Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday's Word: Clubs


Princeton is known for a lot of things.  A founding member of the "Ivy League", of course.  World-class academics.  The team everyone hates to play in the NCAA Tournament in basketball.  The backdoor pass.  Co-inventor of the game of college football.  And a dominating college football team in the early days of college football.

But Princeton is also know for something else - their eating "clubs".

"For many juniors and seniors, Princeton's 10 historic eating 'clubs' -- the first opened in 1879 -- offer a hub for dining and social life. The clubs, which are located in architecturally distinctive houses along Prospect Avenue, serve daily meals prepared by a head chef and staff," Princeton website proudly tells us.

Lehigh's win this weekend illustrates a dirty little secret about the world of collegiate athletics, too.  It's a series of "clubs", too.  (more)



I've had some experience in Princeton's eating "clubs".

In my Hunter S. Thompson-esque, early days at College Sporting News, I once crashed several of them, tasting their world-class food and sipping their champagne before a critical Harvard/Princeton matchup.  Fearing getting thrown off of campus, I somehow survived to write about the tale.

(The food was truly world class, and - here's something they don't teach you at school - the best champagne in the world is the champagne you get for free, I'm convinced.  I can still taste the stuff right now.)

Similarly, the Patriot League "club" and the Ivy League "club" run in similar circles.  Would it be out of the realm of possibility to think of Lehigh's president, Alice P. Gast, and Princeton's president Shirley M. Tilghman, sipping champagne at one of these eating establishments before the Lehigh game kicked off at 6:00 PM Saturday night?  No, it wouldn't.

When the Ivy League and the Patriot League play each other, it's a big deal in both league offices.

It's not only because the presidents like to hobnob with one another at the "clubs" - traditionally, and historically, the Patriot League and Ivy League have played each other in a multitude of different sports.

Indeed, the Patriot League spawned from an idea coming from the halls of Ivy that it would be nice if their football teams had some high-academic teams they could play.  They'd be "non-scholarship", like them, have stringent academic standards, like them, and have rules against redshirting, like them.  From that, the Patriot League - nee the Colonial League - was born.

Some have argued that more than wins against Stony Brook and Rhode Island, what really gets the presidents and certain Patriot League alumni excited is beating up on the Ivies - those Ivy world-class schools that both recruit (and get) many of the high-academic recruits they target, as well as sharing the general philisophy of academic standards.

Those Patriot League folks, this weekend, must have been really celebrating with hundred-year-old brandy and Cuban cigars after the Patriot League's performance in what was informally called "The Patriot/Ivy Showdown".

Lafayette didn't just beat the defending Ivy League champs - they destroyed them, 37-12, in a dominating show-me performance at historic Franklin field.  Senior S Kyle Simmons had an eye-popping 15 tackles and 2 interceptions - including one back-breaking one for a touchdown - as the Leopard defense held the Quakers to just 170 yards passing.

The Leopards hadn't scored that many points at Franklin Field since their paper national championship of 1921.

Perennital Ivy League championship contender Harvard was downed by Holy Cross 30-22 in a series that seems to have been decided by the final play every year in the past five years.  Senior QB Ryan Taggart completed 22 of 35 passes for 320 yards and four TDs, while senior CB Chandler Fenner's fourth down interception iced the game for the Crusaders.

Fordham, still considered part of the Patriot League, beat Columbia 21-14 in the ninth year of the 9/11-themed "Liberty Cup" rivalry between the two crosstown schools.  Like the Harvard game, it came down to one final Hail Mary play, with QB Sean Brackett's attempt to tie fell short to keep the Cup in the hands of the Rams for the second straight year.  Freshman QB Peter Maetzold went an impressive 22 for 30 passing, from 212 yards and 2 TDs.

Almost as important as winning, in regards to the hobnobbing in the "clubs", is the fact that of all the Patriot League's wins, all the games were competitive, with the Lehigh, Holy Cross, and Fordham wins going right down to the wire.

And even in defeat, both Georgetown and Bucknell also had spirited battles with Yale and Cornell, respectively, before going down in close games.

Bucknell fell to 2-1 after a 24-13 loss to Cornell, but gave the Big Red all they could handle, getting stuffed at 4th-and-1 as they were driving for a game-winning score.  Senior PK Drew Orth's 40 yard FG - the longest from a Patriot League kicker this year - kept this game close, while junior QB Brandon Wesley had a solid day, going 22 for 35 passing with 267 yards.

And Georgetown battled Yale extremely well at the 12,000 strong Yale bowl, trailing 21-20 at half before the Bulldogs would ride a strong offensive performance to pull away in the second half 37-27.  WR Max Waizenegger continued to be a real pest catching the ball, notching 7 receptions for 38 yards.

The only exception to the rule was Colgate, who fell, 37-20, to Dartmouth and a 175 yard rushing performance by Big Green RB Nick Schweiger.  And while you don't want to make excuses, it's undeniable that the absence of Colgate senior RB Nate Eachus, a Payton Award candidate, played a major factor in the game.

All in all, in the halls of the "clubs", amidst the champagne and the billiards tables, it was all smiles for the Patriot League folks - and even the Ivy folks, who can potentially wait for the upcoming weeks to see if their hallowed programs can still take the annual series with the Patriot League as well.

*****

The wins also, however, do something else.

For the last two years, many Patriot League fans (including me) have argued that the Patriot League should have football scholarships.

And it wasn't just a matter of wanting to have great football teams - it was a matter of survival, too.  The top teams could certainly compete against the Ivy League and on the national level, as the argument went.  But not top to bottom.

This year, though, it seems like that argument might be disproven.

It helps that Lehigh is ranked in the Top 25, of course.  But there's plenty of additional evidence that top to bottom, this league is as good as its ever been.

Lehigh's opening day opponent, Monmouth, just beat Villanova, 20-9, at Villanove Stadium this past weekend.  While the Patriot League is stil waiting to beat a CAA team this year, that Monmouth was even able to do so against a depleted Wildcat team suddenly makes that opening-day win - against a school that offers scholarships, too - look awfully good.

Georgetown's 2-1 record includes a win over Lafayette, putting them atop the Patriot League standings at the moment - and their performance against Yale proves they were not at all overmatched.  This was not the case in years past.

Bucknell's opening-day win over Duquesne is hard to judge, but the Dukes are still a scholarship team, and favored to be a title contender in the NEC.  Plus, the Bison are 2-1 overall, and proving that they will be nobody's patsy this year.

Lafayette's season seemed to be losing its wheels after an 0-2 start - but this weekend's pounding of Penn put to rest the idea that they won't be a force to be reckoned with.

And nobody should count out RB Nate Eachus and the Colgate running attack, which still makes the Raiders a title contender even with a 1-2 record.

And that doesn't even consider nationally-ranked Lehigh or nearly-ranked Holy Cross.

It's probably enough, unfortunately, to shelve the scholarship talk for the near future.  How can you argue to spend a lot more money on football scholarships when your teams are beating Ivy League royalty and other good FCS teams with need-based aid?

The coming week will give the Patriot League the strongest test to date in regards to the strength of the league nationally, with ranked Liberty invading Lehigh and a host of challenging road games, including Lafayette's trip to Big South co-champion Stony Brook, Colgate facing a resurgent Towson, and Fordham travelling up to Rhode Island.

But one thing's for sure: in the "clubs", they'll be happy.

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