Monday, August 1, 2011

Eight Ways To Improve The Patriot League

Tuesday marks the Patriot League’s annual Media Day, though if you live in Washington, New York, or anywhere west of Allentown, PA, chances are you’ll read very little or nothing about it.

The event, conveniently located for the press that covers Lehigh and Lafayette sports, allow sportswriters to enjoy a luncheon and ask some questions to the coaches of the various schools in advance of game day stories this season.

Most of the cast is familiar with each other, even Kevin Kelly, returning for his sixth media day, the most of any Georgetown coach. With no changes in the head coaching ranks among the member schools, the questions figure to be much the same and the responses much the same, mixed in with some coach-speak. For example, which of these quotes from last season’s media day could be attributed to Coach Kelly’s thoughts on the 2010 season?

a) “My biggest concern is getting through healthy. We don’t have a lot of depth right now; our numbers are down a little bit.”

b) “We're worried about where we finish, not where we start.”

c) “Don't let the past affect you too much, don't let the future affect you too much. Live in the moment. If we can master that, and it's hard because this is an emotional game, we've got a chance.”

Actually, none of these. These were quotes by a) Colgate’s Dick Biddle, b) Lafayette’s Frank Tavani, and c) Bucknell’s Joe Susan, but you get the idea. No one is going to say something too far off script (well, maybe Tavani) and no one is going to upset their athletic director’s lunch by teeing off on the scholarship divide or the Patriot’s diminishing returns as a competitive I-AA conference. Everyone’s 0-0 and looking forward to the opening of the season.

As for the pre-season polls, Colgate and Lehigh will be at the top of the coaches and media poll (again), Bucknell and Georgetown at the bottom (again), and all is well at the Green Pond Country Club.

The scholarship issue hasn’t gone away, however. In December 2010, we wrote:

“The presidents arrived last week to make a decision [on scholarships] , 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?...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….Or, Georgetown can hit the snooze button and wake up in two years, and found that the house has burned down.”

This is but one of a number of issues, some great, some small, which the PL would do well to reflect and refocus on before the house really does comes down. With that in mind, eight suggestions to (re) start the dialogue:

1. Make a decision: introduce scholarships for football, beginning in the 2014 season. The raison d'etre of the PL was never a ban on athletic scholarships, but of student athletes being representative of their class. For those that proffered the argument that an athletic scholarship would be an impediment to a representative class, well, that ship sailed with the rest of the league’s sports nearly a decade ago when scholarships were approved. So why not football?

If the argument can be made that athletic scholarships in basketball and other sports have been introduced and have proven successful towards the PL’s goals of student athletes that are consistent with the league’s goals, the time has come to acknowledge that it can do so in football without the irrational fear that Lehigh will not become the next Ohio State or that the Colgate will adopt the same standards as Ole Miss.

Yes, there are Title IX and competitive considerations, each of which can be addressed by two points: 1) no school is required to offer and athletic scholarships, and 2) to address the short-term needs of the conference to meet these considerations, the PL would adopt a plan by which no amount of aggregate merit (athletic) scholarship aid would exceed the amount of need-based aid offered in a four year average of recruiting classes. Put another way, the PL would move towards a 31.5 scholarship plateau, with the option to award enough need-based aid so that those schools who wish to be a counter for I-A non-conference purposes (57 merit and/or need equivalencies across no more than 85 players) could do so by awarding a comparable amount of need-based aid. A school could offer full scholarships, half scholarships, or such money as it sees fit for Title IX purposes, but so that the merit portion of the aid awarded would not exceed the need based aid awarded.

And yes, this recommendation does not bring Fordham back. A school with 63 scholarships by 2013 isn’t dropping half of them for the purpose of rejoining the league. The PL can’t get the votes for 63 scholarships this and last year’s tabling proved it. Could the PL get a vote internally for fewer grants instead? I think it can.

Would 31.5 scholarships affect competitiveness? Of course it would. Not every school has the ability to offer this much aid (read=Georgetown), but most do and none would not be required to do so, anyway. Of the six PL schools excepting Fordham, four offer at least 31 or more in need-based equivalencies right now, with Bucknell close behind. If a school couldn’t offer as many for Title IX or financial reasons based on a 25 man class (more on that below), that’s OK--what it could offer would still be better from a competitiveness quotient against schools outside the PL that is hurting the league ability to compete.

This recommendation impacts Georgetown the most in the near-term, but it’s the long term interests on scholarships that will sink or the swim the league as a whole. Sure, the PL could stay non-scholarship among GU, Lafayette, Holy Cross, and Bucknell, and give a pass to Colgate and Lehigh. But the day Colgate or Lehigh leaves the league to pursue scholarship football elsewhere, the Patriot League must end its sponsorship in football. Why? The PL bylaws require five full-member schools to play in a sport for the league to sponsor it, and only five such schools do so now. Barring the development of intercollegiate football at American (unlikely), the PL can only continue if all five current full-member schools stay together, regardless of Fordham or Georgetown.

And what about Georgetown? Can it cover an additional $3 million in scholarships a year across football and comparable women’s sports? As of this writing, no. But even as few as four scholarships a year could give the coaches options with kids that it cannot even get close to today, all because of the cost of higher education and the inability of GU to offer aid to parents with higher family incomes. As cited on this blog in 2010:

“In past years, Ivy and PL schools followed similar aid formulas that made it theoretically comparable to accept an offer from Brown versus, say, Colgate. That has changed. Examples are noted at
Brown: Eliminated parent contribution in financial aid formula. Eliminated any loans for household incomes (HHI) under $100K, caps total indebtedness to $20,000 for any student with a HHI over $150,000.
Columbia: Eliminated parent contribution, replaced all loans with grants. No debt for HHI under $60,000.
Cornell: Eliminated parent contribution for HHI under $75,000. Caps loans at $3,500 per year for HHI under $120,000, caps loans at $7,500 above $120,000.
Dartmouth: No loans for HHI under $75,000.
Harvard: No parent contribution needed, no loans offered. Families with HHI over $120,000 expected to pay no more than 10% of their income for tuition.
Pennsylvania: No loans.
Princeton: All loans converted to grants.
Yale: No parent contribution under $60,000, sliding scale of 1%-10% of income expected to pay for tuition.

"There are some families that will pay less for their kid to go an Ivy League school than they would if their kid went to a state school," said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz to

And they are not alone. In addition to schools like Duke, Stanford, North Carolina, Caltech, and more than two dozen no-loan programs among major colleges, Patriot League schools are getting into the fray: At Lafayette, no loans are offered to families with a HHI under $60,000, and cap loans above this at $2,500 a year. A similar program is found at Lehigh.

Where you won't find this--football or not, is Georgetown. The money's not there. And as Ivy and PL schools become more competitive aid-wise, scholarship or not, the means by which Georgetown can remain competitive for students and student-athletes becomes ever less productive. “

Can Georgetown even compete against scholarship schools? Its record against scholarship programs outside the league since 2000 isn’t great (2-10, .200), but compared to its record in the PL during that same period (8-52, .133), it begs the question—if Georgetown can schedule Wagner, Howard, or Sacred Heart (all of which offer football scholarships), and live to tell the tale, why wouldn’t it do the same with Lehigh and Colgate?

This recommendation is not intended to be Solomonic. Instead, a scholarship policy that rests on twin pillars of merit and need could allow the PL to be as competitive in football as it is on other sports without destroying its relationships with the Ivy League, while improving the student-athlete experience for those that can attend and excel, but may lack the means to do so without scholarship support.

Finally, a brief note about the Ivies. Adding scholarships in basketball did not cause the PL to run over the Ancient Eight: last season, the scholarship PL was a mere 9-12 (.428) against the non-scholarship Ivy in men’s basketball. Given the Ivies’ advantages in recruiting lower income families with full need aid, the rivalries can be enhanced by a more competitive product against the Ancient Eight across the sidelines, and in a way that does not split the PL in two.

2. Remove standardized test scores from the Academic Index. The Patriot is one of three conferences in college sports (the other being the Ivy and the Division III NESCAC) which artificially limit athletic recruiting classes based on the self-satisfying perception that grades and SAT scores qualify an athlete for admission. Note that no such index is used to admit or deny music majors, English majors, or the like at any of these schools, only self-identified athletes.

While I would do away with the Index altogether, this mathematical exercise is sacrosanct in many PL quarters north of the Mason-Dixon Line. What I would then offer is to end the use of the SAT scores in index consideration, moving the banding process to one based on grade point averages, or what is called the converted rank score (CRS).

The bias inherent in standardized testing are well known. Holy Cross no longer requires the SAT as a means of admission, and a growing number of SAT-optional schools could render the Index inert in quantifying recruits which take the SAT and those that do not. Four years in a classroom is a better predictor for college than four hours in a SAT test, and if banding of recruits is considered essential for the PL, let’s focus on core grades and not on the vagaries of standardized testing, which would also make the PL more attractive to possible expansion (more on this below, too.).

The PL will not go the way of Oklahoma if recruits are banded by GPA’s. If an index must be maintained, the CRS may be the fairest way to do it.

3. End the association with Fordham University. That’s a difficult recommendation to a fellow PL school after 20+ years in the league, but Fordham is clearly moving its program beyond the league and it’s time for all parties to be up front and admit it. Unless the league completely adopts Fordham’s scholarship model in 2013 (and shows no signs of doing so), the Rams are leaving, and everyone knows it. What does another season in 2012 accomplish at this point?

If 60+ scholarships doesn’t change your view of the future of Fordham football, perhaps Vaughn Scott will. Over the summer, Fordham signed Scott, a talented RB who was considered a non-qualifier after a combination of GPA and ACT scores left him below the NCAA minimum for a grant-in-aid (a number that is leagues below the Patriot’s Academic Index scores.)

Scott was headed to a prep program called the Atlanta Sports Academy when his high school coach recalculated his GPA and found him eligible to earn a scholarship after all. Fordham was one of four schools which offered along with Towson, Stony Brook and Monmouth. “I thought I’d have to take that extra year and raise my grade-point average, but now I can start my college career”, Scott said.

We wish Scott well, but Fordham is clearly planning for a future that does not involve the PL’s goals and/or its academic restrictions. Recruiting and signing the best players available at the NCAA threshold is neither immoral nor unethical, and it’s accepted practice at over 200 Division I schools from Alabama to Youngstown State. But for the Patriot League, it is not and has never been.

Fordham, to its credit, made its own decision that it was no longer willing to play under the PL’s rules to build its football program. That having been said, the PL is not under any duty to maintain ties with a school whose admissions standards and scholarship commitments are now reaching outside the league’s bylaws. Maintaining an extra year with Fordham on everyone’s schedule (that does not count in the standings) does neither side much good in the long run— a scholarship Fordham may pummel around a lot of PL teams on its way out the door in 2012, and it’s not a good thing for potentially the best team in a conference to be ineligible for its title in the first place.

The PL presidents should give Fordham its notice at the conclusion of the 2011 season, allow the Rams the option to continue to play some or all the PL schools previously scheduled in 2012, and wish the Rams well in its transition to a new conference affiliation. When Georgetown left the MAAC in 1999, five schools opted to continue to play the Hoyas in its transition year, but three did not. Georgetown went 3-2 against the five MAAC teams and went 0-3 against pending PL foes Holy Cross, Fordham, and Bucknell, finishing 5-6.

4. Commit to expansion as early as the 2014 season. “When we first started the league and the presidents would meet, we would tell one another 'We're building a model that others will follow,” former Holy Cross president John Brooks S.J. once said. “So far,” he added, “no one has followed." And to be frank, no one will join the PL in its current form with the Scylla and Charybdis of non-scholarship football on one side of the harbor and a SAT range out of reach for nearly every school outside the Ivy League across the other side. Reforming the league’s scholarship policy and its means of evaluating recruits could open the door to some interest by those schools to whom the PL would be a more competitive proposition under those parameters than what it currently maintains.

With Fordham departing, the PL needs eight schools, not six or seven, to maintain competitive conference play and to achieve numerical parity with the Ivy League. To that end, it should approach two schools for full membership—the Virginia Military Institute and Bryant University. In the absence or failure of those discussions, it should consider associate memberships in football for Duquesne University and Marist College.

For all the past talk about inviting the likes Villanova, Richmond or William & Mary, that ship has sailed, nor will schools like Maine and New Hampshire risk a fan insurrection to move teams to what is considered an inferior conference to the CAA. By contrast, VMI (enrollment: 1,375) fits the PL standard of academic and athletic excellence, has a natural affinity with the service academies, and forms a geographic pairing with Georgetown in football and American in other sports. The Keydets have always fought above its weight class in the competitive Southern Conference, and in moving to the Big South Conference, the wins haven’t followed, either. As anyone at Annapolis or West Point will tell you, athletic recruiting is challenging at a military academy. It’s a little shocking to think that VMI hasn’t posted a winning season in football since 1981, but anyone who has seen them play knows VMI gives 110% in every game and a gameday in Lexington is a tradition all its own.

VMI would be an outstanding candidate for PL admission, and grandfathering its existing scholarship support gives the school the opportunity to move without the backlash that other rumored PL candidates of the past soon faced.

Similarly, Bryant would be more amenable to considering the PL with a scholarship component, adds a New England tie with Holy Cross, and has the rising academic chops to build the PL brand. Bryant is a newcomer to the scene, having started football in 1999 under former Georgetown offensive coordinator Jim Miceli. In the last five seasons, Bryant is 35-20 (.636), defeated Fordham last season in its only prior meeting against the PL, and opened a small but functional 4,400 seat stadium before it moved to Division I-AA. Visiting its web site, it’s clear Bryant has institutional aspirations beyond that of most NEC schools, and has an enrollment (3,370) and accept rate (43%) common with many PL schools.

If neither of these schools seek to move, Duquesne and Marist, the last of the MAAC survivors, might be options, at least for football. Each fits the current PL footprint, already compete against PL schools, and would not upset the current eight team alignment in other sports (i.e, Army, Navy, and American). The move  to the PL would be a step up for both schools, as it was for Georgetown, but would also provide renewed interest in their football programs and open the door for games with the Ivy League. And while schools like Monmouth would appear a more competitive football-only option, Monmouth cannot play football in the Patriot and remain in the Northeast Conference for other sports; of course, it hasn't shown interest in leaving the NEC and this continues to be the case. On the other hand, Duquesne (A-10) and Marist (MAAC) can federate (play in the PL) for football and still maintain their membership in their primary conferences, much like Georgetown and the Big East.

Villanova could do so as well, but did we already say that the ship has sailed?

5. Establish an Ivy-Patriot challenge week. Any new school to the PL is going to learn a lesson that Georgetown has faced for the last decade—getting on an Ivy schedule is a political and logistical nightmare. Not only do some PL schools enjoy 3-4 Ivy games a year and don’t want to give that up, but the vagaries of the 10-week Ivy schedule may not give some PL schools the means to play them amidst their open dates.

Resolved: block out the PL’s week 3 (week 1 in the Ivy calendar) with all eight PL and Ivy teams facing each other that weekend, rotating each year so that over an eight year period, every PL school will play every Ivy school at least once. (If the opponents for any one year intersect with an existing series, that series would be adjusted so the teams do not play twice in the season.) Example:

Brown vs Bryant
Columbia vs. Colgate
Cornell vs. Bucknell
Dartmouth vs.Lafayette
Harvard vs. Georgetown
Pennsylvania vs.VMI
Princeton vs. Holy Cross
Yale vs. Lehigh

These names were picked largely at random, but not quite. For instance, Harvard has never played Georgetown, nor Brown vs. Bryant, and Penn and VMI have only met twice (last in 1921). But it’s also surprising that in 120 years of football and all the supposed ties between the Ivy and PL, Dartmouth and Lafayette have met just eight times ever, Princeton and Holy Cross just ten. A week where new rivalries are explored and old ones revisited each year offers schedule stability for both leagues, and renewed interest at the member schools.

Instead of Georgetown playing Yale for six straight seasons in week 3, for example, it would rotate through games like Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, etc., providing interest for fans and recruits alike. Properly promoted by both leagues, this would be a win-win for teams that are hardly recognized in the college football landscape by mid-September.

6. Limit freshman recruiting to 25 signings. With or without scholarships, schools that are signing 30 or more freshmen (and inevitably losing a certain number of these a year later) are not well served by large recruiting classes, which invites claims of overrecruiting of positions to which the previous class was signed.

Patriot League schools don’t need to sign 30 kids because somehow only 20 will be eligible in the fall, nor does anyone want a situation where financial aid and/or scholarships are put into question when a player is less than productive after a season. Continue to allow walk-ons, but limit signings (and the presumed admissions offers these entail) to a more representative number of recruits each year (which would include transfers) that works for the coaches, for the recruits, is favorable to Title IX pressures, and is a reasonable impact upon the sport as a whole. If the Southeastern Conference can get by with 25 signings, so can the Patriot League.

7. Standardize the schedule. Did anyone find it strange that Georgetown was nearly finished with its 2010 league schedule when Lehigh was just about to start theirs? The odd juxtaposition of Patriot league schedules to accommodate Ivy League slots for some schools and not for others needs to be fixed. The last five weeks of the Ivy League season are for in-league competition only. The Patriot League should adopt the same rules, and with an eight team schedule as envisioned above, no one would need to be playing out of conference after mid-October to fill out a schedule.

Further, what prevents the league from standardizing and promoting rivalry games beyond Lehigh-Lafayette? The Bethlehem and Easton folks get one game to end the season, every year but no one else does. Colgate’s regular season finales over the last four years have been Bucknell, Holy Cross, Georgetown and Fordham and while there may be a rivalry game in there somewhere, it’s not always much to end a season on. Why is this? Is the league telling us that only one rivalry game matters, and the others are out of luck?

If Lafayette-Lehigh can always be the end of the season, so can Colgate and Bucknell, Georgetown-Holy Cross, or whatever matchups it sees fit, but let’s get them set. Attendance at Fisher Stadium won’t be harmed if another rivalry game is recognized at week 12 on the PL calendar.

8. Develop a strategy for league-wide TV and radio coverage. The league congratulated itself last month for entering into a two game national package with CBS College Sports for PL football—yet, only one of the two games is actually a conference game. For a league which has severed ties with the Worldwide Leader and figures to get even less ESPN coverage as a result, what does one league game do per year to a highly fractious media strategy across some schools which maintain their own TV and radio networks, and some which have neither?

Regardless if the broadcast is carried through WFMZ, Time Warner Cable, FiOS, or the like, the PL would be well served by some sort of “Patriot League Network” branding which would allow these games tape-delay carriage across other platforms, including the CBS cable channel or other sites, and including a PL online channel.  The opportunities for a branded streaming broadcast seems an unappreciated opportunity for a league that recruits nationally, with parents and alumni across the nation who would not otherwise see their teams play. Similarly, why not investigate opportunities in satellite radio? Sirius has a lot of extra bandwidth on Saturdays that could host a Patriot League game on one of its channels.

Lots of points to consider, any one of which would make the Patriot a different and potentially more competitive league in the months ahead. For now, anyway, it’s on to Media Day , where at least one coach will claim his team has a chance to compete for the championship, and three months later, will see it come to fruition.