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Johns Hopkins and the Future of Independent Lacrosse

In football, there is BYU, Notre Dame, Army and Navy, the last independents in an FBS world of conferences and the payouts they generate for their members.

In men's lacrosse, there is Johns Hopkins, High Point, Marquette and Mercer - not exactly the same cavalcade of stars as in bowl football.

But one of those four, Johns Hopkins, the nine-time NCAA champions of the modern era, are superstars of the lacrosse world.  Founded in 1883, they are one of the founding fathers of the sport of lacrosse and have been involved in its play essentially since the founding of the university in 1876.

What the people say around this 130 year old lacrosse program matters - and they've said that finally, after 130 years of competing as an independent, they are finally joining a conference in men's lacrosse.

"In a letter to the Johns Hopkins community on Friday, May 17, President Ronald J. Daniels announced that he has accepted the recommendation of a special committee that the Blue Jay men's lacrosse program seek conference affiliation," the official release booms, effectively declaring the end of an era.



I wrote to you in early March to say that the changing face of intercollegiate athletics and the immense growth in the sport of lacrosse had made it necessary for Johns Hopkins to consider a step it had never taken in 130 years of competition: foregoing our independent status and affiliating with a conference for men’s lacrosse.
It would be a big step, a departure from history and Blue Jay tradition. We would never take such a step lightly. I announced the formation, therefore, of a special committee to examine all aspects of the issue and to provide me with an informed recommendation. 
... 
The committee’s unanimous conclusion, transmitted to me last week, is that Johns Hopkins and its men’s lacrosse student-athletes would best be served by our seeking affiliation for men’s lacrosse only with an NCAA Division I conference. That conclusion was based on committee members’ conviction that such a move will provide our university and history’s most-successful lacrosse program the best opportunity for continued leadership at the highest level of intercollegiate competition. It was based on their conviction that joining a Division I conference for men’s lacrosse is the best course for our athletes, our program and our university, and that it can be done without compromise to our academic integrity or athletic traditions.

Johns Hopkins University is the type of school that Patriot League presidents, and many alumni, seem to dream about in their off-hours in terms of an all-sports member.

Their medical school is known worldwide, of course.

When you read about their academic rankings in US News and World Report, they're in the Top 20, right alongside the Ivies and Patriot League schools.

And they've been vocal in their lack of "compromise to our academic integrity", which philosophically aligns them with the Patriot League and Ivy League.

(In fact, if they were to announce in a press conference that they would look into moving all of their sports to Division I, you get the impression that Mr. Daniels would be getting fruit baskets from Patriot League Executive Director Carolyn Schlie Femovich and the presidents around the Patriot League about an hour later - twelve years of NCAA-mandated transition period from Division III to Division I be damned.)

But Johns Hopkins has no interest in migrating all of their athletics programs to Division I, including their football program and their 19 other sports competing at the D-III level.  The one sport where they happen to compete at the Division I level is men's and women's lacrosse, which is so because they were grandfathered an exception to continue to compete at the highest level when the NCAA mandated the classifications of I, II, and III in 1973.

There is one sport at Johns Hopkins that lights up fans of the Blue Jays, and that's lacrosse.  Entire books have been written about it.  When something happens with the NCAA's in terms of lacrosse, it's front-page news in Baltimore.

For 130 years, independence has served JHU well, allowing to develop fierce local rivalries with schools like Maryland, Loyola, Navy, and UMBC, while continuing to be a Top 25 powerhouse in the sport.  But this season, after missing the NCAA tournament in lacrosse for the first time in 41 years, folks who had advocated for years for the Blue Jays to be independent started to change their tune, like ESPN lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra:

“I always thought and looked at them almost like Notre Dame football and that their independent status had tradition to it and had a certain type of unique feel,” Calcaterra said. “However, the landscape of college lacrosse has drastically changed. With all of the increased [automatic qualifier] conferences, there are so few at-large opportunities for Hopkins, compared to what it was in the past, that they don’t really have a choice.”

The landscape he's talking about is the fact that the number of autoqualifiers to the NCAA tournament in lacrosse have jumped from six to eight in the last two years - and with the Big 10 publicly mulling over the idea of starting a lacrosse conference as well, more and more spots in the postseason are getting gobbled up by automatic qualifiers.

It's similar to the I-AA football playoff setup of five years ago, when there were 16 teams and 8 auto-qualifiers, and a second-place finish in a power conference puts a team in a very strong position for an at-large team over an independent.  While there's no way to prove that the JHU lacrosse analysts were looking at that, they certainly could have when making their decision - not to mention the lack of NCAA playoffs this season for the first time in living memory of many people surrounding Blue Jay lacrosse.

If Johns Hopkins leaves the world of independence in men's lacrosse, it's hard to see other schools willingly remaining independent as well.  Again, I-AA football proves an instructive example: the last independent to qualify for the FCS playoffs was Florida Atlantic in 2003, when their three-year old program was on its way to the Sun Belt of FCS (and, incidentally, pulverized by Colgate by RB Jamaal Branch and the Raiders in the I-AA semifinals, 36-24).

So what are the criteria for Johns Hopkins to join a league?  Recognizing their value to any conference they might join, athletic director Tom Calder offered four:

1. An initial membership term of five years.
2. An opportunity to evaluate Johns Hopkins' position in the conference after three years, at which point the option would exist to either extend the initial agreement or to part ways at the conclusion of the initial agreement. 
3. A guarantee that a decision by an existing full member of the conference to sponsor the sport of men's lacrosse or the addition to the conference of a full member that sponsors men's lacrosse will not jeopardize Johns Hopkins' affiliation with the league. 
4. The ability for Johns Hopkins to maintain its existing television broadcasting relationship with ESPNU.

Option number three might seem like an academic point, but those who have followed lacrosse for years know that it refers to a specific example of an independent, associate school that joined a conference only to find them booted out a couple of years later.

In 2000, Hobart University joined the Patriot League in men's and women's lacrosse, only to be exiled to the ECAC in 2005 after the Patriot League decided to change the rules of the league to not allow associate memberships in any sport except football.  It's been a blow that still has Hobart reeling.

Given all these criteria, where might the Blue Jays end up?

Some folks have mentioned the Big East, where the travel costs are less, and the Big 10, where they would be reunited with rival Maryland in a brand-new lacrosse league.

Nobody appears to be mentioning the Ivy Group, which is curious because the seven Ivy schools have had lots of success in the past nationally, with programs like Princeton, and, this season, Cornell and Yale.  And no disrespect to the Big East or Big 10, but philosophically as institutions, Johns Hopkins and the Ivy League are like peas and carrots - much more similar than, say, Michigan State and Johns Hopkins.

But the Patriot League, however, would offer a similar level of academic prestige as the Ivies and something more: long-time league rivals (Navy, Loyola) and geographic proximity (every member save Holy Cross and Boston University is a bus ride away).  

So why not the Patriot League for the Blue Jays?

True, there is the ignominious history of Hobart College's short stay in the Patriot League, which would need to be overcome to some degree, or at least some show that the League has learned its lesson on adding strong, lacrosse-based, independent schools.  

But there are numbers issues as well.

With Hopkins, the Patriot League would have 10 men's lacrosse-playing members when there are only 63 Division I men's lacrosse programs in total.  Like football, having more members in the league means potentially unsavory decisions like splitting into divisions, and teams not necessarily playing each other every year.

Yet that point can be countered somewhat by the fact that men's lacrosse remains one of the fastest-growing sports in all of division I.  In football, conference sizes in general are growing to prevent against poaching, and the era of the superconference of 16 teams or more is promised to be just around the corner.

In men's lacrosse, schools are adding the sport in droves.  Boston University is starting up a men's lacrosse team in time for the 2014 season.  Minnesota of the Big 10 is also rumored to possibly be starting a program, as well as USC and Florida State.

Let's say there are 10 more Division I men's lacrosse programs in the next 10 years - not a stretch of the imagination at all, based on the four programs just mentioned.  Wouldn't a 10 member conference, with two former national champions (JHU and Loyola) one classic lacrosse power (Navy), one extremely well financed start-up (Boston University) and several up-and-coming national programs (Colgate, Bucknell, Lehigh), be in a very strong position?  

Isn't that a conference that guarantees at least one at-large bid a season, and possibly more?

While it might be a stretch to say it's better than the ACC or maybe even a Big 10 men's lacrosse conference, certainly it would be equal to the Ivy Group, and still would be miles better than the Big East or CAA, top to bottom.

So again, why not the Patriot League?

There is that sticky fourth point of Johns Hopkins' ESPN partnership, which seems to be a very large stumbling block with whomever the Blue Jays choose.

It's reasonable to assume that the Big 10 wants Johns Hopkins lacrosse games on the Big 10 Network, which is 49% owned by Fox.  Would the Big 10 network agree to ESPNU - a direct competitor - getting first choice of Johns Hopkins games over the Big 10 network?  It's possible they can work something out, like they've done for some football games, but at a minimum it's an issue.

The Big East, too, has a budding relationship with Fox Sports One, the rebranded Speed Network.  But in terms of lacrosse, their deal finalized last month specifically granted control of "all Olympic sports" to them, which could be very problematic for having Hopkins' ESPN deal co-existing with this agreement.

"The desire for Hopkins to maintain its ESPNU deal is a significant factor for the university (and the conference alignment committee)," College Crosse's blogger opines.  "How will this desire play in any potential Big Ten discussions (e.g., will the Big Ten permit Hopkins to keep broadcast rights for its home games -- including home games against Big Ten opponents -- while the Big Ten Network is permitted to only broadcast Hopkins road games?)? How will this impact potential discussions with the ACC (the league has a relationship with the four-letter network)? As for the Big East and ECAC, which have contracts with Fox Sports, Hopkins' ESPNU deal is a weird point of parliamentary procedure. We are all beholden to furniture that shows moving pictures."

The Patriot League, too, has a relationship with a competing network to ESPN: the CBS Sports Network, so in theory they'd also have an issue.  However, the way the deal is structured, Patriot League media director Matt Dougherty told me, other networks can, and do, pick up games involving Patriot League schools.

CBS has the first pick of games they want to televise, he told me, "and then the schools are open to negotiate their own agreements with other networks from the games not selected," he said.

In terms of men's lacrosse, this is how Lehigh was able to have a home, mid-season game versus UMass be televised on ESPNU earlier in the year.  

"Once we were certain the league would not be picking up our game with UMass, Justin Lafleur and I pitched it (with the support of the league) to ESPNU," Lehigh sports information director Steve Lomangino told me.

In fact it's that relationship with ESPN that allowed Lehigh men's lacrosse head coach Kevin Cassese to be available as a guest analyst for the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament, once Lehigh was eliminated by North Carolina in the first round.  (The rights to the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament is owned by ESPN, which is why Lehigh's first-round game at North Carolina was televised on ESPN2 this month.)

Would Johns Hopkins' ESPNU agreement and the Patriot League's CBS Sports Network contract be able to co-exist?  Maybe, but it seems like there may need to be some negotiation there.

If Johns Hopkins chose to join the Ivy Group instead, they'd have a similar situation: the Ivy League has an existing agreement with NBC Sports Network to televise four Ivy Group lacrosse games a season through 2014.  

But intriguingly, however, the Ivy Group conference championship - one of the few conference championships supported by the Ivy League - is televised on ESPNU.

****

Every indication is that Johns Hopkins is going to take their time to make their decision on which men's lacrosse conference to join, if any.  There is no obvious answer: the Big 10, Big East, Ivy Group and Patriot League all offer positives and negatives in terms of membership.  

Any decision, at the earliest, would be made in time for the 2015 season, if that.

“The important thing for us is to win a national championship and how do you do that?” Blue Jay athletic director Tom Calder rhetorically told the Baltimore Sun. “You get into the NCAAs, and what’s the best way to get in? Well, give yourself two options. You can play an extremely strong schedule, but at the same time, there’s another advantage to being in a conference championship. So we wanted a second chance to get into the NCAAs.”

"'We'll continue to do our homework, learn about the conferences, trying to figure out what's the best fit for our lacrosse program and what's the best fit for us institutionally,'" Hopkins lacrosse head coach Dave Pietramala told the student paper.  "Factors to consider, he said, include a good academic fit with conference schools, prospects for national competitiveness, and scheduling opportunities."

Both the Patriot League and Ivy Group offer that conference championship reasonably locally, and the flexibility to, perhaps, accommodate Johns Hopkins' demands to keep their ESPNU TV deal, which appear to give them an early leg up on the "Fox Conferences", the Big 10 and the Big East.

But only the Patriot League allows the Blue Jays the chance to play two of their most bitter local rivals year in and year out in league play - Loyola (MD) and Navy - meaning they'd only need to schedule UMBC and (perhaps) Maryland out-of-conference, opening themselves up for more out-of-conference games.

If you could work out some form of divisional play, wouldn't an academic-based, Eastern-based, 10-team lacrosse power conference with the most out-of-conference options be better than the alternatives?

It's certainly something for Johns Hopkins and the Patriot League to think about.

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