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.