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Patriot League Media Day 2011, Part One: Of Rams and Scholarships

As the opening speeches concluded on Patriot League Media Day 2011, I turned to Forhdam head coach Tom Masella, who was situated behind me, for my first interview on the day.

Unlike the other schools in attendance, however, Masella was surrounded by a skeleton crew. And aside from coach Masella, only a handful of members of the athletic department made the trip down from New York.

And no players made the trip from the Bronx - "summer school exams", I was told later by someone else - was the reason for their absence.

It made for a media day that, despite the palpable excitement for the upcoming season, didn't feel quite right. (more)

Lafayette's and Fordham's tables, it so happened, were directly opposite one another at the Green Pond Country Club midway between Easton, PA, home of the Lafayette Leopards, and Bethlehem, PA, home of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.

Whether this was purposeful or a coincidence I can't say, but it did seem to summarize each school's position on the issue that dominated the offseason this year - football scholarships.

Fordham, as you may know, has implemented merit-based scholarships for their football program.  In a nutshell, while Patriot League schools needs-test their aid to determine the amount of scholarship money a football athlete will receive, Fordham offers the type of scholarships that Delaware, Eastern Washington, or almost all other FCS teams would recognize - if you're good enough (and academically qualified), we'll pay for some, or all, of your education.

As a result of their decision, this makes them ineligible for Patriot League titles, preseason awards, or even be a part of the preseason Patriot League rankings, though the Rams are still very much present at Patriot League Media Day.  They play all the Patriot League teams, even though their won/loss record doesn't officially "count" for the league title or their autobid to the FCS playoffs.

Last December, the Patriot League presidents were supposed to vote on whether to allow Fordham's type of football scholarships for the entire league.  Only one president went public with his position on the issue - Lafayette's Daniel Weiss, who felt like they shouldn't be allowed at all.

Last year, the game among members of the media at media day was to try to guess "who's for, and who's against" scholarships, fully expecting something on the matter to be decided.  After all, it was the Presidents themselves that put a deadline of December 2010 to decide something on the matter.

The presidents decided, well, not to decide, and delay the decision past 2010 and into the future.

And a this Patriot League Media Day, it seemed like nobody wanted to talk about the scholarships issue anymore - like there had been so much said about it, everyone was almost sick of it.

Unsurprisingly, one of those guys was coach Masella.

"I think it's been talked about, dissected, and re-talked about, but it's been good for us," he told me.  "We're going forward with it, and we feel good about where we're going and what we're doing.  There's no looking back."

And he was also excited about an extremely challenging schedule that included two FBS opponents - UConn, and Army.

"Army has been a traditional rivalry for us, dating back to the 50s," he said.  "It wasn't supposed to be this way with two FBS teams, but when Hofstra dropped football, Army had an opening and we had it too.  We want to revive that rivalry, but it probably revived a little quicker than I would have liked."

While football scholarships weren't mentioned by me as a part of Fordham's ability to schedule multiple FBS opponents, it can be argued that by being above 58 scholarships, it made the decision of UConn and Army to schedule Fordham a lot easier, since a victory over them would count for bowl eligibility.

And scholarships have made it easier for Fordham to get - and, importantly, retain - athletes in the program that have adhered to the league's Academic Index - the tool the league uses to make sure incoming athletes are representative of the rest of their incoming class.

I didn't only talk with coach Masella about scholarships, FBS games and the Patriot League.  I also take to coach Masella about his team for the coming year.

He felt his team was in transition, with a lot of new faces on offense and defense, including the switch of junior QB Blake Wayne to a new position.  For this season, it seems like coach Masella, ever the tinkerer, was continuing to tinker with his team some more.  "We have a lot of young kids," he emphasized, also mentioning sophomore DT Justin Yancey as a young guy to watch on the defense.

Realistically, with a schedule that features two FBS squads, two nationally-ranked teams in Lehigh and Penn, seven road games and tough road contests at Colgate and Rhode Island (in their last year in the CAA), coach Masella realized the challenge of trying to qualify for the FCS playoffs as an at-large team.  A home sweep, and a winning record on the road, is the only way the young Rams could have a chance to make the playoffs.

"I don't think the kids understand how competitive the Patriot League is at some times," Masella added.  "It's a great league, great competitive football, and I've enjoyed it."

*****

Talking briefly to Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani, he was also excited about a brand-new opponent on his schedule this year - North Dakota State, who will be the destination for the Leopards on opening weekend at their home, the FargoDome.

Like Masella looking forward to Army, Tavani was ready for the challenge of taking on the Bison, who were a horrible overtime call away from hosting Villanova in the FCS semi-finals last year.

This, of course, is par for the course at Patriot League Media Day: after all, it's a day of looking forward to a challenging season, not rehashing the past.

Nor was the subject of Lafayette athletic director Bruce McCutcheon's sudden reassignment discussed by any of the folks who live and breathe Lafayette athletics, even off the record.   The change of Mr. McCutcheon's role in the Leopard athletic department to a pure fundraising role only a week before Media Day raised some eyebrows with some folks before Media Day, but it was not discussed by anyone on the floor, excepting a casual mention in the opening statements by executive director of the Patriot League Carolyn Schlie Femovich that Colgate athletic director David Roach would be taking his spot in the FCS Athletic Director Committee this coming year.

If there was any bitterness from anyone at Lafayette about scholarships, Fordham, or anyone or anything, it was well hidden.

While the Lafayette folks didn't say anything about it, President Weiss' statements in opposition of football scholarships last December seemed to hang in the air anyway - positioned in stark contrast to Fordham's "pro" position on the issue, across the room.

It took my interview with Ms. Femovich to get a very different impression about the solidity of Fordham's membership.

"As you know, the [Patriot League] Presidents decided not to make a decision in December," she told me.  "As much as there was an intention to have a decision forthcoming, they were just not ready to do that.  What they've done is given themselves a two year window to say, 'We need a little bit more time to make sure whatever decision we make is the right decision for each of our institutions and the league as a whole'.

"It is a very presidentially-driven discussion.  The Athletic Directors and the league office have provided the Presidents all the information they need.  They are continuing the conversation, and they will make a decision when they're ready, when they think it's the right time - not only institutionally, but collectively."

The Patriot League is unusual in that their athletics office and the athletic departments of the individual schools are only in an advisory capacity concerning many league athletics matters.

It stands in great contrast with, say the Pac Ten, where it seems like shady recruiting practices at USC and Oregon show how a big-time collegiate athletics culture can have a life of its own.  Or the Big Ten, where commissioner Jim Delany can seemingly craft an expansion strategy based on TV contracts and revenue rather than common sense.

Such a stance on control can actually be a great thing.  I don't enjoy so-called "big-time" athletics where schools generally take athletes that are barely eligible academically to begin with, then break a multitude of rules in order to get and keep them.  (Actually, I take special joy when FCS schools beat teams like that.)

And yet, presidential control of an athletics conference only really works when presidents are active, and engaged, on the issues concerning collegiate athletics.  It, of course, shouldn't be the only thing, and I'm quite aware the president of an institution has an awful lot more than just athletics on their plate.  But it should be pretty high up on the priority list, for better or for worse - because, like it or not, it's a big part of the collegiate experience and it's something that a whole lot of people care about.

The Presidents may not have been "ready", in the words of Ms. Femovich, or, perhaps "engaged", in my own words.

But the upshot seems to be that their delay on their decision makes things more difficult for Fordham - no league title to shoot for, no preseason all-Americans to honor.  (And this year, no players to interview.)

It begs the question: what does Fordham's president think about this?

"When we originally struck the agreement, it was predicated on two things," Ms. Femovich told me.  "One, that we would continue our relationship through the 2012 football season.  But it was also predicated on the premise that the presidents would make a decision in December of 2010.  They didn't do that.

"But Father Joseph McShane was very much a part of those conversations.  And they have agreed to give us more time to work on this.  It's a strong indication that they really want to continue to be a part of the league.  They have indicated at the presidential and the athletic director level that the [Patriot League] is really where they want to be."  (emphasis mine)

"We want to keep this together," she added.  "It's a little bit of a strange agreement, but I think it is working for us.  It is allowing Fordham to do what they think they need to do institutionally with their scholarships.  At the same point, we want to maintain a competitive balance that doesn't allow any unfair advantage when we compete against each other."

The Presidents ended up reneging on their original agreement to come to a decision in December of 2010 - which was, let's remember, one for Fordham's sake, as they've decided already to go forward on football scholarships.  Now, they've engaged in another agreement with Fordham and the rest of the league - and it seems in no uncertain terms that Fordham has agreed to wait, along with the rest of the Patriot League watchers around the country.

*****

The comments from the executive director of the Patriot League cleared a lot of the air about the football scholarship vote, and about the status of Fordham.  And it appears to this reporter that Fordham's leadership is in lockstep about their decision to let the league work this thing out.

But as seems to happen so often in the Patriot League, there seems to be disconnect between the discussions of the Patriot League presidents and the discussions and body language on the floor of Patriot League Media Day.

The relatively empty Fordham table, and the discussions with coach Masella, show a different picture of Fordham's place in the Patriot League universe.

Which direction is this all going to go?

Was coach Masella, in effect, packing up his cubicle at the Green Pond Country Club, and saying farewell to the rest of the Patriot League coaching "gang" yesterday?

Or is Fordham waiting to see what the rest of the Patriot League presidents decide on football scholarships - and if the answer is "yes, we'll do them", will Fordham jump back into the football conference fold, all-in to the Patriot League experience?

It's impossible to say for certain.

About the only thing it seemed to make sense to this reporter was that the status of Fordham, Lafayette and the Patriot League football scholarship situation was as much about what was not being said as what was being said at Media Day.

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