The Boston College Sports Problem

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This is not just a story about Boston College.

But in that, perhaps the entire point lies. Because the local media in Boston has to invoke BC athletics to make its favorite point: that nobody cares about the college sport scene in Boston.

We pick up this story a week ago Monday, the day after the coach behind a program free fall, Frank Spaziani, was fired. After a pretty sorry few seasons in football that drove BC far from the peak of their performance in the last decade – a national number two ranking, a young exciting boss and a legitimate Heisman candidate named Matt Ryan – BC made a move to fix it. And that was when Globe columnist Dan Shuagnessy took some precious ink to remind everyone how college athletics work around these parts:

“BC firing its football coach is no different than the New England Revolution sacking their head coach. It’s a scrawny birch tree toppling in a forest of mighty oaks. It doesn’t matter. That is the state of college sports in our region.”

The obvious irony of devoting a few inches of Monday’s Sports pages not lost on most of us within the BC community, Mssr. Shaugnessy goes on with the normal points – this is a pro sports town that puts up with its odd and unique college sports atmosphere like it has shouldered responsibility for a stray Terrier.

Missing in his argument is something pretty important, and this gets misinterpreted by media beyond Boston. The disconnect between Boston and its college sports is that not all Boston college sports fans are fans of Boston sports. It actually goes both ways, thus creating the division between the local media and the interest in college athletics. There are more than enough New Yorkers alone at BC that the mere notion that a Red Sox fan and an Eagles fan are one in the same can cause visceral reactions in places.

There truly is no other town like Boston across the NCAA homesteads. Chestnut Hill, while a BU grad will often tell you otherwise, is much more a part of Boston than the campuses of nearly any other Division 1-A football school. And, even if there are other major programs in metropolitan cities (LA has USC and UCLA, Chicago has Northwestern and Atlanta has Georgia Tech), none of them deal with scores of other universities that would rather cheer for a power outage at Alumni Stadium than get behind the big team in town.

The only thing in common among these college students and city-dwelling alumni is that they are not unified toward any single sports team. Not just colleges, but that includes the Local 9, the Garden Duo or even the NFL team that plays 25 miles outside the city in Foxboro. That’s why Boston sports fans don’t understand them, and it extends far beyond a fall Saturday in Newton, where warring with the neighbors is as much a part of the tailgate experience as the autumn colors and cold beer.

Last weekend, BC and BU played another chapter in their never ending battle for Commonwealth Avenue. You’d be hard pressed to find a more successful stretch of six miles in any sport on the collegiate landscape – four of the last five national titles belong to the schools, who play in the best conference in all the land. Desperate for programming in the absence of the NHL, NBC Sports ran a national doubleheader of the home-and-home series. Which was all well and good for BC and BU fans around the country, but without the numbers in front of me, I’d venture a guess to say that the national broadcast performed no better than the NESN telecast of a Sunday afternoon matinee in November of the same game.

Then there’s the Beanpot, the jewel of college hockey’s regular season and college hockey fans in the city. Of course, don’t even bother asking a UMass, UNH, Providence or Merrimack fan what they think about it. They don’t pick sides for the battle. In fact, the rejuvenation of Frozen Fenway in January of 2012 – two years after the Bruins hosted the Flyers and BC and BU held a contest on the surface a week later – was almost wholly designed to include all those other schools who felt left out. It’s probably a very strong reason the outdoor matches could come back in 2014 – because they didn’t get to everybody.

Among those responding to Shaugnessy’s original column was none other than another Globe columnist,  BC alum Bob Ryan, who levied his response in this weekend’s Sunday pages.

It’s easy to downplay BC football now, but it is totally inaccurate to imply that it’s always been like this or that college sports in general do not have a place at the Boston sports banquet table. Do pro sports dominate? Well, yes. What fool doesn’t know that?

But college sports always have been, and always will be, an important adjunct to the sports experience in this town. In fact, we have so much going on here with college sports, it’s impossible to keep track of it all. And at the top of the food chain is Boston College, our primary link to the world of big-time football and basketball.

Sometime in the next few days, BC will announce a new football coach. There will be a press conference and someone from the Globe will go (regardless of Shaugnessy’s claim that nobody cares). The department has done a fairly remarkable job at keeping people in the dark on who it will be, but I will tell you this, the biggest mistake that unknown coach can make in his statements will be to rattle off a line like, “Boston College should be Boston’s College football team”.

There is too much conflict to make it true, and that has nothing to do with this being exclusively a pro sports town.