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.