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COLLEGE ATHLETICS

VALPARAISO | In a politically correct age, Mark LaBarbera seemed to be playing the part just fine. The Valparaiso University athletic director, now in his second year on the job, was speaking about the highlights of the 2004-05 athletic year. His words would've made Oprah smile.

"Our women's volleyball and women's tennis team both advanced to the NCAA tournament," LaBarbera said. "And our men's tennis team and women's soccer team both reached the (Mid-Continent) conference championship games."

He spoke about the improving softball program and other non-revenue glories. But LaBarbera is the AD at Valpo. He spoke for five minutes and didn't mention basketball, the sport that put the university on the national map. How could this be?

Well, both Homer Drew's men's program and Keith Freeman's women's program were upset in the first round of the Mid-Con tourney in Tulsa last March. Is such a thing possible? Is that OK in this everything is equal, everything is the same, era?

"No, not at all," LaBarbera said. "I was very disappointed with the performance of the basketball teams in the tourney. Clearly, basketball is very important to what we do, what we're about. It's just a matter of time before our volleyball team wins a match in the NCAA. But basketball is what drives our ship.

"It allows us to compete on a national stage. I feel strongly that we need to be successful in basketball because that sets the tone for the other programs. We want to be the best basketball programs in the Mid-Con, period."

During the first week back from the Tulsa Flop, LaBarbera sat down with Drew and Freeman and asked them one simple question: "What do we need to do to get better?"

The Crusaders hoops legacy far exceeds the house in which they play. The facilities are at the bottom of the Mid-Con pie chart. The Athletics-Recreation Center was nice for its time, but schools like Oral Roberts and Mid-Con men's basketball champion Oakland (Mich.) own gems. And often VU is trying to recruit the same kids as other schools.

So does a young athlete want to ride in a Cadillac or a rusty Edsel?

Knowing the tipping competitive scales were moving, both coaches told LaBarbera they needed a better practice facility. So, the man who spends 40 percent of his working hours trying to raise money went to work. He brought in $94,000 to upgrade Gym 1, or Hilltop Gymnasium.

The floor is being redone. New lighting is being wired. A new coat of paint is being brushed. And a louder bang-for-your-buck visual experience will be in place by October. Banners touting VU's 12 NCAA tourney appearances, five coming in the old "college" or small-school division, will be hung.

"The things that he can control, he tried to take action on," Freeman said. "It doesn't knock us ahead of anybody, but it keeps us in the ballpark. To have a place to practice, a gym to ourselves without other people coming in and out, that's important to the teaching we're trying to do.

"Mark is trying to gain an understanding of what goes on. He listens and he's trying to make our department grow."

Growing beyond the city of Valparaiso and Porter County remains at the top of LaBarbera's list. The "We want to be Northwest Indiana's team" mantra gets louder as each day passes. LaBarbera, a former administrator at North Carolina State and New Hampshire, wants people from Lake County to embrace his teams.

He has several ways of bringing this dream to fruition. In the near future, LaBarbera will announce an expanded radio package for VU basketball so it can be heard in all of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. And coming off the first year that Valpo games were on live television locally, LaBarbera said an expanded agreement with WYIN-Channel 56 will soon be announced, with at least eight live games.

"People won't come to your games if they can't hear you or watch you," he said.

Just like at New Hampshire, LaBarbera is helping establish corporate sponsorships with businesses around the Region. Many of those places are in Lake County, where he's shaking a lot of hands.

"It's not just about the advertisement money, but we want those businesses' employees to get involved," he said. "We want them to come to games. We will have programs in place this year to make that happen. And I'd like to meet with the (high school) athletic directors from Lake County and ask them what they think of us, what they think of our programs.

"That is something I will be very active in over the next year. I plan on speaking to the people at the (Westfield) mall."

The facilities issue, though, will be a continuing issue. With no tax dollars coming into the private school, LaBarbera and his staff will continue to work to raise revenue so VU can compete in a conference that gets better every year.

Although the FITT (football, intramurals, tennis and track) program started when William Steinbrecher was finishing up his 25th year as VU AD, it will be LaBarbera, who took the gig July 1, 2004, who will finish it off. He said they are just short of $1.5 million raised for the $3.2 million project.

The FITT program will put a track around the football rectangle at Brown Field, which will be covered with a SportTurf playing surface. The tennis programs are getting 12 new courts, expected to be completed by November. The track and field team will finally have a track.

All of this must be completed before the next project starts. But LaBarbera will begin an overall strategic planning session in the next eight months, meeting with coaches, students, athletes, alumni and others associated with the university to see what the next five years will hopefully hold.

"We need to get FITT finished before we move on," he said.

LaBarbera's biggest goal for Valpo is to win the Mid-Con's Commissioner's Cup, which goes to the school that has the most success in all of its programs. VU, a founding Mid-Con member, has never won it. Western Illinois, the other founding member remaining, has won six.

One area that plays into this might surprise some. LaBarbera said the question he heard most in his first three months was, "Hey Mark, when are we going to get golf back?"

With money and facility issues still being worked out, golf is on the list of things to do.

"It would certainly help us win the Commissioner's Cup, which is one of my top goals, but I don't think we're ready yet," he said. "But it is something we'd look into down the road. We're serious about winning the Cup. But basketball is a big part of that. I want to help Homer get back to the Sweet 16 before he retires.

"I want to see Keith get to his first Sweet 16. Basketball leads the way to a couple of Cups."

When asked to grade his first year on the job, LaBarbera gave himself a C-minus. In Steinbrecher's last year, VU won five conference championships. LaBarbera's VU totaled two.

"I know every AD is judged by the success of their teams," he said. "We had an average year. And that's why we're working so hard to make it better."

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