Reflections on the Steele firing

Parting ways with former men’s basketball head coach has many implications

By Charlie Gstalder, Opinions Editor

At risk of adding to the already oversaturated atmosphere of articles on the Travis Steele firing, I felt I’d be remiss from saying the quiet part out loud. Namely, the firing of Steele was an obvious decision that coincides perfectly with Xavier’s strategic growth plan. 

While the administration dare not admit it in its strategic planning, university investment in the basketball program factors greatly into their overall attempts to raise the schools profile from a regional gem to a university with a national reputation and draw. 

Granted, this transformation has been underway for some time now. Nonetheless, the endeavor continues. 

The correlation between success on the hardwood and national reputation is fairly simple to understand. For the sake of this piece, we can measure the intangible “basketball success” by NCAA tournament appearances, as such appearances signify a strong regular season performance and current programs with the greatest overall exposure. 

According to data presented by Cristina Gough on the statistics website Statista, the NCAA men’s basketball March Madness tournament drew an average of 10.5 million viewers in 2019, the first of Xavier’s four missed tournament seasons. Assuming said viewership held steady and accounting for the COVID-19 cancellation season, the failure to reach the tournament during Steele’s tenure accounted for more than 20 million missed recruitment opportunities. 

Given the potential reach, Steele’s previous million-dollar-plus salary and the likely greater amount given to successor Sean Miller seem relatively fair, as does the disappointment at Steele’s record. 

The basics of the plan are as follows. First, the university invests millions into the basketball program in hopes of greater success. Having had that investment mean reaching the tournament and ideally advancing past the round of 64, the university sees a bump in its reputation and profile. This increase in reputation then coincides with a greater number of applicants, prompting difficult calculus on the part of the admissions department regarding the balance between accepted students and students who eventually deposit. 

Eventually, should the national profile continue to grow, the school is able to tighten its acceptance rates while maintaining or increasing a volume of applicants, thereby becoming more selective.

Additionally, the improvement in national profile allows the school to draw in a greater number of students who are able to pay full tuition cost, thereby recouping the investment into the basketball program and allowing investment into other areas.

Perhaps the best example of this plan is fellow Big East Catholic university, Villanova. Having invested heavily in its basketball program, Villanova won the NCAA championship in 2016 and 2018. According to statistics website, Villanova’s acceptance rate in 2015-16 was 47.89%. 

The subsequent years it dropped 4.3%, 7.5%, 7.2%, before holding steady after their second national championship at roughly 29%.

During the same period of time, Xavier and its struggling basketball program saw its acceptance rate increase by roughly 8%. 

There is no reason to believe that Xavier will deviate from this plan, as the return of Coach Miller shows. Nor is there any reason for shock or disdain regarding the firing of Steele. Xavier’s simply following their plan, and I for one am eager to see how it turns out over the next few years.