Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Decision: My Thoughts

The Patriot League presidents finally made a decision on football scholarships, allowing what the rest of FCS college football considers "scholarships" starting with the football recruiting class of 2017.

It was a bold decision that many folks, including myself, thought might never happen.

That's because bold decisions, by their nature, are difficult.  They entail risk.  They involve a break away from comfortable situations.  They involve a challenge of the status quo - a re-evaluation of the comfortable relationships and certain existence that the league has in the FCS football world they inhabit.

It was a bold decision - and one that was a lot more difficult, I think, than folks realize.  But I also think, ultimately, it was also the right decision.


It may surprise some people, but I was not always the cheerleader-in-chief of football scholarships that I may have seemed at times on this blog.

When I was an undergraduate and "young alumnus", I was then, as now, a huge Lehigh football fan, but I was always torn on the issue of football scholarships.

Sure, I wanted to have teams that could compete against the Delaware's, Richmond's, and Montana's for an FCS national championship.  Yet at the same time, I did not know if scholarships would result in changing Lehigh to be something I would not recognize athletically.

In the early years of the Patriot League, it's identity was forged on the idea that need-based aid, along with academic standards for recruits, was the right way to approach Division I athletics.  And while it might seem strange to think that way now, it was a rallying cry for the teams of the league.

In the playoffs, Lehigh was always David to the "scholarship" Goliaths.

When WR Khamal Roy of Hofstra came to Lehigh in the first round of the playoffs in 2001, he may as well have been WR Michael Irvin in terms of his size and ability over Lehigh's defensive backs.

But Lehigh, the scrappy, "non-scholarship" team from the Patriot League, would win that playoff game.  Not that the Mountain Hawk players didn't have talent - they didn't go 11-0 in the regular season that year for nothing - but they, along with an amazing coaching staff that featured Pete Lembo and Dave Cecchini, would out-flank, out-perform, and even out-hustle other teams to beat them.

Whether the Mountain Hawks would poach a tough team from the Atlantic Ten in the first round of the playoffs, or Colgate would make a run to the national championship game in Chattanooga, the fact that "little non-scholarship" schools could strike such fear in conventional schools in the playoffs was powerful.

And it was an awful lot of fun as a fan.

I won't lie: watching Western Illinois' spirit get crushed in a 37-7 embarrassment in Macomb, IL as they realized their big-time, scholarship team was getting outperformed in every aspect of the game by a tiny non-scholarship school in eastern PA is a treasured memory.

Another was watching Colgate trounce Howard Schnellenberger's Florida Atlantic squad in the FCS semifinals in 2003, who had obviously done next to no preparation for Dick Biddle's Raiders.

Despite the fact that the Owls were in transition to FBS, and that they actually had more football scholarship players on their roster than other FCS teams, it still wasn't enough to beat RB Jamaal Branch and a bunch of other football players from a tiny private university in Hamilton, NY - who had a very different view as how to field a football team than Florida Atlantic.

Not only were Lehigh and Colgate winning football games, they were doing so in the right way.  You knew it was in the right way because there were rules to ensure that it was so.

Later I would learn that the Patriot League's "non-scholarship" stance wasn't as pure as I had envisioned those many years ago.  While kids would still go through the financial aid office, when the formulas would spit out the amount of money some kids would need to come to Lehigh, that money, at times, would be converted to a grant instead of a loan to be repaid.

This "grant-in-aid", as it was called, was considered to be a "scholarship" by the NCAA - but it still required the kids to go through the financial aid office, a hassle that kids elsewhere did not have to endure.

Even without knowing all the details of the "grants-in-aid", though, it was still clear that football players were still getting some financial aid, somewhere.  It was just aid that was available to anyone who can get through admissions.

That aid didn't seem to affect the quality of kids going to Lehigh at all.  They still seemed to be the same talented football players that were becoming successes in things other than football after graduating.

*****

Somewhere in 2007, I started to rethink football scholarships more seriously.

Years after Lehigh's playoff victory over Hofstra, I had been offered the opportunity to become a national columnist for I-AA.org.

Working with Dave Coulson, it allowed me to learn an amazing about about FCS football, and seeing things in a new light.

Suddenly, I didn't see football games in the prism of non-scholarship vs. big, bad scholarship schools.

It was clear that there were a lot of great football programs that were not only competing for championships, but also graduating their students and preparing them for life as well.

As a fan, I loathed when Andy Talley and Villanova played Lehigh, but it was also abundantly clear to me that he was a good man in terms of his football team and taking care of his players - an ethical coach that graduates his players, and has zero tolerance for nonsense.

New Hampshire's Sean McDonough is a coach that would be very much in place in the Patriot League as well.  Not only has he groomed future FBS head football coaches like Oregon's Chip Kelly, but he's consistently had his Wildcats lead the NCAA's in terms of academic progress and graduation rates.

Before I go overboard, not all football programs are good, even at the FCS level, to put it mildly.

But one thing you learn when you follow FCS football is that the mere fact of scholarships doesn't make a program bad, either.  Football scholarships are a great tool to create a lot of great opportunities for educating young people.  Thousands of kids each year get a shot at a college education that they otherwise might not have.  In the end, that is a wonderful, miraculous thing.

It's in that spirit that I wrote an eight-part blog manifesto analyzing every single aspect of the Patriot League's policies on football, from presidential control, academic standards, and need-based aid.

I discovered the uncomfortable place the Patriot League occupied in recruiting with need-based aid - squeezed at the academic end by the Ivy League, who could trade on their international reputations for academic excellence (and increasingly generous aid policies for all students, including athletes), and on the competitive end by not only FCS schools like Delaware, but high-academic FBS schools like Army, Navy, Rutgers, Vanderbilt and Stanford.


"As a study of men's basketball conclusively proved, athletic scholarships allows schools to become more selective in getting recruits by allowing those schools to compete against free education offered by other schools," I concluded back then  "There’s no reason why this shouldn't be used as a tool by admissions officers to get high-academic athletes into their schools.

"With the existing structure of separation between athletics offices and admissions departments under presidential control, all forces should be kept in balance -- and high academics standards should win out.  There’s no reason why the Patriot League should lose their soul if they offer some scholarships... What would be much worse is if the league does nothing while the rest of the world adapts to the new realities. The Patriot League could lose their brand of athletics, squeezed by free education on the athletic side and squeezed by the Ivies and FBS schools on the academic side. That would be an awful – and preventable - shame."

Rather than just a theological discussion, to me it became one of survival.

In the Patriot League, rules are in place to ensure that presidents are in charge of athletics in the end, and academic standards exist to ensure that academically qualified athletes matriculate.  Aid was the crux of the problem - in the end, for the kids, it becomes a question of economics.

As Patriot League alumni, we all like to think we'd pick dear old Holy Cross, Lehigh, or Lafayette anyway.  But what if, say, Albany is offering a chance to keep your family out of debt because they think you can play Division I football?  Would you still take Lehigh and saddle your parents with six figures of loans to pay off?

*****

Even with the moral high ground, though, a decision on football scholarships was still risky.

The Patriot League membership has seven football-playing members, all of whom sponsor football at different levels.  Some use "grants-in-aid" extensively; others do not.


I asked President Weiss if the vote on allowing merit aid was unanimous.

In response, Mr. Weiss reiterated that the consensus decision was made "collectively and collegially" by the presidents - and that it was a confidential deliberation "without any outline as to how the vote was done".

But the choice of "consensus" over "unanimous" spoke volumes that, perhaps, not everyone agreed with the decision.


As a matter of fact, it was Fordham, who unilaterally made the decision to "go scholarship", that forced the Patriot League's hand.

Any change in athletic aid policy offers the possibility of ballooning athletics costs.  With sixty conventional scholarships in football, sixty scholarships in women's sports must be funded, somewhere.

But no Patriot League school is starting from a base of zero scholarships and ramping up to 60.

If Lehigh is at, say, 45 equivalencies to football scholarships now, by rule those are already matched by 45 women's scholarships.  If Lehigh goes to 60, then they only need to fund 15 more women's scholarships - a much more manageable number.

When Fordham "made the scholarship jump", they said that it would cost them no more of the athletics budget for other sports, since they were offering 60 equivalencies already that were being matched for Title IX purposes.

But Georgetown, in contrast, operates with significantly fewer than 45 equivalencies, and according to DFW Hoya, Georgetown fan extraordinare, ramping up to 60 football scholarships is simply "not an option."

Therein lies the rub - and the risk of this decision.

Georgetown, an affiliate member in football only, may very well choose to exit the Patriot League over this decision - as was hinted by Dr. John DeGioia in his post-decision statements:


Georgetown offers 29 varsity sports and is committed to Division I football as part of its broadbased approach to intercollegiate athletics. Since 2001, Georgetown has been committed to competing in the sport of football as an associate member of the Patriot League. This has allowed the University to compete with institutions that shared the same academic values and need-based financial aid philosophy.  
Georgetown will continue its membership in the Patriot League in the sport of football and explore all of its options, including our ability to compete as a need-based aid program. We remain committed to our goal of providing our student athletes with an unparalleled academic experience and an athletically competitive football program.

In "exploring all of its options", it's possible that Georgetown may decide to leave the Patriot League if it feels it cannot compete in a scholarship Patriot League.

Before you pro-scholarship people say "good riddance" to the Hoyas, it's extremely important to know two things.

First, the Patriot League, as it stands today, only has six members that can compete for the league championship, since Fordham is technically ineligible this year since they already have scholarships.  If Georgetown leaves tomorrow, technically the league would have five members - which would disqualify them from an autobid to the FCS playoffs.

Second, Georgetown's presence academically in the Patriot League is immeasurable.  While every Patriot League school across the board has great academics, Georgetown is the top academic football school in the league, hands down.

By losing a school like Georgetown - a true "David" in a college football landscape of "Goliaths" - you lose a part of what made the original Patriot League so great.  They are, in the end, a high-academic school who wants to play football, and has actually done so very well in Patriot League play for the last few years.  (Folks forget that the Hoyas were one win away from the Patriot League title last year.)

If the Hoyas stick it out - perhaps not ramping up to 60 football scholarships, but perhaps upping to, say 30 grants spread around with need-based aid accommodating the rest - I think they will be in the best FCS football conference on the planet.

It would be a risk for them to stay - as it was a risk for the Patriot League to have football scholarships, but potentially lose the FCS autobid - but I think it is a risk worth taking.

With scholarships, the Patriot League becomes a much more desirable location for FCS football-playing schools.

Existing schools will have more opportunities to play FBS schools that have been traditional rivals in the past, like Boston College (Holy Cross), Syracuse (Colgate), and Rutgers (Lehigh, Lafayette).  With those games come money guarantees, which will help balance the books for the athletic departments and drum up enthusiasm.

With scholarships, existing football scholarship schools can now think over a decision to join the Patriot League and still get those desirable FBS games.

They'd also have something else that's very desirable in FCS circles - an autobid, along with the prospect of, perhaps, one or two at-large bids to the FCS playoffs as well.

All this in a compact, Northeast footprint.

*****

Few people realize how easy it would have been just to keep things the way they were in the Patriot League.

In the end, though, the Patriot League took a risk in order to make things better for their member institutions.

It's a risk that, I think, that could result in great rewards for the league going forward.

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