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New Hampshire An Opponent to "Respect" In Every Sense of the Word

It is very, very easy to "respect" New Hampshire's football program.

Sure, they have earned "respect" nationally for their incredible, sustained success on the field.

They're known as the original FBS killers, making it a habit of knocking off teams like Rutgers and Northwestern well before Appalachian State famously knocked off Michigan, James Madison upended Virginia Tech, or, most recently, North Dakota State took it to Kansas State.

They're also known perennially as a team in the FCS Top 25, inhabiting the rankings in some way for an incredible 130 weeks.  In 2004, behind a third-string quarterback, QB Ricky Santos and his Wildcats beat Rutgers 35-24 and have been nationally-ranked ever since.

FBS nightmares, all those Top 25 appearances, and nine consecutive playoff appearances to go along with that give UNH mad "respect" with the wider FCS community, and also make for a thrilling opponent when they come to to town.

But they also have earned "respect" in another way, too.  They've done so by building their success the right way, not compromising academics for all their athletic success.

"Respect" was in the air on Saturday.

It wasn't something explicitly mentioned by anyone in the lead-up to the big game on Saturday,  but it was there.

What is "respect" at the FCS level?  To this fan, it's a perpetually moving target.

One year, so-called knowledgeable fans say that you didn't schedule correctly - that the opposing teams on your schedule weren't good enough, weren't "respected" enough, weren't FBS enough, to deserve the high esteem of the rest of the FCS community.

Another year, it changes.  There are too many FBS teams on your schedule - what were you thinking?  Why on earth would you choose to schedule an FCS Top 25 team on the road?

Certainly one way to earn it is to win big games, no matter where they might turn up.

"We've always wanted to play [CAA Teams], and getting [UNH] back on the schedule was great, head coach Andy Coen said.  "Beating them was even better."

But with a disturbing regularity, it seems like "respect", at least in terms of the Mountain Hawks, get redefined all the time.

Going into last season, Liberty, a perennial Top 25 team, started out 0-3, dropping out of the Top 25 just before the Mountain Hawks came to town.  When Lehigh beat them 28-26, it didn't have nearly the explosive impact nationally that the Mountain Hawks hoped, despite the fact the Flames then went on a run the end of the year and ended up co-champions of the Big South.

Will this win give Lehigh the ever-elusive "respect" they're looking for?  Sadly, the jury is still out.

However it's defined, though, New Hampshire has had that mythical quality called "respect".

It's what lifted them to No. 7 in the nation in the FCS Coaches' Poll this season, going into the game with the Mountain Hawks this weekend.  It's what makes it a big deal when the Wildcats visit your stadium, whether you're an FBS school like Central Michigan or an FCS team like Lehigh.

Arguably, too, it's the quality that put New Hampshire in the playoffs at 8-3 last season and kept Lehigh at 10-1 at home.

Lehigh folks thought ten regular-season wins and past playoff success was enough to engender "respect" nationally, but they were wrong.

For whatever reason, they didn't have it - not enough of it to be selected as an at-large playoff team, anyway.  New Hampshire, though did.

"We talked about how excited our staff was and our players were about getting the opportunity to play a team like this," coach Coen said. "It became obvious last year when we got left out how important it is to play a CAA team. "

It made the game not just another out-of-conference matchup for Lehigh, but a game with the mission of gaining that national "respect" that they felt they haven't been getting.

"We know a lot of people had us not winning this one, but we didn't look at that point of view," senior LB Nigel Muhammad said after the game. "We had confidence in ourselves. We keep talking about how tight we are and it keeps coming out in the games."

If athletic "respect" is defined by sustained results over a period of time, certainly New Hampshire qualifies for that in spades.

For almost nine years, New Hampshire has been ranked somewhere in the FCS Top 25.  To put this in perspective, this is something that no FBS team has been able to achieve.  (Alabama is "only" at 86 consecutive weeks in the Top 25.)

In the last 9 seasons, their lowest win plateau was 7 regular-season wins - and that year, they still made the playoffs, thanks to the fact they had an FBS win on their schedule.

Four seasons in the last nine the Wildcats enjoyed double-digit wins, which is remarkable.  (Lehigh's had three, all in the last three years.)

The Wildcats also have some impressive scalps of FBS programs.

Way before ESPN Gameday visited the scenes of programs that beat FBS teams, New Hampshire stomped Northwestern, Marshall and Rutgers in a four-year span.

It's hard to imagine anything more the Wildcats could have done to engender "respect", except, perhaps, taking home an FCS National Championship.

After this Saturday, certainly Lehigh hopes that they can get some of the "respect" for beating a perennially nationally ranked opponent.

*****

But there's more than just the athletic side, too.

Last week I reported exactly how seriously athletic director Marty Scarano and members of the University of New Hampshire considered a Patriot League invite in football.

And the Patriot League doesn't offer conference invitations to just anybody.

New Hampshire has earned a lot of "respect", too, in terms of how they've kept their program over the last decade as well.

In terms of the Patriot League, competitiveness, of course, is part of the story but not the whole story.

The League wouldn't want to take on a new school that hasn't demonstrated their commitment on the academic side of the equation.

And New Hampshire's football team has been, without question, a great academic story.

In 2010, New Hampshire's Graduation Success Rate, or GSR, was at 95%, putting the Wildcats as fifth best in the nation overall.

Keep in mind, too, that this happened while the Wildcats were busy being ranked in the Top 25, qualifying for the playoffs, and frequently travelling across the country for games.

“Academic success is as important an indicator of success at UNH as are our wins and losses,” Mr. Scarano said at the time. “We are justifiably proud of the metrics which exhibit academic achievement, but don’t take them for granted or assume that they are a given. A lot of people at UNH have contributed to this accomplishment; it’s a reflection of a university trying to do the right things across campus and having inter-collegiate athletics in perspective.”

Additionally, New Hampshire also has excelled in the Academic Progress Rate calculation rates, too, notching the best academic numbers in the CAA towards progressing towards a degree for two consecutive years.

If there's a blueprint as to where the teams of the Patriot League hope to be once conventional football scholarships are the norm, New Hampshire is it - a football program conducted with high academic achievement as well as athletic achievement.

And though this may surprise you, dear Reader, this makes for a really good gameday atmosphere as well.

Scarano, McDonnell, and New Hampshire care about the profile of their football team.  It's obvious.  They admit kids that can do the work, and graduate.  It's in the numbers.

While Lehigh was the better team on Saturday, when it came to getting that aspect of the program that New Hampshire still has - that fact that, nationally, they are one of the best teams in FCS - Lehigh still wasn't there yet.

And disrespect was nowhere to be found anywhere on the field on Saturday, you see.  And no wonder, either, when you have two programs on the field you can "respect" in every way.

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