To fully appreciate Jake Crouthamel’s enormous impact as Syracuse University athletic director, one must journey back to his arrival on campus in March 1978. The sports landscape on the Hill was desolate by today’s standards. The obstacles he faced were the equivalent of fourth-and-long in football.
A standout football player and coach at Dartmouth College who played professionally for the Boston Patriots, Crouthamel realized the future success of Orange athletics would depend on his ability to upgrade deteriorating facilities and resuscitate a football program that was on life support.
Archbold Stadium, the concrete bowl that had been home to SU football for nearly seven decades, had become such an eyesore that coaches stopped showing it to recruits visiting campus. The stadium’s antiquated locker room, occasionally frequented by football-sized rats, was also off-limits to potential student-athletes, lest they be scared away. With the opening of the Carrier Dome on the site of “Old Archie” in 1980, Crouthamel recognized the building’s potential as a catalyst for an athletic renaissance, and acted on it.
As he prepares to retire as athletic director this June after 27 years on the job, Crouthamel’s imprint can be seen throughout the SU campus—from the Dome and the additions and renovations at Manley Field House, to the Lampe Athletics Complex, the softball stadium at Skytop, and the new Hookway Fields just down the road. “His fingerprints are on just about everything sports-wise here,” says legendary Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim ’66, G’73, who has spent more than four decades on campus. “He has been about as loyal and significant a figure as any athlete or coach in school history. Jake has done a fantastic job putting not only our athletic programs, but the entire University on the map.”
Crouthamel appreciates the praise, but it also makes him squirm. The 66-year-old native of Perkarsie, Pennsylvania, has never been comfortable in the spotlight, and occasionally his disdain for it has been mistaken for aloofness and stoicism. “It’s my belief the credit belongs to the student-athletes and the coaches who guide them,” Crouthamel says. “I didn’t score the winning goals. I didn’t draw up the winning plays.”
Yet many believe that without his behind-the-scenes vision and support, their successes would not have been possible. And it’s doubtful the Orange athletic program would have achieved such national prominence during the past quarter century. While receiving credit makes him uncomfortable, he does acknowledge that he had his work cut out for him upon taking the job. “When I arrived, virtually everything, with the possible exception of Jim Boeheim and the basketball program, needed attention,” Crouthamel says. “The facilities on campus were terribly lacking, and the revenues that resulted from a dramatic increase in attendance at the Carrier Dome enabled us to address those issues fairly quickly.”
It was Crouthamel who convinced Boeheim to move men’s basketball games from the cozy confines of 9,200-seat Manley Field House to the cavernous Dome. “I figured since we were selling out Manley, we could add to our revenues by playing in a bigger building,” Crouthamel says. “But, I never envisioned crowds in excess of 30,000. I figured if we could sell 1,000 to 2,000 more tickets in the Dome than we had in Manley that would be helpful. I guess I was a little off in my forecast.”
When it came to hiring coaches, Crouthamel usually was right on. His most significant hire was Dick MacPherson as the head football coach, following the 1980 season. “I had gotten to know Mac when I was coaching at Dartmouth,” he says. “In fact, my first game and victory as a head coach was against Mac when he was at the University of Massachusetts. We struck up a friendship, where we would talk every Sunday morning during the season. He was an engaging person, and when it came time to go out and get a guy who was not only a good football coach, but also a personality, I immediately thought of him.”
|Courtesy of SU Athletics
Jake Crouthamel congratulates student-athletes at a recognition ceremony during halftime of the SU-Rutgers football game last fall in the Carrier Dome.
Success didn’t come instantly under MacPherson. After SU opened the 1986 season with four consecutive losses, some angry fans formed a Sack Mac Pack. But Crouthamel stuck with him, and his faith was rewarded the following season as SU went 11-0-1, starting a streak of 14 consecutive winning seasons. When MacPherson left to coach the NFL’s New England Patriots in 1991, Crouthamel promoted Paul Pasqualoni, and the winning continued.
Crouthamel’s progressive thinking paid off again in the late 1970s when he brainstormed with then-Providence College athletic director Dave Gavitt to form the Big East Conference. “It led to some great rivalries, right off the bat, that captured the community’s attention,” he says. “I credit a lot of it to the coaches in the league. People like John Thompson [Georgetown], Lou Carnesecca [St. John’s], Rollie Massimino [Villanova], and Jim gave the league an identity. And I believe our success fed the success of ESPN, which also was a new kid on the block at the time. The popularity of its ‘Big Monday’ telecasts started with us. We were good for each other.”
In time, the Big East expanded into an all-sports conference that included football. Crouthamel’s only regret is that longtime Eastern power Penn State wasn’t part of the mix. “Geographically and traditionally, I would have liked to have seen the old East Indies, with Syracuse, Penn State, Pitt, Boston College, and West Virginia as the core,” he says. “But times change and you have to adjust.”
Though less visible than new athletic facilities and coaching hires, the academic success of Syracuse athletes is a big part of the Crouthamel legacy. It’s no coincidence SU consistently ranks among the nation’s best in graduating its student-athletes. Of the 56 colleges that competed in bowl games following the 2004 football season, Syracuse had the highest graduation rate.
When Crouthamel took over, there was just one academic advisor for the entire sports program, and that person worked primarily with football players. Today, Syracuse athletics boasts six full-time academic advisors, eight graduate assistants, and roughly 60 tutors. “If we expect our student-athletes to make a huge time commitment to their respective sports, then we owe it to them to provide the academic support they need to succeed,” Crouthamel says.
Although he has thoroughly enjoyed his time at Syracuse, there have been some disappointing moments. The ones that stick out are the NCAA investigations of the basketball and lacrosse programs during the early ’90s, and the decision later that decade to drop wrestling and men’s gymnastics to meet Title IX requirements instituted to create equal opportunities for women athletes. The investigations led to the formation of an academic compliance department. “I think we came out of the process stronger,” Crouthamel says.
To this day, it still bothers him that he had to cut two programs. “Walt Dodge [gymnastics] and Ed Carlin [wrestling] had been loyal, dedicated coaches who had established their programs nationally,” Crouthamel says. “To have to call them in and tell them they no longer were part of the family was not an easy thing to do. But we really had no choice. No one contests the purpose of Title IX legislation. But I don’t believe the drafters of the legislation considered the unintended results of Title IX. We were dealing with finite resources and had to add several women’s sports. That meant we had to rid ourselves of expenses somewhere else, and unfortunately that led to the elimination of gymnastics and wrestling.”
Although Crouthamel turned over the athletic department’s reins to Daryl Gross in December, he will stay on as an advisor until June 30. At that time, he and his wife, Carol, will move to their year-round home near Hyannis, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. “I’m struggling with it a bit,” he says, when asked about life after Syracuse. “It’s dawned on me that I’ve spent two-thirds of my life on college campuses. I truly believe being around young people has helped keep me young and motivated. Now, after so many years of working 24/7, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m probably going to have to find a job someplace.”
Though it would embarrass him to hear it, Crouthamel helped build one of the most admired collegiate athletic programs in America. He is handing it over in very good shape—light years ahead of where he found it, more than a quarter of a century ago.
|Scott Pitoniak ’77 is a graduate of the Newhouse School and an award-winning columnist for the Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle.