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Swordfights & Shots Across The Bow

I'm continuously amazed about the amazing free-flow of information these days. The speed of news everywhere is moving at a record pace. Images from Iraq and Lebanon are broadcast to us mere hours after they happen. The sexuality of N' Sync's bassist is beamed to us moments after their publicist announces it. And, at a I-AA football level, speeches from league commissioners uttered at league "media days"can become, in effect, "shots heard around the world". Proposals can have the effect of being invitations for a swordfight.

We're less than a week from the Patriot League's media day, but thoughts of summer practice and Lehigh's new 3-4 defense maybe should be taking a back seat to a legislative proposal coming out of the OVC and Big Sky media days.

Thanks to I-AA Waves, the only national radio show devoted solely to I-AA football, a proposal mentioned by the Big Sky and OVC commissioners has come to national light. It's a proposal to have mimimum criteria for a conference to have an automatic qualifier in the I-AA playoffs. Their proposed criteria is "six conference members with at least fifty scholarships (or equivalencies) in a rolling 2-year period". The intent of this "AQ 6 & 50" legislation is to, it seems, stop talk from teams in conferences with too few members (such as the Big South) or not enough scholarships (the Notheast Conference (NEC), Metro Atlantic (MAAC) and Pioneer) to talk seriously about playoff membership. That is, if you beleieve all the talk.

Why should Patriot League fans be concerned? Because the Patriot League would not qualify under these "criteria" as worthy of an automatic qualifer!

The Patriot League offers grants-in-aid instead of scholarships in their football programs. To those that don't know, that basically means that Patriot League schools offer aid on a need basis rather than an athletic basis. You could say that Patriot League aid is available, but tougher to get, than an athletic scholarship at, say, Eastern Illinois out of the OVC. This makes the number of grants vary a lot from year to year. Although similar to scholarships in some ways, they are not entirely like the type of scholarships offered elsewhere in I-AA.

Furthermore, Patriot League schools are different in the number of grants-in-aid they offer. The hard limit on scholarships is 63 across I-AA, but in the Patriot League there is no minimum requirement of grants-in-aid offered, and no team currently offers more than 60 grants-in-aid. A few years ago, Lehigh was at around 54 or 55 grants, and it's quite likely that they are only three schools -- at best -- above 50 at present. One school, Georgetown, isn't even close with less than 35.

If you hear the interview with Doug Fullerton of the Big Sky, and hear the address of OVC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, you'll hear a lot of talk about "giving the low and non-scholarship conferences their own postseason opportunity", and bringing in examples that are quite besides the point (specifically, Coastal Carolina, who is in the five-member Big South). To me, this is careful politicking and framing that might make Karl Rove proud.

First question: Why would the OVC want to erect barriers to playoff contention and "aiding the low and non-scholarship programs"? It could be to protect their own tenuous place on an automatic qualifier themselves.

The OVC's playoff record in the past eight years has been less-than-stellar. Specifically, their last playoff win came in 1996 with Murray State. As a result, there have been a lot of fans of other conferences that have been saying that the OVC perhaps does not deserve a playoff spot. (I disagree; I think the OVC clearly belongs as a playoff conference.)

To me, the OVC is trying to "protect" their playoff spot at the expense of non-scholarship leagues (the MAAC and Pioneer), low-scholarship leagues (the NEC) and leagues with a mix of scholarship levels (Big South, Patriot). As a nine (soon to be ten) team conference, the OVC's chances of not qualifying as an auto-qualifying conference with these criteria are remote. Similarly, the nine-team Big Sky is also safe. The Patriot League is not.

Second question: Why would the Big Sky be so in favor of this?

My theory is that with the emergence of the Great West Football conference (GWFC) as a frequent out-of-conference foe to Big Sky schools, the development of the GWFC as a playoff conference would be a high priority for the Big Sky conference. How... coincidental... that this legislation would neatly make all possible playoff conferences "ineligible" (NEC and the Big South once it gets its sixth member in Presbyterian) while simultaneously weakening an existing playoff conference (the Patriot). Is this a way to grease the skids for an eventual GWFC playoff spot?

No matter what anyone says, the Patriot League is a I-AA playoff conference. They are NOT a low-scholarship or limited-scholarship conference. Patriot League teams have earned national respect and have amply proven that they belong in the I-AA playoff field. The Patriot League has no interest in playing in any other postseason tournament except the I-AA playoffs, and there's no good reason to take it away. Enacting this legislation would be propping up a conference whose champions haven't won a playoff game since 1999, while denying a conference whose champion in 2003 was in the I-AA Championship game.

To legislate away the Patriot League's autoqualifier in this matter would be a national disgrace to I-AA football, in effect punishing gridiron success.

You, the Patriot League fan, should not be fooled. This legislation is targeting the Patriot League, not the NEC or Pioneer. The lucky thing is that with news able to transfer more quickly and more accurately, we know about it sooner than ever - and it (hopefully) can be shot down sooner than ever.


UPDATE 8/8/2006: On the I-AA Waves internet radio program, Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton and OVC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher made addendum to their "6 & 50" presentation to require a minimum of "football spending" required to get an autobid, making it instead the "6 & 50 Plus" proposal instead. This proposal would eliminate the possibility of the Patriot League losing their autobid, or at least make it more difficult since the minumum of 1.25 million of football spending is exceeded by all Patriot League schools I beleieve.

If you take my original posting's theme that the flow of information is faster than ever, the quick response from Mr. Fullerton and Mr. Steinbrecher to this blog posting and the discussion about this in other formus such as Any Given Saturday illustrate this point.

However, it no longer looks like the target of this legislation is the Patriot League. I'm not sure where I stand on it - that's probably a debate that needs to be done sometime next year - but for sure the impact to the Patriot League is now much more minimal, which is why I added this addendum.


Ralph said…
Troy State was in the Southland in 1999.

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