Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Patriot League Media Day

(Photo courtesy Fordham Athletics)

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.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sunday's Word: Ram

For those folks that don't know, every Sunday during the football regular season I write an opinion piece called "Sunday's Word" - the word that best sums up the past week. I decided to kick off my Sunday pieces tonight with the one word that has dominated the Patriot League offseason, and it should come as no surprise to anybody.

Patriot League Media day is coming up on Tuesday of this week. In years past, media day has been a way to get excited about the season - to think of what records Holy Cross senior QB Dominic Randolph might be able to shatter, say, or if senior QB John Skelton can bring Fordham back to the top of the League this year, or if senior DT B.J. Benning and the rest of the Mountain Hawks can make a run at this thing this year. But that's not the big topic of conversation this offseason.

Instead, it's focused on - you guessed it - "Rams".

The 2007 champions that struggled to a 5-6 season in 2008 have made all the headlines with their decision to start offering aid not based on need starting this fall - in other words, football scholarships. The rumblings started in March with head football coach Tom Masella, became a formal declaration in May, and became an agreement with the League in June. The upshot is that the Patriot League will keep Fordham as a member for the next two years at least, Fordham will start offering scholarships consistent with the League's academic index, and in those two years either the Patriot League will either open up the possibility of scholarships or lose Fordham as a member and continue the policy of need-based aid.

For fans of a league that has offered needs testing for all its aid since its inception, this was a seismic change - and (to some) might collapse one of a basic pillars of the foundation of the League, one of not "paying for kids to play sports". But at the same time this was a pillar whose flaws were evident almost from the start - kids who get a full ride at Albany vs. a partial scholarship at Colgate tend to become Great Danes, not Raiders. The pillar also has been "rammed" for years as well in other sports, such as men's and women's basketball, where removing the needs test for aid has resulted in getting better academic students overall.

Still, clearly the Patriot League membership could not "ram" the changes down the throats of the Patriot League presidents. For Fordham, offering scholarships offered no pain but (potentially) big gains: already in compliance with Title IX requirements, they wouldn't need to spend another dime to get in compliance. However, it became clear that one big problem is Title IX compliance for other Patriot League schools should scholarships be allowed - and anything in this economic climate that smacks of more spending appears to be a near-impossible sell in the short term.

Instead, the Patriot League chose to go into the situation more like a lamb than a "Ram", giving the membership a couple years to come to some sort of consensus. And in that there are some encouraging signs: Bucknell has started a feasibility study, and Lehigh came out with a formal statement in favor of scholarships. Meanwhile, nobody has gone on public record saying that it would be a bad idea to offer scholarships in the Patriot League for football - another major step in the right direction.

But ultimately it's not in the hands of the fans (who appear to be near-unanimously in favor), coaches (who also appear to be near-unanimously in favor) or even ADs (who seem to, conservatively, have a majority in favor). It's the presidents - who have very different constituencies, and sometimes have very different priorities - who have to make the decision in the end.

The presidents should think very carefully about this, too. Not offering scholarships means ultimately losing Fordham as a Patriot League member in football, but it means a lot more than that: it means losing one of the members who wanted to be a part of something bigger than just pursuing ESPN contracts. Fordham was - and still is, in football - recruiting players with an Academic Index to ensure they can do the coursework. Unlike a whole lot of other institutions, they genuinely want to graduate student-athletes, and have wanted to from the start.

Losing Fordham means a lot more than losing an associate school in football. Fordham was there at the start, before non-scholarship basketball forced them to join the Atlantic 10 in all sports but football. Let's not make any bones about it - losing Fordham would absolutely pose questions about whether the whole Patriot League model has failed. If the League can't keep a school that has tried so hard to remain a part of it since the beginning, what hope does the league have of attracting other schools to that model?

And there is great value to a new Patriot League model - one with athletic scholarships and an academic index. Let's hope that the "Ram's" "Ramming" doesn't obcure that point with presidents around the Patriot League.
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