Two days ago, I blogged about Rhode Island's thoughts on leaving the CAA in order to join the NEC. Yesterday, I talked about the impacts on that move on the CAA and NEC. Today, I'll talk about whether the Patriot League is affected at all by this move by Rhode Island - because as things stand right now with the league and their stance on offering largely need-based aid, it doesn't appear to be.
The problems are neatly summed up by a member of the Providence Journal's URI Forum, a meeting place for fans of the URI program. Reaction to the Rams' football move to the NEC have been mixed there, and some members were motivated to ask the Rams' athletic director, Thorr Bjorn, about his thought process. He was specifically asked, "why the NEC? Wouldn't the Patriot League be a better option for URI, with games versus A-10 leaguemate Fordham and nearby Holy Cross?"
"I would have preferred URI going to the Patriot League, but Thorr said URI couldn't compete with no scholarships. He did say that the PL will be offering them soon. Maybe that could open the door at some point, for URI to join that league, along with UNH and UMaine. That would be a while before that could happen, though."
Can you stand to see... (more)?
In the summer of 2009, associate Patriot League member Fordham announced that they would start to offer football scholarships not based on need, starting with the 2010 season. This was at odds with the Patriot League's policy on football scholarships, which was to require football players to go through the financial aid office and find out whether some of them could convert the loan portions into grants. But for Fordham, who competes in all other sports in the Atlantic Ten, it was a no-brainer: they were spending the money already on scholarships in any case. Just making them no longer needs-tested meant they could offer scholarships to a lot more students - putting the money from one pot into another, so to speak.
Fordham's action gave an opportunity for the presidents of the Patriot League to change the policy that already has been changed for every other Patriot League sport: to offer scholarships that are not need-tested, starting with the 2010 season.
Instead, the Patriot League punted - they decided to instead have a "discussion" about the "competitive and financial implications" of football scholarships, while "anticipating" that a decision will be made no later than the end of 2010.
One of the results of this decision is to have Patriot League fans sit at the edge of their seat, waiting to see if the league office would make the announcement that would allow football programs to offer the same types of football scholarships that are used in places like Delaware and New Hampshire. In June, the latest meeting of the Patriot League Council of Presidents came and went - just like the others - with no announcement on football scholarships.
But it also looks like another result of this decision was to make Rhode Island look elsewhere for league membership when they were mulling over leaving the CAA.
In a blog posting that seems awfully prescient now, this January I penned a blog posting almost imploring the Patriot League presidents to be considering a possible admission of New Hampshire and Maine to the Patriot League. It could be done, I argued: with a modified Academic Index and football scholarships, UNH's and Maine's high-academic achieving football stars could easily be a part of the fabric of the Patriot League. It would give the Patriot League nine members, and even possibly cause UNH and Maine to join in all sports as well, giving the league a footprint from Washington, DC to Orono, Maine.
But right now, the questions from fans about the Patriot League are the same ones that seem to come up every year. Is this the month they offer football scholarships? Have they decided to decide to decide, yet? Do we think Johns Hopkins or RPI will be joining full-time Division I athletics in 2015? Will the last two FCS national champions, Richmond and Villanova, decide that they don't want to spend as much money and instead join the Patriot League? If they say no, is this the end of the dream of scholarships?
In my opinion, these are not the questions that should be asked at this point. What should be discussed is: How can we integrate New Hampshire and Maine (and possibly UMass and Rhode Island) into the Patriot League model? Does the AI need to be tweaked in order to accommodate in-state students? How soon can everyone be on board with football scholarships? What about accepting Maine and New Hampshire as all-sports members? Can all the schools be on board with this before fall recruiting season?
Everything I mentioned in my January blog posting about Maine and UNH is doubly true today. Their travel costs in the Patriot League would decrease significantly - especially since Rhode Island is now headed to the NEC - and if you factor in a possible game with Ivy League schools as well (the Patriot League's regular partner for out-of-conference games), that's another bus trip for UNH and Maine for at least one other game a year. With the ability to offer football scholarships - at the maximum level or 63, though - they could still play FBS teams for guarantee money, further helping the books.
Had the Patriot League presidents pulled the trigger on football scholarships in, say December 2009, the league may have been in discussions last March with Rhode Island in possible football-only membership, maybe along with New Hampshire, Maine, and UMass too.
But as Ram AD Thorr Bjorn said in his email to rambone78 on their message board, they "couldn't compete with no scholarships". Without something announced about the scholarship issue, URI couldn't even seriously think about what the Patriot League might or might not do.
Given that reality, the NEC was the logical choice for the Rams, no question. You could say that the Patriot League did not give them any other choice.
As things stand right now, the Patriot League is not an option for schools like Rhode Island because without need-blind scholarships, joining the league is a non-starter. It's not a philosophical point, either. They need scholarships to attract players - almost all of whom come out of state. Changing scholarship policy along with the possibility of increased academic standard for athletes would be a recipe for trouble competing on the field.
Reading more posts from that ProJo message board should also make for instructive reading for Patriot League fans and administrators alike. "I also think that UNH and UMaine, although they are staying put in the CAA for now, will at some point be forced to join the NEC also. UMass will remain in the CAA, but with no other local schools in the league, they will either have to drop down also, or move up if possible," rambone78 opines.
If that is indeed what happens - New Hampshire and Maine getting pushed to the NEC instead of the Patriot League - without question it would be a huge loss for the league. It might make the NEC into a "new Yankee" conference which completely eclipses the Patriot League, especially if they somehow convince UMass to join.
As the ProJo message board postings make clear, though, Rhode Island's athletic director does feel that the Patriot League "will be offering athletic scholarships soon", which could open the door "at some point" for Patriot League membership. His post implies, however, that it could be a "while" before it happens.
If true, that does offer some optimism, since it seems like the word to former Yankee Conference athletic directors is that the Patriot League will soon offer football scholarships - though in what form and how many remains to be seen.
That may - or may not - be a part of the "Yankee Four" schools' decision making process when evaluating their continued membership in the CAA.
Despite this, the League seems like they're already behind the eight ball in ways concerning expansion with any of the original Yankee Conference land grant schools.
And it has taken a long time to reach Patriot League consensus on certain items - which has served the league well in some matters, but poorly in others. It sometimes seems like the league has taken a "let's take two years to talk this over" attitude to things when action needs to be taken right away. Rightly or not, the Patriot League structure gives an impression of gridlock and indecisiveness at times, and also going against the popular grain as well. (Hence his statement that scholarships could take a "while" to happen.)
But if a decision has indeed been reached on offering football scholarships and the League is simply waiting to announce it - as Mr. Bjorn implies - it would seem like it would be in the Patriot League presidents' best interests to make their plans known sooner rather than later, preferably after discussing the matter with the athletic directors of all four potential schools.
Because if a decision has been made, why does it need to take a "while" for schools like New Hampshire and Maine and others to be offered membership in the Patriot League? They need a proper Northeastern home; they have good football programs academically and athletically; and all they really need is need-blind football scholarships. And if the Patriot League dithers, the window could close on any one of these schools chances of joining. It already seems to have closed concerning Rhode Island.
Will another opportunity for the Patriot League to expand like this - with historic century-old programs - occur in our lifetimes?
Or will this be another yet another tale of the Patriot League presidents dithering and watching high-academic schools make decisions to join other conferences, and watch a league like the NEC surpass it in athletic stature?