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Final Four Run = Football in VCU's Future?

The power of the Final Four run by the Rams cannot be underestimated for that school, and the Colonial Athletic Association, the conference which is the home of the Rams in all sports.

As I've argued previously, at a bare minimum it has to make a wider pool of schools at least mull over the idea of moving their schools to the CAA.

But what's extremely interesting to think about is the affect that the Rams' run might have on them sponsoring a football team.

What's known is the CAA and Virginia Commonwealth will benefit in a variety of ways by their run - either through NCAA financial shares, based on NCAA Tournament wins, or through increased "exposure" and the donor money that (sometimes) comes through a title run.

With the money and "exposure" - and some old-fashioned jealousy - I think the groundwork is in place for Ram football to start CAA play sooner rather than later.  (more)


First, however, let's take about the effect this run has on the CAA as a conference. As we all know, the CAA will profit handsomely from VCU's run this year. But that run doesn't only involve basketball when it comes to poaching all-sports members - it involves football as well.

When the CAA took over operations of the Atlantic Ten football conference five years ago, commissioner Tom Yeager made a conscious decision: he was going to get the CAA into the FCS football business, buying that property from a conference that couldn't get rid of the football property fast enough.

At that moment, though, the Atlantic Ten went from being an all-sports conference - granted, with football at the FCS level - to what is commonly called a "basketball" conference. As the story went, they'd ditch the football property to focus on the basketball property - presumably to improve basketball.

Five years on, it's hard to argue that losing football has improved the A-10 in basketball. Yes, the A-10 had as many at-large bids to the tournament as the CAA this year, but Xavier, their conference champion, flamed out in the first round while VCU made a run at the championship. Optics matter in this case: the A-10 has zero Final Four teams in the last five years, and the CAA has one. That means a lot.

This has to change the viewpoints of some teams within the Atlantic Ten - especially those that sponsor football teams at the FCS level.

Suppose you're an Atlantic Ten team with great basketball and an FCS football team. You're a team that is either starting football (UNC-Charlotte), playing non-scholarship football (Dayton), limited scholarship football (Duquesne), competing essentially as an independent (Fordham) or moved to the CAA in football when the A-10 got out of the football business (Richmond, UMass).

Don't all these schools need to now take a look at the conference landscape and see where their interests lie?

The Atlantic Ten still is a fine basketball conference, but the CAA is at worst a level trade with the A-10 in basketball. In addition to the basketball, though, you also have representation in the strongest FCS conference as well, with its members competing in the FCS National Championship game for four years running (with two national champions).

UNC Charlotte is starting up a football team. Their A-10 membership has nothing to do with their football ambitions: with the status quo, they need to look around for football as an affilate member somewhere - the SoCon, the CAA, or Big South. But if they join the CAA in all sports, they get it all: the highest level of FCS football and strong mid-major basketball. Why wouldn't they look at that?

Fordham is currently moving to 63 scholarships in football, alienating themselves from the Patriot League, who can't decide whether allowing its members to do the same thing as the Rams is worthwhile or not. Why wouldn't they look at full-sports CAA membership with an even trade for basketball and a alignment with their priorities in football?

Richmond is already in the CAA in football, and in the Atlantic Ten for basketball. Wouldn't they at least take a peek at full CAA membership, which would solidify their place in CAA football and offer a much smaller travel footprint than the A-10 in all other sports? Old Dominion, William & Mary, VCU and George Mason are all easy bus trips, and would replace trips to Ohio and Pittsburgh.

Similarly, UMass is already in the CAA in football, and in the Atlantic Ten for basketball. Though they're in a different situation than Richmond - and have already mulled becoming an affiliate in the MAC as an FBS team - another interesting option for them is to leave the A-10 for the CAA in all sports. While I happen to think UMass' move to the MAC is a done deal, if they choose that FCS football is more to their liking, wouldn't the CAA - a conference that makes FCS football a priority - a better overall fit than the A-10? (Especially with Fordham also on board?)

There would have to be some bad blood repaired to make some of these relationships work. Richmond made a lot of CAA people unhappy years ago when they bolted to the A-10, and there's no love lost between Hofstra and Fordham, who would suddenly need to compete for recruits and media attention in the quintessential pro sports town. UMass has had issues with finances at the FCS level. And even UNC-Charlotte is no slam-dunk either.

But after this NCAA tournament, I think the answer is clear: the CAA is in the conversation for Atlantic Ten teams with any sort of football aspirations. Before the tournament, you could laugh off the idea of Fordham, Richmond or UNC Charlotte going from the A-10 to the CAA. Now? Not so much.

*****

Virginia Commonwealth's run to the Final Four was magical, and unexpected by many. But what's also interesting about the Rams' run to the Final Four is not only the idea that head coach Shaka Smart might be destined for a Big East coaching vacancy. It's the idea that their run could be the grease that makes football at VCU a reality.

Depending on which history you look at, VCU either sponsored a football team in the 1930s and 1950s, or didn’t. Despite it’s football history – or lack thereof – before the NCAA tournament the Rams’ president and athletic director has seen a trickle of questions entertaining the possibility of football on the Richmond, Virginia campus become a flood.  According to athletic director Norwood Teague, he gets asked about the question of football “almost daily”.

Aside from the promise of more Final Four NCAA cash and a possible influx of donor money, two other developments have increased the possibility of Virginia Commonwealth becoming a football school in the powerful CAA.

First was the retirement of former university president Eugene Triani, who was famously quoted as saying that football would not be instituted “on his watch”. With a new president, Dr. Michael Rao, hopes run high that the Rams long-stated high-level opposition to football will have changed.

Second was the fact that Richmond – the long-time lessee to downtown City Stadium in the city of Richmond – recently vacated the stadium in order to host home games in a brand-new on-campus stadium.

That eliminates the final, costly problem for VCU starting football – having a place to play.

No matter what you look at, before the tournament there seemed to be very positive movement towards football at VCU.  Aside from commissioning a study on starting football, recently Teague and Richmond mayor Dwight Jones have been in conversations about VCU buying City Stadium outright.

This is not simply dreams and puppy dogs from starry-eyed Ram fans.  Serious discussions have ensued about its viability as a destination venue, and VCU is one of the potential buyers of the stadium.

Preliminary studies have shown that upgrading Richmond stadium to become ready for events would be a mere $2.5 million - a pittance compared to the $25 million the University of Richmond shelled out for their on-campus stadium.  And the fact that a study was commissioned at all to assess its viability for sporting events would make it seem like the city of Richmond is looking long and hard at keeping it as a stadium - with VCU as its owner and operator.

Even without the dynamics of the CAA, this would be a compelling deal for Virginia Commonwealth, who at once would raise their profile and extend their property footprint in the Richmond area. With the recent history of the area, though, it makes FCS football almost irresistible.

VCU administrators don't have to look too far for a school that did the same thing it aspires to do. Two years ago, armed only with a stadium that needed upgrading and a dream, Old Dominion started up a football program essentially from scratch, bringing football to a campus that was without it for 69 years.

The scene on campus had to be seen to be believed – sellout crowds, waiting lists for tickets, and football mania sweeping the campus. With a schedule packed with easy opponents, the Monarchs – with a roster filled with freshmen and sophomores – cruised to a 9-2 record to make the return of football an amazing success by any definition.

VCU fans also have noted the University of Richmond's run to the FCS championship game in 2008 as well, bringing with it a new stadium for the Spiders and capacity crowds. Richmond, playing in the same stadium that VCU is thinking of buying, carved their way to an NCAA championship, all the while playing local teams like James Madison and their ancient rival, William & Mary.

The incredible success of these two local schools feed VCU's dream for football. The incredible luck of a nearby stadium for sale - for a relative pittance to make it ready for football games once again - make it extremely possible. The final piece of the puzzle - extra money from the NCAA, as well as increased donations from the "exposure" of their Final Four run - seem to be the final piece of the puzzle to their FCS aspirations.

If you ask me, VCU will be playing football in FCS by 2013.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Hey Chuck...WHY BUCKNELL WILL BEAT UCONN....BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA GO HUSKIES!

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