Thursday, January 24, 2013

Realignmentaggedon: Monmouth's Bid NEC Associate Football Membership Denied

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that sometime Lehigh opponent Monmouth recently made a move to leave the Northeast Conference (NEC) in all sports to join the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) in all the sports that they sponsor. 

As it turns out, the MAAC does not sponsor three sports in which the Hawks compete: women's field hockey, women's bowling, and football, which meant that Monmouth president Paul G. Gaffney II needed to apply back to the NEC to become an associate member in all three sports to remain.

It didn't seem impossible that Monmouth would remain in the league in these three sports.

But today, Monmouth got their reply from NEC commissioner Noreen Morris, returning the will of the NEC presidents: yes to field hockey, and no bowling and football.

With Monmouth's "Plan A" going by the wayside, the Hawks are now certainly looking at their "Plan B"'s - one of which could very well be the Patriot League.

 “When Monmouth University decided to accept an invitation to join the MAAC, they did so with full knowledge that the MAAC did not sponsor the sports of football, field hockey and bowling.  Monmouth subsequently submitted an application to be an associate member in the NEC in each of those three sports.  The NEC Council of Presidents evaluated the associate membership requests separately, and in doing so made their decisions relative to the long term stability and interests of the Conference.  We look forward to continuing our partnership with Monmouth in the sport of field hockey, and wish Monmouth success in the sports of football and bowling as they seek new partnerships in those sports.”
From the NEC's perspective, its a bit curious that the NEC presidents chose to keep their relationship in women's field hockey and not football or bowling. 

That's because the NEC doesn't currently enjoy an autobid to the NCAA Tournament in field hockey.

Last season, neither 13-5 St. Francis (PA) or 13-5 Rider qualified for the 16-team field in field hockey to compete against such national powerhouses such as Princeton or North Carolina.

The NEC, however, does have relatively stronger athletic competition in women's bowling and FCS football.  The NEC actually has a national championship in women's bowling (2010, Farleigh Dickinson) and just two years ago they earned a hard-won autobid to the FCS playoffs.  (And no Patriot League fan will also soon forget the whupping their champion, Wagner, put on Colgate in the first round last year.)

Seen in this light, the move by the NEC presidents seems more like a symbolic move to deny Monmouth the right to compete in their conference where their conference has a square shot to win an NCAA championship.

From the blog post by Tony Graham on this matter comes Monmouth's reply:
Recently the Northeast Conference Council of Presidents voted on and made the decision to decline Monmouth University’s application to join the NEC Football league as an associate member. We are disappointed in this decision in light of the fact that Monmouth has always been an exemplary member of the conference, both on and off the field, particularly in the area of securing an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I playoffs. On the other hand we knew this was a possible outcome so we have been actively pursuing a new home for MU football and we anticipate a positive outcome in the near future.
So the big question becomes: what does Monmouth do with its two sports, especially football?

Looking at the football side of the equation a moment, there are five football-sponsoring FCS conferences that could potentially take on the Hawks as members: the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), the Patriot League, the Big South, and the non-scholarship football-only Pioneer Football League.


All five conferences have an autobid to the FCS playoffs next year, so whichever conference the Hawks join they would have access to the playoffs.

Membership in the Pioneer Football League would necessitate the Hawks discontinuing their program of offering a limited number of football scholarships, which could mean that Monmouth players in the pros like WR Miles Austin and S Jose Gumbs might no longer wish to compete for the Hawks.

From the other four conferences that allow football scholarships, interestingly, neither the CAA, Patriot League, nor the Big South offer women's bowling, the second sport which Monmouth needs to house. 

But the MEAC, which consists of HBCU's, has a Northern Division in women's bowling which could potentially take in their team.  Furthermore, Maryland-Eastern Shore, the MEAC's women's bowling champions, happen to also be the two-time NCAA champions as well. 

Might this make them a more attractive candidate for Monmouth, to take both sports in one shot?

Possibly, if it's not an issue that the MEAC stretches all the way from Dover, Delaware to Daytona Beach, Florida, and that a MEAC school hasn't won in the FCS playoffs for more than two decades.

Unlike the MEAC, CAA and Big South schools have seen some recent playoff success, with CAA members Delaware, Villanova and Richmond lifting NCAA FCS Championship banners in the last ten years alone, and Stony Brook winning round one games in consecutive years.

But like the MEAC, the CAA and Big South have very large conference footprints that stretch either North to New Hampshire and Maine (CAA) or South into the Carolinas (Big South).  While the Hawks' travel budget in the NEC wasn't insignificant, they were all bus trips, and aside from the expense of moving from the NEC's limit of 40 scholarships up to the NCAA limit of 63 there would be the addition of those travel costs.

The Big South would undoubtedly welcome the Hawks with open arms, but with six football members, and Liberty very vocal about their FBS ambitions, how stable is their conference?

The CAA is the top FCS football conference in the East - but the stability of their conference is also in question as well, with only four football-playing members in the conference that also compete in the CAA in all sports (James Madison, Towson, Delaware, William & Mary).  If James Madison receives and accepts a bid to, say the Mid-American Conference (MAC) to play football, where does that leave the confernence?

If geography was the main concern, no scholarship conference would be a better fit for Monmouth  than the Patriot League, with all of its membership a bus ride away.  In terms of stability, their "core five" of Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, Colgate and Holy Cross have competed together for the past quarter-century, and they're also one of the rare conferences in this round of expansion that have gained schools (Boston University and Loyola, Md.) rather than lost schools.

But Monmouth would also have to accept an academic index on football recruits - a very significant difference with the rest of the schools in FCS - and it's unclear how head coach Kevin Callahan or athletic director Dr. Marylin McNeil would feel about that.

About the only thing that can be said for sure is that Monmouth will have a a lot of choices - and a lot of possible directions - in terms of choosing a new football conference.

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