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.