Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In the End, Fordham Is a Patriot League Brother

In a weird sort of way, it's like a Twilight Zone episode for followers of the Patriot League.

Fordham has laid down the gauntlet, threatening to leave the Patriot League in football and become an FCS independent starting with the 2010 season - or not. There's a fierce internal debate on the matter - or there isn't. The Patriot League athletic directors are planning to say "bye" to Fordham - or not. There's a decisive up-or-down vote on the matter tomorrow - or there isn't.

Welcome to the world of Patriot League football - where the discussions are behind closed doors and the fans that live and die by the crumbs of information thrown on the internet message boards are busy tearing each other apart.

It's incredibly odd. It seems like something out of the Marx Brother's classic movie Horse Feathers.

Why? Because aside from one secondhand comment by Fordham's head football coach and one specific comment from the Patriot League offices, there's nothing - no opinions mentioned in public, no reports mentioned offhand to the Utica Observer-Dispatch or the Easton Express-Times, nothing.

Let's put it this way: if the only way you got your news was through the newspapers, you'd have no idea that the elimination of merit aid in football may be being put up for a vote tomorrow.

The best sources you'd have are David Coulson's article on the matter from the Sports Network "Fordham Pushes The Issue of Scholarship Football in the Patriot League":

Those aspirations of renewal were on display again on Tuesday night when Masella told a group of supporters at a "meet the recruits" gathering that Fordham intends to offer full athletic scholarships in football as early as the next recruiting year.

Masella went on to say that the Rams would be willing to play the 2010 season as an independent and would seek a new conference affiliation in 2011 if the Patriot League remains unwilling to tackle the scholarship issue.

Masella and Fordham athletic director Frank McLaughlin were unavailable this week to discuss the Rams' aspirations further, but Masella's comments sparked a flurry of discussion on message boards throughout the Patriot League and even nationally.

And I weighed in with "All the (Patriot League) President's Men" on the College Sporting News, too:

The only piece of information that was clear was that talks are going on – at high levels – about the possibility of football scholarships.

“Discussions about football merit aid are tied to ongoing discussions about football membership as well as full member interests,” a representative from the league office told me. “The league is taking a long-term view and strategic approach to any potential future growth and the direction of the league.”

If there were a vote on football scholarships or league membership, these discussions would be “voted upon by the full member presidents,” they said. “If the issue is specific to football, then the seven football members would be entitled to vote.”

That's it. And without any press - or any framing of the debate of elimination of need-based aid in any print media - the message boards have thrust into the void to hash it out.

The hottest unconfirmed rumor? That Fordham is gone:

While in some down time out here, I had the chance to talk to some people who are closer to the athletic situation at Lehigh and the Patriot League than I, and who don't see the League changing it's stance on athletic grants in aid as opposed to pure scholarships.

The reason is what would be anticipated as opening the gates to an 'arms race' that the schools do not want to engage in--especially in the current economic situation. While theoretically, no additional money would be sought, tremendous pressure would arise to spend more to 'keep up' with others with 'cut throat' spending occuring. Under the current situation, with all member schools following the need-based formula for issuing grants in aid, everyone has to play by the same rules on extending financial aid. Take away that restriction and those schools that can will be freer to undercut competitors with lesser resources.

Therefore, the expressed attitude was 'Good Luck Rams--a couple years from now you'll be sorry and Masella will be gone'. I expect the PL will ratchet up their seeking a replacement for Fordham for the 2010 season.

To this lengthy thread, I added:

The talk of costs is real. Fordham, of course, is at 58 equivalencies now, so for the Rams changing to scholarships is one of mere accounting and increasing the number of athletes you can offer without going through the athletic aid office. But for other schools in the league it's not that simple since they're not at 58 scholarships now. Yes, all the schools could simply choose to fund their current equivalency numbers as scholarships. But the question becomes one of competitiveness: would it start an arms race that would force the teams not at 58 to fund more scholarships in order to stay competitive?

Fordham faces no additional costs associated with this shift. But other schools will in some way or another need to add more expenses in order to stay competitive (through more scholarships, whether rising from 20 or 50 to a number that's closer to 58). And that's where Title IX comes in - any increase will also involve an associated rise in women's scholarships. And that's an awfully challenging argument to make when the PL is taking moves to cut costs in all other sports.

...

Fordham wants it one way when it is in terms of intra-divisional play ("give us scholarships, and we can compete with Delaware and Villanova") but seems to ignore the inter-divisional play ("how can Georgetown compete with Fordham with 20 scholarships when they have 58").

...

Just saying "f*** you, ratchet up your spending or we're gone, trust us, it's great for the league" isn't a strategy for staying.

...

Either the scholarships are going to help immensely with competitiveness vs. (say) Hofstra - but if that's the case, then it should "hurt" PL schools who choose to fund less than 58 scholarships.


And the response from a highly-respected Fordham fan:

You keep referring to it as a 'need' when it's not. These are two completely separate issues. Moving to scholarships ... and increasing your [monetary] commitment to the program.

...

Further, there you go again with the ratchet up your spending line and it's bs. You can't argue against this move based on principle or cost - it's all just a smoke screen - yet there it is again and again. Further you keep stating things as fact like we're going to spend more ... or we're moving to 63 scholarships ... when it's not true.

...

It's NOT money and it's NOT principle. What seems most likely to me (but is still just a guess) is the worry over how this might effect the relationship with the Ivies and, despite our story that we were promised a link between scholarships & AI, the fact that an affiliate is the one pushing this has ticked people off. The question is - what other alternative did we have if we were not prepared to go yet another year without scholarships but under the yoke of the league-wide AI? You call it "f*** you, we're leaving' but I call it a simple statement that we're moving ahead as promised and hope we still have a home where we like it in the PL.

It's a very, very constructive debate. A very good debate - with many points of view offered, from the other conference members salivating at the prospect of a Fordham possibly becoming available to the views from schools like Lafayette, Colgate and Georgetown.

But it shows the edge that's developed in this debate - not so much about the abolition of need-based aid, which has basically unanimous support (myself included) with the Patriot League fan community and elsewhere, but about how Fordham went about it - putting their Patriot League membership on the line, delivering an ultimatum to the rest of the league and putting the Patriot League in a potentially bad position.

It's the type of heated argument that could only come between brothers.

Because Fordham is really that - a Patriot League brother. One that shares the values of academic and athletic excellence that the Patriot League embodies. They were there at the beginning, and even when they had differences over basketball aid and left the leage in almost all sports in the 1990s - they remained in football. They kept the league together - allowing us to ultimately get an autobid to the playoff in the process - when they didn't have to.

Brothers do that sort of thing.

Fordham has a vision for a Patriot League with no aid restrictions on scholarships - a league which competes and wins consistently against CAA and Ivy League schools, while having an academic index to ensure football players' academics are excelsior.

It's a vision that leaves the League open to new expansion possibilities that don't currently exist with need-limited aid. It's a vision that allows Patriot League schools to schedule games against Rutgers. Penn State. Boston College.

It's a worthy vision - one that (seemingly) all Patriot League fans would take in a heartbeat.

But there are doubts - doubts about Fordham's true intentions. What do they really want? Is it only about abolishing need-limited aid, or is it somethig more than that? Do they hate the Academic Index (or AI for short)? Do they have a problem with the other principles of the league?

Are these irreconcilable differences, or something where people can come together and find consensus? I've got to believe that something can be done - give a temporary AI exemption for Fordham for a few years, while gradually ratcheting up the number of aid that isn't need based. But maybe it is irreconcilable - maybe the new AI is unworkable for Fordham, and they want to just get out of the relationship.

They are doubts that could have been put to rest with one anonymous or credited comment - but nobody picked up the ball. So the doubts remain. And going into this vote (or no-vote), the same doubts and lack of confidence remain.

So tomorrow, there will be a momentous vote on the one issue that has obsessed so many Patriot League fans for nearly a decade, with the possible ramifications of causing one - or multiple - schools to leave the League in football. It could be the breakup of a family of academic-minded institutions - or it could be the dawn of a new era in the Patriot League.

Or not. It's all so confusing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Proud of the Lady Hawks: Lehigh 49, Auburn 85

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Mingora of the Allentown Morning Call)

When I went to Storrs, Connecticut in 1997 to watch a Lehigh team go up against women's basketball royalty, I saw a 70-point blowout win that was not in doubt at any moment - and, to top it off, some UConn fan backed into my car and took out one of my headlights, making it a very dark drive home from Gampel Pavillion.

While the scoreboard in this one also didn't give the Lady Hawks their first NCAA tournament victory this Saturday, rest assured that this team was very, very different than that hopelessly overmatched one in 1997.

Michael Blouse of the Easton Express-Times said that the difference between Lehigh and Auburn was size, strength and speed, and also saw the Lehigh women's basketball team heap praise Auburn G DeWanna Bonner, calling her "by far the best player they've seen this year." Reading those articles and the Auburn reaction, you'd think that this was over after the opening tip.

But if you were there or watched the game, you'd think differently. The scoreboard read Auburn 85, Lehigh 49, but Lehigh fought hard and represented the Brown & White with honor in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

My (hopefully) entertaining live blog of the game gives more of a blow-by-blow of the game and the atmosphere in the arena, as there is another perspective as well from the Blouse's sort-of live blog as well. But in the wake of the first-round exit, three exploits on the court stood out to me.

1. In the first half, senior G Tricia Smith fell to the floor, scrambling for a loose ball that ended up getting passed out of bounds. It was the type of pure hustle play that really demonstrated the Lady Hawks' perserverance in front of future WNBA-er G DeWanna Bonner and the rest of the Auburn Tigers.

2. Freshman F Emily Gratch, in the picture, going up against Bonner and Auburn's towers under the basket, trying to draw contact and connecting with a layup. They were big and they were athletic, but Lehigh didn't back down. (Just as senior F Claire Sullivan said in the pregame press conference, as reported by Auburn Insider.)

3. Sophomore G Erica Prosser, making a fantastic move to steal the ball away and then went right up against Auburn C KeKe Carrier, drawing the foul and going to the line. Then, on the next series, she calmly drained a 3-pointer, showing that she fears nobody and that she's the type of player that a team can depend on for great things. After that exchange, Auburn head coach Nell Fortner quietly put Bonner and the starters back into the game, sensing that Lehigh had a shot to get back in this thing early in the second half.

*****

To Auburn's credit, they clamped down on Lehigh's Cinderella chances with 9:11 to play, leaving Lehigh scoreless the rest of the way. But Lehigh still had a puncher's chance to get back into it at that time, with a raucous pro-Lehigh crowd and even a Rutgers fan or two holding up brown and white “”Go Lehigh” signs.

In 1997, hope never even entered Gampel Pavillion. But midway through the second half on Saturday, hope was still in that arena. No doubt about it.

In 1997, Lehigh had a women's basketball team without athletic scholarships who - against all odds- pulled an upset, beat "that school in Easton" for the Patriot League title and autobid, and were very much just happy to be on the same court as UConn. In 2009, Lehigh has a scholarship women's basketball team that won the regular season title, put three impressive wins together in the Patriot League tournament, and never gave up against Auburn.

That's a huge change in Mountain Hawk women's basketball, thanks to the efforts of Lehigh head women's basketball coach Sue Troyan, the hard-working efforts of all the Lady Hawks, which have allowed Lehigh to dream of a return NCAA appearance next year (from Andre Williams' wrapup from the Allentown Morning Call). (Worth seeing, too, is the postgame press conference and game highlight from Lehighsports.com's wrapup of the game.)

Congratulations to the 2009 Lady Hawks. There is a Nation of Lehigh fans that are awfully proud of you.

[UPDATE: In the "Things you don't have to worry about Lehigh women's basketball players saying in press conferences" department, this from Rebecca Lobo's ESPN blog just bears repeating:

Before the SEC championship game, [Auburn G Whitney] Boddie told [Rebecca Lobo], "It's exciting to see everything coming to fruition. Fruition -- that's Nell's word. I don't really know what it means."

Like Ms. Boddie, sometimes words fail me. But I'm pretty sure that Lehigh's players all know what it means.]
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