Monday, December 22, 2008

Richmond Goes From A Near-Patriot "Downgrade" to National Championship

(Photo Credit: Alexa Welch Edlund, The Richmond Times-Dispatch)

This weekend, the Richmond Spiders came away with the 2008 Division I Football Championship. The Spiders, of the powerful Colonial Athletic Association used their powerful defense to stonewall four division champions. The first came against Eastern Kentucky of the OVC (38-10, at home), against Appalachian State of the SoCon (yes, that Appalachian State, on the road at Kidd Brewer Stadium) 33-13, and against Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley Football Conference (21-20, on the road).

The Spiders then proceeded to beat the Big Sky conference champions into submission at the site of the Division I National Championship game in Chattanooga, Tennessee 24-7 in front of a near-sold-out Finley Stadium and in front of a national ESPN2 audience.

The broadcast was an effective three-hour commercial about the University of Richmond and their academics. First year head coach and Richmond football alumnus Mike London (who took over for former Lehigh assistant coach and Fordham head football coach Dave Clawson, who just recently was announced as the new head coach at Bowling Green) was emotional at the end of the game - at what he'd done for his school, for his players, for his team, for their first national title in the 176 year history of the school.

For good measure, Richmond senior DE Lawrence Sidbury put on a clinic for defensive linemen in the game against Montana's offensive linemen - who are, quite frankly, huge 300 pound behemoths - and probably saw his draft day value go from mid-second day pick to first round pick.

The CAA undoubtedly is ecstatic. Not only do they boast the Division I National champion, they have a very real possibility of having back-to-back first round picks in the NFL draft. I have a very good feeling that Sidbury is going to make the first round as draft folks look at the tape of this game, just as they did with Flacco last year.

But for Patriot League fans, seeing Richmond win the national championship is decidely more bittersweet.

That's because Richmond, as recently as 2005, was thinking about joining the Patriot League.

The history behind this move involved the change in direction in 2006 with the Atlantic 10 (of which Richmond is a member in all sports) deciding to no longer sponsor football, and the Colonial Athletic Association taking up the reins to sponsor one of the most powerful conferences in Division I Championship Subdivision.

Rather than join the CAA as a football affiliate (which Richmond left under acrimonious circumstances to join the Atlantic 10), the Spiders put out some feelers about joining the Patriot League instead.

The then-president of Richmond was mulling the possibility in meeting, and word leaked out to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It appeared to outsiders that it would be the first step in cutting football costs and "de-emphasizing" the program. Just like at William & Mary nearly twenty years before, there was a mutiny among students and alumni who wanted no part of "downgrading" their program. Whether that was right or wrong, that was their justification for mutiny - they wanted championships, not stepping down to a league that wasn't as good as the A-10.

Three short years later, they have their championship. And the reason that happened was that they elected to join the CAA as an affiliate and devote time to getting the right head coaches, players, and emphasis on their football program. They may have gotten the same coaches and football emphasis while still going to the Patriot League, of course. But the ability to offer football scholarships instead of going through the financial aid office to determine need - that's something they wouldn't have gotten.

Academically, Richmond would be a perfect fit for the Patriot League. It's exactly the type of institution that presidents, fans, and even the executive director of the Patriot League, Carolyn Schlie Femovich, wants.

But Patriot League fans Richmond's national championship once again sets off more what if speculation - and frustration.

What if Richmond came and said that they wanted to join the league, but the Patriot League said they would have accepted - and switched to football scholarships to make it happen?

Might Villanova - a team that nearly beat James Madison in the playoffs and beat Richmond during the regular season - also have jumped aboard? (A Villanova team who, incidentally, walloped the Patriot League champion Colgate this year, 55-28, in the biggest mismatch of the playoffs this year.)

If that had happened, there's no telling what might have happened as a result of that.

But it's not too much of a stretch to think that Richmond have been the first-ever Patriot League national champion in Division I FCS football. Furthermore, the Patriot League could have had two schools making deep runs in the playoffs. Apperances on ESPN. National attention.

Instead, Patriot League fans are - once again - wondering if the league will ever decide to allow football scholarships instead of only need-based aid. But there's something else fans are wondering, too. Whether they would be celebrating their first FCS national championship had they made the decision to go to scholarships four years ago.

In other words, it's just a typical Patriot League offseason once again. But not for Richmond.
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