Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Alarm Clock

It's been one week since the Patriot League presidents met in their showdown over scholarship football, a defining issue over a conference once called "The Last Amateurs". Except that some of them don’t want to be amateurs anymore.

The collective hand of the league was called by Fordham University, which announced nearly two years ago that they would offer football scholarships whether the league liked it or not, and the PL leadership made the mistake of choosing compromise over principle. The league has been clear about football scholarships from the start--it's the reason the league is there in the first place. And amidst a challenge to the fundamental  principle of the league, the PL simply wavered, and followed the precedent a decade earlier when Holy Cross threatened to leave the PL unless it offered basketball scholarships. (The day Columbia walks into the Ivy League and announces it is going full scholarship in basketball, rest assured the Ivies will not make an accommodation.)

Which is, of course, what the Patriot League did. In exchange for making the Rams ineligible for the league title (for whatever that is worth), Fordham was allowed to add scholarships, with the understanding that this would be settled one way or another by the end of the 2010 calendar year, allowing Fordham a chance to stay in the league, or make plans to go elsewhere when it reaches 60 scholarships in 2012. However one viewed the compromise, the understanding was that a decision would be reached, and it would either be to Fordham's benefit or its detriment.

The presidents arrived last week to make a decision, and they decided, well, not to decide at all.  There’s a old saying that “not to decide is to decide.” But in this case, it is not a decision as much as a stalemate, for as Samuel Johnson observed centuries earlier, "Present opportunities are neglected, and attainable good is slighted, by minds busied in extensive ranges and intent upon future advantages."  In football terms, the scholarship issue was on the 20-yard line. The league could go in for the score, or punt. Instead, it took a knee and ran out the clock. What does this mean (or in this case, not mean) for Georgetown?

Aside from the obvious financial issues, there are program-wide issues to be settled for Georgetown over this issue, and it’s not clear if Georgetown will settle them itself or have it settled for them.

Every twenty years or so, Georgetown has one of those “fork in the road” decisions which, by its decision, has charted the course of the program:

  • 1930-31: In the midst of the Great Depression, Georgetown quietly dropped scholarship support for football. While alumni were driving Tommy Mills out of his job with his 11-13-1 record, the decision set back the Hoyas for half a decade. Jack Hagerty got scholarship support returned in 1934, but it wasn’t until 1938 that the impact was truly seen: an undefeated season.
  • 1950-51: In the midst of the Korean War, Hunter Guthrie S.J. saw athletic scholarships as a luxury not matched by the Hoyas’ indifferent attendance patterns. With no alumni that stepped up to support the program or build the stadium that was sitting on the drawing board since the 1920’s, Guthrie unilaterally cut the program and no one was there to say otherwise.
  • 1969-70: The club program had taken hold at Georgetown, but the national club movement was faltering. Georgetown could have stood pat as schools like Marquette and St. Louis did with their club programs, but otherwise made the decision to step up to the NCAA College Division. It allowed the program not only to grow, but ultimately survive as the club level vanished.
  • 1990-91: With an NCAA decision that forced Division III schools to move to Division I, the likelihood of Georgetown football after the 1992 season was no given. Various alternatives were on the table—a return to club football, for one, or dropping it altogether. With consensus and support, Georgetown took the leap forward, and we’re all the better for it.

And now it’s 2010. The scholarship issue, either way, will define the direction of the Georgetown program for another decade or more. Publicly, Georgetown doesn’t talk about it but scholarships (merit and/or need) have to be actively pursued if Georgetown is going to be able to stay on the field with its peers, much less anyone else.  Yes, there are some “endowed” scholarships, but those are fractional gifts and nothing more.  If ten years of getting its collective hat handed to it hasn’t got the message through to Georgetown that you can’t bring a knife to a gunfight, a scholarship Patriot League surely will pound it to them, and will the program be strong enough to stand on its own two feet thereafter?

Georgetown doesn’t have to make a decision today, but it needs a direction. There are any of five different ways this could all shake out in the PL, and the presidential non-decision increasingly points to a league splitting along financial lines. A $5 million Fordham program is, eventually, going to distance itself from the $1.4 million Georgetowns of the world just as Georgetown distanced itself from the MAAC schools, and
before that, the Catholic and Washington and Lee programs of its past. Maybe schools like Georgetown, Holy Cross, and Bucknell can stick together. Maybe not.

The Patriot League faces this brave new world: for all intents and purposes, it has lost Fordham. If even one of the all-sports  members (Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh) leaves the conference, the PL drops football as a sponsored sport and Georgetown is cast adrift. Think it can’t happen? At least two of these schools (Colgate, Lehigh) will give full scholarships a hard look next season and may be tempted to pull the same trump card Fordham pulled—‘we’re going scholarship, what are you going to do about it?” And what will the PL do, if anything? At that point, what can they do, short of disbanding the conference?

Lafayette is on the record in the Allentown and Easton press—it won’t support a 63 scholarship league, the source of considerable consternation in the only media market that really follows the PL anymore. Maybe the PL can’t stomach 63, but it needs a compromise.

Resolved: “In the sport of football, the League shall allow member schools to offer not more than 15 equivalent grants-in-aid that do  not involve financial need.”

Why only fifteen? Six of the seven PL schools already field teams of 40 or more equivalencies. A 15 scholarship addition elevates every PL school but Georgetown to the status of a “counter” to get I-A opponents to schedule them for “body bag” guarantee games, which is what most coaches and fans want anyway. Colgate can schedule Syracuse and pick up a check for $400,000 because it’s at or near counter status. That pays bills, and presidents like paying bills. Fans like the thought of Lehigh and Penn State, regardless of the score. From a financial perspective, this gives them the opportunity to show "improvement" to the alumni without committing $2-3 million to do it.

Fifteen scholarships makes the remaining PL schools immediately better, and, by force of sheer movement, gives them a reason to hang together, rather than, as Benjamin Franklin put it , “to hang separately” and have to commit the capital to add 60 full scholarships, meet Title IX, and face an uncertain competitive climate in conferences like the Big South or CAA. It also keeps them close enough competitively where the Ivy League will continue to play them.

Georgetown can’t be a counter under its current funding formula, but the impact of 15 scholarships  raised directly from the Gridiron Club could become a powerful ally in recruiting. Partnered with the 1789 Scholarship Imperative, $750,000 a year in annual fundraising brings forth 30 new half-scholarships, opening the doors to Georgetown that a lot of recruits aren’t getting near right now. No, Syracuse won’t be calling, but it allows GU to continue to pursue a need-based quotient as it does, or mix in some athletic-based grants as well.

Fifteen scholarships won’t win the Patriot League on its own, but it’s the same 15 that everyone else would have, and at least make Georgetown a more competitive entity in a league where they have mostly been anything but.

It’s clear that there was not the consensus within the league presidents to move to 60 scholarships. Was any other number discussed? No one is saying, but for this argument 15 is a number that may be more palatable; without it, no number will ever be.

The PL's decision merited not one article in the Washington Post, the Washington Examiner, The HOYA, or the Voice. Like a tree in some Pennsylvania forest, it fell down and no one heard it, but listen closely: this is an alarm clock ringing on the future of the Patriot League and of Georgetown’s options within it. Georgetown can use this as a clarion call to reengage a increasingly distant alumni population which has grown tired in the Kevin Kelly era, to build a culture of sustained giving, one which men’s basketball and rowing has successfully maintained for two decades, but which football has never mustered the cause to develop. Brining in $650,000 would only be the start of a wave of philanthropy from football alumni--some of the most successful alumni at this institution came through the football program and their support remains untapped. Give them a reason for giving, and you can see the results in winning, and you will see the foundation built for a home in Division I-AA for generations to come.

Or, Georgetown can hit the snooze button and wake up in two years, and found that the house has burned down.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A House Divided

The cold weather of December heralds the traditional end of news on Georgetown football for the year

MSF? No change. Coaches? No comment. Recruits? Not yet. Schedule? Wait until the spring.

Elsewhere in the Patriot League, it's a winter of rising discontent over the issue that seemingly has captivated the league (sans one school, that is): whether the league ought to allow (or, to some minds, mandate) up to 63 athletic scholarships as a means to better compete in NCAA Division I-AA football. Thanks to a dare by Fordham University, the league has a central question before it, the one that founded the group in the first place: can a conference built on the principle of not offering athletic aid for football now embrace it... and what does it do if everyone is not on board?

"Suffice it to say that the Ivy League has become non-competitive outside of the league to the point of being unable to even fill their stadiums," wrote former Colgate beat writer Tom Lazzaro in 1985. "Rather than bring back spring football or institute various other reforms to raise this sad level of competition, the Ivy League presidents looked around for schools which shared, as Brown University president Howard Swearer announced 'our philosophy of sports, and our view of the role of athletics in higher education .'" Such was the aegis of what was originally called the Colonial League, a view that grew from a football-only model to an all-sports league by the early 1990's.

Numbers were the the problem then, as well as today. The Ivy had a stable eight to work with--no one was leaving, no one needed an invitation. The Patriot League had a founding four (Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, Colgate), adding a reluctant Holy Cross fan base when the Crusaders let the Big East bandwagon pass it by. For the most part, then as well as now, the five agreed on matters and funded its progams at a similar scale. Getting to seven, much less eight, has never quite worked out.

In is earliest days, the league presidents sought out the likes of William & Mary, Delaware, and VMI, according to reports. None were willing to trade football competitiveness (e.g., scholarships) for being able to hobnob around New Haven and Old Nassau. The PL sought out Davidson, in its sunset years as a football power in the Southern Conference, who found the transition so rough (1-20) they got up and moved down to Division III. When the president of the University of Richmond suggested his Spiders join the PL, they ran him out of town, literally. Towson joined as a bridge back to the CAA, and left soon after the league had added an eager but underfunded addition in Georgetown.

The scholarship issue was instigated by Fordham, another school that has never quite bought into the PL's model of Ivy proximity at the expense of a reduced athletic emphasis. The Rams' insistence in the mid-1990's to add basketball schoalrships led them ultimately to leave the PL in sports other than football, and led Holy Cross to threaten the same if the PL did not change its ways. At the risk of losing the league, the PL presidents reluctantly agreed to basketball schoalrships a decade ago, and all have eventually followed. Football is the only PL sport where scholarships are expessly prohibited.

And in 2009, Fordham called the question again. Accept 63 schoalrships or they walk, destination unknown. Surely, most PL presidents would concur, the conventional wisdom held, and if Georgetown didn't, well, who needs 'em. Other Eastern schools would see the wisdom and join the league. Happy days are here again, at least north of Washington.

If this was still the 1990's, with $1.10 a gallon gas and a budget surplus at most schools, maybe this would be a plausible argument. Instead, the fianncial and Title IX logjam between the pros and cons of this situation gets its hearing Monday and Tuesday at the league meetings, with a resolution many will find unpalatable in any form--because there really won't be a true resolution.

A decade after joining the Patriot League, most Georgetown fans don't give it much thought, and are as unaware of the rest of the PL as the PL fans are, frankly, unaware of Georgetown. Some Big East comparisons for the PL football configuration may help:
  • Lehigh and Lafayette are the Pitt and West Virginia of the Patriot League. To them, separated by mere miles and not time zones, the Backyard Brawl means everything, and the schools value the need for fierce competition, if regardless of the other rivalries in the league. Recent comments by Lafayette President Daniel Weiss that he wasn't supportive of football scholarships had more comments asking what would happen to the rivalry game than what it would do to the league.
  • Think of Colgate as Syracuse: a really strong program with a long-time coach, whose fan base doesn't accept falling behind. They've played for a national championship, they know they can compete outside the Ivy League sphere, and if scholarships makes them better, well, sign them up.
  • Bucknell is the Providence of the Patriot League--a founding member, its size and location have made it a tougher sell to compete in the league, but they always find a away to do so. No one can underrate Bucknell in a game, because they always fight hard. Its recent run of second division finishes, however, have led some among the league to ask if the Bison can still find a way to stay with the leaders, or will they remain a permanent step behind.
  • Holy Cross shares a number of comparisons with St. John's--a storied program, a demonstrated commitment to the sport, but a constant battle with its past to avoid those who wish "the good old days" were back. Granted, Holy Cross has been more successful on the gridiron than the Redmen have been on the court of late, but neither can be dismissed as the kind of program that could be nationally relevant again with the right ingredients. "If Villanova can do it, why can't we?", both schools might ask, albeit for different reasons. But let's ask it--if Holy Cross had 63 schoalrships, would they be playing Appalachian State on a Saturday afternoon in December?
  • By comparison, Fordham is a little like Rutgers--a sleeping giant in the big media market who has enjoyed some recent success but certainly not enough of it for their expectations. And much like Rutgers doesn't mind the whsipers that the Big Ten could be a future suitor, Fordham fans have bigger dreams than the Patriot League, realistic or not. Fordham could get its 63 grants and still leave, and the league knows it.
  • As for the last member, Georgetown, think a school on the edge of the Big East conference, a recent addition to the league, a recognizable name in a big media market with next to no success since joining the league (okay, none), and a general lack of interest in its program by many recruits. Sounds a lot like DePaul, doesn't it? Unfortunately.

Problem is, the Big East is not the Patriot League. The Big East is the best basketball conference of its kind in the nation--teams are fully funded, nationally competitive, and there's a waiting list of interested schools who would join. The PL has none of these, and with its declining out of conference performance (the PL has won one I-AA playoff game since 2003, and a sub-.500 record versus the Northeast Conference this season), scholarships are seen by some as the means to turn around the league before it slides into the ditch of irrelevance.

Turnarounds cost money, though. And commitment. Does the Patriot League have this commitment, or is it becoming more of a scheduling arrangement across schools who want to spend $5 million a year to be the next Appalachian State, and those who don't? Will the seven schools fall in line and spend the money, or will the league devolve into three that do, three would like to, and one that doesn't seem motivated to follow? Does the Patriot League want to be more closely associated with the style of competition at Dartmouth, or Delaware? Cornell, or Old Dominion? Georgetown, or Georgia State?

The Patriot League can reject Fordham's motion Monday and lose a school in the process. They can accept the motion, and risk whatver purpose the 1985 agreement provided it. That's the price of progress sometimes. But if they are not united moving forward, this league is adrift and, ultimately, divided.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Nor a league.