By GREG LOGAN email@example.com
TAMPA, Fla. - The setting for Stony Brook's first foray into competition with a BCS football school last night at Raymond James Stadium was way beyond the scope of anything the Seawolves had attempted previously in athletics.
Big East member South Florida plays in a stadium that houses the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and that has hosted several Super Bowls, and the expected crowd of 35,000 could fill SBU's LaValle Stadium four times over.
But Stony Brook president Samuel L. Stanley, who delivered a pregame speech to a contingent of Seawolves supporters who made the trip, said it's within the realm of possibility that SBU can grow the athletic program to the major-college level.
A former biomedical researcher, Stanley leads a university that already stands shoulder to shoulder with the country's great research institutions. Ticking off the names of the University of North Carolina, University of Michigan, University of Washington, UCLA and Cal-Berkeley, Stanley said, "These are places that have very good Division I athletics. I don't see any reason why Stony Brook shouldn't aspire to the same thing.
"Do we have the kind of money or resources to do it right away? Of course not. But can we move gradually toward that goal? Absolutely, and I'm going to be very supportive of us trying to do that.''
Athletic director Jim Fiore has been very outspoken in expressing his vision of Stony Brook as a future Football Bowl Series-level school. That would mean expanding the stadium to at least 30,000 seats, which would require not only gaining financial support in the state legislature but also building fan support on Long Island for intercollegiate athletics at a place that, in the past, has seemed isolated and overlooked.
"I really share Jim's vision,'' Stanley said. "I think he's been doing it right. I'm very proud not only of our athletic teams but also their academic performance. Generally, we've been doing very well in terms of GPA for student-athletes. I think we're doing it the right way. We're not leaping into it, but we're building it very carefully. I'm excited about where we can go.''
Stanley said athletics can enhance the university's academic mission and provide a means of interfacing with the surrounding community the same as the medical center does. The increasing local support was evidenced by the number of fans who made the trip to Tampa, and it was clear when the Seawolves packed Stony Brook Arena for their NIT basketball game against Illinois last March.
The University of Buffalo, another SUNY school, already is competing on the FBS level and went to a bowl two seasons ago. "There's no reason why we can't do the same,'' Stanley said. "The [SUNY] system just wants a commitment to excellence. They want to make sure we're running the program correctly. As long as we're really responsible, they're generally going to be supportive.''
The current economic climate, Stanley acknowledged, makes it difficult to find the money Stony Brook needs to build the facilities necessary to grow the athletic program faster. But the school president's message to SBU fans Saturday was that the program is headed in the right direction.
"This is one of those milestones where you look and say, 'Here's another critical step for the program,' '' Stanley said. "Having our first BCS opponent and coming to a place like this and getting this kind of local enthusiasm is really an important step. We're not done. It's one of the steps along the way to where we want to be, but it's a great step. We're going to celebrate and enjoy no matter what the outcome of the game. We're going to have a great time.''