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Patriot League In "Division 4"?

The talk around collegiate athletics is "Division 4", after "Big 5" commissioners Mike Silve, John Swofford and Bob Bowlsby floated the idea of a new subdivision over the past few weeks.

Normally the talk of the big conferences breaking off from the rest of FBS would elicit so much yawning from the likes of Patriot League schools.

Unless, of course, you're on the table for Division 4 membership.

No, this isn't a typo, or a crazy theory.  Sportswriters are contemplating what Division 4 might look like, and the Patriot League is being contemplated as a possible league to be a part of that subdivision.

Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford said Monday the next six months are "very important" to the future of the NCAA and predicted that significant structural and governance changes could be implemented at the governing body's annual convention in January. 
Among the changes up for discussion would be the formation of a so-called "super division" that would allow athletic departments with high-revenue football programs to make some of their own rules and implement things like athlete stipends. Many of those initiatives have been blocked by lower-revenue programs, which make up the majority of the NCAA.
Athlete stipends are definitely not something that Patriot League schools have been fighting for.  In fact, the Patriot League not all that long ago started allowing conventional-looking football scholarships.

In fact, as a Lehigh football fan, you'd certainly be forgiven for pressing the "snooze" button concerning much of the talk of "Division 4", which seems to talk about the Pac-12, Big 10, ACC, Big XII, and SEC not getting everything that they want from the NCAA.

Bowlsby's comments:
Bowlsby told media in his state-of-the-union address that it is virtually impossible to pass meaningful legislation, and he hinted a separate division -- a so-called Division 4 -- is possible for the top football-playing schools. He added there is “unanimity” among his fellow FBS commissioners, saying leaving the NCAA and setting up a new organization is not likely “except as a last resort.” 
“I think we all have a sense that transformative change has to happen,” Bowlsby said. 
“We've made it too easy to get into Division I and too easy to stay there,” Bowlsby said, later adding. "Northern Iowa and Texas aren't much alike."
Again, in terms of the Patriot League, it seems more like the "Big 5" conferences talking about breaking apart the FBS into two different new subdivisions.  Considering Lehigh has never considered itself an FBS school, again, this might elicit not a few yawns.

But as the talk of what a "Division 4" might look like, certain realizations are occurring among the sportswriting set that are starting to include the Patriot League.

The talk of "Division 4" started with the idea that the "Big 5" could split from the NCAA and form their own organization, which was quickly talked down, thanks to the fact that it would essentially destroy the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and possibly cost the "Big 5" schools millions of dollars in a myriad of different ways.

The talk then migrated to "Division 4" becoming a subdivision of FBS, which John Infante of his influential Bylaw Blog called a non-starter:

The idea of five football (sub)divisions is a nonstarter. The Group of 5 conference schools, having joined the arms race, cannot continue to compete even at the level they are against each other if they were cut off from the revenue they get for being part of the top level of college football. If this is purely a discussion about football, maybe we are more comfortable with watching just the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt slide back to FCS, while the Mountain West and American are granted a reprieve and get to come along. Provided, of course, they agree to the demands of the Power 5.
So then the thought seemed to head towards the "Big 5" making a full-blown all-sports division, instead of simply making a huge Division I tent and subdividing football.

It's here where the Patriot League and "Division 4" starts to get warmer.  From Infante's column (where he calls Division 4 "Division X":

If an all-sports Division X is still on the table, the Group of 5 conferences might be in even worse shape. To quickly recap this week’s conclusions, a division of 65-80 schools is simply too small. Unless schools are required to add more than a few new non-revenue sport programs, such a small division would all but force schools to drop too many teams with long and successful traditions or into which institutions have invested significant money to try and monetize. 
So bringing more schools along might be the easier answer, but whom? The most logical answer seems like the rest of FBS, the Group of 5 conferences. But each football program that comes along means splitting up the pie a little more. Perhaps a couple may be added, say if as a condition of a new division the 14-team conferences in the east demand that the Big 12 and Pac-12 expand to similar numbers. But that does not allow for a 64-team basketball tournament or save men’s lacrosse. You need whole conferences for that. You need to double the size of Division X.
The Patriot League, of course, competes at the FCS level in football, so they're a non-starter in terms of that.  But what they do have is an extremely solid lacrosse league, edging the Patriot League a teeny, tiny bit closer to the "Big 5".

Another selling point for the Patriot League: the number of sports they sponsor.  At 24 sports, the schools of the Patriot League resemble the "Big 5" in that way more than, say, the Mountain West, who barely sponsor the number of sports to remain a Division I conference.  If the "Division 4" requires sponsoring 20 sports to become members, the Patriot League and Ivy League are already there, but not the Mountain West.

It's here where Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel mentions the Patriot League by name.

This week spoke with numerous high-level college sports officials, and there was a clear feeling among them that there would be many changes at the highest levels of college sports within the next year. The so-called Big 5 conferences -- Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and ACC -- have been commiserating for months and there's a consensus that significant change is needed. 
"I think there's such momentum at this point," said one prominent college official. "This wasn't an accident that you're getting this series of media day comments. The train is moving."
All five conference commissioners agree that the situation in untenable, that it's only getting worse and that there is a lack of NCAA leadership. What they haven't figured out yet is a solution. In January, an internal audit of the inner workings of the NCAA will be completed and officials don't expect the results to be pretty. 
One thing is clear: College sports will likely look drastically different by the start of the 2014-15 school year, and there's a question of whether NCAA president Mark Emmert will be around for it. 
Who is in and who is out?This will be the big question, much like in realignment. But think of this potential change as similar to realignment in that for all the drastic scenarios floated, in the end it wasn't nearly as earth shaking as many had predicted. 
Along with the Big 5, a majority of the other major football-playing leagues would likely go with them -- Mountain West, American Athletic, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC. The top basketball leagues like the Big East, Atlantic-10 and perhaps the WCC would go as well. The Ivy League and Patriot League will be talked about, too.
This doesn't mean that the America Easts, Big Souths and Big Wests of the world will be all that different. They'll still have access to the NCAA tournament. Most would agree the NCAA tournament is a better event with Valparaiso, Long Beach State and Florida Gulf Coast. 
So if a league is "out," they're really just subjected to a different rules structure. They'll be the same championship structure and play the same teams. This means that the average fan watching Big Monday or filling out a bracket won't see much difference.

While I would question Thamel's blithe assumption that the teams on the other side of Division 4 divide would still have access to the NCAA tournament - really? - this train of thought follows John Infante's in assuming that a 65-70 school division simply isn't enough to stage proper championships.  There needs to be about 120 schools, and they need to pass some strong criteria for inclusion.

Some might scoff at the Patriot League rubbing elbows with the "Big 5", Big East, and the major football programs.

But in reality, is it all that crazy if you think about it a little?

After all, Division 4 would need schools, and the Ivy League and Patriot League would offer all sorts of broad-based sports.  In lacrosse, they would have the national champion of several years ago, and would also allow Army and Navy to compete in Division 4 in all sports as well.

Additionally, if Army and Navy wanted to continue to compete with Notre Dame, USC and North Carolina in football, they would have little choice but to push Division 4 to admit the Patriot League.

If Division 4 wants underdog stories in the NCAA tournament, Lehigh, Bucknell, Boston University, Penn, Harvard and Princeton can provide them, too.

But perhaps most importantly, it would allow Division 4 to import the academic prestige of the two top academic-first conferences.  It is awful hard to call an NCAA division solely a money division if Harvard and Holy Cross are amongst its members, and those conferences have rules above and beyond the call of duty to retain their academic nature.

Can it happen?  Will it happen?

All I know is that this is going to make for a fascinating six months ahead.


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