Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Breakup

If it weren’t for sports columnist and Lehigh blogger Chuck Burton’s midday update, a lot of fans might have missed the arrival of the biggest news to hit the Patriot League in a generation, deciding ten months earlier than expected as to how to handle the issue of football scholarships.

Many had postulated of a measured approach for scholarships, some sort of Solomonic decision that would appease those for scholarships while not scaring away those with more tentative budgets. Instead, it’s full steam ahead, and six PL schools will have free rein to offer the same grants as found at Maine, James Madison, Georgia State, or any CAA school.

I said six, not seven.

The cloud hanging upon the celebratory mood at the PL headquarters was blue as well as gray. The PL leadership could not announce a unanimous vote, only vaguely referring to a “collectively” and “collegially” made decision. Presidents love unanimous votes, and are loathe to say otherwise. Except in this case they didn’t get it, because this isn’t a marriage of convenience, it’s the first step towards a divorce with Georgetown University.

The papers will be drawn up, they’ll be filed when both parties are agreeable with it, and a press release will dutifully wish GU all the best in their future endeavors.

Georgetown joined the Patriot League in 2000 specifically because it was a non-scholarship conference of academic renown. Now it’s one out of two.

“We are pleased with the addition of Georgetown University to our football league, said PL executive director Carolyn Femovich in 2000. “Georgetown’s outstanding tradition of excellence in academics and athletics reflects the core values of the Patriot League.”

They still do, except they’re not the PL core values anymore.

The decision to forgo need based aid began with Fordham, a school who hopes that they can recapture the glory of days gone by, when the Seven Blocks Of Granite and its Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl appearances made Fordham a household name, and arguably the most famous Jesuit college in the nation. The school which, along with Georgetown, helped spark the national nonscholarship football movement in 1964, wants no part of it today.

Fordham added scholarships unilaterally in 2010, facing a de facto ban from the PL in the progress. The Rams proudly added Army and Connecticut to its 2011 schedule, lost by a combined score of 90-3, won one game for the year, and fired its coach. By 2013, when the five other schools will have as many as 15 on scholarship, Fordham will already have 60.

The decision took root at Colgate, which also sees the big time through the smaller mirror of the Patriot League. Some Colgate fans have a particular antipathy for Georgetown and its perceived small-time ways, and others have still not got over the fact that a norovirus outbreak on Georgetown’s campus cost Colgate a win in 2008. They’ll be at 60 scholarships as fast as they can, and will see their football budget pass $5 million in the process.

The decision also took hold at Lehigh, who seem to have caught the same malady that Pitt, Syracuse, and a dozen other I-A schools found themselves with this past year: the fear of being left behind. Lehigh didn’t leave, but it may have come down to: "well, if Fordham and Colgate have 60 scholarships, we need them too." Never mind that Lehigh is a consistent PL champion and regular NCAA playoff entrant, it’s not good enough anymore.

As these schools sneezed, smaller PL schools caught the cold. Holy Cross has as deep a scholarship past as any of these schools, but approached it with a mix of pause and potential. They too won’t be left behind. Lafayette, which helped throw the wrench into delaying this decision two years ago, seems resigned rather than reinvigorated by the decision. “The league has made a decision to do this, and we are members of the league,” said Lafayette president Daniel Weiss. “So we are complying with the league. I'm not talking about my personal opinion.”

At Bucknell, the school went so far as to post a letter to alumni with their view of the situation. The smallest football budget in the league outside Georgetown, its president minced few words:

"Since December 2010, and notably late last year, the Presidents’ Council has had intensifying discussions about this question. We have looked at such issues as the following:
• The academic goals of the Patriot League and its member institutions.
• The student-athlete experience, including in such areas as admissions, retention, diversity and graduation.
• The long history of football at Patriot League member institutions and the support for these programs on each campus and among alumni.
• The expressed intent of Fordham to end league affiliation if it is not permitted the right to award merit aid scholarships in football. Any departure of a league affiliate or member in football would bring numerous risks for the future of Patriot League football competition and league continuance.
• The possibility of increasing the stability of the league, via growth in membership, should permissive merit aid be adopted.
• The financial impact on each institution of moving from football student-athletes receiving need-based financial aid to receiving athletic merit aid, including Title IX implications.
• The impact on each institution of a permissive system for merit aid for football student-athletes in the Patriot League that does not require athletic merit scholarships but that allows them.
• The problems currently affecting several college football programs at large public universities.

These conversations among the presidents have been thorough and candid.

I write now about these matters because, based on the recent pace of the presidents’ discussions, I believe (1) that the Patriot League Presidents’ Council will vote in February on whether the league will permit member institutions to award merit scholarships in football and, (2) that there will be a decisive majority vote to permit football scholarships. Should the Presidents’ Council reach this conclusion, it likely will become unavoidable for Bucknell to add merit-aid scholarships in football, not least to protect the health and well-being of student-athletes competing in that sport.”

(In short, we can’t lose Fordham.)

But they can lose Georgetown, and the warm breeze of collegiality was met with a colder response Jack DeGioia, who chose his words carefully but forcefully:

Since 2001, Georgetown has been committed to competing in the sport of football as an affiliate member of the Patriot League. This has allowed the University to compete with institutions that shared the same academic values and need-based financial aid philosophy.

"The Patriot League recently passed permissive legislation that will allow member institutions to award merit-based aid in the sport of football beginning in 2013-14. Georgetown will continue its membership in the Patriot League in the sport of football and explore all of its options, including our ability to compete as a need-based aid program. We remain committed to our goal of providing our student athletes with an unparalleled academic experience and an athletically competitive football program."

Points of interest:

1. Georgetown will continue its three year term as an associate member of the PL. There’s really nowhere for it to go for 2012, but that may change going forward.

2. Georgetown will explore its options, which is presidential-speak these days for taking a serious look at somewhere else.

3. The goal of an athletically competitive football program is not tied to finishing last in a 60-schoalrship Patriot League.

Left unsaid, some additional thoughts:

1. The fact that the PL is intent on a fast track scholarship approach, presumably to lure other scholarship schools (read: New Hampshire, Maine) to join its ranks is a tacit admission that a need based school like Georgetown is really no longer welcome. With a program that is considerably behind the other six not to even be mentioned to the media connotes an attitude that Georgetown is expendable for the greater good, however it is defined.

2. Nothing from the PL suggests a “no, we really, really want you” approach to maintaining league unity. Lehigh’s Alice Gast commented that the PL “is like a family”, but that doesn’t count the guests in the basement apartment. The lack of public response to Georgetown’s specific situation makes it sound as if the league has come to peace that it is sacrificing the values of one institution for the promise of expansion and the perception it is bigger-time than its Ivy-like demeanor once suggested.

3. The PL is putting its eggs in an expensive basket. Some of these schools will tell you that there’s no real cost to 60 men’s scholarships, but don’t be fooled. Between Title IX and the billable costs to the respective athletic departments, the athletic budgets at these schools will top $4-5 million a year on football alone, or about 20-25% of its entire budget.

Earlier last year, this blog discussed the organizational issues inherent in the decision.

"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 whatever 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."

In its show of near-unanimity Monday, the PL decided it is better to march behind the Rams than keep the Hoyas in tow. Everyone in that room knew the situation Georgetown faces that the other schools don’t, the gap in funding, in facilities, and in academics that makes a 60 scholarship decision not only unpopular at Georgetown, but untenable. They could have pursued an accommodation, an acknowledgement that without some sort of graduated approach, they were pricing the Hoyas right out of the PL. They knew it, and chose to let it pass.

The message was sent to DeGioia, his university, and the Hoya program: this isn’t the place for your team anymore.

If so, Georgetown needs to review those options and set a timetable for an amicable parting. Two years, four years, hard to say, but DeGioia said it himself before the season: “I am not supportive of moving to a scholarship program. I don’t believe that fits the ethos and the culture of Georgetown, and I believe the way that the Patriot League is conducted is exactly the right place for us to be, and I’m hopeful that it will continue to be the best place for us to be, but I’m not supportive of moving to a scholarship program and I’m not supportive that Georgetown would follow the move that Fordham did and go to 63 scholarships. It’s just very expensive and I don’t think it’s commensurate in who we are and in our aspirations for our athletic program."

Well, that’s exactly what the Patriot League is going with.

Or as they’re called in court, irreconcilable differences.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Opportunity

“Georgetown will continue its membership in the Patriot League in the sport of football and explore all of its options, including our ability to compete as a need-based aid program. We remain committed to our goal of providing our student athletes with an unparalleled academic experience and an athletically competitive football program.”—Georgetown University president Jack DeGioia

There once was a family who lived in a big house in the city but who kept a small rent house at the seashore. The house was modest in appearance but otherwise serviceable, and the neighbors were hospitable when they went to the shore every year.  One day, the owners decided that the best way to improve the neighborhood as to raise all the tenants’ rent. The family saw the bill, as much as if they kept a second home in the city, and took pause. They enjoyed the summer house, but the neighborhood wasn’t going to be the same anymore, and there were other neighborhoods up the street more to their liking and at a better price.

The family gave notice that they wouldn’t be back next summer, and began looking farther up the road.

For Georgetown, it’s time to look up the road.

If the relative surprise of the Patriot League took fans by shock, such was not the case at the big house on 37th Street. Georgetown has seen this scenario coming for the better part of two years or more and if the “full steam ahead” option was a bit of a surprise, it was certainly one they’ve looked at.

By 2013, six Patriot league schools will offer full scholarships to most, if not all, their incoming recruiting class in football. For a variety of reasons: financial, institutional, and cultural, Georgetown University will not.

A school that spends the equivalent of 60 scholarships per year across its men’s sports is not going to double that number to pay Patriot league football and double it again for Title IX—heck, for that number, offer 40 full scholarships, 40 half scholarships and join the Big East for football. Financially, it’s a $6 million annual expenditure which Georgetown simply does not have the money for, nor the existing aid to convert.

Institutionally, Georgetown is not adding 120 accumulated scholarships when the stated goal of the University’s capital campaign is need based aid. This need based aid is the foundation of the capital campaign and it will be judged, in no small part, on its ability to raise 1,789 need based scholarships. Diverting resources to create 120 outside this formula is at best counterproductive and at worst, cannibalistic.

Culturally, Georgetown isn’t adding 60 men’s scholarships for the privilege of losing to Maryland or Wake Forest and collecting a $400,000 check. And, present rivalries notwithstanding, it’s not adding $3 million in scholarships for the privilege of playing Lafayette or Lehigh, either. The cultural footprint for football was set a half-century ago: “Football For Fun”, they called it—an opportunity for students representative of their class to compete against like minded teams: Fordham, not Florida State. (Well, that analogy seems destined for retirement.)

Georgetown is not selling a single extra seat at woeful Multi-Sport Field because a wide receiver or a linebacker got a full ride versus one who didn’t, and that raises a fourth element to this discussion—unlike the six other schools, there’s little or no marginal revenue that Georgetown could earn that could offset the costs. If Lehigh increase average attendance from its current 8,508 per game to just under 10,000, the Engineers could bring in as much as $110,000 a game, or pay for two scholarships.  There’s no amount at MSF that could draw a similar revenue source.

Yes, in theory, Georgetown could look at its options and see where a few scholarships here of there could be of value, and they could be, in any sport. The Gridiron Club might engage a scholarship drive, but four or five scholarships a year won’t do the trick. Georgetown’s baseball team has been a low-scholarship team in a full scholarship Big East since 1985. They haven’t had a winning season since 1986, and are a combined 157-465-1 (.252) since. Baseball can endure 25 straight losing seasons because it is a lower cost and lower visibility sport. Football surely cannot.

Jack DeGioia was right—Georgetown needs to explore options. Here are five:

1. Stay in the Patriot League. Georgetown could maintain a need-based or ultra-low scholarship team in a 60-scholarship PL.  Over time, the attrition would erode recruiting, send coaches looking elsewhere, and just steamroll the schedule. In short, Georgetown football 2015 might look a lot like 2002 or 2003: a few non-conference games with a chance of winning, but little else. Such a scenario is not unique to Georgetown, however. Over the last ten years Davidson competed as a non-scholarship team in the Southern Conference (1977-86), the Wildcats did not win a single conference game. Of its 32 wins over the ten years, 27 came against sub-Division I squads that were scheduled to keep the program afloat. (Of the remaining five, four came against teams that would join the non-scholarship Patriot League.) Georgetown would not only be competing against these schools, but these schools could (and likely would) out recruit at every turn. Got a promising tackle considering a need based offer at Georgetown? Come to Fordham on a full ride, regardless of income. So how long will Georgetown as an institution tolerate winless conference records, with little hope of change? It got so bad at Davidson that they dropped from the Southern after 51 years, spent two years as a underfunded Colonial (Patriot) League program, and soon dropped to Division III. That’s not an option for Georgetown under current NCAA rules.

2. Join The Northeast Conference. A generation ago, the NEC was formed out of a group of mostly private, non-scholarship teams passed over by the MAAC. Instead, it was the NEC, not MAAC, which survived, adding a group of regional state-supported schools like Albany and Central Connecticut, and allowing up to 40 scholarships, though not all teams are at that level.  Many of the NEC programs are familiar to Georgetown fans (Duquesne, Wagner, Monmouth, St. Francis, Sacred Heart, etc.) but none carry much in the way of fan interest or peer institution relationships. The NEC offers a full schedule, no restrictions on recruiting (as does the Patriot) and an autobid to the tournament just like the Patriot. Longer term, however, the NEC will see the Patriot’s move to 60 and follow suit. Georgetown could beat Wagner or St. Francis now, but the numbers could be too much to overcome if the league as a whole steps forward when Georgetown does not. It would make little sense in leaving the PL to join the NEC if the NEC becomes a less visible version of the PL.

3. Join The Pioneer Football League. There is a league of schools with no financial aid whatsoever, the far-flung Pioneer League. Think of it as the MAAC with lots of frequent flyer miles. To join the PFL, Georgetown would have to drop all of its packaged aid to athletes and fly to games with such schools as San Diego, Jacksonville, Drake, and Butler. Outside Marist or Davidson , none would draw any interest from recruits or fans, and Georgetown football would further lapse into irrelevancy with a schedule of teams like Morehead State, Stetson, or Mercer.  Because these schools are often in remote areas vis a vis the rest of the subdivision, the PFL is more a scheduling arrangement than a true conference, and it’s something Georgetown would do well to avoid as a long term home for its program.

4. Play as an Division I Independent. An independent plays by its own rules on scholarships, on admissions, on scheduling, but at a price. When Georgetown played as a Division III independent, there were over 100 non-scholarship schools in the East to schedule. As late as 2000, the year Georgetown competed as an independent in the transition year to the PL, Division I-AA could offer as many as 30 non-scholarship teams in the East for GU to fill its schedule. By 2013, there will be just two eastern non-scholarship teams outside the Ivy League, and both of them will be in conference play by late October, leaving Georgetown to fill its November schedules with schools below Division I or needing to travel across the country to play one-off games with North Dakota State or Southeast Missouri, looking for an easy win. In fact, by 2013 there are scheduled to be no other independents in the subdivision, as the current five all have conference ties by then. If Georgetown doesn’t mind playing the minimum six I-AA games and filling up the rest of the slate with schools like Lock Haven, Ursinus or Gallaudet,  future coaches and recruits will inevitably see the program as having no direction or purpose and a steep decline will follow.

A fifth option is one worth considering, however, what I call “Ivy+1”.

No, Georgetown is not going to be accepted into the Ivy League. The Ancient Eight neither expands nor contracts, and likes it that way. But the Ivy League has a problem, a big one, and one Georgetown could do well to help.

Over the years, Ivy teams have heavily relied on Patriot League schools to fill its non-conference schedules as the Ivy has moved off the national stage. At one point, over 80% of the Ivy’s 24 non-conference games during football season came from the PL; after all, it was the Ivy League that was the impetus to gather the original Patriot schools together, to serve as a competitive league that shared the same values and standards and , well, wasn’t too competitive for the Ivy schools as non-scholarship programs.

As of 2013, that all changes. The league that has mostly withdrawn from playing scholarship schools faces a quandary—the old standbys like Lehigh and Colgate are now recruiting just like Delaware or Villanova. Do the Ivies really want to get crunched by schools recruiting talent that no longer represents the Ivy model, and beats them without regard?

Dartmouth used to play the University of New Hampshire until the Wildcats went full scholarship—from 1901 to 1980, Dartmouth was 16-1-1 vs. New Hampshire. Since 1980, 1-17-1. Yale no longer plays Connecticut, Princeton long since fell off Rutgers’ calendar.

If Georgetown is to end its PL relationship, it needs lots of non-scholarship opponents, and the Ivy needs non-scholarship opponents, too. One or two Ivy games helps the Hoyas, but why not aim higher?

Submitted for approval: Georgetown University and the Ivy Group arrange a multi-year (10-15 year) agreement whereby Georgetown is an official “scheduling partner” in football without membership privileges or a place in the standings. The league, which traditionally plays ten straight games from weeks 3-12 in the season, agrees to begin play a week early and each Ivy school incorporates a game with Georgetown over the first eight weeks of the season, weeks 2-9, leaving the remaining three weeks reserved for traditional in-league rivalries like Harvard-Yale or Cornell-Penn.

As an example, here’s the chart of the 2012 composite Ivy schedule (non-conference in gold):

Here’s a chart of what it could look like if Georgetown was incorporated upon the same schedules:

With that grid, the schedule would translate to Georgetown as follows, with some additional non-conference opponents added in for seasoning:

Week 1: at Holy Cross
Week 2: BROWN
Week 3: at Penn
Week 6: at Dartmouth
Week 7: at Yale
Week 9: at Columbia
Week 10: Open
Week 11; HOWARD

Not a bad schedule, is it?

What does it buy Georgetown? Eight competitive games against the very peer institutions GU has always wanted for football—Yale, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, just like the fight song says. You can sell eight Ivy games a year to the kind of student-athlete GU wants to recruit, and you can sell it to alumni, with the remainder of the schedule against a Marist, Davidson, or even a PL school or two to fill out the mix. Georgetown can continue to recruit as it does now, and its budget (comparable today to Brown) won’t require a massive uptick. The games are all along the school’s traditional Northeast corridor, and fans could expect annual games in places like New York, Boston, New Haven, Providence, and Philadelphia.

What does it buy the Ivies? An insurance policy against the decline of available Eastern opponents willing to compete at this level. Fewer competitive opponents raises the risk that the Ivies will be seen as less competitive and recruits could go elsewhere. A willing partner to support non-scholarship football, Ivy style, actually improves the brand.

Numerically speaking, it takes eight games out of the 24 from which the Ivy need to find suitable opponents from which to schedule, and against PL schools, that could easily become eight losses. If Princeton still wants to play Lafayette, that’s fine, but they may not have to get thumped by Colgate and Lehigh every year as a matter of course.

PL fans may scoff at this and say that Princeton will always play Lafayette and Lehigh and perhaps they might. But adding Georgetown gives the Tigers one more chance for a win than they’re likely to get from a 60-schoalrship PL team, one less scheduling agreement to renew, one more bit of certainty in a college football world where nothing seems too certain.

Without a supply of non-scholarship opponents in the East, the Ivies have to either add scholarship opponents, reach out to Pioneer League teams in the South and Midwest, or add unfamiliar Division II or Division III schools to make up the difference. Harvard hasn’t played a game west of Pennsylvania or south of Williamsburg, VA until this season since 1949—do they really want to play nationwide to fill its schedule? Georgetown is a name most Ivy fans understand as being a peer (though to their eyes, a lesser one), but certainly not a school to which the Ancient Eight would be embarrassed to schedule, and one where they have a fair shot at winning some years. The Ivy schools would each be guaranteed a trip to Washington every other year, and who knows, maybe this would be the impetus to do what the Patriot League could not—get the MSF built.

We’ll be talking amore about Ivy+1 next week, but consider this question—absent the Big East, what kind of schools would you like Georgetown associated with in football?

The rent at Patriot Place is going up $3 million a year. It’s time to look up the road.