Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Price Of Progress

Press releases. Videos. Online chats with the coaches. A corporate sponsor. No, this isn't Tuscaloosa or State College, but Easton, PA.

Welcome to "Lafayette Football National Signing Day, Presented By Coke Zero".

And welcome to Patriot League scholarship football.

This is the day that six PL coaches have awaited since last February, when six league presidents (and one notable dissent) opened the door for scholarship football for the land of what was once "The Last Amateurs". Much like its I-A brethren, the quotes from the coaches sell the day as "the best class ever", a veritable Lake Woebegone of talent ("where everyone is above average".)

"The decision of the Patriot League to offer merit aid scholarships made recruiting different in that it simplified the process for certain families," said Bucknell coach Joe Susan. "Our ability to attract the best and the brightest has always been the focal point of our recruiting and that continued this year. The challenge of recruiting young men who can balance the requirements of a rigorous undergraduate education with playing Division I football is what is rewarding about this process."

"[Scholarships] enabled us to go after a Division I player or a Division I-AA scholarship player who maybe, financially, you weren't able to go after,” said Dick Biddle at Colgate.

Lehigh's Andy Coen told the Easton Express-Times that "Really as you look at where we’ve been in the playoffs two of last three years, the big differences for us and where we’ve lost it at North Dakota (24-0) and Delaware (42-20) has been at the line of scrimmage. For us to be able to recruit [300 lb.] kids I think are that level of linemen is real important.”

And back at Lafayette, Frank Tavani is still catching a break from this schedule of activities, all of which were streamed online:

11 a.m. Chat Room with Head Coach Frank Tavani
12 p.m. LIVE from Bourger Varsity Football House
1 p.m. - LSN team breaks down commitment film
2 p.m. - LSN team breaks down commitment film
3 p.m. - Offensive Coordinator Mickey Fein
4 p.m. - Defensive Coordinator John Loose
5 p.m. - Director of Admissions, Matthew Hyde
5:30 p.m. - The Wrap-Up Show, presented by Coke Zero
6:15 p.m. - Coach Tavani live on ESPN Radio of the Lehigh Valley (1230 and 1320 AM)

"We have access to student-athletes that are being recruited heavily by the Ivy League and the Colonial Athletic Association," Tavani told an online chat. "The other thing that's a huge difference is that the pool has just expanded by making middle class America available...We were able to make a significant impact, particularly with those families with low to no financial need."

"We are working on getting Army and Navy back on the schedule as well as Delaware, Villanova and possibly at Rutgers," he added, though Tavani knows that none of that will matter if Lafayette can't turn it around versus the Engineers in November.

All in all, lots of fun for these schools. So how much does all this cost?

About $900,000.

No, not for the online chats and the videos, but the cost to offer these 15 scholarships (in whatever combination of full and partial grants the schools choose) will cost the six schools $900,000 per school, a combined total of just under $5.4 million. And just for this year. Next year, another $900,000 per school. And the next year. And so on, and so on.

(And now you remember why Jack DeGioia wasn't on board.)

Yes, these schools are paying a price to compete with Delaware as well as Dartmouth, Youngstown State as well as Yale.The $4 million-plus budgets which these six schools will move to in football (and most are already there, with Fordham and Colgate nearing $5 million) are more than Georgetown spends on any of 28 different sports, one obvious team excepted. Put another way, the $900,000 in first year scholarships could fund a range of Georgetown teams from tennis and golf to swimming and softball.

So why do they do it? In part, the lure of competition and the dread that the PL is becoming irrelevant in football drives the discussion; others, mindful of the threats Fordham made that it would leave the league without it, is a sense of self-preservation. Of 125-odd Division I teams, 104 offer scholarships just like Colgate, Lehigh, et al. In a way that is academically palatable to the schools, it raises the playing field for a sport that is the "bread and butter" program at these six schools.

Just 21 non-scholarship schools remain nationally, and just ten in the East: eight Ivies, Marist, and Georgetown. Which raises a variety of questions, but for today, three:

1. What was the impact to Georgetown in its recruiting effort? No coach is going to undersell his list, but it's likely Georgetown got the worst of it this year. Not all recruits are online just yet, but there are numerous articles about how someone chose school X "over Georgetown". Happens all the time, of course, but it's more visible this year because of need.

The "low need" recruit (academic parlance for what used to be called "wealthy")  can now go to Bucknell or Colgate without paying a dime. At many of the Ivies, tuition is capped at 10% of cost for households under $200,000, meaning an offer for Princeton or Harvard is no more than $20,000 a year for a family who might have paid twice that for a prep or boarding school.  Georgetown can't match either.

The "medium need" recruit who was formerly expected to pay half of his tuition to play PL football also can get a free ride at Lehigh or Holy Cross, and if an Ivy offer is forthcoming, the 10% rule could provide a family with a $60,000 household income a bargain at $6,000 a year, while three Ivies will simply cover the cost with an outright grant. Anywhere else, it's called a full scholarship. At Georgetown, expect to pay $30,000.

The "high need" recruit is likely to get a favorable offer no matter where he goes. Fordham or Lafayette makes it simple: you're in. The Ivies, in. Georgetown can offer full need but it's a mix of grant, loan, and work study unless that's bought out. In this cohort, Georgetown wins some, loses others, just like it always does. But for those 50% of families making more than the national average of $45,000 a year, the idea of paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend Georgeotwn just got as little more difficult to justify, especially when Bucknell or lehigh or Holy Cross can tell that same recruit "you don't have to pay here."

2. What is the impact to Georgetown in its recruiting effort going forward? There's a learning curve in college recruiting in any sport, both for the school and for the recruit. The coaches that went through this first round learned a little more about what to do, and what not to do. Next year's recruits will know a little more about which PL schools are recruiting with schoalrships and which one is not. I have to believe more than a few recruits and their parents asked coaches Kelly, Sgarlata et al.: "Do you offer scholarships?" University philosophy notwithstanding, it's not easy to convey to a parent whose son may be very interested in attending  an inconvenient truth: we can't afford to give your son a free ride. Unfortunately, others do..and others will.

3. What is the competitive impact to Georgetown going forward? Ship, meet iceberg. This was the year the Hoya program felt the "bump". But of course, the damage follows.
True, you don't absolutely need scholarships to compete (hey, they beat Howard, right?) and Georgetown held its own with a 40 scholarship program at Wagner and a talented Ivy program at Princeton last year. But for fans in 2009 who saw the Hoyas stare across the lines at Richmond or Old Dominion and quickly lose hope, bear in mind that in three more years, Bucknell, Colgate, Fordham, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh will be at or near the same scholarship levels enjoyed by those two schools during the Hoyas 0-11 season. And while nothing's set in stone, if these schools are recruiting the same level of kids Richmond does, the results will play out on the field.

Yes, not every scholarship recruit meets expectations. Colgate is proud of signing five two-star recruits this year, and Georgetown fans know well that two-stars does not dennote, well, stars. In the Kelly era, Georgetown signed ten Rivals two-star recruits, and only one (QB/TE Tucker Stafford) played more than two seasons. Three of the last four (Conor Randall, Andrew Sachais, Joe Rosenblatt) played a total of four games combined over one season each. None of the ten were All-Patriot League.

But a better level of recruit does, in time, pay off on the field, regardless of sport. Where was Georgetown soccer when it was a non-scholarship team? Where is it now as a full scholarship team? Even with its own meager facilities, even with a budget far more modest than Big 10 or SEC or ACC schools of a similar bent, Georgetown became a national power this past year, because the best kids had the ways and the means to attend the Hilltop. And when it comes to football, the kids that have the grades and the talent are increasingly going to be wearing maroon and purple and brown instead of blue and gray.

And what happened to those games with Old Dominion and Richmond? One four year series with Georgetown cancelled after one season, another after two. (Richmond's two wins over Georgetown were by a combined 97-10). Guess what? Colgate thinks it can now compete with Richmond for recruits. Lehigh wants an offensive line that looks more like North Dakota State. Lafayette plans to play Army and Rutgers, not just Davidson and Wagner. No one is coming to Holy Cross asking why it's stadium isn't getting built.

Last year, I wrote this about the coming storm over scholarships:

"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."

"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."

Perception may not be reality, but in recruiting, it's the next best thing.