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Threats From The Ivy League?

It's unusual that scheduling enters into my thinking during the course of a regular season, but with Fordham's decision to offer scholarships there seems to be something afoot that needs to be discussed.

This week, there have been no less than three matters of Patriot League scheduling that have come up in papers around the Northeast. All three point towards a possible shift towards individual Patriot League teams scheduling more non-Ivy League teams in the future.

The first comes from the Hampton Roads Daily Press, where colunmist David Teel talks about the fact that William & Mary seems to be abandoning local rivalries in favor of FBS games and others. Teel has his own feelings about Patriot League competition that he doesn't bother to hide:

Hampton Roads is home to four Division I college football programs [William & Mary, Old Dominion, Norfolk State, Hampton] hailing from two conferences [the CAA and MEAC]. Which logic says would create natural, interleague, regional rivalries.

Were only scheduling so paint-by-numbers simple. The hurdle for all concerned is balancing the financial, recruiting, and yes, academic elements of the scheduling equation.

...

William and Mary has three non-conference dates to fill, and two of the three are booked indefinitely. One is reserved for a Bowl Subdivision opponent, last season North Carolina State, this year Virginia. Future dates, through 2016, are set against North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, West Virginia and Virginia (twice). The games not only allow Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock to test his squad against the big pups, but also to net the athletic department six-figure paydays.

Another non-league contest is saved for Virginia Military Institute. The programs met for 65 consecutive seasons before agreeing to a one-year respite in 2009, in part because the Keydets wanted to play a money game of their own, against Army. "I was told when I got here that we have a special relationship with VMI," said William and Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll, who arrived at William and Mary in 1996. That leaves Driscoll with one game to rotate.

In 2012 and '13, William and Mary is contracted to play the University of Pennsylvania. "I've been trying for a long time to get an Ivy League (opponent)," Driscoll said. "We were close with Princeton but couldn't (coordinate) the dates."

Penn is ideal for William and Mary on several fronts. Laycock and his staff recruit extensively in the region — the Tribe roster has 11 players from Pennsylvania and 13 from New Jersey — and appreciate the history of venerable Franklin Field, the Quakers' home stadium.

Also, William and Mary and Penn are comparable academically, with the Quakers providing credible but not intimidating football opposition.

If not the Ivy League, Driscoll would like to arrange games against Patriot League programs such as Bucknell, Lehigh and Lafayette. Again, academic heavyweights and football, at best, middleweights.

"The goal is to spread out (geographically)," Driscoll said, "but obviously we'd like to stay on the ground (not fly) if we can for expenses."

Clearly William & Mary value one local relationship beyond all others (VMI), desire one FBS "money game" for their books - but also want to schedule a like-minded institution like an Ivy League or Patriot League school. While a need-based scholarship Patriot League is considered a "middleweight" at best, you wonder if a Lehigh, Lafayette or Colgate with scholarships might pose a better out-of-conference opponent for them.

William & Mary isn't the only CAA school looking for Patriot League competition. With Dartmouth backing off from their annual slaughter against New Hampshire in the "Granite Bowl", the Laconia Citizen (NH) reports that two Patriot League opponents - Colgate and Lehigh - are being looked at as replacements:

The teams played close games in 2001 and 2002 with UNH prevailing by scores of 42-38 and 29-26. Since then, however, the smallest margin of victory has been 21 points in 2004 (45-24) and 2007 (52-31). Dartmouth hasn't beaten the Wildcats since 1976.

UNH went 8-3 that season, won the Yankee Conference title, and lost at Montana State in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs, 17-16, when McDonnell was a sophomore defensive back for the Wildcats.

"It's a rivalry that I really didn't understand until I came to school here," said [UNH head coach] McDonnell, a native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "It's a rivalry that I've become very fond of as a coach because you get the bragging rights for the state.

"I like the rivalry," McDonnell added. "I like the game. I think our state embraces it and I know our alumni embrace it. I want to see the thing continued as much as possible. At the same time you understand that people have to make decisions based on what's best for their football program."

In the meantime, to fill openings in the schedule, UNH has turned to the Patriot League and according to Scarano the school is close to working something out with Colgate and Lehigh.

With the Ivy League starting to schedule opponents that they have a chance at beating, there certainly still seems like there's an opportunity there that Lehigh is jumping at taking. New Hampshire, who has been nationally-ranked for the last four years, would provide a great one for Lehigh, scholarships or not.

As one door opens, though, there seems to be the threat of another shutting. As Harvard head football coach Tim Murphy intimated in an interview with the Harvard Crimson last week, it seems like Harvard may very well start to walk away from scheduling some Patriot League teams as well:

Fordham’s decision in June to begin awarding football scholarships starting with this year’s recruiting class piqued the interest of a lot of people in the Ivy League football community. The move shows a changing mentality in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division 1-AA), which includes the Ancient Eight.

“It’s something we’re definitely keeping an eye on because if they go scholarships—we’re talking about the league now—it will change dramatically,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy says. “The last time any Patriot League school had scholarships in that league was Holy Cross in the ’80s and ’90s. They dominated Eastern football at this level in a way that wasn’t seen before and hasn’t been seen since.”

...

So with its sister conference seemingly headed down a path towards athletic scholarships, is the Ivy League close behind?

“It will never happen in our league, and it shouldn’t,” Murphy says. “It’s not appropriate, because every kid here has something a little bit special about them. I think while in a certain world you might think that might be great for Harvard football, I think anything you do to try to distinguish athletes as being different from other students would not be a good thing.”

...

But if the Patriot League does step up the quality of its recruits, then necessary alterations will inevitably have to be made to Harvard’s non-conference schedule.

“We’ll have to adjust for sure,” Murphy admits, adding that the decision to schedule Fordham in an upcoming season was made “before we knew they were going to scholarships.”

Despite not being a viable candidate for any FBS opposition, Harvard is looking to make the most of its non-conference schedule.

Realizing the nationwide clout that the Harvard name carries, Murphy is looking to expand the field of competition beyond the Northeast for alumni- and recruiting-related reasons. The University of San Diego is just one of the many new names on the Crimson’s upcoming schedule.

“Southern California’s become such a big Ivy League recruiting area,” Murphy says. “California in general—and not just for football, but for all sports, for the general student body. We’re also going to be down in D.C. against Georgetown. Those are games that make sense to us, even though they might cost a little more in terms of travel.”
No word if Harvard will be dropping Fordham from their future schedule over the scholarship issue, but it's hard to see this as anything but a veiled threat to the Patriot League: offer scholarships, and Harvard will start to go in "another direction" - like San Diego of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League - as out-of-conference opponents.

Could the threat of playing non-scholarship and limited-scholarship schools one that Harvard could actually carry out? The Crimson don't have one problem that plagues many schools - they're still the richest school on the planet, despite the economic downturn - so they certainly could schedule who they want.

But the Crimson will find that nearly all of the schools that pass the ideological test are either state schools they have hesitated to play in the past (Central Connecticut State, Wagner, Bryant) or non-scholarship schools that for the most part are located way outside the Northeast. If they want to pay to charter planes to San Diego and Buies Creek, North Carolina (home of the Campbell Camels, for your information), it's their prerogative - but it will be expensive, and it will most likely be with schools with which they don't share a common academic bond.

If they don't what to schedule FCS teams, there's always the D-III NESCAC teams such as Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, and others. But while academically they may be peas in a pod, athletically they have nothing in common - and that would most likely reflect in some very lopsided scrimmages in Harvard's favor. I certainly wouldn't be interested in watching such butt-whoopings.

If they choose FCS-only competition, don't want to travel very far and still want to avoid the Patriot League and CAA, there's always the NEC and Big South, home to Central Connecticut State, Stony Brook, Albany and Wagner. But these schools are not the limited-need-based aid schools they once were. In 2010 and beyond they will have even more scholarships and will be competing in the FCS playoffs. All of these teams will look a lot more like CAA teams than Ivy League ones - and unlike the Patriot League these schools won't be an "academic index", or AI, to ensure that the players are academically qualified.

****

The more I look this over, the more it sounds like fear from Murphy that the Patriot League will now be able to compete with Harvard - and that maybe Dartmouth, Cornell, and others might be very eager to level the playing field with the richest schools in the Ivy League by - perhaps - offering scholarships. Unsurprisingly, he likes holding all the cards and not allowing any other Patriot League (or maybe Ivy League) teams to get in on the fun.

More importantly for Harvard, however, is that it makes zero sense to do this at any level. Many D-I schools, and all D-III schools, cannot compete with Harvard. With their aid package - that offers a free education if your family income is less that $180,000 a year, and you can make it through admissions - they make a mockery of the D-III idea of need-based aid, never mind Harvard's facilities for Olympic sports, and other perks of Division I schools.

If you thought Dayton had an unfair advantage over D-III schools, just wait until you look objectively at Harvard. It's conceivable in a few years that every spot on Harvard's roster will be populated with someone getting a "scholarship" - while it's aid that is available for anyone whose family is making $180,000 or less a year, that doesn't make the "scholarship" any less paid for. How does Bowdoin compete with that - never mind the Harvard name and D-I facilities?

Harvard should want to schedule the best and beat the best, and the alignment with the Patriot League, filled with high-academic institutions, is still the best match out there for them. They should be finding a way to have the Patriot League and add Stanford, Duke and Army to their OOC schedules in the next ten years, not looking at removing the Patriot League and adding San Diego, Amherst and Union (NJ) instead.

Comments

Anonymous said…
First, I'm almost positive Harvard will never schedule Stanford, Duke or Army in the next ten years, because I'm pretty sure FBS games against the Ivies don't count toward bowl eligibility, since the Ivy League doesn't participate in the FCS playoffs.

Second, there's no fear from Murphy when it comes to competition level. The best of the Patriot League can compete with Harvard. Holy Cross just beat them, and Lehigh and Lafayette will remain tough games on their schedule. The fear is running out of non-scholarship opponents with high academic standards. They'd rather play a Colgate than a Wagner.

Third, the Ivy League has about as much of a shot of offering scholarships as they do of joining the playoffs, which is to say, none.

Fourth, Princeton has pretty much the exact same financial aid package as Harvard, Yale is close, Cornell uses its state schools to lower the academic standards for its athletes, etc. etc. So it isn't like Harvard is somehow using its financial aid to be a football bully. It's competing with the Ivy League, and its winning record is coming from Coach Murphy's coaching ability.

Fifth, playing San Diego makes plenty of sense. Why play three/four (if you count Princeton) in the Pennsylvania area if your recruits are from California and not PA? And the fact is, if everyone has scholarships but them, there's even less of an incentive to play the Patriot League, and they might as well play the best teams with scholarships, like an Appalachian State or a Georgia area team (where they get another large number of recruits). If your OOC schedule is going to always have scholarship players, why bother with the Patriot League at all then?
Anonymous said…
The Virginia columnist that describes Patriot league teams as middleweights at best is a typical Southern douche. If JMU didnt have 7 downs to beat us they wouldn't have. Delaware during their powerful years had all they could handle with Lehigh. Then again that is when LU had a coach and players that could go toe to toe with those schools.

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