawl with the outcome not so predetermined.

I looked at Cabot’s five-year-old, multi-story field house with its indoor playing surface, the artificial turf surrounded by the state-of-the-art track, the huge scoreboard and video screen with its booming sound, and I began to think Whatley was right.

Let me say here that I shudder every time I see a high school sink big money into a football complex. In my knee-jerk way I can’t help thinking priorities are misaligned and that money could be better spent on something else — a foreign-language department, a computer lab, teacher salaries.

But if you’re going to spend on athletics, you better get your money’s worth, and Cabot appears to have done that.

“Absolutely,” Cabot athletic director Johnny White said. “They don’t miss any days of workouts in the spring. If it’s raining they’ve got the indoor area. They continue to work all summer long. They’re a very dedicated group of athletes. They are getting bigger and faster just because of their hard work, and the old field house wasn’t really conducive to all that.”

The school spent $1.2 million on its field house, White said, but when it came to some of the other improvements, funds had to be raised and money had to be borrowed.

Cabot is still paying for its $650,000 artificial surface, which, like the scoreboard, was funded by loans and private donations.

White pointed out the field house is actually a multi-purpose building used by everyone from the band to the cheerleaders to the ROTC. On game nights, for donations that are helping to pay off the football field and fund scholarships, certain ticket holders can dine out while watching the game from the third-story film room.

Since the athletic department makes most of its money at the gate — and since football helps pay for sports that don’t generate revenue like golf, tennis and cross country — anything that can be done to draw crowds and keep them comfortable, entertained and willing to return is worthwhile, White said.

“You’re always going to have critics if you spend money for athletics,” White said. “Pretty much our athletic program is self-supporting here. There’s not a line item at all for athletics. Everybody else gets money, but we don’t. We have to make it at the gate.”

I still say beware the football-industrial complex; beware putting athletics above education. But Cabot at least appears to have matched its athletic construction with other improvements, like the glistening main building that a few years ago replaced a series of far-flung smaller buildings that made up much of the campus.

Other school improvements are on the way and, White said, there is also more work to do on Panther Stadium, like upgrading the concession stands and the press box.

Which forces me to ask another hard question about priorities.

Why didn’t they do the press box first, for pity’s sake?