As the Philadelphia Eagles continue their open practices at Murray Goodman, this Tuesday another media event will be happening in Bethlehem across the Lehigh river on the outer edge of town- Patriot League Media Day. That meeting will spawn a host of different articles in the papers around the league, along with preseason polls and some whining about the need to change the name of "Division I-AA football" to "Division I - PCS division football". In this year, the 20th year of the Patriot League's existence, it's worthwhile to explore what the Patriot League was, is, and what may be.
In 1985, the Patriot League was born (as the Colonial League) as a I-AA football conference with 6 charter members - Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, Holy Cross, Colgate, and Davidson (out of Noth Carolina). Its mission was to create a football league of small schools (less than 10,000 undergraduate enrollment) with great academics while granting no football scholarships. With the exception of Davidson out of the SoCon, all of these schools were floating around for years as I-AA independents, and uniting under the same banner and athletic philosiphy made a lot of sense. It would require Holy Cross to abandon football scholarships (and risk weakening their perennial I-AA football powerhouse), but ultimately they were convinced.
Soon thereafter the thought was to use the Colonial League as the model for becoming an all-sport conference. Some members were thinking this way from the get-go, studying the football relationship and seeing how it could expand. With Davidson dropping out, and adding Army and Fordham (with Navy soon to follow), the newly-named Patriot League opened for business in 1991 in all-sports (with the notable exception of Army and Navy continuing to keep their football program at the I-A level).
In retrospect, this was a shrewd move to go towards becoming an all-sports conference. With it came representation, increased visibility, and spots in postseason play, such as the I-AA playoffs. As football-only conferences have come and gone, their members getting poached by bigger conferences, the Patriot League has held things together, maintaining their academic reputation while slowly increasing their competitiveness. The steady increase of the use of grants-in-aid as "scholarship equivalents" have, on the gridiron, made Patriot League teams to be able to stand toe-to-toe with full I-AA scholarship schools such as Delaware or UMass.
To some, the high athletic standards set by the Patriot League 20 years ago have been steadily decreasing. Witness the increase of "scholarship equivalents" in football, or the slow acceptance of scholarships in other sports as members see fit (Lehigh wrestling, for example). In my mind, however, it's simply made our competitive level better across all sports while not compromising our academic goals. Lehigh hasn't all of a sudden become a football factory, nor has (say) Bucknell all of a sudden started recruiting folks with 580 SAT scores for basketball talent.
Today, the seven football members seem quite happy to be in the conference, despite the occasional whine that Holy Cross or Fordham should hop to the A-10 (which in this humble reporter's opinion is absolutely ridiculous). More importantly, the powers-that-be in all enrolled schools seem very happy with the status quo - Fordham and Georgetown as associate members in football, and the rest of the Patriot schools as full members.
To the future, then. What does the future hold for the Patriot? Recently, the Patriot League presidents voted on a 5-year strategic plan that endorsed the following goals:
1) Overall League Competitiveness
2) Strengthening and Expanding League Membership
3) Marketing and Branding
4) Fiscal Integrity
5) Academic Excellence
What's interesting here football-wise? "Overall League Competitiveness" may mean aiding and abetting some of the weaker members of the football conference, such as Georgetown and Holy Cross. Both teams, however, have shown definite signs of becoming much more competitive. The others are either ubiquitous ("academic excellence") or don't have to do with football (marketing, branding, fiscal integrity).
However, it's worth it to look at some possibilities for "expanding league membership". How likely is it? What sort of schools might be involved? An associate member of the A-10 (Villanova, Richmond, Duquesne)? Luring another Division I all-sports member into the Patriot League (The Citadel, VMI, Marist, Monmouth)? Or possibly giving a Division III school a place to go should they want to jump to Division I (Gettysburg, Widener, Johns Hopkins)?
Here's 3 possibilities.
1. VMI in all sports. Currently in the Big South, VMI may be very interested in developing a close relationship to the other service academies, as well as making a jump up in basketball. Should they desire a move, they would be a perfect Patriot League match.
2. Richmond in football. With Old Dominion joining the CAA in 2009, will Richmond truly be itching to stay in the CAA in football? You've got to think Richmond's relationship with the conference they ditched for the A-10 can't be very good, and Richmond almost went to the Patriot League during this offseason. Could Richmond be knocking on the door again soon?
3.Johns Hopkins in all sports. The most likely D-III to move to the Patriot, not only did they study a move not too long ago, they fit the Patriot profile perfectly as a superlative academic institution. With Georgetown as well, they could form a great football (and eventually maybe even basketball) rivalry.
What do you think? Vote in the new poll!