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Northeastern's CAA Folly

Last week, on June 23rd, a long-anticipated announcement was made by Northeastern University. The school announced that for the 2006-2007 season, Northeastern was going to be joining the Colonial Athletic Association, or CAA, in all sports except football. One of the primary reasons for the move included the opportunity for the N'Eastern Huskies to increase the prestige of their men's basketball program, as the move from the weaker America East conference to a powerful mid-major basketball conference including UNC-Wilmington, Drexel, and George Washington.

If you parse through the reports of the news conference, you hear the same type of reasoning that the ACC used a year ago in pursuing Boston College: CAA Commissioner Tom Yaeger: "It was an evaluation not only of today but more importantly where the institution aspires to be in the next decade. This evaluation brought us to Boston and to Northeastern." Northeastern AD John O'Brien: "[the move is] an opportunity for us to make a statement that we want to expand beyond our traditional Northeastern geographical footprint."

The other less publicised, yet very important, reason for this move, was that of the CAA's 12 members, it gives the CAA 6 1-AA football-playing members. As John Connoly from the Boston Herald opined, "Both the CAA and NU hope the new marriage will eventually include Division 1-AA football." Indeed, quoting CAA commissioner Yaeger: "While we don’t have any set plans, we have opened ourselves to the advent of football".

With the addition of N'Eastern, the CAA now counts among its members 6 football programs which are part of the 1-AA A-10 football conference (Delaware, William & Mary, Towson St., Hofstra, James Madison, and now Northeastern). More accurately, the CAA has cobbled together a potential football coalition of one 1-AA powerhouse (Delaware), two A-10 Johnny-come-latelies (Towson St. and Hofstra), two middling A-10 members (JMU and W&M), and now longtime A-10 football member and recent 1-AA power N'Eastern. A hodgepodge of great, and simply OK, 1-AA football teams that geographically and competitively have little in common.

Like one 1-AA columnist told me, "It has everything to do with image, and nothing to do with logic." And Lehigh Football Nation agrees - it's hard to see why N'Eastern would align itself with a conference whose members are for the most part a 6 hour or more drive away. In the case of Boston College, it's easy to see that it's a monetary decision. But is N'Eastern going to reap any sort of financial windfall?

Only if the CAA, sooner or later, becomes a money-making 1-A mid-major football conference. Experts are divided as to whether this is the ultimate goal of the CAA. One 1-AA expert says yes: "It makes sense for a league anchored by Delaware and burgeoning power JMU. It makes even more sense if the NCAA Division I Board of Directors continues to appease the non-BCS [members]." But another disagrees: "Northeastern and Hofstra have no shot to bring the necessary fan base or resources to the I-A table."

One thing is clear: with the announcement of this move, the question now is when, not if, the CAA will open for business as a football conference (most likely, in Lehigh Football Nation's opinion, at the beginning of the 2006-2007 season).

Not a lot is known about the CAA's and A-10's future plans. What is clear, however, is that what happens to the CAA and A-10 will have seismic repercussions around 1-AA football, and in 1-AA Eastern football in particular. (This includes our beloved Patriot League.)

Here are the potential ways this could play itself out.

1)The CAA takes over the entire 1-AA A-10 football conference.

Chances of upgrading CAA to 1-A: Doubtful. The A-10 as a whole cannot survive as a 1-A conference without schools like New Hampshire, Maine and Villanova committing to big-time football, which doesn't appear likely.

Impact on 1-AA football: This would make the new CAA league more of an all-sports football conference rather than what the current A-10 football league is now, a collection of 1-AA football programs of which only three teams (Richmond, UMass, and Rhode Island) are all-sports members. This might give the league more clout at the negotiating table for all sports.

Impact on 1-AA playoffs: Negligible. The A-10's automatic Eastern bid should be transferred to the CAA, giving 1-AA the same number of automatic and at-large bids.

Impact on the Patriot League: Negligible. CAA programs should schedule Patriot teams on occasion, as they do currently.

2)The CAA takes over six or more teams of the 1-AA A-10 football conference, and the A-10 ceases to exist.

Chances of upgrading CAA to 1-A: 50/50. While Delaware, James Madison, Towson St. and William & Mary could plausibly mull a 1-A move in the near future, it is hard to picture Northeastern and Hofstra generating the stadiums and fan support for such a move. But N'Eastern and Hofstra may not have any choice.

Impact on 1-AA football: Huge. Anywhere up to 6 A-10 teams would be left scrambling to find new homes. Richmond, currently in the CAA in other sports, might not want to get left out by returning to its "ancestral homeland" in the CAA. UMass might try to move to 1-A and knock on the door of the Big East. But the biggest question marks would involve URI, UMaine, and UNH, and Villanova.

Impact on 1-AA playoffs: Negligible. The A-10's automatic Eastern bid should be transferred to the CAA, giving 1-AA the same number of automatic and at-large bids.

Impact on the Patriot League: Huge. Villanova and Richmond could find a nice home in the Patriot League (as football-only members) after an A-10 break up, if they are willing to restructure their philosiphy towards scholarships. The PL could also modify their non-scholarship philosiphy as well in order to nab any or all of the remaining A-10 schools, though there is zero indication that the Patriot League would be willing to do that.

Patriot League game scheduling would become more crowded. It could be interesting to see if the league continues its scheduling of many Ivy League teams, or possibly reduces their commitment there to schedule more CAA teams.

The CAA would all of a sudden have out of conference games to schedule, and high-echelon Patriot teams like Lehigh and Colgate could fit the bill nicely. N'Eastern could schedule Holy Cross every year.

3)The CAA takes over six or more teams of the 1-AA A-10 football conference, and the A-10 keeps exactly six teams, or looks for schools to maintain the number of teams at 6, in order to preserve its automatic bid, and to maintain its presence in football.

Chances of upgrading CAA to 1-A: 50/50. See 2).

Impact on 1-AA football: Huge. This could start the conference merry-go-round in earnest. The A-10 would most likely go after teams that are currently A-10 members, or might be tempted by full A-10 membership, in order to maintain its six-team minimum. All Eastern conferences could have teams that are targeted by such a move, and it might bring on the death knell of other football conferences currently on life support (such as the MAAC).

Impact on 1-AA playoffs: Huge. It would be difficult to imagine the NCAA not giving an automatic bid to the CAA, considering that it would be one of the premier conferences in 1-AA by Delaware's presence alone. But as two 1-AA columnists explained to me, "NCAA bylaws stipulate that no more than 50% of a championship field can be populated by automatic berths, and we're already at that point." So an exemption to the NCAA bylaws would have to be granted for the A-10, CAA, and other conferences (like the OVC, MEAC, Big South, Great West, and Patriot) to gain, or retain, their automatic bids.

But clearly there are a glut of conferences, with only so many possible bids in the 16-team tournament as it stands now. Furthermore, three precious automatic bids in the East would be taken up by the A-10, CAA, and Patriot. If the Ivy ever wanted to compete in the 1-AA playoffs (certainly Penn deserved to make it last year), would the Ivy get a fourth bid? Could the system exist as we know it, or would something need to be done?

Impact on the Patriot League: Huge. Fordham, who is an A-10 member in all sports except football, might be coerced into joining A-10 "lite" and in Lehigh Football Nation's opinion would be target #1 for the A-10 should it want to keep its football conference. A more outside possibility would be Holy Cross jumping to the A-10 in all sports (in order to jump to A-10 basketball), though Holy Cross doesn't appear to want to commit to scholarship football at any level.

Should that happen, the PL would need to be on the lookout for new teams to add to replace them. Duquesne might be a good candidate, though they would be added as a football-only school (Duquesne is aligned with the A-10 in all other sports). Other possibilities in the MAAC football conference could be Marist (as a full member) or LaSalle (as a football-only member), though any MAAC school moving to the Patriot would undoubtedly spell the end of the MAAC as a football conference.

Another option might be a D-II or D-III school to step up to 1-AA competition as a full-fledged memeber of the Patriot League. (Examples that leap to mind could be Lock Haven, Gettysburg, or maybe even Moravian.)

For out-of conference games, the Patriot League would have an embarassment of riches. With the CAA and A-10 needing games to fill their schedule, PL teams would definitely be in demand. The Ivies could see their games with the PL reduced, or possibly being eliminated.

The only thing that is certain: these are interesting times for Eastern 1-AA football.


Anonymous said…
Great job! Really summarizes very well implications for PL and Eastern 1-AA FB in general.
Anonymous said…
One correction: Duquesne is aligned with the A-10 in all other sports.

The MAAC, with only five teams, has already lost official standing as a football league, but as a non-playoff conference that doesn't really matter.

If A-10 FB survives, the addition of the new CAA and Great West leagues means someone (MEAC?, Southland? the Big South doesn't have one yet) would have to lose a berth. Can't wait to see the political fur fly.
Anonymous said…
Nice article, Lehigh Nation. Just note, however, that George Washington plays A-10 basketball.

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