Thursday, June 08, 2006

GTTS: Patriot League Expansion, Part II

Ok, Part I gave us a pretty good explanation of the playing field. Now we can judge the candidates. Who is a good shot for expansion? Who isn't? Let's not waste time - let's jump into Part II!

Strong Contenders for All-Sports Membership


The Blue Jays appear to be the perfect type of school that the Patriot League could be targeting. Competing in the D-III Centennial Conference in football (and in all other sports, save lacrosse), if you look at their recently upgraded facilities and teams, they are a "D-III school in a D-I body." Facility-wise, the Jays could put some other Patriot League schools' athletic training rooms to shame.

Academically, there are zero questions - they are exactly what the Patriot League wants. If you're in the Top 20 Universites nationally, you've got an open Patriot League invite.

Athletically, Johns Hopkins' Men's Lacrosse team (competing as a Division I independent) captured the NCAA title in 2005, so you know they can play with the best if they want to. As for fitting into the Patriot League model, it would take some time to adjust from zero-scholarship to need-based aid, but they seem like an ideal school to try. It would also allow them to play their favorite rivals in all sports, such as Princeton and Navy, which could only help spur a buzz on campus. In football, I could see Georgetown/Johns Hopkins developing into something special as well.

It's not a total slam dunk, however. Do they want to go to the Patriot League?

There is that Amherst/Williams school of thought that all scholarships are evil for sports, and D-III is "pure sport". Does Hopkins feel that way?

Also, it's not like the Blue Jays light up the D-III atendance charts in football or basketball. Will they do what's necessary to build up a Division I program?

Finally, are they willing to give up historic Centennial Conference rivals Gettysburg and McDaniel? Rivals who have played each other nearly 100 times are not easily given up without a fight.

Overall, however, they seem like a nearly perfect fit. The only question is, do the powers-that-be have the will or desire to make it happen?

Currently a member of the Big South conference, this military college has one of the smallest enrollments in I-AA (1,300 cadets) but one of the highest athletic participation rates (33% of the cadets play in a sport). It's a school with a strong historic and academic reputation that is a good Patriot League fit.
For VMI, the chance to compete with service academies Army and Navy in most sports would most likely be a large carrot for them, but an additional carrot is the overall great quality of athletics programs across the board in the Patriot League. In basketball in particular, the Patriot League is definitely a step up (in my mind) from Big South basketball. That combo could be too much for the Keydets to pass up.
For the Patriot League as well, there are great benefits to extending the league footprint into the mountains of talent coming out of Virginia every year. As an added bonus, you would make the "Greatest Military Rivalry of the South" with The Citadel out of the Southern Conference a part of our league as well, adding a possible future affiliations with the SoCon for athletic opponents year in and year out. (Think of Lehigh playing Appalachian State or Furman in football every couple of years.) Getting The Citadel/VMI every year in football and other sports would greatly add to the rich history of the Patriot League.
Some may think that VMI is considered a step down academically, but one look at some of their programs, such as engineering, shows that they are a very solid academic school. They aren't Johns Hopkins (very few are), but they fit the Patriot League mold very well.
Facility upgrades are underway, and they are a proud school who truly value athletics - their football facilities, for example, would be equal to or greater than Fisher Field in my mind. No issues there.
The biggest question mark regards the "scholarship issue". VMI does not operate like, say, Army and Navy in that all tuition is free if you're accepted. VMI does offer athletic scholarships, though they are not near the allotment of 63 in football and they do offer grant-in-aid's as well. Could they go to a grant-in-aid system, and will vocal alumni go for it? Or will we see resistance from both faculty and alumni?
My bet would be yes, and I think they could definiely find an upgraded home in the Patriot League.

In the D-III Centennial Conference, there are some other high-academic schools that aren't as far along facility-wise but could be potential candidates, such as Gettysburg or Franklin & Marshall. There is also Widener out of the Middle Atlantic and Carnegie Mellon out of the UAC, but all would require more work than Johns Hopkins in their athletic facilities.
On the D-III front in New England, you have three schools the Patriot League would salivate over: Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan (CT). However, as I mentioned before, these "Little Three" schools out of the NESCAC are the spiritual center of the "Division I Athletics are Evil" philosophy, so there is little to no chance any of these great candidates would ever move to Division I.
In I-AA, you have to consider non-scholarship MAAC teams such as St. Peter's, Iona, and Marist, and limited-scholarship teams out of the NEC like Sacred Heart, Wagner, St. Francis, Robert Morris, or Monmouth, but none of these teams come close to VMI or Johns Hopkins academically (or any of the aforementioned D-III candidates). Also, unlike VMI, it's unclear if any of these NEC or MAAC schools are upset about their direction in men's basketball (although, in my opinion, Patriot League basketball is better than both). Without a burning desire to jump conferences, it's questionable that any of these candidates would go to the Patriot League on their own.
Football-Only Members
So let's say the Patriot League shoots the moon and gets Johns Hopkins and VMI on board in the Patriot League in all sports. In my opinion we then could use a 10th school for football, opening possibilities for divisional play and good regional matchups.
What makes a good affiliate? That's easy - just look at our two affiliate members in football, Fordham and Gerogetown. They are in big-time basketball conferences (the A-10 and Big East, respectively) but still want to play football.
Here's where the surprise comes in. Here's the best candidate for a football-only affiliate.

Yes, the same Boston University that unceremoniously dumped football in 1997. With the exit of their infamous chancellor John Silber, who (charitably) had a vendetta against football, a potentially more football-friendly administration could get it started again in the environment of the Patriot League.
When football was dropped in 1997 unceremoniously by a chairman hell-bent on killing it, the "reasons" given were a lack of fan support, Title IX considerations, and the fact that the athletic department was losing money. (Which didn't prevent the school from opening a multi-million dollar sports arena for basketball and hockey nine years later, but I digress.)
The realities on the ground have changed since 1997. The aforementioned arena is done, so you'd think their athletic department would be "in the black". There are ways to hande Title IX considerations, and the possibility of BU football rising once again has been at a slow burn in many student and alumni hearts.
The only private school in the America East conference, BU has always been the odd dog, if you will, in the conference for other reasons as well. Although BU has had great success dominating men's basketball in the America East the past four years, in other sports such as rowing or their nationally-respected hockey team they compete in other conferences, so competing in the Patriot League in football is hardly a stretch.
Having had football before, football facilities are not an issue - they still have Nickerson Field. A Holy Cross/BU rivalrycould brew very easily, not to mention playing other local teams like Harvard and Northeastern. Acaemically, BU is another great Patriot League choice, and they may be very willing to "play ball" with the Patriot's rules on scholarships.
The only question is: is the "Silber Mindset" finally a thing of the past? Although fans and alumni want football back, how sold is the administration on reviving their 98 year-old program?
I think the tides are changing at BU, and they could surprise the Patriot by knocking on our door. Without an America East conference in football, the Patriot would clearly make the most sense for them, and would benefit us as well.
Plan B's
All the other possible affiliates would only come about if something out of the Patriot League's control were to happen. For example, take Villanova of the Big East and Richmond of the Atlantic 10. Although they both fit academically and athletically, it is unlikely they would agree to playing in the Patriot League unless they were booted out of the Colonial Athletic Associaion (where they are football affiliates) and needed an emergency home. It's very unlikely that either school would choose to leave the CAA to enter our scholarship structure, unless the Patriot would be willing to change its stance on scholarships.
Other A-10 schools that play at a non-scholarsip level, like Duquesne and LaSalle, seem like longshots out of the 5-team MAAC. Academically, they're not of the same caliber, and they would need to upgrade to the Patriot model - although, if the MAAC were to fold tomorrow, and they needed a home, perhaps the Patriot would consider them.
As you can see, there's a rich choice of schools for expansion. Can we see it happen is the question? I hope so.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

GTTS: Patriot League Expansion, Part I

This talk about Patriot League Expansion was so big that I ended up breaking it into two sections. Part I will be published tonight. Tune in tomorrow for Part II!

A Local Piece Makes a Big Stink
It's funny how a little Sunday piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, labelled "District Spotlight", can have such a big impact on the Patriot League and expectations for expansion.

This piece talks about Duquesne's prospects from moving "out of a deluded [sic] MAAC" and into another conference for football. It's clear that Duquesne is growing tired of playing in a non-scholarship conference with five schools (and the scheduling headaches that come with that) every year.

Here are the quotes that affect Patriot League Football directly:

"The Patriot League isn't taking any additional members just for football," [Duquense AD Greg] Amodio said. "I want to make it understood that Duquesne is not leaving the Atlantic 10 Conference... [and t]here's no thought in having a university without a football team."

Duquesne, rumored for years to be on the Patriot League radar, appears in no uncertain terms to be off that radar at present. But the additional words "just for football" in the quotation is equally as important. It signals that if the Patriot League expands, the powers-that-be would appear to want primarily all-sports members, not just another football-only affiliate.

It's June and a couple months from the beginning of the 2006 football season, so it's a good time to look at the shifting possibilities for adding any new teams to the Patriot League.

Who Is the Patriot League?
In order to look at what schools would be good expansion targets, it's worthwhile to look at how the current Patriot League is comprised. What like-minded institutions would be interested in joining?

Our beloved Patriot League, now officially twenty years old, is a conference whose core principles are academic excellence in a highly competitive sports environment. We consider the Ivy League to be our peers and we consider Division I athletics to be our proving ground athletically. We stretch from Maryland to Massachusetts, comprising of private institutions who are top schools nationally with superb academics.

In the Patriot League, there are five all-sports members (Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, Holy Cross, and Colgate), three schools that participate in all sports except football (Army, Navy, and American), and three schools that are affiliates in one sport only (Fordham and Georgetown in football, and Villanova in women's lacrosse). All of these schools are small to mid-sized private institutions, so it makes sense to look at smaller, private schools for potential membership. (For a long time, we had Towson as a member, and as a mid-sized state institution, they never really fit in.)

Originally, the Patriot League offered no athletic scholarships in any sport, including football. Over the last twenty years, however, this stance has softened. For example, in football the use of creative grant-in-aid's have allowed teams like Lehigh and Colgate to give grants to certain students that have a certain level of need. This has the effect of being a "scholarship" without the name.

In addition, softening scholarship rules with other sports (such as men's basketball) has allowed the Patriot League to be competitive nationally in many sports. For example, without basketball scholarships, Bucknell wouldn't have had a prayer in the NCAA tournament in the past two years - but with them, Bucknell has the potential to be a permanent "bracket buster" featured on ESPN for a few games a year. Furthermore, had we had basketball scholarships ten years ago, Fordham probably would still be a member of the Patriot League in all sports.

Who Should Be Considered?
So who might the league office be looking at? The first thing I did was ask the Patriot League office about their policy on expanding the league. After they rejected my offer of a crisp bill (with George Washington on it) demanding detail on the schools involved and names of officials, they nevertheless did offer me this:

We are always examining the possibility of expansion and the academic, athletic and competitive advantages of adding a new member in football and for all sports.

Sure, it's an official statement, but it also speaks volumes. The league is not closed to the right deal to expand, with either an affiliate or an all-sports member. They'll expand, but only if it makes sense. This somewhat debunks the story of Duquesne's AD somewhat - in the right circumstances, the Patriot League will take an affiliate member.

If the league is "examining the possibility of expansion" with institutions that are similar to our current schools, so far we have in potential candidates: great academic schools, private, small-to-mid sized, who can possibly live with the scholarship restriction. Now, what would motivate a school like this to join the Patriot League?

The first part of the discussion has to be a desire to upgrade all their sports to a Division I level, or if they're already Division I, to get into a better athletic conference overall. Generally speaking, this means getting into a better basketball conference (as to allow the school better opportunities at NCAA Tournament money), but not always.

Second, the school has to have a desire to align their school on a academic par with the Patriot League. There are schools that would love to rub elbows with all members of our league for reasons other than just sports -- mostly academic prestige, but not always.

Patriot Concerns
Finally, we have to come to the concerns of the league itself. What does expanding the Patriot League by one team in all sports give us? Answer: a major scheduling headache across the board. Try scheduling a basketball season with 9 teams and you'll see what I mean. It is much more likely that the Patriot will expand by two all-sports members, making the league an even 10 members and easing scheduling issues.

If the two teams both have and desire football, it would also open the door for another football-only affiliate to join the league. The reason is that the 7 teams currently in the Patriot League plus 2 new teams makes that difficult 9-team conference once again. Add another affiliate, and you're back at a magic-number of 10 teams. This opens up possibilites: divisional play and stable travel schedules leap to mind.

What should be becoming abundantly clear at this point is that expansion is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Now we're not only talking about adding a school as a football-only affiliate or an all-sports member. We're now talking about adding two all-sports members, AND a football-only affiliate, in order to round out the league. We're out of the realm of slam-dunk admissions and into the world of having to work at it to get three schools to decide to join the Patriot League. Is it worth it?

The answer to that is clearly: You bet it is! If the Patriot League can expand with the right schools, not compromising academically or on the athletic scholarships issue, and expanding the footprint of the league down south to Virginia or up north into New England, it's a major accomplishment. Not only the obvious competitive advantages of athletic competition, but also maintaing the quality of academic standing. More than ever we'll not only able to stand toe-to-toe with the Ivy League as equals - we'll be equal to them academically, but in a more compettve place athletically. (Well, maybe not in endowments, but you know what I mean.)

Tomorrow I'll conclude this essay on expansion with a list of schools - and who I think those three best candidates would be.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Getting Through The Summer

Summer is basically here. Though it's hot, and you're probably thinking about bikinis on the beach, ice cream, gelati, or that long drive with your family to the beach, as a public service I'm going to be starting a new series to help you, the starving I-AA football fan, get through these hot summer months.

Though Patriot League Media Day is months away, and its almost 90 days until Lehigh opens against Albany at Murray Goodman, the Get Through the Summer Series, or GTTS, will tackle some the big issues facing the Patriot League and I-AA football today. It will also include my Spring Roundup and my Patriot League Preview. It will be coming out every Wednesday night for your reading enjoyment.

This Wednesday I'll talk all about Patriot League expansion. Where does it stand? Who could be a target? How likely is it to happen?

It may be summer, but you'll find out - football season is just starting to heat up.
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