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Bill And Mary And Their Flirtation With The Patriot League

(Photo Credit: Lehigh Valley Live)

Over the years, the schools of the Patriot League have had a reputation as being slow, contemplative, and not exactly proactive when it comes to matters of expansion or conference movements.

A recent blog post from an odd source, however, shows how untrue this reputation is, at least in regards to the swirling winds around collegiate realignment the past few years.

From the Shades of 48 blog, comes detailed freedom-of-information act information from William and Mary that exposes quite a bit about the process that goes on when a school and a conference are mulling over a potential move.

It also shows how seriously William and Mary thought about leaving the CAA and joining the Patriot League.  In all sports.

Rewind the clock to January 1st, 2012.

The CAA had just finished putting an unprecedented five teams in the playoffs, a giant 11-team conference including members such as Rhode Island, Villanova, Delaware, Richmond, William & Mary, and, in their final season in the CAA and ineligible for the conference title, UMass.  Making the playoffs were a first-timer, Old Dominion, another school geographically close to the Tribe, James Madison, ubiquitous New Hampshire, Maine, and the regular-season champions Towson.  (Who got eliminated in the second round by... well... you know.)

The Patriot League, as they had for the last decade, competed with seven teams: five core members (Lehigh, Lafayette, Holy Cross, Bucknell, Colgate) and two loyal affiliates (Georgetown, Fordham).  They weren't a scholarship conference, technically: while many football players essentially had their college educations paid for, the aid was still needs-tested, making it different than the aid given at, say, Delaware.

On Monday Feburary 13th, the Patriot League presidents made the announcement that I and a whole lot of fans of Patriot League schools were hoping to hear, that as of the following season, the league would remove needs-testing for their athletic aid.  In other words, the Patriot League would be "going scholly", offering the same type of aid as the CAA.

Unbeknownst to many, one party that looked at this development very, very closely were the folks at William and Mary.

Terry Driscoll, the athletic director at William & Mary, emailed his feelings on the subject immediately to William & Mary's president, and some key trustees and high ranking members in athletics.

Gentlemen,
This is a significant change for the Patriot League. It is driven by the reality that that to be competitive in FCS football “need based” only financial aid model is not sufficient. This will increase the competition for academically strong prospects for us.
It removes a big obstacle from their expansion discussions.

President Taylor Reveley III wrote back: "All true.  Still, somewhat jarring in an era of growing financial constraints to see people spending more athletic scholarships."

Michael Halleran, the provost of the school, answered with: "Thanks, Terry. Very interesting development.. How big an impact on our recruitment? Non-trivial would be my guess.  Does it change our thoughts about the Patriots[sic] League?"

Driscoll eventually would say the following:

Actually, in our most recent conversations with the Patriot, 3 years ago, the expectation was that this decision was about to be made. However, it had no impact on their invitation to us. They were willing to accept us with our current athletic aid model. Their hope was to create a southern division of the Patriot League with W&M and Richmond as the anchors. 
The underlying issue here is financial model. It would cost as much if not more to compete in the Patriot League. In addition to some increased costs, there would be a real loss in revenue without the CAA rivalries because there is no guarantee that the CAA schools would continue to play us in all sports. I am not an alarmist but a change of this magnitude could be very divisive among our supporters. It could significantly lessen interest in our teams which would impact fund raising, ticket sales and sponsorships. That would be devastating to Athletics.
...
While academically they “look” more like us and athletic aid brings them closer to us athletically, we are very different in culture and structure. However, if our goal is to have a competitive athletic program that seeks a balanced pursuit of academic and athletic excellence then the Patriot League could be an option.

Driscoll clearly isn't thrilled with the idea of the Tribe joining the Patriot League in this email, but it does give some juicy details on the Patriot League's interest in the Tribe and the League's overall vision.

First, let's look at the timeline.  Driscoll last talked to the Patriot League folks three years ago, by his count.  That would place the meeting in 2009 at an interesting time for the Patriot League - when Fordham announced they were going to start to offer conventional scholarships for the incoming class of 2010, kicking off the debate that would lead to scholarships in the Patriot League.

It's curious that William and Mary would have talks with the Patriot League at around that time - and that the Patriot League's decision on scholarships in 2012 would again spark conversations in Williamsburg.

Second, let's do some math.  Seven existing football-playing schools in the Patriot League, plus Richmond and William and Mary, makes nine potential members.

That's not enough for divisional play. You need a minimum of one school, or some odd number of schools beyond that.

Assuming that William and Mary were being considered as an all-sports member, not a football-only affiliate, that also would put hoops at 9 teams.  They would need at least one more team to make it to 10 members, an ideal number, or possibly 12 members.

This means that the Patriot League's vision of a "southern division" had to involve at least one more school that also played football and also was a southern based school (to fill out the "southern division").  Richmond, the Tribe's biggest rival, wasn't enough.  There had to be at least one more school.

Who could it have been?  Driscoll didn't mention specifics.  But some potential candidates leap to mind.

VMI had long been floated as a potential Patriot League school, and for good measure has an athletic history with both the Tribe and the Spiders.  Could maybe Davidson, a school that actually competed in the proto-Patriot League back in 1986, join the league for football-only?  Could both of them, along with, perhaps, VMI's bitter rival, The Citadel, join to make a six-team southern division in football and an even 12 teams in hoops?

Yes, it's just me speculating.  But the key takeaway here is that there had to be at least one football-playing school.  It wasn't Boston University or Loyola (MD), because they don't sponsor football.  It had to be someone else, and someone else whose phone may ring again if the landscape changes.

Halleran then concludes the thread by saying, "So in short, it could be divisive and more expensive. Not a winning combination. At least not at the moment."

In a league where Richmond, James Madison and Old Dominion compete in football, not to mention nearby VCU in hoops, it certainly didn't seem like the right moment to contemplate a conference move for William and Mary.

Four short months later, however, the CAA would find itself looking very, very different.

*****

Remember the Big East?

In March of 2012, the Big East was still in existence, the hoops juggernaut with the BCS football appendage, two strange pieces of a conference that only made sense in regards to the collegiate universe of BCS money and TV money and TV inventory.

Certainly rattled by the departure of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC, the conference was still hanging in there.  They still had UConn and Louisville, for starters.

As West Virigina left, bringing the Big East down to seven teams, the Big East threw geography to the wind and invited Boise State, San Diego State, Central Florida, SMU, and Houston to sign up, some as all-sports members.

There was no thought, yet, that the Big East would do anything but survive, as they always had.

But there was a problem: they needed one more program for the 2012 season to have the minimum eight members in order to remain an FBS conference.

They needed a program with solid hoops along with a capable football program, to keep the fragile coalition together between the FBS faction and the non-FBS faction, and they needed it now.

To this end the Big East ended up looking towards towards Temple, a move I looked at in some detail.

The Big East also had two schools that happen to compete in the FCS: Georgetown of the Patriot League and Villanova of the CAA.

And as the Big East looked towards Temple to fix their problems, it couldn't have been taken very kindly by "Big 5" rival Villanova, who in 2009 was seriously looking into joining the Big East in football as well.

Were the seeds of the breakup of the Big East sown at this time?  I'd argue that the answer was yes.  I detailed the tough decision of Villanova in my blog posting at the time:

Can they really remain in a Big East without Syracuse, and with Temple - Temple! - competing head-to-head with Villanova for Philadelphian hearts and minds in all sports? 
Can they really approach the ACC for an all-sports invite, without an FBS football program?  UConn was already rebuffed by the ACC, and they already have BCS football. 
Can they really compete in the A-10 - replacing Temple in a 1-for-1 swap?  How could you ever live that down?  No Villanova alumnus would go for that. 
Could they move to the CAA, uniting their football and the rest of their sports?  Again, even if the CAA were to manage an improbable move to FBS football, at a level at or below the MAC, how could you live that down when Temple - Temple! - is playing Big East football in the Linc? 
Or could the oft-rumored-but-never-initiated split between the Big East basketball and all sports/football schools finally happen?

The Big East as we knew it then would soldier on until December 2012, but, as I speculated in March, ultimately the tension between the FBS contingent and the non-FBS contingent would become too much for them to bear.

Nova, Georgetown, Marquette and the remaining non-FBS-football playing schools would separate from the FBS schools, taking the Big East name with them and adding Butler, Creighton and Xavier, three schools know for their great hoops programs.  And the presidents of Nova and Georgetown, both, were key architects of the split.

That would would be in the future, though.  Let's backtrack and focus, now, to the William and Mary emails: May 10th, 2012.  Driscoll is emailing his boss Revely about an interesting communique he had received.

The Patriot League is holding its conference meeting this week. Last night John Hardt, the AD at Bucknell, called me to officially let us know that, if our situation with the CAA were to change, W&M is at the top of the Patriot League's list of potential new members.  I thanked him and told him that we are assessing where we are and ultimately the decision for us will be where we can continue our academic and athletic mission. He understands and said the Patriot League wanted to be sure that W&M knows they are an option.
The timing of this communication is very, very interesting.

This email happened only days after that John Marinatto, the sitting Big East commissioner, was forced to resign from the existing membership on May 7th, 2012,

Would the presidents of the CAA and Patriot League have known about severe tension in the Big East, causing ripples among the CAA, Atlantic 10 and other conferences, like Conference USA?  With Villanova and Georgetown occupying football slots in both conferences, I'd imagine they'd have known about it first.

It also came one month after what Old Dominion says was the touchstone moment that kicked off their departure to Conference USA, on April 1st, 2012.
ODU Athletic Director Wood Selig and his counterpart at Virginia Commonwealth, Norwood Teague, were in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel between rounds of the men's basketball Final Four when Teague's face suddenly grew serious. He leaned toward Selig and hit him with the news: VCU would likely be leaving the Colonial Athletic Association to join the Atlantic 10, and so might George Mason. "I didn't want you to be blindsided."
May 10th would have meant ODU was about a month into their process of looking around for a new conference, because, as Selig admitted later in the Daily Press' timeline, "The nature of the conference, of the people we would compete against in the future, was about to change."

In the month following that meeting, Selig had met MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade, and members of Conference USA.  On April 12th, Selig met with Teague and George Mason Athletic Director Tom O'Connor, where he left convinced they were out the door.
On May 1, 2012, CBSSports.com reported that C-USA would grow by six - with ODU joining Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Texas-San Antonio and UNC Charlotte.
On May 4, five schools announced they were headed to C-USA. ODU wasn't ready to commit and said nothing.
With the press putting enormous pressure on ODU, by May 10th, the board of trustees had still not decided, but the full board was getting together on May 14th to discuss the invitation to join Conference USA.  They were not ready to make the jump yet, but they were close.

At the same time, VCU was readying for a May 15th announcement that they were heading to the Atlantic 10.  (George Mason, who desired to join the Atlantic 10, may have been readying for an invite that didn't come on May 15th.)

While this was all happening, Richmond athletic director Jim Miller was, in my opinion, throwing firebombs at the CAA, seemingly pressuring ODU to make the call to jump to Conference USA while egging on VCU and George Mason to join them in the Atlantic 10.  (Richmond competes in the CAA in football, but the A-10 in other sports.)

It was in this environment that the president of William and Mary and their athletic director was discussing the Patriot League's offer - at a time when the CAA had lost one member in Georgia State, were most likely aware they were about to lose VCU, and potentially was going to lose Old Dominion and perhaps also George Mason.

"Within 15 Minutes," Shades of 48 noted, Reveley wrote Driscoll "Nice to be wanted," words that take on additional context when you consider the timeline.

*****

There are two more fascinating communiques plucked from the Shades of 48 piece.

The first comes from June 1st, 2012, when William and Mary donor, First Market Bank chairman, and supermarket chain owner James Ukrop emailed the president of William and Mary directly with his concerns about the direction of the CAA.

Below is an article from this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. Yesterday I had the occasion to talk with [other deep-pocketed University donors] Jim Kaplan and John Gerdelman. I think we all agree that we need to do what’s best for W&M and not what’s best for the CAA. I hate to be high maintenance, but this obviously is the time for a strategic decision that will have a long-term impact on our coaches, students, alumni, student athletes, and marketing to potential new student athletes, as well as our cost and our reputation.
Two last thoughts:
  • Where do the highest concentration of our out-of-state students reside? What states?
  • Outside of Virginia, what states have the highest concentration of W&M alumni?

Thanks ,Jim
The article in question was a cut-and-paste of the Times-Dispatch article, "CAA exploring expansion options":

Where is the conference headed in the wake of the immediate departure of Virginia Commonwealth to the Atlantic 10 and the future departures of Old Dominion (Conference USA in 2013) and Georgia State (Sun Belt in 2013)? And where will it look geographically to find replacements and possibly expand? 
"We're looking in every direction," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. 
The nine remaining all-sports members of the CAA, which will stretch from North Carolina to Massachusetts, are facing their most critical juncture since the league dwindled to six schools in 2001.
... 
Yeager declined to comment on an ESPN.com report that quoted Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino as saying Yeager had contacted him about talking to some of his schools, presumably Davidson, the College of Charleston and Appalachian State, a football power.
There also are Coastal Carolina (Big South) in basketball and football, and, at the northern end, Boston University (America East) as a basketball addition.
The implication is clear: Ukrop was not happy with the direction Yeager was going with his expansion plans, whether due to Yeager's somewhat frantic tone in the piece, the members floated as potential members, or both.  But in many ways, this does not compute.  It's hard to picture anyone being unhappy with Davidson, who had just been to the Elite 8 not all that long ago, in the CAA, not least because, like William and Mary, they were a high-academic institution and a southern-based school.  At worst there was a balance of different potential teams mentioned.

Reveley wrote back his donors with his thoughts:

I’ll get precise answers to the Q’s below. Imprecise ones follow: 
We get our out-of-state undergraduates most heavily from the mid-Atlantic states, New Jersey in particular. 
Overwhelmingly, the greatest concentration of our alums is metro DC (so they’re in NOVA, the District, and Montgomery County,MD). Other than this metro DC concentration and a number of places in ROVA (the rest of Virginia), we don’t have enough alums in any one city, state or foreign country to create a real concentration (e.g., got a good many in NYC but the place is so big and it has so many more alums from UVA and the private Ivies that our people tend to feel like the lone strangers). 
Being in the CAA has been good for our athletic reputation, though it has done zip for our academic reputation and may pose long term recruiting challenges (far tougher to get in W&M and to succeed academically at W&M than is the case for other CAA schools). The Patriot League wants us and it would be a much better academic fit, but my impression is that it doesn’t have the same caliber varsity athletics as the CAA, especially when it comes to football. Still likely, it seems to me, that our best bet for now is to glue the CAA back together if we can, particularly if Davidson were to sign on as a basketball member of the conference. But am certainly open to any and all ideas.
Reveley notes something that often gets overlooked in realignment discussions: many of their out-of-state undergrads hail from New Jersey, and their metro DC/Northern Virginia alumni base.  This partially explains why the Patriot League might be desirable from that perspective: their recruits come from prime Patriot League territory, from the alumni in the District (Navy, American, Georgetown football) to the Jersey undergrads (i.e. every team in the Patriot League).

He also notes the Patriot League's interest in William and Mary, and gives a pocket analysis of the situation that is very well informed.  But it also betrays that the Patriot League's offer had been on his mind, thanks to the turmoil that was happening in the CAA and elsewhere.

"Our best bet for now is to glue the CAA back together if we can... But am certainly open to any and all ideas," he says.  That doesn't sound like a president that is foursquare behind the CAA and its commissioner.

The second email comes from June 18th, 2012, where CAA commissioner Tom Yeager says, "The blogsphere has the Patriot League recruiting W&M to be the 10th member. Supposedly a W&M Board meeting this week to consider. Any help?"

You saw "10th Member" in his email because only five days prior, the Patriot League welcomed Boston University as its 9th member, a move that blindsighted almost everyone.

Revisiting the timeline for Boston University's addition to the Patriot League:

Like everything in terms of collegiate realignment these days, things came together quickly. 
It's "something that evolved over the past few months" among the presidents , according to Lynch, in regards to the "evolving collegiate landscape". 
"There had been some interest at the presidential level a couple of years back," Femovich told me.  "For a variety of reasons, it wasn't the right time or place to consider a partnership.  But we left it on the table, awaiting the results of the discussions on football scholarships. 
"As much as it may not seem connected," she continued, "we definitely wanted to address the football question, and then see what opportunities that presented for membership.  We felt it was important for the league to decide our future direction." 
Boston University does not sponsor a football since it noisily discontinued its program in 1997, and when I gently brought up the idea to Lynch, he said that bringing back football "unequivocally is not in our plans." 
"Sometimes opportunities present themselves, but not in the sequence and the timing you expect them," Femovich added.  "We certainly would not make a decision because we felt like we needed to get on this bandwagon of conference realignment.  But the timing seemed right."

With the missing ingredients of William and Mary's internal emails and the overall realignment timeline, these statements take on new meaning.

At the same time the Big East and CAA were under tremendous strain, along comes Boston University, wanting to join the Partiot League.

The modus operandi of the Patriot League with Boston University seems very similar to how they approached William and Mary, too: they had some discussions about membership years ago, "leaving their interest on the table", and when "something happened", it had the potential to "evolve" into something like membership.

Then there's the curious statement on addressing the football question to "see what opportunities presented themselves for membership."  (And from the William and Mary side, recall that Driscoll said, of the scholarship resolution, "It removes a big obstacle from their expansion discussions.")

It's in this environment that Yeager was asking about the rumor about William and Mary's board meeting.  Yeager undoubtedly, at a bare minimum, did the math: this put the Patriot League at nine hoops members.  They would need a 10th member that played hoops, if nothing else.  The Patriot League had a need, and forces at William and Mary had articulated at least some warmth to the Patriot League in the past.

Yeager must have known there was something to this.

****

Shades of 48 notes that William and Mary's resoluteness towards a future in the CAA seems to have softened.
In December, he spoke about the changes in the CAA with Dave Fairbank of the Daily Press, sounding less committed to the conference it helped found back in 1979. 
“As I look at that, I still have to go back and say, through these next round of machinations, if it becomes apparent that we can’t provide the experience we’re trying to provide, then we would have to think seriously about doing other things. It’s not like we have our head in the sand and we’re not looking at what’s going on,” he said. Later in the article, he highlights the biggest difference — academics — between W&M and the rest of the CAA. “Even from the start, we really don’t look like most of the other schools in the conference – from the original conference – other than being one of the state public universities. We don’t really look like them and have never really done business exactly like them because we have a little different academic standards.”
He also mentions a  January 2nd outline of a a department presentation in regards to "properly evaluate the Patriot League opportunity".  Looking over the details of this presentation, it was very, very detailed set of questions that were not general in nature.
Compliance/Educational Services Admissions -Academic Index analysis – Identify potential compatibility issues our system Process for determining the AI Academic Support Financial Aid Number of reads allowed / Turnaround time/ Commitment Letters/ Will we be at a competitive disadvantage?
If this were a presentation to pose the question "what if", would it really be this fine-grained an analysis?  Why talk about an analysis of the Patriot League's Academic Index if it was functionally a BS session as to "what if we actually joined the Patriot League?"  This is further betrayed by the item "Will we be at a competitive disadvantage?"  Not "Would we be"  "Will we be."

From this presentation, it seems like William and Mary was much, much closer to joining the Patriot League than anyone thought - and more recently than anyone thought.  (For my part, I thought William and Mary were perhaps mulling things over when the CAA looked unstable, but I never imagined that the Tribe was so integrated into a long-term vision for the Patriot League, nor did I know how far along the Tribe were in their analysis.)

It begs another question: Is William and Mary still considering it?

From June 18th, 2012 to January 3rd, 2013 to the present, there have been plenty of other developments involving the CAA and the Patriot League.  The College of Charleston and Elon have joined the CAA, and Albany and Stony Brook joined as football-only members.  Loyola (MD) joined the Patriot League as the 10th member.

From the time of Yeager's interesting email in June of 2012, the CAA has indeed, in Revely's words, "glued the CAA back together", with two Southern all-sports members  in Elon and College of Charleston, and two budding football powers in Albany and Stony Brook.

That would seem to equal stability in the CAA.

And yet, even with the four new schools, it remains "far tougher to get in W&M and to succeed academically at W&M than is the case for other CAA schools," as per Reveley.  (William and Mary's acceptance rate is 35%.  Elon's is 58%.  College of Charleston's is 70%.)

When the Patriot League adopted football scholarships in 2012, William and Mary was the top academic dog in the CAA, but they had athletics leaguemates in VCU, Old Dominion, and James Madison that were too compelling to abandon.

As we march towards the second half of 2013, Old Dominion and VCU are now gone, and many are wondering what James Madison, with their 25,000 seat stadium, fresh off a $62 million upgrade, will do next.

For my part, even with the better academic match with the Patriot League, it's hard to picture William and Mary leaving a league with strong football, like the CAA, as long as James Madison is still a part of the discussion.

But if something else happens in Realignmentaggedon, it's no longer outlandish to think of William and Mary looking towards the Patriot League.  In fact, they have a whole contingency plan all drawn up.

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