Monday, March 26, 2012

VMI to the Patriot League?

When Lafayette president Daniel H. Weiss announced to the world that the Patriot League would be allowing schools to allow merit-based aid - i.e., allowing the same types of athletic scholarships that other FCS schools can offer - there was a lot of rejoicing with Patriot League fans for a variety of reasons.

"We make this decision in recognition that we believe that it will help the league to remain strong and competitive." he mentioned in his opening statement, "We believe over time what this decision is in the best interest of the league because it will help us with future membership prospects."

This past week, a subtle change to the Patriot League website seems to indicate that perhaps, just perhaps, that future membership prospects might be happening sooner rather than later.

Could a new member be joining the Patriot League by the 2013 season?


The Patriot League has historically listed its future schedules on its website for all its sports.  But when suddenly, unnanounced, last week the website removed all the out-of-conference games for Patriot League teams, fans took notice.

It started a conversation about the Patriot League/Ivy League relationship - were Ivy League teams going to pull out from their out-of-conference game commitments?  If so, that would be some very big news.

Since the Patriot League's inception in 1986, Ivy League schools have scheduled Patriot teams extensively as their out-of-conference games in football.  Some years, Patriot League schedules have had as many as four Ivy games on them as well as their six-game conference slate.

But some members of the Ivy League have been very critical of any motion toward Patriot League football scholarships.  Back in 2009, Harvard head coach Tim Murphy made a not-so-veiled threat to "adjust" the Crimson out-of-conference football schedule if football scholarships became a reality, so the idea that the Ivies as a unit could exit the quarter-century old agreement is not unfounded.

The only problem with this theory?  The change did not appear to on any Ivy league school schedules.  Cornell's and Dartmouth's 2013 schedules still include Bucknell, Holy Cross, and Colgate, so it seemed unlikely that the Ivies had decided as a group to dump the Patriots over the scholarship issue.

When you look at the new 2013 Patriot League schedule a bit more closely, though, you see something else.

From October 5th to November 23rd, there is at least one open date on the Patriot League schedule for every single team.

While there's no announcement, it would be very, very easy to plug another football team into the schedule in time for 2013, guaranteeing perfect flexibility for scheduling the entire season.

Taken by itself, it might not mean much.  But in the context of the offseason move towards football scholarships - and the idea that league expansion was a goal mentioned by the Patriot League presidents - it seems to mean a lot more.

Could it be that the league will be welcoming a new member - or members - in 2013?

*****

It's worth revisiting the issue of Patriot League expansion with football scholarships.

It's an area I've obviously tread quite a few times before, but looking at the landscape again, there's one school that seems to fit expansion much better than any of the others.


Since it's for 2013, I don't think it could be a school that hasn't announced a football team already -which honestly, before this week, I thought was the most likely scenario.  A school needs at least two years to even get a rudimentary team together for a season, and there simply wouldn't be enough time.

It also cannot be a D-III program which might be mulling over a transition to Division I.  If a school like Johns Hopkins, MIT or RPI were thinking about such a move, they would need to fully transition to Division II first for a five or six year period, and then transition to Division I.  They cannot possibly be upgraded in time, even in a transitional way, for the 2013 season.

That means any school or schools that could be joining the Patriot League would have to be existing Division I football programs, not start-ups or lower division programs.

So which schools seem the most likely to be candidates?

It is possible that Villanova or Richmond - could be a potential target from the CAA. But to me, it seems very unlikely.  The Wildcats, in the Big East in all sports except for football, still are in the process of studying a potential move to FBS.  The Spiders, in the Atlantic Ten in all other sports, don't seem to want to leave their situation any time soon, with their rivalries with Old Dominion, James Madison, and William & Mary in the CAA in football, and licking their chops in an Atlantic Ten which may soon include George Mason, VCU, and Butler.  (A sure sign these rumors have some foundation: a hastily-called press conference claiming that nobody has had "formal discussions" with the A-10 about joining.)

It's also possible that New Hampshire could be a school that may be interested in joining the Patriot League.  Even though they are a state flagship, I've lobbied before for their inclusion in the Patriot League, as I think they could work within the academic requirements for recruits.  Also the "pro" side, they would join a more Northeastern-based league than the CAA that could severely cut down on their travel costs, while still carrying the full complement of football scholarships and having the same access to the FCS playoffs that they have enjoyed.  As all-sports members, I think they are a slam dunk.

But are the Wildcats interested in an all-sports move out of America East, or are they only interested in a football-only move?  That's a question that's a lot harder to answer, along with the question as to whether the Wildcats would be a package deal with Maine, their biggest rival in all sports.  While adding Maine and New Hampshire in football would unquestionably make the Patriot League a real force in the world of FCS football, it's questionable as to how it would solid the football league would be with four affiliate members and five all-sports members.

Could that a team that is currently in the NEC, Wagner, Monmouth, Sacred Heart, St. Francis (PA), Bryant or Duquesne, be a target?  Not likely.  Many of these schools seem quite happy with the limited-scholarship situation in the NEC at the moment, are all-sports members in that conference, and don't seem to be eager to take on an Academic Index for their athletics recruits.

For Marist, you can add all of the above, replacing "NEC" with "Pioneer Football League", the non-scholarship conference where the Red Foxes currently compete in football.  Unless something has significantly changed, they are not going to undertake a ramp-up to scholarship football.  Far-flung Davidson, another PFL member (and former Patriot League member), will not be a consideration either, based in North Carolina, despite their impeccable academic criteria.

It is possible that Robert Morris, Albany, or Stony Brook might be interested in the Patriot League.  If so, for them, it would have to be the temptation of 63 scholarship football - with reduced travel costs, being in a Northeast-based conference - that would make them think about it.

But unlike Maine or New Hampshire, it's a much bigger question as to how an academic index would fit with any of these schools.  Not because they're bad academically - they're actually quite good schools - but because, as schools with some state funding, part of their institutional mission is that they have to admit more in-state kids.  The Academic index worked with Towson, with their small amount of in-state talent, and could work in Maine or New Hampshire, but New York and Pennsylvania are different matters entirely.

After you've looked at all of these other candidates, it's the final one that really stands out: VMI.

Back in 2006, I looked at VMI as a potential expansion candidate, and not much has changed over the years in regards to their viability as a Patriot League member.

They're a small, public school with an enrollment of 1,500 cadets, which fits in perfectly with the profile, attendance-wise, of rest of the schools of the League.

While it might not compare with their white-hot rivalry with The Citadel, in football, they could also develop a rivalry with Georgetown, which is about three hours away from D.C.

But most crucially, their military tradition makes them a good match with Army and Navy in other sports - and the Keydets would have to be salivating to be able to develop a stronger relationship with them, which would require an all-sports membership.

Back in 2006, I mentioned football scholarships as the main stumbling block to VMI leaving the Big South and joining the Patriot League.  But now, this is no longer an impediment.

Furthermore, VMI has unveiled some pretty interesting plans for themselves - including in their "Vision 2039" program, an increased academic profile to go along with their emphasis on Division I Athletics.


A reformed core curriculum provides the educational foundation upon which to build the essential characteristics of the citizen-soldier. Focusing on a limited number of high-quality majors, minors, and interdisciplinary programs ensures the overall excellence of programs. The Institute will continue its tradition of educating to meet the needs of a changing nation by establishing a more balanced distribution between engineering, science, and the arts, with more than half the degrees awarded in engineering and the sciences. 
The heart of the Institute’s academic program – indeed, infusing the VMI education in its broadest sense – is leadership development. Vision 2039 helps ensure that VMI’s graduates will be broadly educated, adaptive leaders of character who con tribute substantially to their communities, their nation, and the world. A major academic goal is to ensure that every VMI cadet, regardless of academic major, is properly prepared for leadership and citizenship in the 21st century. 
***** 
Cadets who participate in varsity sports expect to make the commitment in time and effort that competing at the varsity level entails. At the same time, they must participate fully in the uncompromising educational and military components of the Institute. Cadets who do not participate in varsity athletics are expected to participate in club or intramural athletic programs. Athletic competition is a means of developing individual physical skills and team skills that will benefit every cadet throughout his or her life. In addition, it is a highly effective means of developing leadership skills. 
Vision 2039 continues VMI’s traditional emphasis on athletics as a key cadet development tool and recognizes that athletic competition is an integral component of the VMI educational experience. It does so by expanding the athletic opportunities at all levels to meet the needs and interests of cadets with a massive increase in structured club sports, NCAA sports, and intramurals; it creates new athletic facilities and upgrades older facilities; and it provides the resources to make those opportunities effective.
To top things off, there is a heaping amount of uncertainty involving the Keydets' current all-sports home, the Big South Conference.

Liberty University has made no secret of their ambitions to become an FBS program someday, and when they do, they will leave the Big South.  And Coastal Carolina has very publicly said that they're looking to move to another FCS conference, either the CAA or SoCon.  If both leave at the same time, they could lose their autobid, leaving only five football-playing members (and one associate, Stony Brook, who would be out on the first train out of the conference to Long Island, if the conference lost its autobid to the playoffs.)

All these signs point to a very good possibility that VMI could be a great fit for the Patriot League - in all sports, shoring up football, adding a basketball program that nearly won the Big South this year, and adds a new league member in a whole host of different sports.

About the only question might be: can the Patriot League operate with nine members in basketball?  As the Big Sky learned after accepting Northern Colorado, a nine-game schedule is rough for everybody, with bye weeks in the middle and end of of most sports seasons, including men's basketball.

If VMI joins the Patriot League, it seems likely that another non-football candidate, would need to join at the same time to make an even ten members.  If so, there seem to be a lot more candidates for that job opening.

Just off the top of my head, Boston University, Loyola (MD) or Fairfield would all offer a great academics/athletics combinations for the Patriot League, and they could be very interested in joining the conference from their current homes, the America East or the MAAC.

All three have made the men's basketball NCAA tournament very recently, and all three have a strong presence in men's and women's lacrosse, a sport where the Patriot League could credibly consider themselves to be national championship contenders, too.

Academically, Boston University is an academic powerhouse with a global reputation, and Loyola or Fairfield are exactly the size of private, academic institutions that would fit in nicely with the Patriot League as well.

(It's also worth mentioning that all these  schools have the facilities to (re-)start a football program should they choose.)

All three members could greatly benefit from the association with not only the other Patriot League institutions, too, but also the members of the Ivy League as well.  Trading Siena for Yale or UMBC for Harvard would be a no-brainer for these schools on a multitude of levels - academically as well as athletically.


*****

What is clear is that the Patriot League has positioned themselves very well for what might happen in the future - whether it be a raid of the CAA, the collapse of the Big South, or members of the NEC and the Pioneer Football League growing dissatisfied with limited, or no, scholarships.

And while it's still speculation, there's plenty of reason to view all the public evidence and see a very good possibility that VMI could very well be the very next member of the Patriot League - in time for the 2013 season.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fairfield would be an ideal non-football addition. They would placate Holy Cross with their Jesuit affiliation. And they are close to Worcester. They used to be affiliate members in field hockey. Plus they have a rising profile. I'd take 'em. I heavily disagree with your UNH, Maine theory. They are the antithesis of the PL model. Remember the ECC? We used to be affiliated with Drexel, LaSalle, Rider. How would that not be going backwards from the presidential perspective? Don't know about BU... can't articulate it, but they don't seem to fit.

-Pard4Life