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Rhody's CAA Rethink, Part Two: The Ram-Ifications

(Photo courtesy the South County Independent)

Yesterday, I blogged about Rhode Island's thoughts on leaving the CAA in order to join the NEC.  Today, I'm blogging about the effects of their move on the rest of Northeast football - including the Patriot League.

Interestingly,  Northeastern's discontinuation of football was certainly bad news, and Hofstra's president pulling a "Sonny Corleone in the tollbooth" on football a week later was also a seismic event concerning football in this area.

But URI's decision could have an even greater impact in the long run for all three Northeastern FCS football conferences. It could have an impact that affects directly or indirectly all three conferences: the NEC, CAA, and Patriot League. (more)

As I mentioned yesterday, URI's decision is in a way even more significant than Northeasterns' and Hofstra's decisions since it signifies not only the end of the Rams' struggles to be competitive in the CAA.  It also means that one of the founding members of the Yankee Conference - the CAA's precursor - will be abandoning their historic Yankee football rivals of UMass, New Hampshire and Maine, whom they have been playing for over fifty years.

It's an admission that in the fifty-year football arms race of the Yankee Conference/Atlantic 10/CAA, the Rams ultimately lost.  It's also an admission that the CAA isn't any longer a Northeast-based conference: it's a Southern-based conference with the last vestiges of the Yankee Conference along for the ride.

So what does it mean for the Northeast conferences?  Let's look at each one individually, starting with the clear winner in this sweepstakes.

The Northeast Conference: Movers and Shakers
Ten years ago, the NEC was a limited need-based aid league.  It had nine teams, including an affiliate school that would drop football a year later (St. John's) and another who would leave later in order to pursue 63 scholarship football (Stony Brook).  Its survival was by no means assured: it was an afterthought in the rest of the I-AA football world, inhabiting a purgatory between Division I non-scholarship football and Patriot League need-based football.  NEC foes played one Patriot League school in 2000; Towson would dominate Monmouth 12-0.

Slowly, however, NEC teams started to make moves in order to compete with the schools that have 63 scholarships.  The league office allowed teams to offer a limited number of football scholarships; now, in 2010, they are allowed to offer up to 40.  The late NEC commissioner, Brenda Weare, argued passionately that her conference deserved to have an autobid to the playoffs: she said that her conference met all the requirements for an autobid, and in effect asked: is it fair to deny us an autobid, even though we meet all the rules?  Despite several efforts to stop expanding the FCS playoffs - and overcoming some technical challenges - Weare's efforts were successful.

It could very well be that playoff autobid was the tipping point that gave Rhode Island enough of a reason to leave the CAA starting in 2012.  If URI wins the NEC, they can get in the same playoffs that, say, UMass or New Hampshire would be participating in.

From the NEC's perspective, it's a huge win.  At some level it validates their model of cost-containment, with (sort-of) local games.  It creates a possible rivalry with two nearby schools (Bryant and Rhode Island) and also makes for some intriguing nearby games with Central Connecticut State and Albany.  It creates a membership of ten schools: a positive in a league where some members have been stuck with ten-game schedules.  It even offers some possibilities of basketball scheduling: with Duquesne and Rhode Island, who play all their other sports in the Atlantic Ten, it's possible that they could create some games against their football brethren in hoops as well.

Yet with growth still comes some uncertainty.  With URI - a true land-grant school, albeit a small one - the NEC becomes a strange brew of football institutions, including a tiny private Catholic university in the middle of rural PA (St. Francis), a large public research university with designs on full scholarship football (Albany), a former teachers' college with a tiny football field (Central Connecticut State), and a tiny, suburban, former commuter Catholic university in Fairfield County, CT (Sacred Heart).  Are they really all that similar?

With differences, too, come different goals.  Are all members really happy with the 40 scholarship limit?  A move to 63 scholarships would definitely delight Albany - but would it delight Wagner, a tiny, Lutheran school on Staten Island?  Is Robert Morris, a growing nondenominational school outside of Pittsburgh, going to be happy with an extra nine hour trip to Rhode Island every year?  There are a lot of forces here to watch - and while URI will ultimately save money by competing in NEC football, a school like Robert Morris might need to spend more on travel, demonstrating how surprisingly far-flung the conference actually is.

The NEC is a big winner with URI's decision, but as always has to be very careful with their expansion.  It doesn't seem like the NEC is in any worry of falling apart, but the forces that already stretch their members will continue to stretch even further with URI joining the conference.

The CAA: Losing It In The River
In 2004, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager made a bold decision.  He decided to make an offer to Boston-based Northeastern to join the conference in all sports.

Writing about this at the time, I paralleled the move to Boston College's move to the ACC, though unlike the Eagles' move, it made little financial sense for the Huskies to undergo a shift in all sports to a league with potential basketball trips to Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina would become a permanent way of life.  For a massive TV contract, a championship game and money, I could see it.  But Northeastern, a team that has never captured the heart of Boston and is at best fourth banana in their own area?

In retrospect, the Northeastern move was clearly the equivalent of a huge poker bet by the CAA.  "It was an evaluation not only of today but more importantly where the institution aspires to be in the next decade. This evaluation brought us to Boston and to Northeastern," Yeager said at the time.

Importantly, it gave the CAA six football-playing members, and it gave the CAA the opportunity to take over football operations from the A-10/former Yankee conference.  Northeastern was, in effect, they way to get teams like Delaware and Hofstra to a CAA football conference.  And with Hofstra and Northeastern as full CAA members, Yeager had basically performed a "divide and conquer" strategy with the old Yankee conference: dividing the remaining Yankee land-grant schools (UMass, URI, UNH, and Maine) from the rest of the league, which now includes Delaware, Hofstra, and Northeastern.

Given the choice at the time to "go it alone" or remain with the CAA schools, the former land grants chose to stay as a bloc.  After all, they had precious few options.  The NEC had only a semblance of a plan to offer scholarships, the Patriot League was not at all close to offering scholarships, and creating a new league from scratch could have promised years in the wilderness looking for an autobid.

The gamble, however, involved Northeastern and Hofstra significantly upgrading their football programs in order to get in line with the rest of the CAA.

When Hofstra agreed to join the CAA in 2000, they had a president who was downright pro-football - however, in December the Hofstra board of trustees brought in president Stuart Rabinowitz, who is widely believed to be the main force behind the discontinuation of the Pride program.  In 2000, when the decision was made to join the CAA, Hofstra had a legendary head coach in Joe Gardi, was the practice home of the New York Jets, had been to the football playoffs several times as an independent, and had a bright football future.  Rabinowitz would have - let's just say - different priorities.

And at Northeastern there were plans to upgrade their terrible field (Parsons Field) to a much better stadium closer to campus, which they would share with the New England Revolution of MLS.  But after a lengthy battle between Northeastern, Revs owner Robert Kraft, and Boston politicians the stadium that could have made the Huskies into a discussion point in Boston failed to get off the ground, and when mayor Thomas M. Menino was relected in 2009 to a fifth term, Northeastern dropped football.

Meanwhile, several CAA schools that were chomping at the bit to start football forged ahead, starting with Virginia-based Old Dominion (who renovated 20,000 seat Foreman Field to bring it back after a more than fifty year absence) and Georgia State (who will be renting out the 72,000-seat Georgia Dome this year to play their home games).

It demonstrates the difficult decision the remaining Northeast land-grant universities have - Maine, New Hampshire, and UMass.  Rhode Island made their decision - they said we have no hope in competing with 20,000 seat stadiums south of the Mason/Dixon line, and we'd rather keep our program and compete in the NEC than run with those guys as they maybe become an FBS conference.

So the remaining question has to be - what will New Hampshire, Maine, and UMass do?

Maine and New Hampshire can (and have) competed on the field in the CAA, but financially they have zero chance of being able to pony up for 20,000 seat stadiums or someday compete in an FBS conference.  By all measures they seem happy competing for FCS championships and competing in the America East in all other sports.  If the CAA cannot give that to them , where can they go?  An NEC that drops some of its members?  The Patriot League?  A new football conference?

UMass finds itself in a different situation.  Theoretically, they could survive in the CAA in football with 17,000 McGuirk stadium, and persist in the Atlantic Ten in all other sports.  But could they survive as the lone northern outpost in CAA football, with the closest league rivals being Villanova and Delaware?  Perhaps they could if the CAA attempts to become an FBS conference.  But if they have no desire to pursue that many road trips for their football program, could they want the same route as UNH and Maine in remaining in FCS?

And in an article just yesterday from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, it almost seems like the CAA's commissioner is almost willing to jettison the remaining New England land-grant schools.

"The sense I get is that everybody is pretty solid," Yeager said of [UMass, New Hampshire and Maine] . "I don't think there is any question they believe that CAA Football gives them the best postseason positioning for the investment.

"But these economic times have pushed everything on the table . . . There will be new travel dynamics in play in New England that we have to be aware of."

Yeager acknowledged that it would be understandable if New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts investigated other affiliations in light of league developments. [Richmond head football coach Latrell] Scott added: "It makes sense for people, financially, to have almost regional conferences."

The CAA will survive and grow regardless, having gotten what they wanted from the remnants of the Yankee Conference in order to become a great FCS conference and possibly an FBS conference.  But the tea leaves seem to point towards two, or possibly three, schools leaving the CAA in the future. The only question is: where?


Tomorrow: Part Three: What Will the Patriot League Do?


ngineer said…
What will the Patriot League do? Ha! We already know that from what we have witnessed over the past several years.....NOTHING. The 'ivory towers' will continue to study their navels despite Fordham throwing down the gauntlet this past year. The PL, without scholarships, is becoming a footnote in FCS football. Maybe with Bucknell's new President coming from Stanford, he can lecture his fellow CEO's that excellent academics and scholarship football can exist on the same campus. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
Douglas said…
Wagner is on Staten Island not Long Island..

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