Thursday, December 03, 2009

Northeast Football: Endangered Species

Two weeks ago, the Colonial Athletic Association had twelve teams, had four of the top teams in FCS, and had the biggest conference in FCS. With Old Dominion coming in 2011 and Georgia State in 2012, the future couldn't have looked any rosier.

Now, CAA football looks like it will be two teams shorter for next year - and the long-term future of CAA football is very, very much in doubt - and makes one wonder, who's the next domino to fall?

*****

Right after the 2009 season - suddenly, and without much warning, Northeastern was the first team to bite the dust. The official release offers some clues (or excuses, if you prefer) as to why they could not sustain football:

“Our goal for athletics is to achieve sustainable excellence in all areas,” said Athletic Director Peter Roby, who made the initial recommendation, which received the strong support of the university administration, the president, and the Board of Trustees. In an open letter to the Northeastern community, Roby continued, “We do not define success merely through wins and losses. Instead, we recognize that success comes from creating a positive student-athlete experience. The primary motivation for this decision was based on the significant obstacles to providing this experience for our football players.”

...

“Northeastern has always been guided by the principle that we should focus on our opportunities for leadership,” said President Joseph Aoun. “This approach ultimately leads to difficult choices, but leadership requires that we make these choices. This decision allows us to focus on our existing athletic programs.”

To this reporter, this translates roughly to: "We can't hope to compete with James Madison, UMass and New Hampshire in football. So rather than give these kids an opportunity to win a championship, we're going to pull the plug and continue our great rivalries with George Mason, Drexel and VCU in hoops instead. Kids playing football, thanks for playing, but we just don't think you have an "opportunity for leadership." In other words, we don't think you're winners."

Reaction was swift by the league office:

"We're disappointed, but at the same time understand the study and the analysis that the university went though," said CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager. "In part, I think some of the success of our programs has made the challenges that Northeastern was facing even more daunting."

Yeager added that the economy was also a factor in Northeastern's decision. Today, athletic directors at CAA schools will consider the possibility of adding a school in the long-term, according to Yeager. Old Dominion already has a 2010 schedule in place.


The loss of Northeastern was certainly a surprise - but not something that CAA football couldn't recover from. Many of the more interesting rumors out there included Fordham leaving the Patriot League early to plug the hole in the schedule left by Northeastern. The Huskies' departure might cause a blip on the radar screen, but the long-term health of the CAA is secure.

That all changed just today.

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hofstra University is dropping its football team, citing high costs and low interest from the college community.

In a statement obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, university president Stuart Rabinowitz says "the choice was painful but clear."

He says factors include the cost of running the football program and the team's inability to generate significant interest, financial support or attendance.

The decision follows a two-year review of sports spending at Hofstra. Rabinowitz says there are no plans to cut any other sports at the Long Island school.

Interesting that he sites cost in running his football program: according to the latest EADA report, Hofstra made $4,438,500 - and cost $4,438,500. Either the EADA report is a crock of BS, or Hofstra didn't lose any money in 2008. (Northeastern's EADA report actually reports a small profit when you subtract revenues from expenses.)

As for attendance, Hofstra averaged 4,260 fans per game last year - certainly not in the realm of Delaware's attendance, but still better than area schools Fordham (3,886), Columbia (4,027) and Wagner (2,320). And nearby Stony Brook - at 4,802 fans - didn't draw that much more than the Pride. You also have to look at Hofstra's schedule this year: while James Madison, UMass, New Hampshire and Stony Brook did play at Shuart Stadium, a school that would have packed the stands - Delaware - did not.

The official release shows how much of an ass Hofstra's president is on the matter:

The Board, acting on a recommendation from Rabinowitz, voted unanimously to end the football program, effective immediately, at a meeting on Wednesday night. The decision was the culmination of a comprehensive review of all university spending to determine the best ways to build on Hofstra's successes and reach the highest level of academic excellence, nationally and internationally.

"As we continue to improve our academic programs and reputation, and plan the University's future, we have to consider the investment we make in all of the University's programs," Rabinowitz said. "The cost of the football program, now and in the future, far exceeds the return possible from an FCS program, which does not generate significant national interest. Given that, along with the low level of interest, financial support and attendance among our students, our alumni and the community, the choice was painful, but clear."

"In the long run," Rabinowitz said, "we can touch and improve the lives of more students by investing in new and enhanced academic initiatives and increasing funds for need-based scholarships."

....

"Athletics is a vital part of campus life, and we are proud of the contributions all our student-athletes make to our community," Rabinowitz said. "This was not an easy call, but for the future of the University, we believe it was the right one."

Marilyn B. Monter, chair of the Board of Trustees, said that the Board had recently concluded a two-year study of the athletic program, and she noted that nationwide, many colleges and universities are examining spending on sports. "Hofstra is not alone in taking a hard look at athletic spending, and we have a concrete plan for reinvestment in academics," Monter said. "This isn't about spending less money, it's about how we allocate our resources and invest in all of our students."

No national interest in the football program? He-LLO? Every friggin' week I write a national preview of Hofstra's games when they play other CAA members. When Hofstra beat James Madison they got a national write-up. In 1999 and 2001 they played playoff games against Lehigh - once at Shuart Stadium in Long Island, the other at Murray Goodman stadium - and had real fans there.

Rabinowitz said that the Hofstra board of trustees was only acting "on his recommendation." He also cited costs - and then announces that they're not cutting any other sports. The chair of the board of trustees added that it's not about "spending less money". Brother - if it's not about spending less money, it's about wanting to put a stake in the heart of the football program, right? The least they could have done is get the story right in the press conference - was it hatred of football, or the costs of the program?

Trying to spin this as a tradeoff for "new academic initiatives" instead of spending on football program that is 72 years old is also a huge slice of baloney. Lehigh, Bucknell and Lafayette somehow make ends meet and offer new "academic initiatives" all the time. Making it sound like it was a tradeoff between textbooks and footballs is just stupid. I've learned that it never really is.

And the hypocrisy-o-meter just jumps off the charts when you think about Hofstra's basketball program. In the case of Hofstra this year, the men's and women's basketball teams are flying to Kansas, Florida, and Texas - and that does not include league flights, or "Bracket Buster" games. When these folks tell you they're cutting football to save on athletic expenses, it is yet another lie.

I think Hofstra's president should just be honest: say he doesn't respect football, and don't think it's worthwhile for developing leadership or giving a good number of underprivileged and minority kids a chance to get a college education. That he just wanted to kill the football program because he thinks football is a brutal sport, and that football athletes are rock-heads that don't belong in higher education. That would be more honest than the song he sang today.

It's amazing to me how presidents cite the same, old, tired reasons for dropping football: expenses, lack of support, blah blah blah, sometimes with a little Title IX thrown in for balance.

When you boil down to it, though, they are all just pathetic excuses. Both Hofstra and Northeastern are big enough to support football, and could sponsor it if they wanted to - if not in a CAA that threatens to stretch from Orono, Maine to Georgia, in a Patriot League that is in a much smaller geographic area. But the truth is their presidents just didn't want football, and let it die. It didn't matter that they were in the best FCS conference there is right now: they just didn't want it. Period.

*****

For CAA football, there is now a massive problem.

When the CAA took over the former Atlantic 10 football/Yankee Conference, part of their strategy was to recruit teams to join the CAA in all-sports. I wrote about this in 2004, and excerpts of it make for interesting reading today:

If you parse through the reports of the news conference, you hear the same type of reasoning that the ACC used a year ago in pursuing Boston College: CAA Commissioner Tom Yaeger: "It was an evaluation not only of today but more importantly where the institution aspires to be in the next decade. This evaluation brought us to Boston and to Northeastern." Northeastern AD John O'Brien: "[the move is] an opportunity for us to make a statement that we want to expand beyond our traditional Northeastern geographical footprint."

The other less publicised, yet very important, reason for this move, was that of the CAA's 12 members, it gives the CAA 6 FCS football-playing members. As John Connoly from the Boston Herald opined, "Both the CAA and NU hope the new marriage will eventually include Division 1-AA football." Indeed, quoting CAA commissioner Yaeger: "While we don’t have any set plans, we have opened ourselves to the advent of football".

...

Like one [FCS] columnist told me, "It has everything to do with image, and nothing to do with logic." And Lehigh Football Nation agrees - it's hard to see why N'Eastern would align itself with a conference whose members are for the most part a 6 hour or more drive away. In the case of Boston College, it's easy to see that it's a monetary decision. But is N'Eastern going to reap any sort of financial windfall?

Only if the CAA, sooner or later, becomes a money-making FBS mid-major football conference. Experts are divided as to whether this is the ultimate goal of the CAA. One expert says yes: "It makes sense for a league anchored by Delaware and burgeoning power JMU. It makes even more sense if the NCAA Division I Board of Directors continues to appease the non-BCS [members]." But another disagrees: "Northeastern and Hofstra have no shot to bring the necessary fan base or resources to the FBS table."
How true this all was. Northeastern didn't get a financial windfall, and not only did they not bring the fan base for FBS football, both schools now claim that they didn't even have enough for FCS football either.

But equally as important was the fact, pointed out above, that Northeastern was recruited in order to secure CAA football with all the original members of A-10 football - something that, in 2004, was not a done deal. With Northeastern and Hofstra in the fold, and no good alternatives, the rest of what became CAA North: UMass, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine - concluded that it would be easier to stay with Hofstra and Northeastern with the existing league rather than break apart and form a new, autobid-less league.

After these announcement, the CAA North now consists of those four affiliate members - and no full members. They are not likely to be happy with having to replace a bus trip to Hofstra or Northeastern with a plane trip to Virginia or Georgia every year. The reasoning for all four staying in the CAA becomes less and less clear, especially past 2011.

What may makes a lot more sense to them is to try to convince Albany and Stony Brook - and maybe Fordham, too - to join a new Yankee Conference, or possibly have it sponsored by the Atlantic 10 Conference or America East Conference. Without a full-sport CAA school to sponsor a CAA North - or any CAA "rivals" east of the Delaware River - what's holding them there anyway?

And that doesn't include the possibility that other CAA football programs might fold before all is said and done. Rhode Island, long suspected to be a program that has lagged behind in spending, is a possible candidate. Even powerful New Hampshire and Maine - both historic programs - might be candidates as well since spending on higher education has been slashed in both states.

Could be the beginning of the bust-up of the CAA? It very well might.

*****

As for the Patriot League, it's hard to find positives in any of this.

Two schools that were prime candidates for any sort of Patriot League expansion - Hofstra and Northeastern, both private schools with good academic profiles - opted to discontinue their football programs rather than even consider the Patriot League.

And a CAA bust up - with up to four stranded members of CAA North possibly looking for a new conference - could be looking at a 60 scholarship Fordham team that is one step in the Patriot League, and one step out. Add to that some are in the Atlantic 10 in all other sports, and this could become an even easier decision if a new league were sponsored by the A-10.

If the Patriot League goes to six members, they will likely hold onto its autobid to the playoffs. But where will they find other members for expansion - and at six members, there is no room for error? Aside from VMI (Big South), Monmouth (NEC) or Bryant (NEC), it's hard to find good options that are private schools.

Marist (Pioneer Football League) looked like a good candidate at one time, but it looks like that ship has sailed. (Scary quote: "We may never know the real reason for sure. But the one thing that is for sure is that if the League is waiting around for 'someone better', it's not at all clear that it's going to happen in our lifetimes.")

Start-ups could be an option, at, say NJIT or Loyola (MD). But NJIT's academic profile is nowhere near Patriot League level, and while there's been speculation about football at Loyola, there's nothing concrete yet about them leaving the MAAC or starting up football.

As for D-III start-ups like RPI or Johns Hopkins, there is a moratorium on move-ups to Division I and these schools couldn't become full members until 2015 at least.

In sum, the Patriot League is not positioned well for these seismic events of the past two weeks. I'm hoping the dominoes fall in such a way that the Patriot League is preserved and strengthened. But if I was worried last Sunday, I'm really worried now.

My biggest question : are there any Patriot League schools that might be down the path of dominoes started by Northeastern and Hofstra? Is football in the Northeast dying?

10 comments:

Douglas said...

Really a shame.. They had a decent team in the 90's but I am frankly not too surprised.. The New York area cares about Pro Football and even big time college football plays second fiddle.. There is also another factor on Long Island that probably hurts their college programs is that high school games are played on Saturday afternoon not Friday nights.. Local football fans or players who might otherwise support Hofstra football would go to their local high school game instead... But even with some night games, the area as a whole didn't care.... And with some many commuter students and even boarding students who are from local areas, I would guess the campus cleared out often on weekends...

Where does that leave Lehigh and the Patriot League??? I still don't know how they can make the extra merit scholarships work for football... It would require endowment I guess similar to what the small private southern schools get along with making money trips to bigger schools for the dough.... Maybe playing those FBS type schools again like we used to??? they were fun even though Lehigh usually lost... I look at 1983's schedule.. Navy, Army (a win), UConn(win)... not sure how we competed back then but I guess the tuition gap wasn't as wide as it is now...

Mark said...

How about adding Liberty University to the CAA. They have been Big South champs three years in a row and have played well against CAA members James Madison and William and Mary, and compete well, at West Virginia losing 33-20. They avereaged 14,000 over the past three years and are expanding their stadium to 30,000 this year.

Anonymous said...

The patriot league should allow all schools a certain number of athletic scholarships (20) along with need based scholarships. This would allow schools to make their own decisions and still be very competitive. A perfect schoolfor the Patriot would be Villanova. This would cut their cost and keep them competitive so they could still play the Temples and Delawares and give them access to the Ivy's. The league should also insist that Army and Navy each play a team from the league each year. Where would their other sports teams go without the Patriot League.

Anonymous said...

Holy Cross is all over Northeastern and Hofstra players. Think Lehigh is? Hahahaha

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Anonymous said...

Our Pres and Coen are working together so the Admin can pull a Hofstra!

Fire Coen now!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
Our Pres and Coen are working together so the Admin can pull a Hofstra!

Fire Coen now!


Amen!

Unfortunately, the people making decisions base them on- "We won four of our last seven games..." and "We beat Lafayette two straight seasons..." Pitiful!

The only numbers that count are 6, 4, 4...the total wins each season. Points per game are also shrinking, not to mention home attendance.

Anonymous said...

Both Hofstra and No'estern lack the endowment of several of the private PL schools. And, they just solved their Title IX concerns.

Dropping FB is probably a smart move on their part - certainly for No'astern. Rhode Island may be next.

G'town will eventually give up when they decide they cannot compete in the PL, even with no schol's allowed. Then what, Carolyn and PL Presidents?

I've already said my piece about Coen. LU didn't listen. Mediocrity is good enough - margin of loss will be the measuring stick for success next year. As long as we stay within a touchdown of everybody, a 3-8 season will be cause for rehiring (especially if Lafayette is one of the 3).

Just think - the Class of 2011 has the chance to be only the second LU class in 40 years to never see a winning-record football team.

Anonymous said...

I have two questions. I invite responses:

What process could the NCAA follow to strip the PL of its automatic invite if we keep losing the opening round playoff game? Similar problem for the MEAC.

Does anybody know whether Alice Gast personally interceded to keep Coen? I hear rumors, but have no concrete facts.

Thanks to everyone for keeping this blogsite informative.

Anonymous said...

anon said:

"Just think - the Class of 2011 has the chance to be only the second LU class in 40 years to never see a winning-record football team."

Yep. Right on brother. I see this the way you do. I don't want to see a man lose his job but someone above Andy needs to spell things out for him. A winning record must be achieved in 2010 or it's goodby Andy. This is a bottom-line business, is it not?