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Why The Wind Of Change in Collegiate Realignment Matters: Fordham

With the best Commodore VIC-20 graphics available for the cover art, Jefferson Starship's "Winds of Change" album seriously underwhelmed pretty much everyone at the time, yielding few hits.

Some folks think just because collegiate realignment has yielded few hits on the Patriot League hit parade, it doesn't really matter to them.

I mean, what is it to the Patriot League if the CAA comes back from the jaws of the dragon, or if Conference USA is out of control, or the Atlantic Ten is simply dreaming that the Big East basketball conference breaks apart?

As I started to mention yesterday, it very much does matter.  In the case of Georgetown, their TV deal with the Big East could very much affect the availability of aid for other sports programs, including football.

In the case of Fordham, the Patriot League's other affiliate program in football, the winds of change are, without question, even more pronounced.

Much of the realignment-ageddon over the past couple of months has involved Fordham's home in all sports other than football, the Atlantic 10.

It started when the crown jewel of the conference, Temple, left to join the Big East in all sports this March.

Temple was the Atlantic 10's most reliable qualifier for the NCAA tournament.  Surely boosted by the Owls' steep hoops history and presence in the "Big 5", Temple had qualified for the last five NCAA tournaments  - even if Fran Dunphy, almost equally as reliably, has become synonymous for being the coach of first-round upset victims.

But Temple was also mostly an outlier in the rest of the A-10, too, since it had FBS ambitions in football.  It competed in the MAC in football, after being forcibly ejected from the Big East in football only because of its lack of competitiveness.

But years later, when the Big East became desperate to fill their 2012 football schedule following West Virginia's sudden departure, the Owls leaped at the chance this March to join the Big East in all sports - the end of a more than twenty-year quest to not only join the conference full-time, but to also squarely challenge Villanova in terms of athletic excellence in the Philadelphia area.

The Big East's gain - Villanova vs. Temple will be a guaranteed "Big 5" game every year - was the Atlantic Ten's loss as Temple's conference matchups with LaSalle and St. Joe's disappear.

To their credit, A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade didn't just sit back and let it happen.

Almost immediately after the Owls' exit, she was on the phone with the athletic directors of Butler, George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth to gauge their interest in joining the A-10.

All three were certainly targeted for their hoops prowess.  Along with Memphis in 2008, these three teams and the Tigers represent the only mid-major conference Final Four participants in the last seven years.

(The Tiger's 2008 Final Four appearance was actually vacated, though, making John Calipari the only coach to guide two mid-major teams to the Final Four to see them both vacated.  He also guided UMass to the Final Four in 1996, the only appearance the A-10 has ever had in the Final Four. )

Aside from the Final Four runs, though, two more aspects of these schools also had to be a part of McGlade's calculus as well.

First, both members had schools relatively close by to develop potential rivalries.  Butler is reasonably close to members Xavier and Dayton, and seem to have some strong possibilities for developing a strong semi-local hoops rivalry.  As for VCU, they share a city with fellow A-10 school Richmond, which could also blossom into something big as well.

Second, though, their lack of scholarship football - Butler plays football in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, while VCU's public flirtation with football wasn't much more than just that - must have been very appealing.  The Bulldogs and Rams won't have the distraction of a high-scholarship FCS program or FBS program to make them much more appealing to, say the Big East.

For the schools, it allows them to focus on their primary love - hoops - and have a chance at more at-large bids every year, despite the longer in-conference road trips and the relative lack of Final Four appearances.  For most members, there's no football distraction.

****

So how does this summary of the last three months of Atlantic Ten membership affect Fordham's football program?

Easy.

Last week, Fordham athletic director Frank McLaughlin, the Rams' athletic director for the past 27 years, announced that he's moving on to a new role in Fordham's athletic department.


In his new position, McLaughlin’s responsibilities will include providing leadership for institutional efforts focused on athletic alumni relations, fundraising and external athletic affairs as well as supporting the overall University fundraising and campaign efforts with a special focus on intercollegiate athletics. He will also work closely with varsity coaches and athletic department staff in identifying fundraising needs and opportunities for individual programs, and advancing efforts in support of same.

“I am grateful, and humbled, by all the opportunities Fordham has given me, including this latest one,” McLaughlin said. “It has been an honor to lead the University’s athletic program, and I’m excited to step into this new role while continuing to mentor student athletes.”


The reasoning for his departure at this time isn't clear - whether it was age, the shifting of the sands of Fordham's Board of Trustees, or the length of time the Rams spent in the cellar of A-10 hoops.

The New York Post's Lenn Robbins has his own take:


We can speculate if McLaughlin received this “promotion’’ because the administration was tired of hearing him fight for his department, or, if after 27 years, the man and the university felt a change would be best for all. 
What is not up for debate is that Fordham has reached a crucial moment in its athletic department and university future. With the uncertain future in college sports — especially the tenuous future of the Big East — Fordham, long considered the Sleeping Giant of New York college sports, has a can’t-miss opportunity. 
The next AD must be a savvy business person, a deal maker and he or she should have a former coach’s sensitivities. There will be a lot of names associated with this search and, if Fordham is wise, it will allow McLaughlin a voice in the next hire.
The administration can embraces this moment and make the Fordham Shrug extinct by embracing a new paradigm: 
Give the new AD Hire an AD that reports directly to the president. Give that man or woman a budget that doesn’t compromise the school’s athletic mission, yet enables its athletic teams to compete for league titles on a perennial basis. Allow that individual to build the Fordham brand, which should be easy in this town. 
If Fordham isn’t willing to grab the future by the Rams’ horns, it will hire a second-rate administrator, a ‘Yes’ man who will balance the athletics budget and celebrate NIT berths and 6-5 seasons. Shoot, I can do that. And once, I didn’t even know where Fordham was. 


Though Mr. Robbins (and some very vocal fans) might criticize his legacy, it was McLaughlin's hand that guided Fordham from the depths of its 1970s irrelevance into the Patriot League and, ultimately, into to Atlantic 10.

It's worth noting that when McLaughlin was first employed in the Ram athletic department, Fordham was playing Division III football and basketball in the MAAC.

He leaves the department in 2012 with a Patriot League football league that can now offer up to 60 athletic scholarships, and a basketball program that rubs elbows with Xavier and UMass.

For followers of Patriot League football, though, the departure of McLaughlin means something even greater than that - the departure of the guy who was Father Joseph McShane's right-hand man, and key driver, on football scholarships.

It was McLaughlin who was the spokesman for football scholarships in the Patriot League at a time when success was hardly assured:


Only Fordham’s executive athletic director, Frank McLaughlin, spoke on the record about the decision. It was his university that decided to give football scholarships last year, and subsequently forced the hand of the other Patriot League members. 
“We have made a decision and we’re focused on being successful,” McLaughlin said. “We’re committed as ever to fielding a competitive football team without sacrificing high academics. 
“[Scholarships] been a home run — when you have something to offer players, you don’t have to waste time and effort finding them,” McLaughlin said. “And we’ve got a game next year against Army.” 
McLaughlin said that Fordham would like to continue to play football in the Patriot League, but that it would not hesitate to go elsewhere if scholarships are not approved — perhaps to the Colonial Athletic Association, with teams like Villanova and William & Mary. 
“It’s a tremendous group of academic institutions, and we’re tremendously proud to be associated with them,” he said. “But we have a vision for where we want to go.”


Without the work of him and Fr. McShane, it's highly unlikely that the Patriot League would have scholarships starting with next year's incoming class.

"Frank McLaughlin has been a strong advocate for Fordham University and the values of the Patriot League for more than two decades," Patriot League executive director Carolyn Femovich told me.  "He has always worked in a collegial manner as a proponent for the growth of Patriot League Football and remained committed to high achievement both on the field and in the classroom. We wish Frank continued success in his new position and are pleased that this opportunity will keep him close to Fordham athletics and their football program."

While the decision on scholarships is done, and Fr. McShane is - to put it mildly - unlikely to have someone in the athletic director's chair that isn't foursquare behind football scholarships and basketball prominence, the Rams' first job interviews in 27 years for their athletic directors' job might require a very different view of athletics that McLaughlin.

Namely: will he (or she) love the Patriot League as much as Frank did?

I interviewed Frank a few times in regards to Patriot League matters over the years, and he put it to me in no uncertain terms: he "loved" the Patriot League.

That was a pretty remarkable statement for a school whose alumni, at times, have blamed every single bad thing to happen in Rose Hill over his decision to eschew basketball scholarships to join the Patriot League in all sports for a brief period in the early 1990s.

By the time I talked to him, the Rams were happy in the Atlantic 10, and weren't planning on leaving it anytime soon - but, crucially, were also completely on board with academic standards for incoming football athletes.

This love and friendship with the League, arguably, is the main reason why the Patriot League still is in existence today.

It seems odd to say that about a member that is an associate member for football only, but I happen to believe that it's true.

When some schools would have simply left the league over the big issues that it faced in regards to merit aid, the Rams stayed to work things out in regards to football scholarships.  In any context, this would be a big sacrifice for the school involved, but viewed through the prism of Fordham's noisy exit from the league over basketball scholarships, it was particularly remarkable.

Even as the issue of basketball scholarships came to a head in the Patriot League, it was Fordham's departure that seemed to be the backdrop of the league's adoption of merit-based aid in hoops as well.  While Holy Cross, Army, and Navy made the threats at that point, it was Fordham, the "school that got away", that was evoked as well.

That they stayed in football - through the issues with scholarships, through the exit of Towson, through the building of Georgetown - kept the league with seven members, and provided critical security to the Patriot League's autobid in football.  It's not clear at all if the Patriot League might have survived.

There's even those people in the Patriot League - unrealistically, perhaps - that wonder if Fordham might reconsider joining the Patriot League in all sports, now that the vision it saw regarding athletics - scholarships, with academic standards - is now the norm in all sports.

The next Fordham athletic director hopefully certainly pay attention to football at the Patriot League level.  With luck, they will focus on building an FCS playoff-caliber team, and do a better job with football scholarships than they have shown thus far.

But what seems certain, though, is that the next athletic director will most likely not share the same "love" of the Patriot League - someone who follows the league so closely, and believes so much in the principles of the league.

What Fordham may gain in focusing on the A-10 and basketball, Patriot League football could potentially lose in terms of a very interested party.  The fact that Frank's not at the table in regards to the issues of the league will make a difference.

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