Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Calm Before The Storm

In a week of NBA finals, Stanley Cup Finals, and the hopes of Washington Nationals fans that Steven Strasburg is the next Nolan Ryan and not the next David Clyde (yeah, look it up), the hot topic in the chattering class is college football and whether the University of Nebraska chooses safety and security (staying in the Big XII) or money and prestige (as a candidate for what we could now call "Big Ten+ "). How did it come to this?

Before we point to Penn State moving to the Big Ten and Arkansas deep-sixing the Southwest Conference 20 years ago, remember that these kind of moves are somewhat common across sports, just not among entrenched Division I-A schools. A school like Louisville, for example, has variously belonged to the Southern Intercolelgiate Conference, the Ohio Valley, the Missouri Valley, the Metro Seven, and Conference USA before joining the Big East. Even Nebraska played in two conferences before the Big 8.

Nebraska, an outlier when Big Ten expansion talks began, has moved to the front of the line in recent weeks as Notre Dame has reminded the conference that no means no, and the Big East has taken proactive steps to develop the kind of TV network that gives strength to its members to stay and casts doubts about how effective the Big Ten Network can be in places like, say, New Jersey. Nebraska hasn't said yes but hasn't exactly said no to the Big Ten's open offer either, and has been given an ultimatum of sorts: either commit to the Big XII or the Texas Longhorns are prone to move west to the Pac-10 and take the entire Big XII Southern Division with them.

Nebraska will have a home no matter what they do. But the collateral damage to Kansas, Kansas State, Colorado, and Iowa State could be severe. Nebraska's decision, whatever it is (and if you're reading this in September, whatever the decision was) will drive decision making among a host of schools nationwide, if only to escape the game of Division I-A musical chairs with one less chair in the circle. In the 1990's, former national powers SMU and Houston found themselves left standing when the music stopped. This time around, who knows.

And in a strange way, Nebraska's dilemma patterns the inconvenient truth that has been hanging like a cloud over the Patriot League for a year--someone's got to make a decision on football scholarships. For those at Georgetown who have not been keeping up with this (and owing to message board discussions, almost no one has), Fordham spends a considerable portion of its budget on football, almsot three times that of Georgetown and more than any I-AA private school in the nation. They soon realized with the money they are spending on financial aid (close to $3 million a year), converting that to scholarships elevates Fordham to be a legitimate candidate for games with Division I-A schools, who must play schools with 57 or more scholarships to qualify the game for bowl contention. Fordham decided this year to basically ignore the PL's ban on football scholarships beginnign with this recruiting class. The league placed them as ineligible for the PL title but let Fordham maintain scheduling with the other schools, until such time that schoalrships are accepted and Fordham is back in, or scholarships are rejected and Fordham resigns from the league, leaving the PL at the minimum number of schools needed for an NCAA playoff bid.

A meeting of the Patriot League presidents in December 2009 failed to produce consensus on what to do, but the league announced it would come to a decision within a year. This week's summer meeting of the presidents has not to date announced any further resolution and the PL continues towards a self-imposed December deadline to address Fordham's wanderlust.

This decision won't come down to Fordham. It will come down to Lehigh.

There are probably two schools in the camp for football scholarships (Fordham, Colgate) and a mix of schools which range from those who could afford it (Lehigh, Holy Cross), to those that could probably be talked into it (Lafayette, Bucknell). The PL may determine that its Ivy alliances and non-scholarship philosophy are more important than games against UConn or Temple, and Fordham will be politely shown the door. But here is where Lehigh holds a trump card--it is arguably the strongest program in the conference and one whose recruiting and revenue base can justify scholarships. If Lehigh gave its presidential approval to scholarships, it's not like the PL is going to throw them out, and its support puts enormous pressure on Lafayette (and less so to Colgate and Holy Cross) to follow suit, pressure that Fordham cannot and does not possess. If the Engineers add 60 scholarships, rest assured the Leopards, Red Raiders and Crusaders won't settle for less. Conversely, if Lehigh stands up for the PL philosophy, it would keep the foundations in place for the entire league and prevent other schools from venturing out on its own.

OK, so no one is going to confuse a Saturday afternoon at Nebraska with Lehigh, but the Huskers' choice of stability and security versus revenue and prestige does mirror what the Patriot League presidents must evaluate. The PL was built on Derek Bok and John Brooks' shared vision of amateur competition among elite colleges, without the pressure and presumed professionalism of "big time" football. The model has been somewhat marginalized in recent years by the erosion of interest in non-scholarship football in the East, the move by the Ivy League to offer more grant money than what is offered in the PL, and the perception that non-scholarship schools are being left behind in recruiting and on-field performance. The days of multiple playoff bids and a PL team in the I-AA championship game seem more distant than ever.

Such temptations come at a price, however, and not only philosophically--the cost of maintaining 57-63 athletic scholarships in football in the Title IX era is not inconsequential. Fordham is able to do it because its football financial aid money was accounted for in the athletic budget, not as general aid received by any eligible student. The transition might be far less palatable to schools which have built its program from general aid and not athletic aid.

Left unsaid for now is where Georgetown fits into all this--frankly, it doesn't. The Hoyas are such an outlier in this discussion, but the results of whatever the league decides will likely have a transformative effect on where we see Georegetown foottball going forward. I'll save the arguments pro and con for another column, but consider this sobering fact of the Kelly era: Georgetown is 1-23 against PL schools, and these are schools without football scholarships. If four, five or six of these PL schools quickly ramped up to 55-60 scholarships, how would the Hoyas fare?

Assuming the PL hasn't reached a resolution this week, and notthing suggests they have, a decision is promised by the end of this year. There are two doors awaiting the league, and these school presidents know that the decision made affect the long term structure and stability of the entire league itself, not just football. Much like the Big XII, it must stand together, lest it hang separately. Fordham has made its choice, but a number of other schools will look to Lehigh to choose which door to collectively pass through.

So will it be the lady, or the tiger?