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.