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What UMass' Departure Means for FCS

(Graphic Credit: Bleacher Report)

With UMass' departure to the MAC conference in football now basically official, it's time to look at the state of FCS football in its wake.

Unsurprisingly, it offers one or more conferences a golden opportunity to establish - or re-establish - a vibrant, cost-containment model for football in the Northeast that is separate from the profits-at-any-cost model that is FBS.  A model that can compete and sometimes beat the Syracuse's, the Pitt's, the Rutgers - all while spending a fraction of the money and competing for a true national championship instead of a crystal trophy in a bogus poll-driven bowl game.

That once-in-a-generation opportunity comes with a whole host of uncomfortable questions that need to be answered by the four Northeast football conferences. (more)

UMass, who will be competing in its final year in the Colonial Athletic Association (or CAA), causes an imminent problem in the conference they leave behind.

Just two seasons ago, the CAA had twelve teams. It was such a large conference that they had to split into North and South divisions. Without a conference championship game, they were the largest Division I conference without one. The fact that there was no way to determine the conference champion was breezily brushed off by fans, saying that the FCS Playoffs were the way they determined their "conference champion", as it seemed like a CAA team was either winning (Richmond, Villanova) or almost winning (Delaware, UMass) the national championship every year.

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 to get to fourteen teams - and how many at-large bids they might have in the future.

How things have changed since then.

Northeastern, and then, suddenly, Hofstra, dropped their programs.

Six months later, Rhode Island announced they were actively thinking about moving to the limited-scholarship NEC in 2013. Longtime member Villanova was offered a second opportunity to join the Big East in football, a move they are still actively considering. And now UMass, lured by the delights of playing in Ypsilanti, Michigan in November, will be leaving in 2012.

While it may seem that the affected conference, the CAA, would be mortally wounded from these defections, in truth it looks like the conference will survive the moves just fine, even if Villanova decides to join the Big East.

Old Dominion joins in 2011, and Georgia State will be ready to compete in CAA football in 2012. Rumors that Virginia Commonwealth will be starting up football are getting hotter every day, and even George Mason, a longtime opponent to FCS-level football, may be forced to look into it again with all their Virgina leaguemates adopting the sport.

CAA football will be fine.  The problem is one of geography..

Just listing the schools that will comprise the CAA in 2012 illustrates the problem.  Delaware.  Towson.  Richmond.  William & Mary.  Old Dominion.  James Madison.  Georgia State.  Villanova.  New Hampshire.  Maine.

The CAA, more than ever, has become a conference whose center of gravity is in the heart of Viriginia - or, more accurately, 11 hours and 38 minutes away from Durham, New Hampshire and 13 hours and 53 minutes from Orono, Maine.

New Hampshire and Maine have seen all the schools they've competed with over the years do something different with their programs, and it's an open question as to what they do next.

Do they stay, and hope they accumulate enough frequent flyer miles for CAA membership to be worth it? Or do they explore other options, which are fraught with uncertainty at best and risk at worst?


All the schools in question - Villanova, UMass, Hofstra, Rhode Island, and Northeastern - can trace their roots back to the Yankee conference with the Wildcats and Black Bears, which was an all-sports league complete with regional football, a growing basketball league, and a host of other sports.

Founded in 1947 (according to the NCAA), its purpose was to allow its member schools to pursue big-time basketball while sponsoring football at a lower level than the "big-time" schools of Harvard, Yale, Pitt and Syracuse.

It's in the Yankee conference where football and basketball rivalries between the smaller state schools like Rhode Island, UConn, UMass, New Hampshire and Maine thrived.

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.


Almost thirty years after the formation of FCS, it seems like schools in the Northeast still don't know what they want to be, football-wise.  And individual schools are making hard decisions as to how they fit into a world of athletics that is becoming increasingly polarized.

For an example, take Villanova.

The Wildcats want to sponsor a football team, and they want to be a driving force inside their conference, not just an afterthought that gets in the spotlight come NCAA Tournament time.  The Wildcats look at their leaguemates in basketball - Syracuse.  UConn.  Pitt - and say "We want to be on equal footing with them.  To do that, we really ought to look seriously at playing in their football conference."

But they're a small, academically selective private school, with no place to really play FBS football games against Top 25 teams.

Historically, they've played cost-containment football - they were in the final incarnations of the Yankee Conference before the Atlantic Ten took over operations.  Ideally, FCS would be that vibrant, cost-containment solution that allows the Wildcats to pursue a great private school program and compete for championships without exposing themselves to the added costs and headaches of FBS.

Next, take Northeastern.

In 2009, they were a member of the CAA in all sports.  But they had - by all accounts - a tiny strip of concrete they called a stadium.  They were watching programs like William & Mary, James Madison, Delaware and Old Dominion make stadium improvements they could only dream of making.

But they made the decision that they didn't want to be a school that sponsored football.  They saw that the other programs in the CAA were not trying to contain costs at all, and at some point, president Joseph Aoun said that he wanted his basketball and hockey teams to compete for championships.  For better or worse, he didn't feel like he could compete for championships without busting their athletics budget.

(For the record, I felt, and still feel, that Huskies could sponsor football at the FCS level.  After all, they're a lot closer to Gillette Stadium than UMass is.)

In a nutshell, the schools of the Northeast - always looking for some sort of middle way in terms of football - are finding themselves asking themselves uncomfortable questions.

Do they actually think about dropping to Division II or III for football?  Not realistically - after all, that takes away their shot at the NCAA tournament in basketball.

Do they think about playing in FBS?  Most of the time, not realistically.  It costs a truckload of money to upgrade stadiums, and it can take decades to get into an FBS conference - if you're lucky.  More likely, it will be a large money sink and break up the regional rivalries that make football a great sport.

So do they stay in FCS, as a "cost-containment" solution?  Well, the MAAC, once the home of the ultimate in cost-containment - Division I non scholarship football - closed its doors when St. Peter's didn't want to rent a municipal stadium anymore to play games.  Another option, the NEC, once pursued a limited need-based aid model but finally acquiesced to allow their member schools to offer a limited number of scholarships.

Meanwhile, the schools that offer the full allotment of scholarships at the FCS level keep upping the ante financially. James Madison is spending nine figures to upgrade their stadium.  Richmond just spent millions on their on-campus stadium.  Delaware is in the middle of a costly upgrade to Tubby Raymond stadium.

All of a sudden FCS - once the unquestioned cost-containment option for Division I - doesn't seem much like cost-containment anymore.  And no schools feel that squeeze more than the Northeast-based schools formerly in the Yankee Conference.


If Maine and New Hampshire wish to leave and still sponsor FCS football, they don't have a lot of options.

They can choose the path of Rhode Island, and join the limited-scholarship Northeast Conference in football. In the NEC, they would still have good access to the FCS playoffs, thanks to their autobid, and they could play a schedule with their old rival and a host of local games that are bus trips.  The NEC would probably welcome them with open arms as well, giving them twelve teams and allowing them to separate into divisions.

But it would necessitate them cutting the number of scholarships they have now to 40, which might be a competitive advantage that the Wildcats and Black Bears cannot give up.  It would also limit their ability to schedule FBS games, something that has electrified the fans of New Hampshire over the years after they upended teams like Rutgers, Northwestern and Marshall on the road.

They could mull over membership in the Patriot League, and join Holy Cross in a league with a more northern bent than the CAA.  (Something I've been advocating for a while, not only to help New Hampshire and Maine, but to save the Patriot League as well.)

But they would have to subject their student-athletes to an academic index - a restriction they might not be able to live with - and would have to convert their aid to the need-limited model.  (A recent vote to allow schools to offer scholarships was recently tabled by the league presidents.)  With a need-limited aid system, it seems like the Patriot League would be a non-starter for Maine and New Hampshire for the same reasons the NEC might be an issue - it would be more difficult to meet scholarship requirements to schedule FBS games.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Patriot League had a chance to be in the running as potential destinations for UNH and Maine should they choose to leave - but dropped the ball last December.

The final solution would be for Maine and New Hampshire to break off from the CAA and either spur their conference, America East, to sponsor football - or the riskiest proposition of all, sponsoring an all-new all-sports conference that sponsors football.

The advantage of both possibilities is that Maine and New Hampshire could set the rules for membership, and participation in football.  No academic index requirements, or scholarship limits.  FBS games continue as they have.  The center of gravity of the conference would be safely above New York City, preserving and nurturing new Northeast rivalries in the spirit of the original Yankee Conference.

And there are plenty of schools that seem like they would leap at the chance of forming a Northeast-based full scholarship conference in football - Albany, Stony Brook, Fordham and Central Connecticut State leap to mind.  Perhaps Rhode Island might also come into the fold again as well to make a seven team conference.

(Along with New Hampshire and Maine, four of these six schools would be all-sports members of the America East conference already.  Unfortunately, none of the other existing America East schools - SUNY Binghamton, Vermont, Boston University, University of Hartford, or UMBC - seem to have any desire to start or re-start dormant football programs. )

But forming a new all-sports conference - or even just spurring America East to sponsor football - is not an easy task, to say the least.  Presidential politics with the schools, and the unwillingness of the NCAA to add new conferences - especially a basketball minnow - are daunting challenges to overcome.  America East had a golden opportunity to sponsor FCS football when the Atlantic Ten elected to get out of the business of running the Yankee Conference, but passed.  It's hard to see what's changed since then.

Furthermore, they would start out ineligible for an at-large bit to the FCS playoffs for at least five years.  All of those schools would be giving up a guaranteed shot at the playoffs to redefine a full-scholarship Northeast-based model.

But creative solutions are there for the Wildcats and Black Bears - if they're willing to work for them.  They need to figure out what they want to be - and how to achieve it.

It won't be without risk.

But it's more risky for Maine and New Hampshire to remain in a conference that can't be considered a Yankee Conference anymore.


Douglas said…
You know Chuck... all of this revolves around money... And is it worth it??? I support the Lehigh sports programs but it's nice that Lehigh is in a league that for the most part has been pretty stable.. Even in wrestling, 5 of the 13 EIWA members are Patriot League and with 6 Ivies( only Yale and Dartmouth don't wrestle.... I still don't get why some Yale alums didn't rescue the program like they did at other schools), that leaves only 2 (Big East Rutgers... the only wrestling school in that league now... and F&M ( really a Div III school that for historic reasons still tries to compete at Div I in wrestling but really can't ) that are not in those 2 league for almost all other sports(obviously, Army and Navy are still FBS football)... maybe we need to be just happy to compete with our peers and not worry too much...
van said…
Chuck - I know you have been touting UNH and Maine for Patriot League football, but I don't see them as good member candidates. I seriously doubt they could match up with the AI, which I believe is what sets us apart and should be continued. I would prefer Stoney Brook to either of them.

What the Patriot really needs is to allow football scholarships and keep the AI (we should be about scholar athletes). If G-town bolts over that, look for the best possible replacement (maybe a Bryant, Monmouth, Nova (if they don’t go Big East), Towson again, VCU if the resume, Richmond, W&M, Liberty or the like. If scholarships are available the PL would be more attractive to these schools.

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