Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Fordham Flash

If conferences were corporations, the Patriot League would be Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. It advertises itself as "the quiet company", all the while with more assets than anyone knows.

The League tends to like things, well, quiet. it does not overly promote itself--its football media day is not at ESPN Zone in New York, but a golf club outside Bethlehem, PA. It has no television package for football (indirectly, to protect the Lehigh and Lafayette networks in their local area), and when it comes to the off-season, it likes things quiet as well.

Not this year.

With all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Fordham University has turned up the equivalent of a car alarm in the midst of this peace and quiet. And it's not going away. The league famous for eschewing scholarships now has a Trojan Ram inside its walls.

Fordham, told the Patriot League that it is pursuing a full scholarship program beginning in 2010, come hell or high water. Rather than lose the Rams outright, the Patriot League engaged in a delicate balance of compromise that allows Fordham to remain in the league, except it is ineligible for championships, all-League honors and the like. I'm not sure Fordham cares at this point--they got what they wanted, and will be selling the benefits of a free ride to PL recruits up and down the list, games with Connecticut, Army and Navy, and the very real possibility that they will lay waste to the rest of the league standings while the PL leadership decides what to do about this scholarship mess. It's become the talk --and not too quietly--of the I-AA off season wires.

The symbolism of the Trojan Ram is not far off. For the better part of 25 years, dating back to the days when Rev. John Brooks, S.J. steered Holy Cross out of major college athletics and sought alliances with the Ivy League that would reposition his college as an academic colossus and not just another Boston College or Georgetown (two schools he had varying degrees of cynicism against). It was the insistence that what was then known as the "Colonial League" adopt and defend the policies of non-scholarship athletics that the Ivy Group had created 20 years earlier. "The Last Amateurs", or so we were told.

There were cracks in the wall before, of course, when the next generation of leaders at Holy Cross pulled a similar move and demanded they get basketball scholarships or they would walk. The PL instituted a slow and somewhat deliberative rollout in that sport, and other sports have followed. But not football.

But not anymore.

In a different time, in a different climate, the PL schools would have turned away from Fordham as they did to Towson, a school who opted for scholarships after the 2002 season. Back then, a PL team (or two) were regular entrants in the I-AA playoff process and in 2003, it was Colgate that "ran the table" to a 15-0 record and a berth in the national finals. The only team that came close to upsetting them was...uh, well...never mind.

Those days are in the rear view mirror. Since 2003, the league has experienced a noticeable step back in the I-AA football order, with a lack of national rankings and a perception that it is becoming less competitive in the playoffs. With tougher competition from the Ivies on one side and a 40-schoalrship Northeast Conference picking off players on the other, the good times aren't as good for the Seaboard Seven as they once were. And now comes Fordham, ready to pick off a Lehigh recruiting lock here, a Colgate catch there. "Hey, you running backs at Bergen Catholic or that linebacker at Delbarton--why pay $50,000 a year to go to Georgetown? How about a free ride to Fordham, all on us!"

All the more unsettling to PL leadership, then, to see this coach's quote appear on the Lehigh Athletics web site the day after Fordham's announcement:

"At this time, I view Fordham's move to scholarship football as a positive move. I am excited that the League Presidents are committed to discussions on awarding athletic merit aid for all league members. I am certainly a proponent of scholarship football in our league. I have no doubt that scholarships would enhance Patriot League football on the national level, which I believe would help every member institution."

But more telling, this quote from its athletic director:

"The athletic merit financial aid awards that Lehigh offers in sports other than football have contributed positively to yielding student-athletes of desirable academic quality, strong athletic quality and other qualities that Lehigh values. We understand the reasons for Fordham’s decision and hope that the ongoing discussions will enable them to remain a member of the Patriot League.”
Translated: "When the vote comes, we'd like football scholarships too."

Fordham's window runs through 2012, but all signs point to some sort of position by the league whether to pursue football scholarships by the end of the 2010 season. Internet chatter considers that Lehigh and Colgate are for scholarships, Holy Cross against, with Lafayette to side with whatever Lehigh does and Bucknell to follow the majority in either case. Georgetown, which has not expressed an opinion one way or the other, is a presumed "no" on scholarships inasmuch as it has comparatively little to offer for scholarship or financial aid money under any scenario.

The league could opt for any of four options:

1. "Status Quo": No scholarships, bid Fordham adieu and rededicate itself to the non-scholarship credo.

2. "Easy Does It": Allow schools to add a small number of merit scholarships each year, say, five or six per team per year. This would extend the window of full football scholarships out 6-8 years.

3. "Laissez-Faire": Open the door to scholarships (and a considerable competitive imbalance) by allowing each school to set limits as they see fit. If Lehigh and Colgate want 60 scholarships and Holy Cross and Georgetown none, well, good for them.

4. "Step Up Or Step Aside": Set a minimum count for scholarships and hold each member to meeting the minimum. Any plan to set a minimum number would be a cannon pointed squarely at the one and only member whose financial aid numbers are only half of the least funded PL program.

By forcing the league's hand, Fordham has no aspirations to be an Ivy league-esque program any more; in fact, you'll be seeing a lot more Stony Brooks and Hofstras on the Rams' calendar that Columbia and Cornell. The larger question is what it means for the six remaining PL schools, and the one school for whom non-scholarship football is more than just a philosophy, but a financial necessity.

In part 2, Georgetown's options in a scholarship football world. And it's no time to remain quiet about it very much longer.