Once again I made the trek up to Patriot League media day to scare the living bejeezus out of the football players of all seven Patriot League teams. You can almost see the thought bubbles of the players here, looking at me as if I was twirling nunchucks or something while talking to them. But the questions I asked weren't too bad - or at least I thought so until seeing this picture from the proceedings.
(Just kidding, by the way, Fordham senior OL Robby Reis and Fordham senior DL Darzell Wright, who don't need to email and remind me they could very easily crush my head like an olive. Just a joke, Darzell and Robby. Right? ... Right? ... Guys?)
You can read my full conference report at College Sporting News, which includes exclusive quotes from the executive director of the Patriot League. In addition to the report I filed there (and the upcoming blog exclusives with junior QB J.B. Clark, senior DT B.J. Benning, and coach Coen) , I wanted to share with you, dear Reader, my impressions of Patriot League media day.
1. Coaches, Players and Media: Full Speed Ahead on Scholarships. I wasn't the only one hovering around the Fordham table at Media Day. Everyone was waiting to talk to Fordham head coach Tom Masella, and not a single coach, player, or person in that room that I met yesterday voiced a single opinion against scholarships. The consensus from everyone I talked to there was that scholarships were a good idea - and for good measure, many also said "why don't they just go ahead and do it?"
Summing up the issue very well are a pair of articles by The Morning Call's Keith Groller: one newspaper article on the subject and a follow-up blog posting:
Anyone who thinks scholarships and need-based aid are the same should tell that to a kid's family who have to decide between getting a free ride and having to pay a portion of college costs. Even a ''portion'' these days requires digging deep into the family coffers.
''Even the families who qualify for $35,000 or $40,000 in financial aid are still looking at $12,000-plus in out-of-pocket costs and that's hard on a family today,'' Tavani said. ''You can say it's still a great deal and look at the great education you're getting and it's only $12,000, but even that $12,000 can be difficult. That can lead to incurring debt and kids come out of school having to worry about paying a large amount off.''
''You're going to attract better students and better athletes,'' said Colgate coach Dick Biddle. ''It's not a matter of sacrificing anything. It'll make a program better, help your university, make it more attractive.''
While the coaches want this and want it badly, my guess is that there will be those within the administrations at these schools who will tug strongly in the other direction. The status quo is fine with them. And in the Patriot League that means academics first. And if the league champ gets clobbered in the first round of the NCAA playoffs every year, so be it.
But you hope that the league will see fit to allow scholarships and others will follow Fordham's lead. The Rams are certainly happy about what's coming.
"From our standpoint, it's right for Fordham," coach Tom Masella said. "We're going to be a better football program and it has opened doors for [FBS] games we'll have on the schedule. It's a great move... Scholarships open up a whole other pond of student-athletes we couldn't recruit or even look at. We'll get a a better football player, but more of them, and better students, too. We're looking at the big picture. We have three years to see where it goes from here. But this was a must for us to stay competitive in FCS football."
Like Keith says, it's a complicated issue - but there was no doubting the enthusiasm in the room with the students that spend time and risk injury to play the game, and the coaches that have made it their lives. They want scholarships, yesterday if possible.
2. What does Patriot League football mean? Something Ms. Femovich told me really stood out in my interview with her:
“Fordham is challenging us to think about where we’re going, Ms. Femovich said. “Not only for the next couple of years, but 10-20 years down the road. What do we want Patriot League football to look like? How do we want football to look on our campuses? What does football mean on our campuses? It’s driven by how we want to invest in our programs, what they mean to the campus culture, and how football is a place for people affiliated with the schools to come together."This is not a 10,000 foot view on league philosophy: it's a real hard-nosed question being asked of the Patriot League presidents. Think of this in terms of the Patriot League's executive director asking Lehigh's president this question, or Holy Cross', or Colgate's, or Georgetown's. What does football mean on our campus?
To Lehigh and Lafayette, the answer is obvious. Lehigh and Lafayette are at heart football schools, defined by "The Rivalry". Football clearly means a great deal to those schools, and those campuses are constantly abuzz about football (especially around November). But what does football mean on Georgetown's campus? Bucknell's campus? Holy Cross' campus? What do they want football to look like in twenty years?
Not everyone has rivlaries like Lehigh and Lafayette. But Fordham made a choice: they want football to mean something on campus. They want to play Army, Rutgers or Penn State every once in a while. They want to challenge Montana, Northern Iowa, Richmond and Villanova nationally, and Columbia (and hopefully Hosftra) locally. And they want to compete for a national championship.
Making a choice for scholarship football, FBS games and revitalized CAA rivalries does not come without cost - it might come, for many PL schools, with a very big price tag. Each school will have to come to their own decision on the matter, and some schools might decide "no, thank you" - and the REASON for that is that they don't agree about what Patriot League football will look like 20 years from now.
It's no less that a request for a vision of what Patriot League football needs to be going forward.
3. Expansion - or contraction? While the scholarship question is tied to league expansion (or contraction), the question "if we expand, who will it be with?" still doesn't have a lot of good answers whether the League allows scholarships or not.
If the league presidents decide to stick with merit aid, there's no question Fordham will leave as soon as they find a conference home. In that event, the Patriot League would most likely give Marist a call and invite them in the league in all sports. But after that, it's hard to see any other existing Division I schools willing to play ball with the existing type of merit-based aid. (Davidson, a member of the proto-Patriot League in the late 1980s, is the only team I can think of.)
In years past, Villanova and Richmond were talked about as possible PL expansion candidates with William & Mary thrown in for good measure - if the league had scholarships. Those ships appear to have sailed long ago, however - with the emergence as James Madison as a national power, it makes less and less sense to try to pry any Virginia schools from the CAA. As for Villanova, they appear to value their rivalry with Delaware more than anything.
Yesterday, the talk was more about northern schools potentially joining a scholarship Patriot League with Fordham still on board: Northeastern and/or Hofstra, leaving a CAA that has left them less than satisfied (according to rumor, anyway). Other schools being tossed about are Bryant (who will be joining the NEC in 2011) or even Monmouth (who has always been a NEC member) - not exactly a murderer's row, but at least a better selection.
If the league doesn't make a decision on scholarships, once certainty is that Fordham will leave. But what doesn't get a lot of attention is the (mostly unsaid) worry that Georgetown - and possibly Bucknell - will either disband their programs or will not subscribe to a scholarship Patriot League whether due to cost or philosophy.
Georgetown would seem on the surface to be likely to drop football due to their struggles in Patriot League play, but their record on improving the program has been more mixed then folks care to admit. They have increased spending on football from a 100% need-based base, they've built a new stadium in a challenging campus situation, and they've been creative in getting fans and excitement (the D.C. Cup with Howard leaps to mind). Their most ardent fans are not convinced that they're against scholarships. Folks who are interested in football ought to be looking very, very closely at the vacant athletic director position at Georgetown.
Bucknell would seem less of a risk to disband football given their status as an all-sports member of the Patriot League - but much is riding on their upcoming feasibilty study on offering further athletic scholarships. The Bison offer the least overall scholarship money in the Patriot League for all sports - and folks tend to forget that Bucknell were one of the last adopters of merit aid for basketball in 2002 (and even then on a "trial basis") and haven't expanded it since. Still, Bucknell has a deep football history - one that's not easily discarded.
Neither way is risk-free. Both ways risk expansion, or contraction. But one way injects a whole lot of excitement into the league while still keeping the academic pillar of the league intact (the Academic Index). The other involves keeping only need-based aid and an uncertain future - perhaps one without the FCS playoffs.
Expansion - and contraction -are still a big part of this discussion.