Lacrosse is still (to me) a niche sport, but it has grown in leaps and bounds in popularity in the last decade on both the men's and women's sides. Until recently, most of the elite teams in the lacrosse world competed as independents in order to allow them the flexibility to make their own world-class schedules (read: this allowed them to play perennial Ivy League power Princeton and academic powerhouse Duke, among others). Notable Lax independents included Syracuse, Georgetown, and D-III Johns Hopkins (who had an exception to be D-III in all other sports, but D-I in Lacrosse).
The Patriot League couldn't have been better poised to have been a Lax powerhouse as the sport went from niche status to the big-time. In 1991, six of the Patriot League all-sports members (Army, Lafayette, Bucknell, Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Colgate) formed an official league under the Patriot League banner, with the women soon to join them in 1995.
The league continued to grow, first getting an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, and then securing D-III Hobart to be in the Patriot League as an affiliate member. It was a brilliant coup, taking advantage of a new rule that meant that D-I schools could no longer travel to D-III schools like Hobart for lacrosse. Stuck, Hobart had to provisionally reclassify to D-I, and the Patriot League was there to welcome them to the fold.
The Statesmen, a perennial nationally-ranked independent program, gave instant recognition to the League in this sport at a good time. From 2000-2003, they took the automatic bid for the league twice, but more importantly gave the league standing nationally.
Until, of course, the Patriot League itself stepped in.
The league decided recently to adopt a plan that excludes all associate members in sports other than football. Hobart is a lacrosse-only participant.
"The decision was based on an effort to streamline and be more efficient with our scheduling," said Tom Byrnes, the league's assistant executive director for media relations. "The long-term focus is on the eight full members."
The Patriot League, who by 2003 had already secured bringing Navy back into the fold in 2004, had a golden opportunity to be a true destination for a burgeoning spring sport, with not only an all-sports member in Navy but with a nationally-respected associate team in Hobart. 2004 by any measure was the zenith of Patriot League lacrosse, with Hobart and Navy challenging for the title and three appearances in the 16-team playoff field. Fittingly, Navy made it all the way to the finals.
Yet the decision basically forced Hobart into the arms of the powerful ECAC, weakening the league immeasurably. Not only that, the way the severance happened made it unlikely that Hobart will ever choose to join the Patriot League ever again. It's extremely rare for a school in any sport to be forcibly evicted from the conference, and the fact that they joined the "powerful" ECAC means they won't be "stepping down" anytime soon.
Men's Lax in the Patriot League is still pretty healthy with Colgate and Navy making the 16 team bracket this week (Colgate's shock upset of #2 Syracuse sure helped). You can't help but think, though, with a little vision and foresight what might have been.
Hobart, Navy, Colgate and Army, along with Lafayette, Lehigh, Holy Cross, and Bucknell? Maybe, then, it's possible to lure a Georgetown, Villanova or a Johns Hopkins into the fold? And maybe, just maybe, you ultimately lure one or more of those schools into the league in all sports?
What's currently a "pretty-good" men's Lax conference could have been a great conference. Furthermore, all of those schools are perfect academic fits for the Patriot League in more sports than just lacrosse.
The point of the foray into the Lacrosse world is: sports could have been used to increase the academic ties with those schools - which has no downside. And the upside could have meant the rise of an even better national academic conference that could be rival the Ivy League in terms of academic and athletic stature.
Instead, though, the "rules" (in this case) were designed to shut people out - with the "purpose" of somehow protecting the purity of its all-sports members.
The same situation exists today in terms of of the landscape football.
The Colonial Athletic Association's football conference right now is big. Too big, as a matter of fact, with twelve teams set to expand to 13 in 2011 and maybe even 14 teams. It's unprecedented that the CAA is on track to be a 14 team conference in a playoff league that doesn't have a conference championship. Potential scheduling issues have been acknowledged by the CAA commissioner - some unlucky athletes could go their entire four years without playing Delaware once, even though they're in the same league!
There are compelling reasons for some of the private schools in the CAA - Northeastern, Villanova, Richmond - to not want to compete in the state-school dominated CAA in football (and, although it's technically a public school, it's status as a "Southern Ivy" means that William & Mary probably also falls in this category, too).
But all of these schools not only value their football programs, and they have proven time and again that their fans will never accept the perception that they are de-emphasizing football. Both Richmond and William & Mary fans refused to join the Patriot League in the past after it was seen as a way to cut costs in football by in effect removing athletic scholarships. Outspoken Villanova head football coach Andy Talley has also been vocal in his opposition to joining the Patriot League.
Speaking of Villanova, there is another league that is rumored to be potentially splitting along FBS football and basketball lines: the Big East. With sixteen teams, and eight sponsoring Big East football in the FBS (Louisville, UConn, Syracuse, West Virginia, Pitt, Cincinnati, South Florida, and Rutgers), the remaining teams (Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Notre Dame (an FBS independent, obviously), Marquette, Seton Hall, Providence, and DePaul) could be looking to join other conferences in sports other than basketball. Maybe these eight could be a basketball-only conference - but then these teams would need to find a conference in other sports.
Georgetown, who already has Patriot League football, would be a fantastic get. With Navy as a built-in rival and impeccable academic credentials, their presence in all sports would be a coup, bolstering lacrosse and other sports across the board. And Villanova is another. If we had the Wildcats in all sports except basketball, wouldn't they also have to say, "Well, why not join in football as well?"
Having both as "all sports except basketball" would be exactly the sort of visionary, outside-the-box thinking that would help expand the League, increase the profile athletically - and ALSO help it academically as well. You can't tell me adding any of the schools mentioned wouldn't help the profile of the League in any way. Academically, all are great institutions. Athletically, all have powerful Division I sports programs that non only would bolster football immensely, but a swathe of other sports as well.
But almost every single one of these scenarios don't happen without at least some form of limited scholarships in football for the Patriot League. Nobody will accept a perceived downgrade in football. Only a lateral move competitively will be able to be sold to an athletic program along with the academic benefits.
The academic sale is a powerful one for private colleges and universities. The only way an athletic department will go along with the sale is with verbal and demonstrated commitment to winning championships. Not simply being competitive, not "we'll be pretty good" - winning championships. No school will jump to a league where it is perceived that they won't have the tools to compete for championships.
What's needed is some vision of what the Patriot League will be in the future.
Academically, the Patriot League is already defined in books like The Last Amateurs. It's on the athletic side where the Patriot League needs definition. What are we? What sort of league will be be in 2018?
What we need is something like this:
"Patriot League athletics defines the student athlete that wants to win Division I championships and excel in the classroom and in life. Patriot League schools are seeking out the best. The best leaders of tomorrow. The best in their academic disciplines. The hardest workers. The toughest competitors. And people who want to be the best in sports and in the classroom."
It doesn't need to be all about athletics. The Patriot League wants students that can excel both in the classroom and on the field. The reality is that everyone who undertakes athletics in the Patriot League believes they can win a national championship. (I know that's true of the football teams.) They're not interested in compromising on academics - they feel like they can win national championships with students that do well in the classroom. They are all these things - tough, hard workers, who want to be the best in sports and in everything they do.
But the stigma that needs to be excised is that Patriot League teams don't care about championships. Until the Patriot League presidents articulate that they care about competing for NCAA championships - without compromising on academics, of course - there will always be that hesitation for an interested school in joining the Patriot league "club". A harder sell to fans.
I hate to sound like a broken record on this, but even limited scholarships in football with an academic index - putting them in line with all other sports in the Patriot League, by the way - would be a great way to demonstrate that commitment. These Amateurs will still need to excel academically - but if they're good enough and can qualify academically, they have to opportunity to have their college paid for.
The opportunities for this to happen are out there. The only question is, yet again, if the Patriot League will be bold enough to make it happen.