In a way, you really have to feel for the football players of the Monmouth football program.
A year ago today, Monmouth was preparing for a season where the Hawks were going to be in competition for the NEC title.
A challenging schedule beckoned, with a trip to nationally-ranked Lehigh and Rhode Island of the CAA heading to Kessler field, but there was a battle with teams like Albany, and nearby rival Wagner, for the NEC championship and an autobid to the FCS playoffs.
But many had no way of knowing that Realignmentaggeddon would hit the Hawks, having them leave their longtime home, the NEC, and in the process find the Hawks scrambling for a new conference home.
It might have even come about thanks to the Patriot League.
You could say it all started when the MAAC, who was at 10 teams, lost Loyola (MD) to the Patriot League in the Realignmentaggeddon draft on August 29th, 2012.
Loyola University Maryland has formally accepted an invitation to join the Patriot League on July 1, 2013, for the 2013-14 academic year, Daniel H. Weiss, Chair of the Patriot League's Council of Presidents and President of Lafayette College announced Wednesday.
"Loyola University is an outstanding addition to our membership as a private institution with an excellent academic reputation and rich athletic history," Weiss said. "The decision to add Loyola reflects the Presidents' commitment to the stability and long-term positioning of the League."
Loyola (MD) put the Patriot League at 10 teams, and put the MAAC, which used to sponsor non-scholarship football but no longer does so, at 9 teams.
What's in a 10-team league? Plenty, according to Dana O'Neil of ESPN.com.
"For a basketball-driven conference, the number 10 is perfect," she says. "That lineup allows for a true round-robin schedule of 18 league games. As nonconference games are tough to find, more conference games are a must."
Loyola (MD) had always been largely an outsider in terms of geography from the MAAC, which are a large cluster of schools whose center of gravity is New York City, or, basically, the location of Manhattan College. As the only school south of the Mason/Dixon line (if barely), the Greyhouds also didn't really fit in because their marquee sport was lacrosse, who won the men's national championship in 2011-2012, and the driving force of the MAAC, especially after they ditched non-scholarship FCS football, was hoops.
In addition, Monmouth had shown signs in the past that they felt they were outgrowing the limited-scholarship NEC in ways.
When the CAA was looking for new members, Monmouth, surprisingly, was included in some public press reports despite a football field, while picturesque, that only hosts 4.000 fans.
Kessler field enjoys the beautiful weather about a five minute drive from the Jersey Shore, but it's hard to picture 15,000 visiting Delaware fans accommodated at that field.
When the Hawks built the $57 million MAC center, it's showpiece, the beautiful hoops center, was a clear message that Monmouth was ready for a step up in hoops over classic NEC competition. They had done relatively well in hoops, too for a one-bid confrence: in the last ten years, Monmouth captured three NEC championships, resulting in their first-ever NCAA tournament win, a 71-49 win over Hampton in the "First Four".
Evidently the combination of hoops success and proximity to the Big Apple was just too tempting a target for the schools of the MAAC, who desperately didn't want to lose any more members and probably desired at least 10 members to play a full round-robin schedule in hoops.
Seeing a chance to go to a league that has seen at-large bids to the NCAA tournament recently, Monmouth jumped at the chance to join. A mere three months after Loyola (MD) went to the Patriot League, Monmouth announced they were joining the MAAC along with non-football-playing Quinnipiac.
It was a thrilling moment for all the the Jersey Hawk sports teams.
Since the MAAC doesn't sponsor football, Monmouth's football program went from solid all-sports citizen in the NEC football conference to an uncertain future.
What would happen? Would Monmouth revert to non-scholarship status, and join fellow MAAC school Marist into the Pioneer Football League? Would Monmouth drop the football program, like Hofstra, Siena, St. Peter's, and Iona had done in the last ten years? Would they rely on the kindness of the NEC to be allowed to remain in that conference? Or would attempt to gain football-only entry into a conference that competes with more than 40 football scholarships?
While unusual for a departing school to request it, staying in the NEC wasn't such a bad plan.
After all, the NEC had just lost Albany and Stony Brook to the CAA as football-only affiliates. They had also seen Rhode Island, who had expected to join the NEC this upcoming season, reverse course and stay in the CAA as well.
If they denied the Jersey Hawks, the NEC would be down to just seven football playing teams, giving their teams a scheduling headache, especially since Monmouth's NEC schedule was pretty much all set for the 2013 schedule.
And Monmouth was one of a dwindling number of football programs that wanted to remain under the NEC's self-imposed scholarship limit of 40 rides. If the NEC presidents did not admit the Hawks, who else could they possibly attract?
The NEC presidents convened, but still decided to let the Hawks loose in football:
“When Monmouth University decided to accept an invitation to join the MAAC, they did so with full knowledge that the MAAC did not sponsor the sports of football, field hockey and bowling. Monmouth subsequently submitted an application to be an associate member in the NEC in each of those three sports. The NEC Council of Presidents evaluated the associate membership requests separately, and in doing so made their decisions relative to the long term stability and interests of the Conference. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Monmouth in the sport of field hockey, and wish Monmouth success in the sports of football and bowling as they seek new partnerships in those sports.”Whether due to the "long term interests of the conference" or good, old-fashioned spite, Monmouth went from playing by the limited-scholarship rules of the NEC last season to having to compete as an FCS independent this upcoming season.
With not a lot of information coming out of West Long Branch, speculation was out there. Where could Monmouth realistically go? Were they scaling up, scaling down, or scaling out?
While the CAA had been rumored in the past to be interested in Monmouth, with Albany, Stony Brook and Elon as new members next season, they had a lot less need for the Hawks now than they did years ago.
One option was the seven-member Patriot League - which doesn't seem to undertake anything quickly.
But another was the six-member Big South - who was not about to refuse an affiliate member to replace Stony Brook and remain at seven teams. Furthermore, Stony Brook's affiliation with the conference was hugely beneficial to the national perception conference as a whole, earning the conference their first-ever playoff victories. There was no issue with them taking an affiliate - an affiliate ended up being the gem of their conference.
Several weeks later, Monmouth announced they would be competing in the Big South in football starting in 2014:
"The Big South Conference is excited to expand our football membership with the addition of Monmouth University," said Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander. "It is clear that Monmouth is committed to athletic excellence at the FCS level, which matches its impressive academic and institutional profile. Monmouth will be a great fit in the Big South. We are very pleased to welcome the Hawks!"
"Monmouth is very excited that the Big South has extended an invitation to us as an associate member in football," stated Monmouth Vice President and Director of Athletics Dr. Marilyn McNeil. "We see this move as a huge opportunity for the Hawks. We look forward to the future which will hold some new and exciting competitors, enhanced recruiting, and a focus on football excellence."
"This is an exciting day for Monmouth football," added Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. "Membership in the Big South is another significant achievement in the history of the program. The direction that we are heading is extremely positive and I am excited about competing with all of our new conference members. The Big South is a conference that sent two programs to the NCAA Division I FCS Playoffs in 2012 and this is an important milestone for the Monmouth University Football program."Undoubtedly it is a great opportunity for the Hawks. But suddenly, the Hawks now will be undergoing, effectively unplanned, transitional period as an FCS independent.
Life as an FCS independent is generally not an easy proposition, especially in regards to scheduling. While many NEC schools kept them in the same place in the schedule as a non-conference game - not all did. Central Connecticut State, Lehigh's first opponent this season, cancelled their game with Monmouth.
As a result, they had to scramble to finish their 12-game schedule, but did a fantastic job filling it out despite their situation. The Hawks' game against Lehigh was scheduled years ago, but future conference-mate Liberty stepped up and scheduled them this season, as well as a Top 25 Big Sky team, Montana State. Columbia, Holy Cross, and Cornell round out part of the schedule, while the other six games consist of former NEC members.
In addition to their full Division I schedule with no conference championship or autobid, they're also going to be competing this season, with the NEC scholarship model,- 40 conventional scholarships. Since the announcement of the move to the Big South came after signing day, the Hawks are not competing at the FCS maximum of 63. Montana State and Liberty will be.
Eventually when they compete the Big South, the Hawks will ultimately need to spend more money thanks to football. Travel to Big South conference schools in North and South Carolina will be pricier for the Jersey Hawks than trips to Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Ramping up from 40 to 63 scholarships, and Title IX matching for those scholarships, won't come cheap.
But in this 2013 season, is it possible to make the playoffs with this schedule? Without a chance at a conference autobid, they'll have to depend on being one of the twelve best at-large teams in the country.
Could they do it? Going at least 2-1 against Montana State, Lehigh and Liberty, I think, would be a prerequisite for consideration, along with an 8-1 record against the rest of the schedule, but it seems like an achievable goal to me - if they have the horses to do it.
Lehigh has played nearby Monmouth four times in their history, winning every time. But last season's matchup with the Jersey Hawks was not the same double-digit blowout of years past.
After jumping out to 7-0 and 21-7 leads in the first half, Lehigh fans fully expected QB Mike Colvin and WR Ryan Spadola to put a tent over Murray Goodman and put on an offensive show - but instead saw the offense sputter in the second half, relying on a last-play fumble return for touchdown by LB Jerard Gordon to finally ensure a squeak-it-out opening weekend victory, 27-17.
"We put ourselves in a hole, down two scores at the half," Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said after that game. "I thought we did a tremendous job, fighting, clawing back to get ourselves back in that game. We put ourselves in a position to win the game. But regardless of who you play, you got to finish it out. Saying 'we gave the No. 11 team in the nation to a good game', that's selling our team a little bit short. We expect more of ourselves than that."
In the second half Monmouth used QB Kyle Frazier, running the Jersey Hawks's Pistol offense, to methodically pick apart Lehigh's secondary on two extended drives to cut the deficit to 21-17. A big interception by Monmouth senior CB Mitch Pollard and a big 4th-and-1 offisides call against Lehigh to extend a Jersey Hawk drive featured prominently in Monmouth's comeback.
"Lot of first-game issues," coach Coen remarked in the post-game press conference. "Some miscommunication things there, some critical penalties. There are a lot of things to learn from this. The defense played well, but we lost the momentum after that turnover. We've got to get better in the second half."
The biggest question mark going into the 2013 season on the field for Monmouth is the fact that Frazier's graduation leaves the starting quarterback spot up for grabs. Four players who didn't throw a pass for the Jersey Hawks last season - sophomore QB Ben Onett, senior QB Greg DePugh, junior QB Charlie Velis, or sophomore QB Terence Scanlon - are all vying for the top spot this fall.
What is very clear is that 5'10, 225 lb junior RB Julian Hayes (685 yards rushing, 11 TDs) will be leaned on extensively in their first few games to help out the new quarterbacks. "The better we run the ball, the more we're going to help our quarterbacks, Callahan said himself this spring.
The receiving corps loses their top wideout and tight end from last year, but do return their second-leading receiver from last season, senior WR Neal Stirling (386 yards, 5 TDs), who should also help.
On defense, last year's young Monmouth squad sees a lot of familiar faces return, like senior LB Dan Sullivan (64 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception) and junior S Pat Gray (62 tackles, 2 interceptions). Gray was put on the CFPA preseason watch list for defensive backs, while senior K Eric Spillane (34 PAT's, 12/16 FGs, 43 long) made the CFPA preseason watch list for kickers.
One interesting new name on the roster is a new team captain, senior DB Tevrin Brandon, a former local product from Bethlehem Catholic who played three years at UConn and will be finishing out his collegiate playing career at Monmouth. Per new NCAA rules, he needed to sit out an entire year before playing his final season of eligibility. In 2011 for the Huskies he played as a reserve and special-teams player. "He's going to be a great asset to our defense," Callahan said of Brandon after the spring game.
Overall, a lot of pieces return for a Monmouth team that went 5-5 last season. But with a game at Montana State in Week 1 and a game vs. Liberty in Week 2, they won't have much margin for error if they want to have a chance at the playoffs. Whomever the starting QB will be, he, and the rest of the Jersey Hawks, will have to figure things out very fast.