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How The Ivy League Is Able To Break the NCAA's Scholarship Limits and Still Consider Themselves FCS

By now you've seen the results.  In 2018, the Ivy League has taken the FCS by storm.

Perhaps it was Penn's 30-10 defeat of Lehigh a couple of weeks ago.  Or maybe it was Princeton's 50-9 drubbing of another team that made the FCS Playoffs last year, Monmouth.  Or maybe it was Yale's shockingly dominant 35-14 win over nationally-ranked Maine last weekend.

The Ivy League has gone an astounding 12-4 so far in out-of-conference play, many of those wins coming against the Patriot League.

But it's not just against the Patriot League where the Ivy League has excelled. 

Every Ivy League school has at least one out-of-conference victory, which is remarkable since it is only three games into their football season. 

The four losses - Rhode Island over Harvard, Holy Cross over Yale, Delaware over Cornell, and Cal Poly over Brown - were either close losses that could have gone either way or expected blowouts of teams picked to be at the bottom of the Ivy League.

Why the Ivy League, and why now?  How has the Ivy League turned things around, completely, as a league?

The answer appears to lie with three converging trends that every Ivy is starting to exploit to their advantage - increasing the overall number of athletic admits, using their so-called non-scholarship status to make a mockery of the scholarship limits of FCS football, and allowing essentially an unlimited roster size for home games.

35, 26, 29, 28.

Those were the sizes of the incoming football recruit classes at Harvard during the last four years.

All of these players were recruited athletes.  It says so on the releases.  All 118 student-athletes were recruited to play football at Harvard. 

If you're a college football fan, this might not compute.  Doesn't the NCAA cap student aid at 85 full-ride college football players?  That's at the FBS level, too; at the FCS level, the cap on scholarship aid is 63, divided as whole or partial scholarships across the entire team.

The Ivy League gets around this because, technically, the institutions are rich enough to scholarship everyone in the entire student body.

Harvard has a financial aid policy which states that if your parents make less than $65,000 a year, if you apply and pass Harvard's stringent academic requirements, you can attend school for free. 

Additionally, if your parents make more than $65,000 a year, through a sliding scale the cost of tuition is reduced for an even larger number of the populations.  "Ninety percent of American families would pay the same or less to send their children to Harvard as they would a state school," Harvard's financial aid website proudly proclaims.

“I think if you go back five to 10 years,” Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli said earlier this year, “the Ivy League as a conference made an aggressive push to make things more affordable.”

That's about the time that all eight Ivy League teams started to open up their endowments to offer very generous financial aid to all students.  Football players included.  And as a result, football recruiting almost immediately felt the benefits.

“I’ve been here 24 years as a coach and almost 20 as a head coach,” Brown’s Phil Estes said in the same article. “And at all levels — the athletic side of it as well as the offensive and defensive lines — we’re all recruiting at a different level now.”

That might be OK - if the Ivy League were operating under the same scholarship restriction rulebook as the rest of the subdivision that they are ostensibly a part of, the Football Championship Subdivision.  But as is very evident from Harvard's incoming classes, that's not the case.

In a sense, it is great that the Ivy League is willing to open up their endowment to scholarship the vast majority of its students.  However, so do many Patriot League schools, though not at the same level of generosity as Harvard.

However this loophole has the unintended effect of making Ivy League football teams, essentially, teams filled with students receiving scholarship money to play football.  This makes a mockery of the NCAA's scholarship restrictions, where limits of 85 athletic scholarships were ostensibly put in place to reduce costs for athletic departments and to improve competitiveness.


Harvard's roster has 113 recruited student-athletes on it, all of which receive generous financial aid to attend the university. 

Some, like OL Larry Allen, who started at guard this past weekend for the Crimson against Rhode Island, are essentially redshirt seniors. 

Technically, athletic redshirting is not allowed at Ivy League schools. 

However, Allen, in one of the most suspicious press releases of all time, redshirted in all but name.  "[Allen] will not be enrolled for the fall semester," it read.  "A Harvard athletic spokesman said the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Larry Allen Jr. is expected to return to the Ivy League university next year. A reason for his departure was not given."

Technically, Ivy League players are not supposed to redshirt.  "Students must complete four seasons in eight academic terms, meaning they have to leave school for a term if they want to compete in an extra season," The Harvard Crimson reported back in 2014, a fact that very conveniently explains Larry Allen Jr.'s choice to not enroll in classes in the fall of 2017.

Needless to say this is not a course of action that happens at Lehigh or any Patriot League school, another league that has a no redshirt rule. 

The reason for this is that if Lehigh decided to redshirt, say, QB Tyler Monaco, he would still count as a scholarship player in the eyes of the NCAA.  Head coach Andy Coen couldn't simply add another recruited quarterback to Lehigh's stable of quarterbacks - he would still be up against the NCAA limit for scholarships of 63, and would have to fill that spot on the roster with a true walk-on.

But Larry Allen Jr.'s choice to simply not enroll doesn't "count" as a redshirt in the eyes of the NCAA.  Why?  Because to them, Larry Allen Jr. is just another Harvard student with the same financial aid as all other Harvard students.  Never mind that the amount of financial aid Larry Allen, Jr. is receiving is more generous that the aid given at most places anywhere; there is no limit on Ivy League football players receiving institutional non-athletic financial aid that the NCAA enforces in this area.


With 100+ recruited, scholarship-all-but-in-name players, along with redshirted players, the schools of the Ivy League have discovered another new source of competitive advantage: home games.

The Ivy League has no limit on the amount of football players that can suit up during a home game

So that means that if Harvard head coach Tim Murphy wants to suit up 100 recruited football players on scholarship at home with every player receiving significant financial aid, he can.

“Last year we played nine defensive linemen in a game, and we played 20 to 22 guys in a game on defense,” Yale head coach Tony Reno said, detailing some of the unique advantages the Ivy League has in terms of gameplans that other FCS schools cannot practically implement.  “So our ability to play our style of aggressive defense was great. We had guys who could play in different packages."

The Ivy League stipulates that their travel squad size is a more modest 62. 

That might explain why of the four Ivy League out-of-conference losses on the season, only one, Harvard's narrow 22-16 loss to nationally-ranked Rhode Island, came at home.  All three of the other games, most notably Holy Cross' thrilling 31-28 win over Yale, came when the Ivy League team was on the road.


To some, all of this rule-stretching might not seem like much of a big deal.  So the Harvard plays with 113 players on scholarship, some redshirting to enhance their NFL value, and are able as a result of their lacksidasical conference rules to engage in coaching decisions and practices that other schools cannot possibly bankroll.  So what?  They don't play in the FCS playoffs, they don't play in bowls, and they really don't have to answer to anybody.  Does it even matter?

Yes, it does.

The FCS operates under certain rules to keep contain costs and to maintain competitive balance by limiting the number of scholarship athletes that a team can field.  It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Ivy League has violated the spirit of those restrictions through their newly aggressive recruiting and newly generous financial aid policies over the last five to ten years.

It is an issue that goes beyond the recent uncompetitiveness between the Ivy League and the Patriot League - it is starting to be seen against the CAA and Big South, too, against teams that offer a full complement of scholarships. 

And it will continue, unless the NCAA finally opens up their eyes and sees that something is fundamentally unbalanced between the Ivy League and the rest of FCS.  It is not a fair fight when the home team can field 113 kids receiving scholarship money and the other is restricted by NCAA rules to only field 62 players.


LUHawker said…
One of your best pieces of work, LFN. This should be standard reading among all PL (and for that matter CAA, NEC, etc) AD's, Coaches and Presidents.

I hope this gets sent to the NCAA.
Anonymous said…
This isn't new it's been the same way for 50 years! When I was at Penn in the early 70's we probably had 50-60 kids on the Freshman team that were recruited.
By senior year we had about 10 left. They do not have to play Football to retain their financial aid. That's a big difference!
I doubt if 75% of those 118 recruits at Harvard are still involved with the program.
Chuck B '92 said…
I did not do all the math, and it is complicated due to redshirting, 118 athletes were recruited over the last four years and the current roster for Harvard has 113 names on it. At least one, Larry Allen Jr., is effectively a redshirt, but there may be more missing names that are currently redshirting as well. What seems fair to say is that the vast majority of these recruited athletes are on the current roster.
El Aguacate said…
Simple solution. Stop scheduling the Ivies and see who they have left to play.
Anonymous said…
Was just talking about this with a friend last night. He had exclaimed that he expected Mercer to ‘kill’ Yale in their upcoming game next week as he was not aware of these trends and how the IL is no able to ‘skirt’ the NCAA restrictions. What they have now is quite akin to the advantages (some would say “compensating advantages”) that the Service Academies enjoy at the FBS level, They can bring in an unlimited number of Recruited athletes, plus they each operate Prep Schools which can (and quite often do) provide a Redshirt Year to these Recruits. All told, with the Direct Admits & the Prep School classes, they often bring in 100+ Recruited Football Players each year. As was mentioned in a previous comment, most of those don’t play all 4 years as they are winnowed or winnow themselves out of the program. The IL, due to their overall expansion of Financial Aid to all students, has greatly increased their competitive advantages (some would say “compensating advantages”). Have they also changed anything about their “Academic Index” that guides the League-wide Recruiting efforts? Does the PL still use an AI methodology? Has it changed since the PL began offering ‘pure’ Football scholarships?
Anonymous said…
The Patriot League recently chose to grant athletic scholarships. The Ivy league did not. Did the Patriot League miscalculate? Self-inflicted wound? I found this from a blogger in 2014:

"Since 2013, members of the Patriot League (i.e. Holy Cross, Bucknell, Colgate, Fordham etc.) have been able to offer full, athletic scholarships, which are not need based. In football, teams are permitted to offer 15 scholarships per year with a cap of 60 over-all. The change was reportedly made to enable the Patriot League to compete for top athletic recruits with strong academics, many of whom are not "high need" applicants. Since many of the Patriot league schools are also excellent academic institutions, it would seem that they now possess a huge recruiting advantage over the Ivy and NESCAC schools. In fact, most of the Ivy schools are now refusing to schedule games with Patriot League schools, after decades of inter-league competition.

In the past, the Ivy, NESCAC and Patriot League teams all essentially recruited from the same relatively small pool of top athletes with excellent academics. Now, it seems that the Patriot League schools possess a strong competitive advantage. I know that this is a small sample size, but one of my eldest son's friends starts in football at a Patriot League school and says that the quality of the recruits is increasing dramatically, including many that turned down Ivy and other top academic schools."
Anonymous said…
Question: you repeatedly state that all 113 players on the Harvard football roster receive "significant financial aid." Do you know this to be true? Or are you just speculating? Flipping through the roster, you see more than a few football players from superzips and/or who attended the preppiest of prep schools. What's to say these players aren't qualifying for any imputed 'scholarship' due to parental finances?
Anonymous said…
Watching Dartmouth tonight dominate the Yale team that last week dominated a legit top 10 FCS team (MAINE). These teams are the real deal...most (except perhaps Columbia and Brown) are playing like CAA contenders this year. Incredible. Chuck is exactly right, but the level of the Ivy football athletes is at a level not seen in several decades..relative to the rest of FCS. The games are fun to watch, great athletes, great coaching.
Anonymous said…
I give you EXHIBIT A: Princeton 66, DEFENDING PL CHAMPIONS 7.

The Ivy League is at a totally different level. This is not a coincidence. Princeton much close to ND State than to PL teams.
Anonymous said…
The question is really why has Lehigh become non-competitive with the Ivies but with all its non-league opponents despite the fact that Lehigh is now awarding athletic scholarships while the scholarship policies of those non-league opponents has not changed. We barely sqeaked out a win over St Francis, a tiny obscure school in Western Pennsylvania, got man-handled by Wagner a year ago, and trounced by Villanova.

And why is the defense so completely awful every year.

Maybe it's time for a wholesale change in the coaching staff!!
Ivy alum said…
Princeton didn’t hang 66 on Lehigh by accident, pal! Keep reaching. Also, you are grossly misinformed about the nature of financial aid at ivy schools. While it’s true that financial aid is generous, many players receive little to no financial aid and still shoulder the burden of a ~$70,000 annual price tag. Even “middle class” families are contributing a fair amount out of pocket, so to equate “generous financial aid” to full scholarships offered at institutions like Lehigh. Small price to pay for the opportunity to smack Lehigh every year, however! Lastly, you ignore the strict academic regulations that ivy coaches faces in recruiting through the Ivy League’s Academic Index system. A substantial portion of high school athletes are essentially untouchable for ivy coaches. So, the idea that the Ivy system offers a competitive advantage is shoddy at best, and the result of severe butthurt at worst!
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Not sure about fcs, but at d1 schools the scholarships pay for everything. Room, board, tuition, tutoring, free tickets for family members to attend games etc. I assume that at princeton they are only giving tuition for kids with top academics. Not room, board, tutoring, tickets and other benefits. At fcs schools, I assume they pay for everything. So it is not free ride at princeton like the article says. Regular fcs schools can recruit a lot more total players because the academic entrance requirements are easier. And because they give the athletes everything. So princeton does have that much of an advantage.
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