I planned a vacation in the mountains right before the Fourth of July, thinking that it's generally a dead time for college sports. I'm not alone, either. Most sportswriters do the same thing.
So what happens the week I'm gone? Mike Szoztak, the longtime Rhode Island beat writer from the Providence Journal, drops the bombshell that the Rams are looking at moving their football team from the CAA to the NEC starting with the 2013 season. Ram sightings at Delaware's Tub, seen in this picture, might be less and less frequent.
At the beginning of 2009, the CAA had twelve teams and had split into North and South divisions. The main discussion point back then was how they were going to be able to accommodate Old Dominion and Georgia State in their powerhouse conference - and how many at-large bids they might have in the future. How things have changed only 365 days later. (more)
The URI Rams have a long, storied history in Northeast football, first suiting up in 1895 and playing pigskin for more than a century. They boast a continuous rivalry with in-state rival Brown, which started in 1909 when the Bears agreed to play small "Rhode Island State" college in an early-season matchup. Still played today, the winner gets the "Governor's Cup" in one of the best-attended games on both teams' schedules.
Along with UMass, UConn, Maine and New Hampshire, they were one of the original members of the Yankee Conference that were a Northeastern small college institution for more than fifty years. URI has played each of these four schools more than eighty times apiece, and also captured seven Yankee Conference titles in their history (including three FCS playoff appearances, including opening-round wins over Richmond and Akron in the 1980s).
Back in the early 1970s, the Yankee Conference was an all-sports league complete with regional football, a growing basketball league, and a host of other sports. But the NCAA's mandate of putting entire programs as Division I, II or III would put serious pressure on the Yankee Conference, and the beginning of the end of this conference could have been in 1975 - because of basketball.
That year, UMass announced it would leave the Yankee Conference in basketball to join the EICBL, a precursor to the Big East and Atlantic Ten boasting members such a Pitt, West Virginia, Penn State, Duquesne and Rutgers. That motion would prompt URI's then-president Frank Newman to make the disastrous decision to allow members to pick and choose the Yankee sports to participate in.
Not wanting to get stuck in a dead basketball league, all its members would jump ship by the 1979 season (with, notably, UConn washing up on the shores of the Big East and URI ending up in the Atlantic Ten). The NCAA's rules on Division I, II and III were particularly rough on constructs like the Yankee Conference that wanted to play top-flight basketball but also wanted to pursue Division II football. When the NCAA in effect forced teams to have to have a Division I program or a Division II program, many opted to play in Division I. I-AA football, now called FCS football, was born of that division in 1978 - and it was the plight of conferences like the Yankee that the NCAA had in mind, possibly, when creating the subdivision in the first place.
All the football teams in the Yankee Conference did end up staying together as a I-AA football-only incarnation, it's worth noting. While the rest of the Yankee Conference sports were melting down, the core group of schools - the five land grant schools from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island, plus Boston University - still wished to play football against one another. Out of tradition - and convenience, too, as none of these schools wanted to have to play "big-time" bowl college football - the Yankee Football conference was born.
The Yankee Football Conference thrived under this format - and even expanded. The conference had an autobid to the first I-AA playoffs in 1978, which would prove important in attracting original Yankee castoff Northeastern as well as Delaware, Villanova, William & Mary and Richmond to the conference over the next ten years. While many of the new teams were a good distance from the footprint of the Northeast land-grant schools, they were inspired, even brilliant, additions to the Yankee Conference - Richmond/William & Mary and Delaware/Villanova were great football rivalries, and the value of their addition to the Yankee was incalculable.
In the late 1990s, however, the Yankee would cease to be a conference as the NCAA would change their governance rules to limit the influence of single-sport conferences over legislation and other matters (notably I-AA playoff participation). From there, the Yankee conference "merged" with the Atlantic Ten to maintain their influence in matters related to I-AA football - and eventually would cede control of the football conference to the Colonial Athletic Association ten years later. (Boston University, a program with over 100 years of football history, dropped football during this time.)
The Yankee Conference started out as a Northeastern-based all-sports conference comprised mostly of land-grant schools, morphed into a football-only conference of regional Eastern FCS powerhouses, and ended as the northern prong of a Southern-leaning conference that boasts Virginia Commonwealth, Georgia State and UNC-Wilmington amongst its members. And the week I was on vacation, one of the Yankee Conference's founding members decided it couldn't hang with that crowd anymore.
It's been a long, strange trip for the CAA this year. Last July, they had a twelve team conference, neatly split into North (Maine, UNH, URI, UMass, Hofstra, Northeastern) and South (James Madison, Richmond, William & Mary, Delaware, Towson, Villanova) divisions. In a two week span in December, Northeastern dropped football, followed by Hofstra, and now after some soul-searching by URI, half of last year's CAA North will no longer be playing in the conference starting in 2012.
The CAA as a conference will not have any problem soldiering on. Old Dominion and Georgia State were already well in the pipeline to play in the league by then, with UNC Charlotte rumored to be very close to becoming the next team to join them. There are also rumors that the entire conference, Towson and all, may even have designs on trying their hand at becoming an FBS conference sometime after that.
But the CAA's growth and Southern tilt might spell the final blow to what was once seen as Northeast football - a landscape where URI finished the year against UConn, all the small land grants played one another, Holy Cross battled against Boston College every year, and everyone hated UMass.
People think of the Northeast as a place where pro sports are king - where the dominion of the Patriots, Yankees, and Bruins rule the day on the sports pages. But this wasn't always the case.
Once, there was a local New England sports scene that thrived in the fall. Harvard/Yale, Boston College/Holy Cross, Amherst/Williams and URI/UConn were some of the highlights of the fall schedule, and they were interesting games that were big deals in their communities.
But a lot of factors conspired to break the party up. Boston College chose to chase the money, first in the Big East and now the ACC. So did UConn, as part of the Big East. Holy Cross chose to turn away from the corrupting influence of big-time football, and joined the Patriot League. Amherst/Williams and the rest of the NESCAC proudly went to Division III and never turned back, while the Ivies went from the AP Top 25 to sequestering themselves from everyone, even from the rest of FCS football. And - last week - URI looked at its remaining three football-playing, former Yankee neighbors and thought: How are we all that similar anymore?
UMass is a very large land-grant school that has the resources to commit to full scholarship FCS football and top-flight Atlantic Ten sports. New Hampshire and Maine are small land-grant schools that commit to full-scholarship football - but save money as members of America East in all other sports.
URI? They must have thought of themselves as a school in the middle of a state funding crisis that can't possibly keep up with UMass in football, or basketball. They don't want to give up 109 years of tradition in football, but they still want to win an NCAA title in basketball. And football-wise, they didn't have a lot in common with teams like Delaware or James Madison anymore. In contrast to Delaware's and JMU's national championships, the last twenty years in the Yankee/A-10/CAA the Rams had only three seasons with winning records, and only eclipsed the five win barrier four times. While the Hens and Dukes were unveiling plans to increase seating in their stadium in the past few years, URI was making plans to reduce the capacity of historic Meade stadium to 5,000 since they couldn't get fannies in the seats.
The NEC doesn't have the same national stature as the CAA. But starting in 2010, they have an autobid to the FCS playoffs - thus giving them the same access to the playoffs as the CAA, technically. The NEC also has some pretty good teams amongst their members too, as Lehigh fans will attest to. (Their last two champions, Albany and Central Connecticut State, are 2-0 against the Mountain Hawks with a 17-16 win in 2006 and a 28-21 win in 2009, respectively.)
The NEC allows its members a smaller number of scholarships for its football teams (40) than the CAA (63), offering some potential cost savings, but it's really travel costs and alignment with other similar state institutions that makes this an attractive deal for the Rams. Adding a nearby in-state rival in Bryant, they guarantee one or two day-trip games (along with their game vs. Brown) each season, with CCSU, Wagner, and Albany also very close by as day-trip games as well. And institutionally - at the present time - URI football has a lot more in common with Albany and Central Connecticut State than it does UMass or James Madison.
It's not bad football - the NEC is a very good conference whose star is clearly on the rise. But at the same token, it ain't the CAA. And there's more than just jumping conferences at stake - it's the loss of football relationships dating well more than fifty years. Those things aren't just discarded easily.
In the end, though, it involved saving costs on football while allowing them to pursue a national basketball team. Ultimately, when it came down to historic regional football rivalries or world-class basketball, there really wasn't any choice.
Tomorrow: Part Two: How Rhody Affects the Patriot League