Thursday, June 21, 2007

Non-Scholarship Direction - What Does It Mean?

No, seriously, could anyone really blame the Dayton Flyer for looking this smug?

After all, as was reported by me on College Sporting News, Dayton's Pioneer Football League (or PFL for short) is now the one-stop shop for non-scholarship football. Their commissioner, Ms. Patty Viverito, has gladly taken the leadership for Division I non-scholarship football coast-to-coast, and has shown more than half a dozen other Division I schools (that don't currently have football) the benefits of playing at that level.

Here in the East, the message is clear for those schools in the MAAC who in 2008 have found themselves without a conference (Marist, Iona, and LaSalle): Step up to our vision of non-scholarship football, be willing to travel, and compete to win, and we'd be happy to have you.

From my perspective, it looks to me like none of the three programs are planning to drop football altogether. LaSalle has just finished $2.5 million in football stadium improvements, and Marist has also made big structural investments in football as well. For its part, Iona also remains committed to football as well. “We’re now looking to see what our other league options are,” said Patrick Lyons, Iona’s Athletic director. “Iona is committed to football and we are hopeful we will find a good situation for our team.”

There are some other interesting sidelights to this meeting, involving the interest of Lipscomb and Campbell in non-scholarship football (which would mean that along with Gardner-Webb and Jacksonville, four schools in the east-coast based Atlantic Sun conference would sponsor football). That could mean Marist, Iona, LaSalle or all three could join that conference as associates and make a new pole of East Coast non-scholarship football (and include Davidson, based on South Carolina, in that mix as well).

But what might Iona, LaSalle, or Marist do? Since Marist in the past has talked about moving to the Patriot League, it is very interesting to analyze what could happen here.

LaSalle: Options Galore
Of the three, LaSalle has the most options since they are a member of the Atlantic 10 in all sports except football. They would be an easy plug-in to any conference. The only catch is that their recent history has involved deep cost-containment for football, including playing up to 3 sub-Division I opponents a year. Are they even willing to move to a PFL or new Atlantic Sun conference and the travel costs it would involve? Would they be willing to spend money on grants (the Patriot League's form of aid) or partial scholarships (the Northeast Conference, or NEC's form of aid)?

LaSalle also shows the dilemna of the new realities for non-scholarship football. Do you spend the money on scholarships (NEC) or grants (Patriot), and play locally? Or do you spend no money on scholarships and instead make two or three plane trips a year (PFL/Atlantic Sun)?

Prediction: They convince St. Bonaventure to restore non-scholarship football, giving them a A-10 travel partner in a new PFL/Atlantic Sun league.

Iona: The Lone MAAC Holdout
What does Iona do? They've seen every other all-sports member (save Marist) abandon their football program due to costs of operation. Their biggest "rival" Duquesne has jumped to the NEC. They've been a willing and able team to fill out FCS schedules, not shying away from playing FCS powerhouses like New Hampshire. And they seem through official statements to be committed to football.

What is their feeling on being in the MAAC conference? In men's basketball, Iona/Manhattan is probably the Gaels' biggest rivalry. But might they want to make a go at joining the Patriot League in all sports - ideally dragging Manhatan with them? Although it seems strange to have football drive an all-sports decision for them, the Patriot League would love to have more members, and an Iona/Manhattan combination could be killer for the Patriot League.

If they like being in the MAAC in all other sports, that would seem to point to an affiliate membership. But do they tie their wagon to the fate of LaSalle and/or Marist in this new league? Nether are what one might call a local rival, and it clearly is nothing like their local rivalries in other sports in the MAAC. And does the Atlantic Sun or PFL really give them many local options? It's hard to imagine a Davidson/Iona-style rivalry.

That would leave the NEC. Yet that isn't an ideal option either - are they willing to play ball on limited scholarships, necessitating more spending on football?

Prediction: Iona stays in the MAAC, and joins Duquesne in the NEC in football starting in 2008.

Marist: Patriot In Waiting?
I'll admit it: I've speculated here and elsewhere that Marist would be interested in possibly joining the Patriot League in the future. They've scheduled four Patriot schools last year and this year; they've recently upgraded their football facilities; they actually scheduled Columbia this year as well (following the Patriot/Ivy tradition of scheduling); and (like Duquesne but unlike other MAAC schools) they have scheduled 9-10 Division I opponents a year for at least the past six years. Like Duquesne, they seem to be ready to spend a little more and join another conference.

But are they? Are they happy in the MAAC in all other sports, and are content to be an affiliate only in football? Are they happy with their spending levels in football and other athletics, and wouldn't be willing to spend a penny more? Either situation could diminish their value in Patriot League eyes. To me it's always not been an issue about whether Marist is interested; it's whether the Patriot League is interested in accepting them into the league.

Might non-scholarship make more sense for them? The same issues are there if they go that route: no real regional rivals, dependency on two affiliate programs, more money on travel. But it could still be more of a cost-containment move than the Patriot League, where they could spend $2 million or more per year on grants.

Where do they go from here?

Prediction: The Red Foxes join the Patriot League in all sports, and probably drag another MAAC school with them to make ten basketball schools.

One thing is for sure: it's going to be a damned interesting few months on this front.
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