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New Hampshire Was This Close To Joining Patriot League

This summer, the Shades of 48 William & Mary Blog posted a series on the history of the moves of the CAA in the spring and summer of 2012.

In those great pieces, it was possible to come up with a timeline, which I attempted to do to some degree, to detail the shifting sands around the CAA, Big East, America East, NEC, and Patriot League.

One important element to this timeline, it now can be told, involved New Hampshire and the Patriot League.

Somewhere after April, 2012, when the CAA was on their way to losing Old Dominion to Conference USA and VCU and George Mason to the Atlantic 10, members of the Patriot League got on the phone to certain CAA schools to remind them that there was an open invitation to a certain academically-focused conference with headquarters in the Lehigh Valley should the need arise.

One of those schools was William and Mary.  The other was New Hampshire.

And both schools took the invitation very seriously.

Back on May 10th, 2012, William and Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll emailed his boss, Taylor Reveley III, mentioning that the Patriot League was holding their conference meeting that week and that John Hardt, from Bucknell, had formally called him to let them know "if our situation with the CAA were to change, that the Tribe would be at the top of the list of the Patriot League's potential new members."

According to the correspondence revealed in the Shades of 48 piece, the Patriot League at or around that time gauged interest in four CAA teams, identified in a mid-June of 2012 communique by CAA commissioner Tom Yeager as New Hampshire, Richmond, Villanova, and William and Mary.

In the same email, he mentions that the athletic directors of Richmond, William and Mary, and Villanova all denied interest in the Patriot League.  The one name missing from Yeager's list, of course was New Hampshire.

(On a side note, it's worth noting further emails in the Shades of 48 piece show that William and Mary athletics were a lot more serious about it than their official communications to Yeager indicated.  The original blog posting goes into a lot more detail about that.)

New Hampshire athletics director Marty Scarano acknowledged to me that the Patriot League was, indeed, under serious consideration by the decision makers at UNH.

"When we were invited to join the Patriot League, it was a hard decision," he told me.  "The Patriot League was attractive to us, for varying reasons, and we contemplated it very, very seriously."

Certainly the turmoil surrounding the league at the time played a big part in their consideration of the offer, as did Scarano's experience with the Patriot League, since he had worked for Colgate from 1983 until 1996 and was there at the founding of the conference in 1986.

"There was uncertainty in the CAA [at that time].  It was a very fluid situation," he told me.  "There were some informal discussions leading up to it.  There were invitations to four of us, we being one, and there were discussions among the four of us, and in the end we all had to make independent decisions."

To refresh everyone's memory, this activity with the Patriot League was occurring when a lot of other things were happening.

The Big East commissioner John Marinatto was forced to resign, one of the many dominoes that feel on the way of the Big East basketball schools breaking away from what is now the AAC.  As I've argued, it's likely that the Big East as it was constituted then was known to be falling apart within the halls of the Patriot League and the CAA.

Old Dominion hadn't officially announced they were leaving for Conference USA, but as the Daily Press reported, they were very actively shopping around.  VCU had the contract ready waiting to sign to join the Atlantic 10.

There was a big tornado, with a whole lot of CAA full members and CAA football teams at the center.  The situation was precarious.

"We have great respect, and some admiration, for the Patriot League and what the schools stand for," Scarano said to me.  "And this was not some idle consideration.  On the same token, we have great loyalty to the CAA, and we know how valuable we are to the CAA and how valuable the CAA is to us."

Academically, UNH has always been near the top of the CAA in regards to Academic Progress Rates, or the APR.  Despite being a public institution, the academics of the Wildcats have always been exemplary, to the great credit of Scarano and head coach Sean McDonnell.

The prospect of the Patriot League invite kicked off a couple of months of internal discussions at UNH, where a variety of subjects, such as redshirting and the Academic Index, were discussed at length in regards to its impact football.

The inability to redshirt was seen as a huge detriment to New Hampshire's competitiveness on the field - much more so than the Academic Index.

"We had to crunch the Academic Index for months," Scarano told me, "Interestingly enough, the kids we admit would have not been impacted by the academic index.  We are admitting kids that fit our academic index just as Lehigh gets theirs, and Colgate gets theirs.

"But one of the really hard obstacles we ran into was redshirting."

Most football conferences allow redshirting, or allowing a student-athlete to sit out one year in order to work on academics before attempting to finish their degrees.  The Ivy League and Patriot League are the only two conferences in FCS that specifically prohibit it; even the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League allows it.

The only redshirts that are explicitly allowed in both leagues are "medical redshirts", where an athlete got injured early in the season and can apply for a waiver from the NCAA to allow an extra year of eligibility.

Scarano felt like the inability to redshirt was a big impediment to UNH competing at the level that the Wildcats enjoy with the CAA - not the only reason, but probably the biggest.

I asked Scarano if Boston University's decision to join the Patriot League played any role in his football decision.  Like pretty much everyone else in America, he said the move on June 15th, 2012 by the Terriers "blindsighted him and all the other members of America East."

What was interesting was shortly after Boston University left America East, two football schools from America East, Albany and Stony Brook, decided to join the CAA as football members.

Along with Rhode Island's reversal on joining the NEC in football, it cobbled together a stronger football presence in the Northeast, with three of the original Yankee Conference members Maine, UNH, and Rhode Island in the CAA, and two good academic schools in Albany and Stony Brook.

The strong, compact footprint of three historic New England land grant schools and the two SUNY schools may not be the Yankee Conference 2.0, but it does offer compelling Northeast FCS matchups between schools that are very similar.

With Northeast football stability comes relative CAA stability, too.

While football stability wasn't an explicit goal for UNH, the commitment from Albany, Stony Brook and URI to compete in the CAA also had the effect of stabilizing the CAA, making it more attractive for UNH to stay right where they were.

"At the end of the day, we all have to do what's right for our specific institution," he said.  "We have a really hard-earned football program, and we never take that for granted," he said.  "And part of the value of our football recruiting is that we're playing in the CAA."

But despite the formidable challenges, UNH to the Patriot League was very, very close to happening.

And it's not at all out of the realm of possibility that should conferences shift once again, the Patriot League option could find itself back in the discussion up in Durham.

For this round of expansion, it made more sense for UNH to stay with the CAA.  But it was a lot closer to happening than many people may have originally thought.

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