Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Faith No More

For some of the concerns raised on these pages about the struggles Georgetown has to overcome via recruiting and on-field performance, let's put it in perspective.

Most, if not all the problems the Hoyas face in attracting winning talent are self-inflicted, or more accurately, self-selective. A name like still Georgetown opens doors, but GU still chooses to turn away a lot of students (and opponents) for academic reasons.  For other schools, it's a tougher sell.

Southern Utah, Indiana State, VMI-- tough places to sell, tougher places to win. But I've always admired those schools who struggle and fight for what they have, and one of those is St. Francis University, Georgetown's opponent for week one.  Situated in a rural, hardscrabble county of Pennsylvania that's been shedding population since the 1910 Census, you don't see monuments looking out your dorm room at St. Francis.

St. Francis is one of a dozen or so Eastern schools who, liked Georgetown, dropped football in the 1950's and reenergized its program in the club and Division III ranks. It has never been an easy sell to play in central Pennsylvania. SFU has not had a single winning season in I-AA, having posted an 8-3 record as a Division III  team in 1992. Three straight 5-6 seasons have the school on the verge of a winning season and a possible autobid to the NCAA plyoffs, but they have stumbled twice in the last two seasons trying to get there. This year's schedule hopes to change that, and not in a good way.

About those stumbles. While St. Francis isn't particularly competitive for admission (13% have critical reading SAT scores above 600), 72 percent graduate within six years, a respectable number. Not so for football, where the school's Academic Performance Rating dropped low enough that the NCAA banned the Red Flash from the 2014 playoffs, never mind that aforementioned run of losing seasons.

"While I am disappointed with the fact that our football program did not meet the APR standard for 2012-13, I am convinced that Saint Francis has addressed the factors that led to this situation and we are aggressively moving forward to enhance the educational experience for all of our student-athletes," said athletic director Bob Krimmel.

""What's most disappointing is that we're not talking about some national powerhouse here, a program that lets academic standards slide in pursuit of a championship," wrote Cory Giger at the Altoona Mirror.  "But this is St. Francis we're talking about. There shouldn't be any delusions of grandeur about the program's place in college football, and the university should never let its standards slip to this level. Not to win a couple of more games, not for any reason."

Academic failures are one thing, but the Frankies followed it up with something even less forgiving.

"On April 8, 2013, an anonymous source contacted the NCAA enforcement staff by telephone and made allegations of NCAA rules violations in the institution's football program. The source reported that an assistant football coach provided cash to four football student-athletes and that a different assistant football coach communicated with prospective student-athletes on an electronic public forum." That announcement from the NCAA was not about Alabama or Ohio State, but of all places, St. Francis. This St. Francis.

"The head coach violated well-known rules regarding impermissible benefits when he arranged for student-athletes and one of the student-athletes' mothers to receive lodging, meals and transportation from the representative," said the committee on infractions. "His actions violated the principles of ethical conduct. Further, the head coach failed to promote an atmosphere for compliance in his program when he did not require his staff to participate in NCAA rules education and did not monitor three of his assistant coaches. Finally, the head coach engaged in impermissible recruiting activities." And so its head coach, Chris Villerial, was placed on a two year "show-cause" status with the NCAA.

For 2015, there will be no APR slip-ups and no NCAA issues. But the Frankies are tapping deep in the competitive pool for two teams to get them over .500.

The first is East Tennessee State, a respectable I-AA program that dropped football in 2003 and is bringing it back in 2015. Its schedule is that of a I-AA team that's not going to be competitive right away; Maryville College, Warner University,  Emory & Henry. It's a chance for St. Francis to pick up a quick win before the Bucs get stronger via the scholarship route.

The second opponent is a team that, frankly, no self-respecting I-AA program should play. The team is called the University of Faith, and to explain the story of this quasi-educational endeavor is a column all its own. The various Faith franchises out there are just that--they are barnstorming teams who claim to be from Bible colleges where none physically exist.

The school's web site (using a free site by lists a post box as its address, and a Gmail address for contact information. The site includes this disclaimer: "The Director of the Florida Department of Higher Education has determined that University of Faith does not offer degree programs customarily offered at colleges and universities and has issued an Exemption from Certification.

So what's going on here?

The Tampa Bay Times did a story on the Glory Eagles in 2014."The players were a ragtag group. None of them paid any tuition. Some were just out of high school, some were pushing 30, some were enrolled at community colleges as well. More than a few possessed records of addiction and violence, incivility and disobedience. For some, this was a second chance; for most, it was the only chance.

"[Coach] Givins said he had helped three of them get GEDs so they could go to college. [A coach in ]  Memphis, not Givins in St. Petersburg, was overseeing the classes, which players described as not that difficult. Said wide receiver John Banks, 25, sporting some flecks of gray in his goatee: "Read the lesson, go through the work and that's pretty much it." Or not even that. "You got a lot of them who do their work, and you got a lot of them who don't," Thomas said, "just like any other college."

Outside some games against fellow "Faith" colleges, the U. of F. has not defeated any NCAA or NAIA opponent since its founding circa 2012. A running topic on Reddit outlined the story and asked: "Are they diploma mills that take advantage of kids who want to play college ball but simply can't elsewhere? Are [players] colluding with the school (being paid) or, worse, being taken advantage because they are desperate for a chance to make in in college ball but will have no chance under their programs, academically or athletically? Or is it possible that the idea of slapping a rudimentary online school onto a football team has created a school that means well but is, in practice, a sham?"

This year's schedule UOF schedule contains two I-AA opponents and a mix of Division III, NAIA, and club teams. Edward Waters College, an NAIA school, opened its season on August 15 with a 76-7 win over Faith.  Week 2 of the Faith Season: a 55-15 loss to Southeastern University of Lakeland, Florida. So how will they fare against a 40 scholarship team in the Northeast Conference?

We know. They know, too.

The NCAA took note of these mismatches over the summer, declaring University of Faith among 32 schools as uncountable in official records. St. Francis may be counting them on the road to .500, but the NCAA won't.

While St. Francis kept the game on its schedule, the aforementioned East Tennessee State cut them loose, scheduling a tougher game with Div. II Kentucky Wesleyan instead.

"With the NCAA’s decision regarding statistics for these 32 schools, several programs like our own were searching for new opponents,” said ETSU Senior Associate AD Scott Carter. “We were fortunate to work something out with Kentucky Wesleyan and we are pleased to welcome them to Johnson City for our game on Nov. 21."

Academics. Probation. Scheduling. It's been a rough two years in Cambria County, and maybe 2015 is finally the year of the Red Flash, after all. But a school like this should aim higher than University of Faith to earn a deserved winning record.

What's that quote again? "But this is St. Francis we're talking about. There shouldn't be any delusions of grandeur about the program's place in college football, and the university should never let its standards slip to this level.

"Not to win a couple of more games, not for any reason."