Friday, February 23, 2007

This Weekend in Lehigh Sports 2/23/2007

With the Lehigh wrestling team taking the weekend off before the EIWA wrestling championships, the focus turns to two struggling teams hoping to close out their regular seasons with much-needed "W"s on senior day.

Who needs their win over Holy Cross more? Probably the women's team - who possibly can escape the possibility of playing powerhouses Bucknell or Army if they win Saturday at 7:00PM. The Lady Hawks could finish anywhere from 5th to 8th depending on the results from Saturday. Conversely, the men's team has third place locked up and will host a first-round playoff game even if they lose on Sunday at 1:00PM (by virtue of their regular-season sweep over American, the 4th-placed team).

But riding a three-game losing streak is NOT the way to enter Patriot League tournament play, which is what both our basketball teams face going into this weekend. The way both teams played their past two clangers, both teams are going to need to turn things around immediately on Senior Day in order to have a shot.

And with the task at hand, it's the men's team which has the most to prove and the most to put behind them. Sure, a "glass half-full" person might say that the double-OT loss to Lafayette and the Bucknell loss were close games. But look more closely. Shooting 33% against a bad Leopard squad that doesn't have near the amount of talent that this Mountain Hawk team boasts. Getting schooled in the art of screening by Bucknell on Wednesday night - although we cut the lead to two at one point, Marquis Hall disappeared against the Bison exactly the same way he did at Sojka. This way of losing stinks - and no way do we want to stink this bad going into the tournament. Folks will see Lehigh as a beatable team, and with regular-season losses to Army, Navy, and Lafayette, so who could blame folks for believing that?

Add to this that Holy Cross will have everything to play for on Sunday. Tied with Bucknell, a Bucknell win and a Holy Cross loss could lose the Crusaders valuable home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Gs Keith Simmons and Torey Thomas will do their best to wreck Olivero's, Mgebroff's and Neptune's "Senior Day". Here's hoping that our last link to the championship season of three years ago doesn't go out with a clank.

The women's "Senior Day" also boasts two starting players in G Sara Ellis and F Adrienne Blount. They will be difficult to replace on this year's disappointing Lady Hawk squad - though the beauty of the postseason tournament is that a good run there can erase a disappointing season in a hurry. But beating the Crusaders (12-16, 7-6) would not only send the seniors off in the right way, it could right the ship in time for the tournament.

All the games will be at Stabler Arena, on Saturday at 7:00PM for the women and 1:00PM Sunday for the men. In addition, on Sunday it's "Kid's Day" at Stabler where members of the Mountain Hawks' Kid's Club (whose esteemed members include my son) get to lunch and spend some quality time with the Lehigh Mountain Hawk before watching the Lehigh game. I'll be there as well (weather permitting) seeing if Lehigh can possibly turn this thing around.

If you can't make it to Stabler, the games are also broadcast on lehighsports.com.

Go Lehigh!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The New Realities: Part I

With every single one of Lehigh's winter sports teams laying a humongous egg this weekend, and with the reality of Lehigh's recruiting class now fully digested by all you Lehigh football fans out there, it's time to delve into one of the favorite offseason topics: the state of Patriot League football, the types of football recruits we can get, and what steps to take, if any, to move forward.

It's a complicated subject, to put it mildly. That's why I'm subdividing this into a "series" of blog postings to go over the state of the league. Part I will introduce about the Patriot League recruiting and compare it against the Ivy League in particular, Part II will consider football recruiting against full-scholarship and partial-scholarship FBS and FCS schools, and Part III will consider where to go from here.

Who Are We, Really?
The Patriot League is a Division I sports league that competes in Football Championship Series (FCS, formerly known as I-AA) and Division I in all other sports. Our men's and women's basketball teams have the opportunity to play in "March Madness"; our wrestling team competes in the EIWA and NCAA Championships; and so on. We are Division I, and we target athletes that can compete in Division I championships in every sport - including football, where our subdivision has the highest level of true NCAA-sanctioned football championship.

When the Patriot League was born in 1986, it was founded on the principle of admitting athletes that were representative of the high standards of academics in their class. This principle was similar to the way the Ivy League does not offer aid to athletes solely based on their athletic ability (although their athletic ability does come into play when determining their admission). To this end, the Patriot League instituted a policy of only granting need-based aid to their athletics teams. When the Patriot League ultimately went from a football-only league in 1986 to an all-sports league in 1990, this applied to all sports (with some notable exceptions; for example, Lehigh's nationally-ranked wrestling program).

This had a sudden impact in two high-visibility sports: football and men's basketball. Holy Cross, who in the late 1980s had a very successful regional football program, saw their team deteriorate to a cellar-dwelling status in a short four year span. Worse was the impact on Patriot League basketball, who saw their teams go from teams who could give Temple a run for their money in the NCAA tournament to teams that were near-guaranteed "easy wins" for some lucky higher seed. The basketball situation got so bad that Fordham, at one time an all-sports member with a storied men's basketball program, decided to join the Atlantic 10 in all sports except football.

Faced with the prospect of losing more schools (and possibly even their bid to the NCAA tournament), the Patriot League allowed schools to pursue basketball scholarships on a voluntary basis. Slowly but surely, all the member schools have chosen to offer scholarships in men's basketball, with Lafayette, the final holdout, finally allowing them last year. Has it helped? In 2005 and 2006, Bucknell got out of the first round of the NCAA tournament in consecutive years and had a national-ranking at one point. Now, the Patriot League is seen nationally as a basketball league on the rise, eclipsing older regional leagues like the MAAC.

But It Shouldn't Impact Football, Should It?
You'd think scholarships in other sports wouldn't affect anything in terms of football - the only remaining holdout in terms of the original Patriot League aid model, which has more or less remained the same since 1986. But, oddly enough, it does.

Before I talk about the Patriot League, it's instructive here to introduce the Ivy League's model of determining athletic aid, since it is similar in certain ways.

Ivy League schools are not allowed to recruit simply due to athletic ability; they need a certain minimum academic level to qualify for their institution. That's why in 1984 the Ivy league came up with an Academic Index, or AI, to identify athletes that should be allowed for admittance. The AI formula is not something I can reveal here, and it varies from school to school based on complicated formulas and "A.I Bands". (A very good discussion on this whole topic can be found in the book "Playing the Game" by Chris Lincoln.) But you could say that the Ivy League's AI is based (loosely) on GPA, class rank, SAT or other testing scores, and relative "academic" weight in their class.

The Ivy league has an (I believe) unwritten agreement that below a certain "AI floor" an Ivy League school cannot accept that athlete. In 2003 the Ivy League's AI floor actually rose by two points, theoretically reducing the number of athletes available for Ivies to recruit. But AI games are much more complicated than that. Quoting "Playing the Game" in the case of Dartmouth in 1996 is especially instructive.

Before 1996, Dartmouth had a certain AI number and certain AI bands in which they could work. But in 1996, their AI number rose significantly, bringing down dramatically the number of players they could recruit in their lowest bands. Before, they could get eight kids with a 3.2 GPA who could throw the football 70 yards across their body. Now, suddenly, they can only get two of those athletes - now, they needed to get the same kid with a 3.9 and is in the top 2% of his class. Their potential pool of recruits dropped dramatically.

As a result, Dartmouth's football team paid an almost immediate price. In 1996 and 1997, the Big Green went 10-0 and 8-2. Since then, they have only hit .500 once.

Back to the Patriot
The Patriot League uses a different AI formula than the Ivy League, but it is similar enough to Dartmouth to speculate that this could be what's happening to the league. The academic qualifications are going up dramatically. Lehigh, for example, was quoted on Chris Matthews Hardball as one of the most selective schools in the country at the moment, becoming much more selective than even five years ago. Like Dartmouth, as the overall academic qualifications go up, the talent pool shifts dramatically, shrinking the already small recruiting pool even further.

Ironically, it could be the offering of full athletic scholarships in other sports which is affecting the AI for football. Bucknell performed a study a few years ago that stated that when they offered scholarships in basketball, the overall academic level of their basketball recruits went up, not down, since they had a larger pool of kids to select. As the overall academic level of all athletes across the board goes up, the AI goes up across the board - and shrinks the number of football students in the pool.

Another ironic point is that since all the Patriot League teams across the board are so selective, the AI floor of the Patriot League is now above the (presumed) floor of the Ivy League. To me, this is indicative of the selectivity of the Patriot League, but in practice, I don't think it makes a big difference in recruits for the Harvard/Yale/Princeton's of the world which would not look for recruits at that level anyway. It could, however, make the Patriot League lose more recruits to the schools that mine that level of the AI floor for recruits such as Brown or Cornell. (I refer you to "Playing the Game" in case you don't believe me on that one.)

Coach Tavani's Outburst
One of the reasons why this is becoming such a hot topic around the message board community is the fact that Lafayette coach Frank Tavani recently was quoted in the Morning Call in regards to the AI and scholarships. His observations seem to be similar to what I've been able to discover:

''It's more difficult for us because we aren't cloaked in that magical Ivy League aura and reputation,'' Tavani said. ''We're not much below that, but we're fighting for the same athletes they and the service academies are and it's highly competitive. Quite frankly, there aren't that many players of this caliber that carry those kinds of credentials and academic standards. …

''In the end, because the pool has gotten smaller because of the increased standards, we are diluting the talent level of the league. Now, when you say that, someone is going to split their pants. But it's the truth.''

Tavani offers three possible scenarios.

''You either have to go merit aid and cut down on the size of the squads, or you have to lower your standards, or your Step 3 is keep it the same and watch the level of play diminish,'' he said. ''There are no other answers. I've said that privately many times and I don't mind saying it in public.''

Now, I do not totally agree with his statements. For example, one of the solutions that coach Tavani doesn't mention is to go further and further afield for better athletes (which, it seems schools like Lehigh and Fordham, for example, are doing). And (very importantly) just because we've struggled in non-league games for one season, that doesn't immediately mean we're now a league on the decline - it could just be cyclical, and next year Lehigh and Lafayette could both be 10-0 going into "The Rivalry". But on the front lines of the recruiting wars, coach Tavani is seeing the number of quality players diminish and he has to work harder to get recruits, and I can understand that.

Next week, I'll go more into detail about the new landscape as it relates to partial and full scholarship FCS and FBS teams.
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