Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The "S" Word

Another year, another one and done for the Patriot League in the NCAA playoffs, which saw Colgate thumped 55-28 by Villanova. Five years removed from Colgate's 15-0 run to the finals, the Patriot League has slipped in regional and national perceptions as much for its philosophy as its practice.

It's a non-scholarship league.

Whether in club football or Division III, the MAAC or the Patriot, football at Georgetown has always been thus. In 1951, the Rev. Hunter Guthrie, S.J. famously boasted that the "clean, patrician features of Georgetown" would not be sullied by students that got into his school for carrying a pigskin (never mind those who bounced a ball, ran around a track, or swung a five-iron), and since then Georgetown hasn't seriously entertained anything else for its football team. But if Georgetown isn't talking much about it, writers and fans at other PL schools are.

Is the Patriot League ready for scholarship football?

A dozen years ago, Holy Cross gave the league an ultimatum--add basketball scholarships or they'd walk. The PL relented, and scholarships have slowly made their presence felt from American to Colgate as the league has become more competitive in that sport. As grant-based aid has grown, football has been a holdout within the league, in part due to the close ties with the Ivy League and in part a reflection of the competitive landscape in the Northeast that gave the PL an relative edge in recruiting kids that were good enough to play football, just not good enough to get a free ride out of it.

But the times they are a changin'.

In 1996, 28 Northeastern schools played at a non-scholarship level versus just 13 with scholarships . A decade later, the tables have turned. Next season, just 16 will play on the non-scholarship team while 23 will be offering scholarships. Outside of its Ivy League intersectional games, Patriot League schools will have just one non-conference, non-scholarship opponent available within its footprint: Marist.

The league is feeling the competitive heat from both sides of the argument. Schools of the Northeast Conference (Albany, Monmouth, Wagner, etc.) are offering 30 scholarships and are moving to offer 40 overall, picking off PL-caliber players. And while the Ivies don't offer scholarships per se, recent changes in financial aid guidelines allow Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy schools to offer a free ride to students with parents making as much as $60,000 a year, and a 90% tuition discount for families with an income of less than $120,000.

Meanwhile, the PL stands in the middle, able to buy out financial aid packages but little else for those in the middle class or higher. A $120,000 loan package for four years at Lafayette might still be preferable to a free ride at Duquesne, but in tough economic times, it's no longer a sure thing. And if a promising quarterback or lineman chooses between a virtually free education at Princeton or loans from Holy Cross, we know who will lose that battle.

"That translates into an awful lot of free education out there for Division I football players," wrote columnist Chuck Burton in a recent essay. "It's hard to compete with free."

Scholarship talk also plays prominence in discussions to expand the league--it's been hinted that schools have steered clear from the PL over its non-scholarship status. It's speculative to imagine Villanova, Richmond, or William & Mary playing in the PL, but it plays to a growing perception that if the PL wants to stay as a viable playoff conference, it needs more than good intentions and financial aid to do so.

The recent one-and-done run of Patriot teams in the I-AA/FCS playoffs and the erosion of recruits to other conferences have led some to lobby for the PL to offer scholarship aid under its academic index umbrella: recruits would still qualify for admission based on grades, but aid would be awarded regardless of financial need. Speculation suggests three schools for the plan (Fordham, Colgate, and Lehigh, each of which could convert to a 50+ scholarship program), two on the fence (Lafayette, Bucknell), and one publicly opposed (Holy Cross). Georgetown has not taken any position to date.

But what would this concept mean for Georgetown?

A future decision by the PL to add scholarships would be a tectonic shift for a school like Georgetown who, along with Fordham and NYU, practically invented the concept of non-scholarship Division I football outside the Ivy League, and which still operates with a low-cost, low-expectations philosophy. Playing one or two scholarship schools doesn't challenge the "football for fun" premise, outcomes notwithstanding. But playing eight or nine opponents every year would. And how would football scholarships be welcomed on a campus which hasn't had any since the Truman administration?

Clearly, the name "Georgetown" opens doors in recruiting that a Bucknell or a Fordham can't do. The offer of a scholarship to attend Georgetown as opposed to buying out work study could open the door a little wider towards building up the talent level of the team and offer better opportunities to secure future opponents outside of Marist and Davidson, but at a price. Literally. GU currently offers about half the total financial aid of any other PL school, and we have seen what that imbalance has done in the win-loss record. If the PL moves in the scholarship direction, Georgetown will feel the effect regardless of how much aid it offers and in what form.

With the demise of the MAAC and the transformation of the Northeast Conference, scholarship football now has a foothold in the East, and regardless of where Georgetown ultimately sides in this debate, it's going to have an effect on who it recruits, who it plays, and ultimately how the success of the program is judged.

It's an issue worth watching.