Thursday, September 9, 2010

Declaration of Independents

Guess who got an invitation to Big East football? Guess who didn't? Yeah, that's for next week....

Much has been made in this column over the past two years on the potential schism in the Patriot League over merit-based scholarships. Last week's article in the Georgetown Voice provided some interesting quotes - and an interesting conclusion -- that may also end up being part of the conversation.

"Fordham’s move has forced the Patriot League’s hand," wrote The Voice's Tim Shine. "Without Fordham, the league would only have six members, the minimum number required for an automatic berth in the FCS playoffs. It would only take one more team making a similar move to seriously jeopardize the future of Patriot League football."

"The Patriot League would not necessarily commit to such a large scholarship program, but if its fellow members choose to move toward merit aid, Georgetown would have to make a decision: to seriously increase its commitment to football, or possibly look to play football elsewhere."

It's that last statment, a concept largely ignored by fans and coaches that talk about the issue, that ought to get people thinking. There is consensus Georgetown is not competitive in the current PL setup, and similar consensus that it will not be competitive if the other schools move to full scholarships and Georgetown does not. Does Georgetown have other options, and what are they?

Sure, it could upgrade to full scholarship football, albeit unlikely. It could join the Big East for football, similarly unlikely. It could seek membership in one of the two other Eastern football conferences in I-AA, one with limited scholarships (NEC), the other of which has a large NO VACANCY sign in front of its Ivy covered walls. It could aso downgrade to the far-flung Pioneer League, of no particular interest to anyone at the Hilltop.

And then there's the move made by Brigham Young University, quite another option.

BYU the 1984 national champion and founding member of both the Western Athletic Conference (and its progeny, the Mountain West Conference) has declared itself a football independent, moving its non-football sports to the West Coast Conference. It becomes one of only four schools in Division I-A not part of a conference setup. Um...why?

BYU's situation in the Mountain West was far removed from the Patriot League's current woes--its teams are fully funded, well supported, and on the cusp of the money train that a BCS-level bowl appearance would bring. The situation in the Mountain West was over a television contract that limited BYU's reach as an aspiring national university. This is a concept lost on many Easterners, but BYU's place among the growing LDS community nationwide is not unlike that of Notre Dame a generation ago in Catholic circles.

A former BYU player, Michael Andrew, wrote on his blog that "Over the years, I have seen this 'we don't really have a choice' answer being played over and over and over, from TV rights, to splitting revenue, to whom BYU played, they never had a choice. The MWC never seemed to want to budge or accommodate BYU on some of these issues, despite being one of the better teams in the league. BYU had to ask itself '…what in the heck are we doing here? This isn't going anywhere.'"

Mr. Andrew attributes the move to, in order of importance: money, freedom, and national exposure. BYU is expected to see its TV revenue increase by as much as $10 million a year as an independent, and has just announced a 10 year deal with ESPN to show up to six BYU games a year on the Worldwide Leader's family of networks, with the other six broadcast on BYU's own satellite TV network.

BYU's decision, on its face has remarkably little in common with the troubles of the Patriot League. Another Division I independent, Army, may be closer to the point. For West Point, it was never about money or TV. The Cadets, coming off a 10-2 season in 1996, joined Conference USA for football in the 1998 season but left after just six seasons in order to pursue "scheduling flexibility"; unsaid was that a 13-67 record (9-37 in C-USA) was a more likely cause, with a low point reached in 2003 with a record-setting 0-13 season.

The fact of the matter was that Army maintained recruiting and funding procedures at distinct odds with other conference teams. When five Conference USA members left to join the Big East in 2004, Army gave notice as well, and C-USA continues on today, neither the worse for wear. It could make the change because only football was at play, with all of Army's other sports safely tucked inside the Patriot League.

At some point, Georgetown may have to ask the same question: What in the heck are we doing here? This isn't going anywhere. It needs options to consider before it is shown the door.

If Georgetown's football future lies outside the PL, it needs to examing pros and cons associated with it, and soon:

1. Ability to build a program as it sees fit. A full scholarship PL (or anything close to it) dooms Georgetown to being indefinitely noncompetitive unless it matches a $3-4 million investment annually, plus comparable women's spending--something GU seems institutionally ill-prepared to do. If a future GU wants 10 football scholarships, 30, or none at all, the degree to which a conference establishes (or mandates) scholarship limits is a vital consideration. It would also entail crafting a schedule of like-minded, more competitive opponents.

2. Ability to recruit as it sees fit. From the Voice article: "[Coach] Kelly and his staff are beholden to an academic index, which demands certain academic qualifications from his recruits. Kelly said Georgetown’s standards exceed the rest of the Patriot League, leaving him in a sort of recruiting no man’s land. Georgetown finds itself pinched between the rest of the Patriot League, who can accept athletes with weaker academic profiles, and the Ivy League teams, who can offer greater prestige and often better need-based financial aid. The margin for error in recruiting is miniscule." The PL seems unlikely to drop the Ivy-friendly Academic Index; it exists in no other I-AA conference outside these two. A differnet conference opens doors in recruiting the PL does not allow--if Georgetown wants to continue recruiting only kids with a 1300+ SAT in another conference, it's their right; conversely, it it wants to offer a "reach" to a talented prospect below this score like it does every year in track or basketball, it's the school's call, not the league's.

3. Ability to remake its own identity. Playing in the Patriot League only gets you so far if you finish last every single season. The opportunity, as well as the challenge of another playoff-eligible conference or even with independent status, is to make Georgetown relevant regionally and nationally by staying visible. In one sense, a change could provide a means of repositioning its program in ways the current setup does not provide. And, at this point, do Georgetown students and alumni really care what league it is in, so long as the record improves?

1. Visibility. If the Patriot League provides visibility in college circles, the other realistic options provide even less. Extending that argument to independent status is even more risky. The independents in Division I-A (Notre Dame, Army, Navy, and now BYU) can prosper because they are essentially national institutions, with a national following, and they have the name recognition to schedule games in November while the rest of the subdivision is deep into conference play. By contrast, the  Division I-AA independents (Bryant, Old Dominion, Savannah State, Georgia State, Lamar) are short-timers waiting for imminent conference moves within the next two years, and none will make the playoffs until they get to an autobid conference. Can a single Division I-AA independent school craft a decent schedule and stay on the radar screen with recruits? Can Georgetown ever be a "national" program without a conference structure?

2. Costs of competition. Unless the MAAC comes back, there really isn't a long term option that would not entail additional spending to be competitive, including the Pioneer League, where packaged financial aid is traded for travel to everywhere from San Diego to Jacksonville, with Marist becoming its closest "rival" program. Georgetown's current level of spending, poor by Patriot standards, would be in the bottom half of the Northeast and the middle of the Ivy (but wait, there's that NO VACANCY sign...). If Georgetown wants to play in any other conference, it has to make strategic decisions on what it is willing to pay for the privilege of doing so.

3. Identity. Of Georgetown's 26 sports with a NCAA structure (excepting men's rowing, women's rowing, and sailing), all of them play in a conference and all but football compete in the Big East. Does a change in conference structure maintain or improve its identity, and if not, does it imperil its long term future at Georgetown? Granted, conference membership is no guarantee of a school's long term commitment to football (see Hofstra and Northeastern) but with a conference comes an implied commitment by the school and the league.

Or would that commitment be the same for an independent? Georgetown competed in Division III as an independent for over 20 years, but there were also over 100 other schools similarly situated. As an army of one (no pun intended), the landscape would be markedly different.

It bears repeating: I'm not arguing for a change, but it needs to be an option. The Patriot League is a safe harbor for the program, it is a good fit academically, and, aside from the win-loss record, it allows Georgetown to comfortably associate with like-minded institutions. The problem with the harbor is that Georetown is a frigate among battleships, and scholarships adds an arms race unforseen in the creation of the League in 1986 by schools who committed to a non-scholarship model. How many will recommit to this standard by this December? How many schools see Georgetown as partner for the future, or just an impediment?

Every school is going to walk into that meeting to deal in the best interests of the league, but not at the expense of its own program. Georgetown should think (and prepare) likewise.