Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two Ships

For years, Georgetown football fans have yearned for an old-fashioned rivalry, something that evokes the tales of great rivalries across college football. Turns out they had one all least for now.

On November 20, 1890, St. John's College of Fordham, NY welcomed a college football team from Georgetown University to compete in the new game, ending in a 6-6 tie. It would be another 17 years before Georgetown would make the return trip to the school, renamed Fordham University, but it began a 53 game rivalry which has paralleled each school's rises and falls in college football.

The Rams boast a football tradition every bit as deep as the Hoyas. It looks back proudly upon its teams of the 1920's and 1930's, the "Seven Blocks of Granite", and consecutive appearances in the 1941 Cotton and 1942 Sugar Bowls. It was said that when Homer Marsham founded the NFL's Cleveland (now St. Louis) Rams in 1936, he named the team in honor of the Fordham eleven. (For what it's worth, Marsham ended up selling the team in 1941 to Dan Reeves (C'32), a Georgetown grad and NFL Hall of Fame member.)

In collegiate games from 1925 through 1928, Georgetown teams outscored Fordham by a combined 131-7, so perhaps that was why during the golden age for both schools in the 1930's and early 1940's, the teams kept their distance. With the exception of Notre Dame (and perhaps St. Mary's of California during the days of Slip Madigan), Fordham and Georgetown were among the most prominent Catholic college teams in the nation.

The rivalry resumed after World War II, albeit briefly. Georgetown lost to Fordham 14-13 on Nov. 11, 1950 before 13,130 at the Polo Grounds, and dropped football three months later. The Rams hung on through the 1954 season, finishing 1-7-1. In a moment of supreme bad timing, the school dropped football just as one of its football alumni, an assistant coach at Army, was approached about returning to campus to coach the team. Instead, 40 year old Vince Lombardi took a job in the NFL with the New York Giants.

Ten years later, the two schools would come together again, with football in mind.

When students at Georgetown were planning the revival of intercollegiate football in 1964, they soon realized it would not prove popular unless there were like-minded rivals from which to play. An outreach was made to the student councils at NYU and Fordham, each of which had dropped football within the last 15 years. As Georgetown returned to football in 1964 against NYU, Fordham joined as well, and the Nov. 20, 1965 Homecoming game at Kehoe Field between the Rams and Hoyas drew 9,002 fans, an on-campus record which remains to this day. Five years later, some 13,500 filled Jack Coffey Field for a Fordham Homecoming versus Georgetown, a road record for a GU game only passed last season at Old Dominion.

As club football waned, Georgetown and Fordham moved up to NCAA play as a tandem. From 1970 to 1984, the teams played 12 times, Fordham taking nine. After a 56-0 drubbing of the Hoyas at its 1984 Homecoming game, the series went on hiatus. A few years later, Fordham announced plans to leave Division III for the Patriot League, while Georgetown remained in Division III through the 1992 season.

Fordham's arrival in the Patriot League was a bitter one. In its first five seasons, the Rams were a combined 5-47 (.096), 2-23 in the conference, in ten seasons, 20-85-1 (.188) and 11-42 in league play. Unfortunately, one can compare that ten year mark, in progress, to Georgetown's ten year mark of 27-85 (.241) and 8-48 PL mark in recent years. But unlike GU, Fordham looked to do something about it.

The Rams leveraged one of its most powerful resources, alumni support, into becoming a competitive PL team inthe last decade, increasing its spending on financial aid to the point that, by 2008, Fordham was among the five largest budgets in I-AA and third only to Delaware and James Madison in Eastern football--a budget of $4.8 million that has grown by 47% in the last five years. At Georgetown? A $1.5 million budget that actually decreased slightly from 2005 to 2008.

Alumni rebuilt Jack Coffey Field from old wooden bleachers to a permanent 7,000 seat structure. When the Rams needed a weight room, alumni gifts got one built under the bleachers. This past season, alumni raised $2 million to turn a former swimming pool into dedicated football locker rooms. And when Fordham won two PL titles this decade, taking advantage of its Academic Index for recruits, alumni asked for more.

More, as in something missing at Fordham for 46 years: scholarship football.

As many Georgetown fans know, Fordham has now put the Patriot league into a institutional game of chicken, daring the league not to approve full scholarships. If Fordham gets to keep its 60 scholarships, they stay. Anything less, they're gone, putting the PL autobid at moderate risk, with only six schools remaining and a six team minumum required.

"Fordham strives to compete at the highest level in the FCS division, and we are convinced that the provision of athletic scholarships in football is an important component in advancing this goal," reads a school release. "We also wish to renew rivalries with past opponents, including Army and Villanova, while enhancing our schedule with other high profile opponents, such as Navy and the University of Connecticut."

Caught in the middle of this mess is Georgetown. Most Patriot League schools, both those pro and con on scholarships, still have the wherewithall to convert their existing aid to scholarships if push came to shove (read=shove). Obviously, Georgetown does not. A football program that can't get a stadium built, that has no game day locker rooms, and has almost few equivalencies for dedicated aid doesn't have the $6.1 million annually needed to float 60 full scholarships for football and the accompanying aid for women's sports required under Title IX. (Fact: Per public documetns, Georgetown's entire athletic scholarship budget in FY 2009 for all sports, basketball included, totaled just $6.4 million.)

Basketball forms a curious contrast between the schools. There was a time when Georgetown and Fordham, were basketball rivals, too. Excepting World War II, the schools played every season from 1941 through 1979. Fans of a certain age can still remember Fordham's 1971 win over Georgetown en route to a 26-3 season and a NCAA Sweet 16 appearance under rookie head coach Richard (Digger) Phelps. Unfortunately, Phelps left for Notre Dame after one season and so did the good times. In the intervening years, the Rams have made just one NCAA tournament since, in 1992, and hasn't seen a post-season game since. As Georgetown's star was ascendant in the Big East, it eventually dropped the Fordham series, as the Rams muddled their way through the ECAC, the MAAC, the Patriot League and now the A-10, finishing 2-26 and winless in the conference last season.

As Georgetown put its eggs in the hoop basket (no pun intended), Fordham has been relucantant to follow. The Rams play at Rose Hill Gym, the oldest basketball facility in Division I (25 years older than aging McDonough Gym) and spend about $2.5 million on men's basketball, eighth among the A-10 schools and comparable to the hoop budget of Liberty University. With its move to scholarships, Fordham is positioning itself as a football-first school.

Which brings us back to the rivalry. The sad outcome of the PL scholarship debate/drama is that, for this rivalry, it may well become the academic equivalent of a "loser leaves town" match. If the league presidents vote down schoalrships, Fordham will make a hasty retreat from the league, and with an expectation of 60 scholarships by 2012, is unlikely to pursue long-term arrangements with a nonscholarship team like Georgetown. If the scholarships pass, Georgetown becomes the odd-man out in a league now dedicated to fully funded football, and GU may well have to look at the more modest Northeast Conference as a safe harbor. As the Hoyas dropped three opponents this past season, all scholarship programs with considerably more resources and lesser academic standards for recruiting, it would seem less likely that this rivalry would continue under that disparity.

Over 120 years, through Division I, no football, club, Division II, Division III, and now Division I-AA, these two schools have built, rebuilt, and maintained college football through challenging circumstances among a dwindling number of Jesuit schools that are committed to the sport. Each has built a ship of football that has weathered the storms and carries a considerable legacy in its wake. Over the next few months, we will all learn whether these ships continue to sail together, or pass in the night.