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Are UNH and Maine Crying for Help?

By any measure, times have not been great for the remaining "Northeast Four" of the old Yankee Conference.

Now competing in the Colonial Athletic Association, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and UMass were the final teams remaining north of the Big Apple when Northeastern and Hofstra decided to fold their football programs within a week of each other.

Since that fateful day a year and a half ago, Rhode Island announced their intention to join the limited scholarship NEC in 2012, and this summer UMass announced their intention to join the MAC conference in FBS, where they'll attempt to kindle a football rivalry loosely based on the Temple/UMass basketball showdowns in the days of John "Darth Vader" Calipari and John "Knock Your Kids in the Mouth" Chaney.

That has left New Hampshire athletic director Marty Scarano (pictured), and Maine athletic director Steve Abbott, feeling more and more isolated in football.

And in the past few days, both appeared to be calling for help.

Are the presidents of the Patriot League listening?  (more)

It started with an article last week from Mike Zhe of the Seacoast Media Group, following athletic director Scarano's "State of the Athletics Department" report:

The language that University of New Hampshire athletics director Marty Scarano chose to include in his department's annual State of Athletics report earlier this week is familiar to anyone who's been breathing these past few years.

"Unprecedented budgetary cutbacks" , "already lean resources" , "struggled to meet increasing targets in the current economy."

So when UNH fans read the gloomy forecast, and see reports about dwindling state support for higher education, they're naturally going to wonder what's going to happen to the teams that have been part of their lives for years and, in some cases, for generations.

"We've always been lean," said Scarano on Wednesday. "Like I've said, even when times were good here, times were not all that good."

Where the article really gets interesting, though, is when one of the "strategies" for dealing with the budget pressures is to "restrict team travel to the Northeast Corridor:"

In terms of fan interest, UNH has two sports that stand above all others: men's hockey and football. Both have national profiles based on their on-field and in-rink success.

Football is locked into flying to games at Richmond, William and Mary, and Towson this fall as part of its membership in the CAA, which is a whole other issue in itself. Every time a group of 80 or so football players, coaches and staffers gets on a plane for an overnight trip, it comes at rough cost of $40,000. No way around that.

But for programs a tier down, like women's hockey and men's basketball, those tightened travel restrictions could come into play.

Just to add some additional background to what Mr. Zhe is saying, when you include their game at FBS Toledo, the budget for flights alone for the football team approaches $160,000, not including any potential playoff games. And if New Hampshire weren't playing at Lehigh this year, every single one of their regular-season away games would require a flight.

Of course, New Hampshire's travel costs for the game at FBS Toledo should, in effect be covered by the cash "guarantee" paid by the Rockets for inviting a FCS team to the Rubber Bowl.

FBS schools routinely pay FCS opponents money to play at their stadiums.  A "money-making" school like Michigan might offer guarantees of six figures (and, in fact, recently offered FBS San Diego State the first $1 million guarantee for a game this year).  But other "non-money-making" schools like Toledo offer much less.  It wouldn't be surprising of Toledo's "guarantee" for UNH's trip were only five figures and not six.

Mr. Zhe's article talks about FBS "guarantee games" as well:

Fans love them. Coaches — not so much. But instead of being an option for football and men's basketball teams like they've been in recent years, these games against highly-favored, high-profile opponents that put a six-figure payday in the athletic department coffers are now a full-blown necessity.

The football team plays at Toledo this year, at Minnesota next year and at Boston College in 2014. Finding Division I FBS opponents for 2013 and 2015 are high priorities.

A few days later, another article on the same subject was writen by Al Pike on the same subject, which also highlighted more of UNH's financial challenges as well:

According to the report, the school has begun looking at budget cuts at all levels, including athletics.

Those areas the athletic department will be considering include freezing vacant positions, salaries and current scholarship awards; restricting team travel to the Northeast corridor; restricting the number of games; restructuring ticket prices; and adding guaranteed games.

It will also consider an increased dependence on annual funds to contribute toward operating expenses.

Of UNH's $25 million athletics budget, 30 percent comes from revenue (ticket sales, NCAA/conference distributions, sports camps, royalties/sponsorships, annual gifts, endowments and miscellaneous), the report said, and 70 percent comes from allocated revenue (institutional support and student fees).

Pretty grim stuff, especially when you consider that UNH has historically been asked to "do more with less" already. There's not a whole lot of fat to cut athletically.

And attempting to look at New Hampshire's objectively, it's hard to miss the cost-savings appeal for New Hampshire if they joined a Northeast-based conference in football.

Already the Wildcats are on the hook for flights to Richmond, William & Mary, James Madison, Towson in alternating years. (I'm assuming that Villanova, a 7 hour drive from Durham, NH, and Delaware, an 8 hour drive from campus, are bus trips with overnight stays.)

Their current conference, the CAA, expands with Old Dominion this year, and then Georgia State in 2012.

That's a guaranteed $40,000 extra per year for a flight down there - at a minimum. For league games. That doesn't include flights for other out-of-conference games, FBS guarantee games, or even games in the FCS playoffs.

And if Villanova decides to leave the CAA and join the Big East in football and, say, VCU decides to start up a program, the travel expenses will get even worse.

But what if a 63 scholarship Northeast-based conference existed for New Hampshire - causing them to choose between the same menu of FBS money games and potential flights for playoff games - but joined a conference where all the games are a bus ride away?

Instantly, you'd wipe $200,000 at a bare minimum off the athletics department expenses sheet - at no loss of competitiveness, no loss of FBS games, or even FCS playoff eligibility.

You have to think that New Hampshire would jump at such a league.

*****

Not to be outdone, a few days later, an article in the Kennebec Journal, was released where reporter Jenn Menendez also mentioned the cost challenges of competing in the CAA as well:

A sustainable solution needs to be charted for [Maine's] future.

Playing in the southern heavy Colonial Athletic Association will mean travel bills for charter flights approaching $400,000 this season, according to Maine coach Jack Cosgrove.

One or two of those trips may be changed to become more affordable, but long-term those costs are unsustainable. (emphasis added)

It's time for us as a staff, a program, and a team to go in one direction," Cosgrove said. "I promise you we will not line up and play New Hampshire 11 times. Right now we're in the CAA and our travel bill is a high one. Meeting that challenge comes down to us as a program."

Echoing the grim New Hampshire report, this journal shows that the Black Bear athletic department situation is worse. Much worse:

Maine, which is among the lowest funded programs in the CAA, has won 69 games since 2000 in the nation's premier Football Championship Subdivision league. More than a dozen players have moved onto the NFL, nine are currently on NFL rosters, and others have earned academic honors while playing football.

Playing in the southern heavy Colonial Athletic Association will mean travel bills for charter flights approaching $400,000 this season, according to Maine coach Jack Cosgrove.

UNH is within an hour's drive of two major commercial airports -- Boston and Manchester, N.H. -- and aren't in the travel pickle Maine is in.

This is serious stuff. The Black Bears are severely hampered by the fact that their location - Orono, ME, just a stone's throw from Bangor, ME - doesn't have a major airport nearby with commercial flights.

That means that they have to pay for expensive charters everywhere - but even though their expenses are high, they still don't have as sexy a schedule as New Hampshire's.

Without a commercial airport nearby, it's hard to to get to away games - and hard to attract teams to come to Orono.

Looking at their schedule, Maine's away schedule is: at New Hampshire, at Pitt, at James Madison, at Albany, and at Villanova.

Two are definite flights (Pitt, James Madison) and one is definitely a bus ride (New Hampshire).

Villanova is ten hours away by bus, and Albany is 7 hours. One - or both - may be charter flights for the Black Bears as well.

And just like New Hampshire, it just gets worse for Maine in terms of travel expenses if Villanova leaves the CAA.  As the article mentions: "long-term, these costs are unsustainable."

*****

While the numbers aren't as specific as the New Hampshire article, the Kennebec Journal piece does mention the Patriot League by name as a possible destination:

"There's so many different factors. I don't think anything is going to happen right away, but when it does happen it will happen fast," Abbott said. "Winning is a factor, but where's the future in your conference? We're interested in playing at this level. So we've got to find partners interested who want to make a commitment. That could happen in the CAA, it could happen somewhere else."

So, among the most likely scenarios is combining with another league down the road.

The Patriot League is a likely frontrunner. Current member schools are Lehigh, Holy Cross, Colgate, Georgetown, Lafayette, Bucknell and Fordham.

Member schools are allowed 63 scholarships, and the addition of Maine, New Hampshire, and perhaps Rhode Island, it would improve to a stronger, 10-team league.

While the reporter got her facts wrong - I'm pretty sure I'd have heard if Patriot League teams are now allowed to offer 63 football merit-based scholarships - it is interesting that the Patriot League was mentioned instead the NEC, where Rhode Island will be playing in 2012.

In 2012, the NEC will be at ten teams, including Rhode Island.  Adding an 11th and 12th team would allow the league to split into divisions, further lowering travel cost for its members.

But there is a scholarship cap on NEC football teams, which makes it unattractive for UNH and Maine, and the NEC has no proven track record of success - yet - in the FCS playoffs, which is a source of pride for the Wildcats and Black Bears.

But one thing's abundantly clear from all the articles: Maine and New Hampshire are crying for some sort of help for a Northeast-based football league.  One article might be an aberration, but two in the span of a week sends quite a message: both schools do not want to fly four times or more a year for away games.  Their institutions will not stand for it.

The million-dollar question: is the Patriot League willing and able to be that destination for the Black Bears and Wildcats?

As I've argued before, athletically this would be a slam-dunk, and not just for the reasons you think:

With scholarships, it may not be the huge adjustment for these two schools that you might think.

In terms of public schools, they graduate their athletes. New Hampshire was publicly commended for their football teams' APR rate (979) for the second consecutive year, putting them in the same honor roll as the Ivy League and many Patriot League schools. Maine (969) isn't far behind - so they both have a history of taking athletes that are representative of the rest of the class. And when they get to Cowell and Orono, they graduate.

There would be more benefits for UNH and Maine in the form of a much more regional schedule. No more flights or long bus trips to Virginia. They'd gain bus trips to Holy Cross and Fordham every year - and would retain Pennsylvania as a valuable recruiting area. Costs would be reduced - and, with scholarships, they could continue to play FBS schools for paydays as well.

There still would be some challenges in terms of travel for the Wildcats and Black Bears. Hamilton, NY is still 9 hours away from Orono, ME and Lewisburg, PA is still 8 hours away from Durham. But they are still possible bus trips.

And as I mentioned a year and a half ago, New Hampshire graduates its athletes. Year in and year out, their football team has won awards for the CAA for their Academic Progress Rate numbers.

If Rhode Island is brought along for the ride, the benefits for a multitude of sports would seem to also be a possibility. Holy Cross and Colgate could play home-and-home's in hockey against Maine and UNH as well as football. Rhode Island and Fordham would be interesting potential basketball opponents for Army, Navy and American.

But it won't work with need-based aid.

Without football scholarships, all this talk about Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island is all a non-starter:

Granted, in order to get to that point, a lot would have to happen. The Patriot League were to come to a decision on football scholarships and (likely) make an adjustment to the bands of the Academic Index. And they'd have to overcome the perception that public universities and the Patriot League model are incompatible.

But if Patriot League presidents aren't thinking about opportunities like this, they're crazy.

Maine and UNH are strong private institutions with solid academics - they'll never be confused with Alabama or Florida. They have a need for a Northeast, scholarship league. Why wouldn't the Patriot League office be trying to come up with ways for them to be a part of their League? Why wouldn't the Patriot League be trying to find a way to share the Patriot League model with a new type of school - because the number of private, Northeast, Division I institutions sponsoring football are becoming fewer and farther between?

Why not, indeed? And, given the cries of help from Maine and New Hampshire this week, shouldn't the Patriot League presidents be teleconferencing right now to figure out how to make this happen?

New Hampshire and Maine have made their plea: they want to play 63 scholarship football in a Northeast-based league.  The Patriot League can be that league - if the presidents want it.

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