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Friday Water Cooler: Patriot League and NEC football at a Crossroads?

My "Friday Water Cooler" discussions, when I've had them this year, have been notorious for being unplanned affairs, with the idea for the topic only coming together on Friday Morning.

And this Friday is no exception, thanks to an intriguing column in this morning's Asbury Park Press by Stephen Edelson.

In the article, Mr. Edelson, whose paper covers Monmouth Hawk athletics (the team which Lehigh opened with this year with a 49-24 victory), talked about the upcoming matchup between Monmouth and Colgate this weekend , of course - but also talked about the Patriot League and NEC being at a "crossroads".

Is he right?  (more)

The Big East might not be the only local conference with a decidedly different look in the coming years.
As Monmouth University hosts Colgate for the first time Saturday, it’s a clash between school’s whose conferences, the Northeast Conference and Patriot League, respectively, are approaching a football crossroads.  
Some programs, like the Hawks and Raiders, would be willing to explore increased funding to level the playing field with top-tier FCS programs, while others are seeking to hold the line, or even reduce their commitment to the sport.  
The end result could be a football-only conference with like-minded schools banding together in a regional league.

The idea being floated here that NEC and Patriot League schools could "gravitate towards a regional league over time" - the words of Monmouth president Paul Gaffney, not mine - is huge news.

This isn't just some crazy fan coming up with this type of proposal on a fan message board - it's a fellow school president, someone that other school presidents might be more inclined to listen to.

And the fact that he was a vice Admiral, and a graduate of fellow Patriot League school Navy, gives his words extra weight, too - he knows a thing or two about the Patriot League, as well as the NEC.

“These are tough times and it’s need easy to put millions more into programs, whether it’s science or football,’’ said Gaffney. “Our return on investments is down, state funds have decreased. But nonetheless, it is the attitude of some schools, and we would be one, who would be willing to look at the opportunities that lie ahead and might have more interest in them. We would consider additional scholarships, and maybe it’s not all the way up to 63, but there are schools out there willing to increase their commitments as well.’’

Currently, the NEC limits the number of scholarships of its football team to 36 equivalencies.  But some schools, like Monmouth, want to consider adding additional scholarships beyond the limit of 36, while others seem to think the status quo is fine.

(Sound familiar?  To anyone that's been reading my blog over the past few years, it seems to mirror the situation of the Patriot League perfectly: one team, Fordham, wants to offer scholarships not tied to need, while other schools are hesitant, seeming to think the status quo is fine.)

When thinking of both the Patriot League and NEC in this way - two leagues, with a yawning gap between the most-supported and least-supported teams financially - a football-only alliance makes a lot of sense.

Especially since the mere existence of football in the Northeast has been threatened.

In the past five years, five FCS schools have dropped football, one has jumped to FBS (UMass), and another is considering it (Villanova).  At least one school (Rhode Island) considered dropping football, before finding a home in the limited-scholarship NEC.

Other schools in the CAA - New Hampshire and Maine - have to be thinking long and hard, too, about remaining in a CAA that is more and more based below the Mason/Dixon line.

And if Villanova starts playing Big East football in FBS - a possibility that I think is much, much greater now, considering the latest poaching of members by the ACC and TCU's leaving the Big East at the altar - the matter will become even more pressing for the two Easternmost schools playing FCS football.

The overall survival of football in the Northeast, to me, is a pretty open question, and if one or two football-only conference allows more teams to keep sponsoring FCS football, it's worth looking at.

What might such an alignment look like?

Perhaps a hybrid model - allowing schools to get up to 63 if they so desire - can work.  For the sake of argument, teams in one of the new football-only conference could, say, offer 36 "conventional" scholarships and 27 "need-based" scholarships of which the loan portion could be converted to grants.

The other could be a conference comprised completely of need-based aid, for those that wish to compete at a need-based aid level of commitment.  It would allow schools to still offer football - but at a significantly lower cost than the other conference.

All of these schools could then adhere to an "Academic Index", modeled on the Patriot League's and Ivy League's banded model.

This is extremely similar to the setup that has been the norm in the Midwest for more than twenty years.  At about the time of the split to I-A and I-AA in 1985, members of the Missouri Valley, Horizon, and Summit banded together to form  the "Association of Mid-Continent Universities" (since renamed the Missouri Valley Football Conference).  A few years later, the "Pioneer Football League" was founded as well, with  non-scholarship teams from different basketball conferences wishing to compete at the Division I level.

What might these two leagues look like?

The "Freedom Football League" (up to 36 conventional, and up to 27 need-based convertible scholarships):
Lehigh
Lafayette
Colgate
Albany
Monmouth
Holy Cross
Central Connecticut State
New Hampshire
Maine
Rhode Island

And the "Liberty Football League" (63 need-based convertible scholarships):
Sacred Heart
Wagner
St. Francis (PA)
Georgetown
Bucknell
Duquesne
Robert Morris
Bryant

(Perhaps the CAA gets in the game, too, in effect "trading" New Hampshire and Maine for, say, Fordham and Stony Brook.)

It could make for two, more stable, football conferences, with strong academic standards and members whose football aspirations are better aligned.

Could it work?  And, more importantly, is it something that the Patriot League presidents are willing to consider?

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