For Lehigh, Delaware and Villanova, whose Northeast-based fans can enjoy a double-dip of playoff football (Lehigh/Delaware at noon on WFMZ 69, and Villanova/Stephen F.Austin at 3:30 on Philly CW 57 - honestly, are you going to pass that up to discover who wins the Big East?) it's the best of times.
But, it's also the one year anniversary of the "worst of times", too, for Northeast football - the announcement that Hofstra, joining Northeastern who had announced their decision a week prior, had suddenly decided to pull the plug on their football program. (more)
The Defiantly Dutch blog has much, much more on this ignominious milestone, but I'll quote some highlights here:
An hour or so after James Madison makes national headlines Sept. 11 by shocking Virginia Tech, 21-16, LB Luke Bonus—a captain on the last Flying Dutchman football team—stands outside the entrance of Jack Coffey Field at Fordham University. Forty-nine weeks earlier, Bonus collected nine tackles in helping the Dutchmen beat seventh-ranked James Madison, 24-17, at Shuart Stadium. It was the most impressive win of the Dave Cohen Era and it infused coaches and players alike with a strut rarely seen since the days of Joe Gardi.
The only player to collect more tackles than Bonus that October afternoon was LB Chris Edmond, who had 11 stops. He’s now playing for Rhode Island, along with Steve Probst, who shared time at quarterback in the upset over James Madison. There are three other former Dutchmen suiting up for Fordham (RB Carlton Koonce and Nick Talbert) or Rhode Island (Billy Morgan) and Bonus is there, along with a handful of other ex-teammates who graduated last year, to watch and support their younger ex-teammates.
And Hofstra’s decision further benefited Fordham, both on the field and at the gate. But there was no celebration last Dec. 3 in the office of Fordham head coach Tom Masella, who, more than just about anybody else, understood the range of emotions the rest of the former Dutchmen were experiencing.
Masella was nearing the end of his second season as the head coach at Boston University in 1997 when president John Silber announced the program would cease to exist at the conclusion of the schedule. While Silber’s contempt for football was well-known—and it is interesting to note that Stuart Rabinowitz listed Boston U. among the schools he wanted Hofstra to stand alongside during his interview with Mike Francesa last Dec. 3—the timing of the decision was shocking because Boston U. was just three years removed from the second of back-to-back appearances in the I-AA playoffs and four years removed from an unbeaten regular season.
“It’s a devastating day, for a lot of reasons,” Masella said. “In my case, I thought I was going to be at BU for a long, long time. And when you feel the rug’s been pulled out from underneath you, it hurts. It hurts personally, but it hurts because you recruited some kids under the assumption that they were going to be playing football and getting a great education. So it’s a painful thing.
Two weeks later, on an warm night in Stony Brook, former Hofstra WR Anthony Nelson is walking out of the visitors locker room after catching six passes for a team-high 97 yards in helping his new school, UMass, to a hard-earned 26-21 win over the upstart Seawolves, whose roster features former Hofstra backfield mates Brock Jackolski and Miguel Maysonet.
“At first I was extremely bitter, just because of, I guess, the way the message was delivered to us,” Nelson said. “I wish they could have gone about it in a different way. I wish they could have been a little bit more honest with us. I still don’t think to this day that they are 100 percent honest.
“If you look at the Division I level schools, there are 119, and I think only about 17 turn a profit. So everyone’s taking a loss. And [Hofstra] want[s] to say it’s for a financial issue. I wish the head guy over there would have just said ‘Hey, look, we just don’t want football.’”
Read the whole thing - something that deserves reading, because it's honest, true, and covers the whole gamut of emotions when it comes to dropping one's program. I don't think there's ever been a more honest, or more thorough, study of former football players in one place discussing the death of their football program.
All season it seems like a polarized nation has affected the discussion on FCS football in the Northeast.
There's one radical side - the John Silbers, the Joseph Aouns, the Stuart Rabinowitz - that argue that football's role is to turn a profit, and if it's not making a profit is should be closed down - never mind if it's accepting kids who might not otherwise have a chance at a top-notch education, rallying alumni, and creating leaders in their field, whether it's in the boardroom or the NFL.
And there's the other side - eerily related - that if your football program is operating at a loss, well, shouldn't our school be going to FBS, despite all the risks, lack of access for a true championship and staggering costs? It's the decision that UMass, reportedly mulling a move to the MAC conference in football only, is making in order to save their program.
Villanova, too, has been actively mulling a trip to FBS as a part of the Big East as well - despite the fact that their fan base, even after a national championship, has not rallied behind the team the same way it does in basketball, and that they don't really have a way to own and operate a stadium where they can play games. They might have to pay rent to two different owners to play home games - not a great business plan when it's ostensibly to "make money".
Fifteen years ago, UMass and Villanova were in the Yanklee Conference with six leaguemates (and some decent rivalries) within driving distance, including Delaware.
Now, three of them have folded their programs, one (Rhode Island) is moving their program to the limited-scholarship NEC, and UMass is looking at a membership in a league, the CAA, with its center of gravity well south of the Mason/Dixon line with two sort-of rivals nearby. The Minutemen have to have looked and the current FCS landscape, and not liked what they've seen.
Villanova's situation is different. They have the equivalent of a "golden ticket" - membership in a BCS conference. But they have a unique situation on the Main Line that would make it extremely difficult for the Wildcats to make FBS football work - if it can work at all.
But to those who say football has to be a "FBS or bust" situation, all you need to do is look at the Delaware/Lehigh matchup this weekend.
For Mountain Hawk and Blue Hen fans, it's been the best of all worlds. A chance to revisit the days of Tubby Raymond and John Whitehead. Championships. National rankings. Old-fashioned hatred of nearby schools.
Does Lehigh make a profit on its football program? Does Delaware? Who cares? Would you deny either set of student-athletes the chance to square off against each other?
The Stuart Rabinowtiz's of the world, or the folks at UMass, would have you believe that FCS football is unsustainable at this level - that it's not profit-making enough. That it's not worthwhile at the FCS level.
And they could not be more wrong. The game this weekend is living proof.