In the 40 years the University of South Alabama has fielded a basketball team, the program has enjoyed relatively good success.
Still, the school has had trouble filling the arena, despite playing some quality schools. And now that basketball program finds itself playing second fiddle to the first-year football program of head coach Joey Jones.
Many people in the area have voiced concern about the university's efforts to recruit local talent, and where the program is headed.
I sat down with new University of South Alabama Athletic Director Dr. Joel Erdman and USA Head Basketball Coach Ronnie Arrow to address the many questions people have about the school's basketball program.
Q: A lot of people in this area think you don't recruit enough local high school players. Why aren't there more Mobile-area players on your roster?
Coach Arrow: If you recruit a local kid you have to be sure they're going to be able to come in and play (right away). You can't have a local kid come in and sit on the bench. Whatever community you're coaching in is a special community, and you have to treat it that way. A kid's family, friends and relatives don't want to come to a game to see him sit the bench.
Q: Will there be some Mobile-area players on your team in the future?
Coach Arrow: We're looking at some local kids coming up right now. But we have to be realistic too. We're going to get some players, but it'd be crazy right now for me to go after a (former LeFlore star, now at Kentucky) DeMarcus Cousins.
The one thing that bothers me is a (local high school) coach will come and bring a player to us whom he says can play, but when he has a real good player he takes him away to other schools.
Q: Are you saying you don't get support from local basketball coaches?
Coach Arrow: No, that's not what I'm saying at all. I'm getting support from local coaches. Good support. We go after the kids we think can play (in our program).
But in today's world, it (athletics) is a business of sorts. Parents and the kid both think he can play at, for instance, Alabama. So sometimes they a false sense that they can play in a weaker league and the kid can average 30 or 40 points a game.
So then they go against some really good players in that league and don't do so good.
So it's the coach's fault.
Q: So you're saying that coaching has changed?
Coach Arrow: Coaching today is like night and day (from the past). Our society has gotten softer. Hence the players are different, too.
How can a kid turn the page so quickly after a loss? How do you keep them focused?
People want more for less. And players want instant gratification.
Q: What about the sparse crowds that show up for your games? How come you can't fill the Mitchell Center for a game … even when you have a good, "name" team coming in to play you?
Dr. Erdman: The easy answer is that this is the Deep South. And this is just the way it is … its football country.
To turn that (attitude) around we'd have to do a combination of things. We'd have to change a deep cultural behavior. We'd have to emphasize the richness of Division-I basketball.
We have to raise awareness through advertising and other methods.
Personally, I think college basketball is tremendously entertaining. It doesn't take up a lot of time, its family fun, and there are some very skilled student athletes doing some amazing things on the court.
I've had the opportunity to go to basketball games all along the Gulf Coast and I've seen many, many marginally attended games.
Coach Arrow: If we can just people to come to a game, they'd see how entertaining it is.
Q: But if it's true that this is football country, and we all know that it is, South Alabama's new football program should help not only attract more basketball players to the school, but more basketball fans as well, right?
Coach Arrow: (USA Head Football Coach) Joey (Jones) and his program are going to be special. No doubt about it. But for every 10 D-I football players at a school, there may be one D-I football player.
This area … like a lot of areas in the south … is a football town.
The NCAA could really help (basketball) a lot by making it a one-semester sport. Basketball season now comes at the end of football season and is still going on at the beginning of baseball season.
If the NCAA made basketball come at the end of football season, that would help a lot.
Dr. Erdman: But make no mistake, there are (basketball) programs similar to ours around the country that are drawing well.
The Gonzagas, Valparaisos, Santa Claras. They all started somewhere.
Q: But not the South?
Dr. Erdman: No, not the South.
Q: Is there anything else you'd both like to say that I haven't asked you?
Coach Arrow: We’re making great strides with the program. People say “why don’t you get the good teams in here?’ Well, they’re here (Editor’s note: The interview was conducted two days before the jags played UAB, and Alabama played Kansas State at the Mitchell Center as part of the Coors Classic).
Dr. Erdman: And another thing … there are people sitting courtside now that weren’t sitting there a few years ago.
We’re making good progress.