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FCS Playoffs, And No Ivy league

It always seems to come up this time of year, when teams like Montana, Appalachian State, Youngstown State and UMass are playing in the FCS (formerly the I-AA) playoffs. Namely, how come the "Ancient Eight" (pictorially represented to my left) are not in the playoffs? The short answer? They don't want to.

I think any Lehigh fan (or Patriot League fan, for that matter) knows what the playoff bid has meant for the conference in terms of football identity. It has been invaluable in giving not only the obvious rivalry game (Lehigh/Lafayette) meaning, but also games like Colgate/Lafayette, Lehigh/Colgate, Fordham/Colgate, and others. You can get an Ivy or NEC education, but only the Patriot League gives you the opportunity to play for a national championship.

The Northeast Conference, or NEC, doesn't have an autobid but has been desperately trying to get one. I think they see the instant "street cred" you get from a spot in the playoffs. But more curiously, the Ivy League has consistently said "no" to participation, despite the fact that Ivy players, coaches, and many fans would say "yes" in a heartbeat. Why? The Ivies participate in the playoffs in every other sport that offers playoffs. The arguments they give - "playoffs run into finals" and "the Ivies only participate in Division I postseason, and the FCS isn't division I" - are so downright ludicrous that it's surprising the big brains from the Ivy League actually came up with the justification.

The reason why the Ivies don't wnat to participate in the playoffs is very complicated, but I think this year I'm starting to notice something. It is not a unified front against the playoffs, but it is an uneasy alliance between two factions, both of which don't really think FCS football has any value. This NY Times article, released at about the time of Harvard/Yale, displays the clear factions within the Ivy League braintrust.

Faction 1: The schools who have presidents that couldn't dream of competing in today's D-I football world without the caps on athletic budgets that our subdivision offers. (read: Dartmouth, Cornell, Columbia, Brown)

Faction 2: The schools who have presidents that still, somehow, in their heart of hearts think it would be better to stay as a Division I school at the level of a Stanford or Rice and play in the occasional bowl. They feel that in the late '70s and '80s the Ivies were in the Top 25 and should never have "demoted themselves" to I-AA at that time. (read: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn)

This #2 is the most interesting. It's the same disease that plagues Army and Navy - these "delusions of grandeur" that their 2-9 or 6-5 teams that sneak into the lower echelons of the D-I rankings will do wonders for their national profile. Remember, Army, Navy, and the Ivies recruit nationally and internationally for recruits, something that many schools cannot dream of doing. (To a lesser extent this also applies to SWAC schools, a conference of historically black colleges & universities that recruit nationally as well.)

The Ivy uneasily remains in Division I, Championship Subdivision, because they don't want to jettison their lower-spending schools and go the route of Army or Navy. But the current mission of the Ivy doesn't really involve the CS playoffs with either of these two factions. To them, I feel it's either play I-A Bowl Subdivision, or play cost-containment, and to hell with your silly playoffs.

The powers-that-be in don't put any value into it - to their detriment, in my opinion. All you need to do is look at the Patriot League (and, specifically, the Lehigh/Lafayette rivalry) to see what the playoffs can do for a league and a rivalry. Fifteen years ago, Lehigh/Lafayette was all about getting drunk and going after some goalpasts - and who cares who wins the game. Now? It's a national event that has radically shifted the focus of the game to titles and pride - and has awakened the sleeping contingent of Lafayette fans. There is no question the games in the past three years have been fantastic for the league (even though Lehigh has lost all three), and has saved the rivalry from being a cute backwater game into a game of national importance. "The Rivalry" has never been healthier.

In contrast, when I look at Harvard/Yale, I see what Lehigh/Lafayette used to be. A celebration of drinking with lots of people not giving a rat's ass about who wins or loses. Even though this year's game meant Yale had a chance to share the Ivy title, few knew about it aside from hardcore Harvard or Yale fans.

To me, the two Ivy factions think the following about Harvard/Yale: 1) it's fine the way it is, in obscurity, or 2) others think that it should be a "big-time" game like Army/Navy. Until the Ivy presidents are smart enough to think of option 3) if the Ivies elected to be in the CS playoffs, Harvard/Yale would become bigger and a more positive experience simply by default, they'll still let the Ivy League and this great rivalry slide into obscurity.


fingers crossed said…
While I've got no dog in the Ivy playoff/no playoff fight, I've got to say that your comments re: the national prominence of Harvard-Yale vs. Lehigh-Laf. really don't support your cause.

The truth is (and I say this as a I-aa fan with family connections to four PL schools) no one really cares about the I-aa playoffs. The playoffs may have boosted the importance of Lehigh-Lafayette to their partisans -- and that's great -- but the nation at large doesn't care.

As for the declining importance of the Ivy League, there's still pretty significant interest in some of their games. Much as we might wish that "the nation" cared about PL games more than Ivy games b/c of the playoff import, there's no data to support that. In fact, there were about three times as many people at the Yale-Princeton game (43,000+) at the Bowl this year as were at any PL game -- and twice as many at the Yale-Harvard game.

The bottom line is that Ivy teams don't enter the playoffs for the simple reason that they see no benefit to it. And honestly, when you see 5200 people at UMass for the first-round game, it's hard to disagree.

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