By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. —I've had a weekend to think about the first addition to the Patriot League since American University joined in 2000.
And the thought I keep coming back to is the following:
With the momentous decision on football scholarships happening in February, would any of you out there have put money on the result of that decision being the addition of Boston University?
I didn't think so.
I think that the more you think about the addition of the Terriers, the more questions arise.
By all accounts, the Terriers had the run of their old home, America East.
Boston University wanted to be in a conference with no football, and had no desire for their conference to sponsor a football championship, which is exactly how America East operated since they dropped the sport.
The decision by Boston University president John Silber to drop football in 1997, after a near 20-year crusade, now almost serves as a textbook as how not to drop an athletic program.
The Terriers' philosophy on football had ramifications, too, around America East.
When Delaware was interested in starting an America East football conference in the late 1990s, the conference leadership balked, fresh off of the Terriers' disbanding of of the sport.
And a potential merger between America East and the CAA was also scuttled in 2000 as well — and this archived piece from the Daily Press by Dave Fairbank from that time explains why:
Merger discussions involving the Colonial Athletic Association and the America East have migrated to the presidential level within the respective leagues as both weigh the interest in and possibilities of operating under one flag.
The primary issues that must be addressed, individually and collectively, are the desire to expand; the financial costs and logistics of scheduling and championships — what Hofstra AD Harry Royle called "the mathematics of competition"; and conference unity.
The CAA is cautious about expansion after its most recent plan blew up last spring. Richmond's sudden departure for the Atlantic 10 Conference torched a plan CAA commissioner Tom Yeager had put together for a 14-team league that included schools from the Southern Conference and America East and included football.
Football again figures in the equation between the CAA and America East, and the linchpin reportedly is Delaware. The Blue Hens are attractive because of their broad-based athletics program and location, which would get the CAA into more northern markets.
"Delaware has been a contact point for us quite a while, geographically and with football and because of their relationship with a number of our schools," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "No question they're a key player."
A number of the America East's northern schools are lukewarm to the idea of a full conference merger. The America East requires 75 percent approval (eight votes) to add members, so three nay votes would scuttle any merger.
While the results of the votes were not mentioned in the article, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see which three schools might be against a merger — three of the four basketball-only schools in America East.
At that time, those schools would have been Vermont, Hartford - and Boston University.
In the end — obviously — the CAA/America East merger never came to pass.
The net result was the movement of Delaware, Drexel, Towson, Northeastern and Hofstra to the CAA in all sports the following year. (And not just in football — lacrosse, too.)
This move allowed the CAA, ultimately, to take over sponsorship of the Atlantic 10 football conference, as Hofstra and Northeastern gave the CAA six of the football-playing schools.
But America East, with Boston University as its biggest member, held together — and held firm against football.
THE AMERICA EAST YEARS
When you look at the Terriers' stay in America East, actually, it's fairly difficult to see what didn't go their way.
Hockey? America East was interested in sponsoring it, but since BU was in the lucrative, independent hockey alliance Hockey East (along with fellow East-ers Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont), it was DOA.
Women's sports? Boston University has made it an honor of pride that they've adhered not only to the letter of Title IX, but the spirit as well, sponsoring every women's sport that America East offered.
Supporting this fact is the fact that BU took the last six commissioner's cups, given to the overall all-sports winners in the conference.
This was mentioned on the blog Unranked AE in terms of reviewing the Terriers' move to the Patriot League:
But is the school upgrading is sports department? BU has won its fair share of Commissioner’s Cups, so the school is looking for new challenges. For most sports, it looks like the competition is going to stay the same, maybe slightly higher in the PL. One area where the PL is much higher is lacrosse. With BU making it a varsity sport, lacrosse looks much more appealing in the PL, where they had two top 10 teams this season, and four in the top 25. Compare that to the highest ranked AE team, Stony Brook, at 35 (there are only 61 teams). Maybe BU is hoping lacrosse can be big and this gives it the best chance to do so.
This is one thesis for Boston University's move — lacrosse — that I'm having a hard time completely accepting.
Certainly Lacrosse is a "growing sport", and lacrosse has a passionate niche throughout the (let's just say it) richer, tonier, mostly private schools on the east coast.
It also happens that the Patriot League has risen to one of the top conferences in that sport nationally - if not quite the ACC, they're pretty darned close.
This isn't just idle speculation, as Athletic Business asked the question as to whether the sport of lacrosse was poised for an explosion nationally:
Whether the Michigan story inspires other football-playing schools to make the leap to Division I lacrosse remains to be seen, but the sport appears to be trending toward ever-greater expansion — if not an explosion. "For a large, prominent public institution like the University of Michigan to make that decision, to figure out a way to add a varsity men's lacrosse team, I think, certainly gives hope to some others," says Paul Krome, associate director of marketing and public relations for US Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body. "The Michigan brand carries great weight in the college athletics world. Well, now we get to see that brand in men's lacrosse."
Evidence points to a promising future for the college game — which, despite the existence of two professional leagues, is the highest-profile level of lacrosse played today, with 49 games carried by ESPN this season, up to four Ivy League men's games televised by NBC Sports Network beginning next season, and a Division I men's title game that has averaged more than 40,000 spectators since moving to NFL stadiums in 2003, placing it among the NCAA's top three championship events in terms of attendance.
Michigan was one of 16 colleges and universities (but the only Division I school) to add men's lacrosse this season, according to US Lacrosse. Women's programs were added at 14 schools. Next year, another 18 men's and 29 women's programs are scheduled to begin play. The so-called "fastest sport on two feet" enjoys particular traction at the Division III level, with 22 men's and 21 women's teams to be added between this year and next, fed by healthy participation numbers at the youth and high school levels. Youth lacrosse, the primary focus of US Lacrosse's advocacy, saw participation jump 11.3 percent among boys and girls from 2010 to 2011, while high school lacrosse participation grew by 8 percent. Collegiate lacrosse has grown steadily every year since 2006, from 26,651 men's and women's players to 33,929 in 2011, making it the NCAA's fastest-growing sport.
The Patriot League has been a beneficiary of this increase focus on lacrosse. As a part of its TV deal with CBS College Sports, regular-season men's lacrosse games, as well as coverage of the postseason tournament, were pointedly mentioned.
In a nutshell, in terms of "exposure" on TV (a term that I hate), the Patriot League has some in lacrosse that most conferences do not enjoy.
Using this logic, could lacrosse actually be a primary reason for other schools to move conferences as well?
If America East is on the brink of dissolving, one intriguing possibility, at least on a competitive level, is Maryland-Baltimore County.
Lacrosse rules at this school, and as Retriever Basketball Rally Monkey said back in 2005:
Should the America East be shaken up again as a ripple effect out of the Big Televen, President Freeman Hrabowski and Athletic Director Charles Brown will have a choice to make. What would be better? Being a lacrosse school in a league with other lacrosse schools from New York? Or should UMBC join other castoffs from other leagues in the Mid-Atlantic region? At this point, UMBC should act in a reactionary way. It wants to be in a lacrosse league, so conventional wisdom says stay, even if New England schools in the America East go their own way. At the same time, who knows what will be left when all of the conferences realign.
Those words seem eerily relevant today if America East does indeed blow apart. If Stony Brook leaves America East — as is hotly rumored — the Retrievers would have no shot at making the NCAA Tournament via America East lacrosse.
UMBC's academics in terms of average SAT scores are close to Fordham, a former all-sports Patriot League member.
If the Retrievers are willing to play ball with an academic index in oder to get top-flight lacrosse, would the Patriot League say no?
(While we're at it, if you add lacrosse independent Johns Hopkins to the party as well, givning the Patriot League ten powerful lacrosse schools, including three in the state of Maryland.)
Having said all that, let's not go overboard.
Lacrosse is not a revenue-generator, and it's not its purpose on Patriot League campuses. It's great that the Patriot League goes toe-to-toe with a deep-money conference like the ACC in this sport, but it's in no way going to balance any athletic budgets. If anything, these budgets might go up — significantly.
More to the point, though, is lacrosse really the main reason for Boston University to leave their ancestral home?
Schools don't jump conferences every other year for a reason — moves are fraught with risk, and most college presidents are not known to be biggest of risk-takers.
And to me, I'm still having a hard time seeing a non-revenue sport with expenses set to soar even higher running the show in their decision.
Certainly, you can look at Boston University's travel budget in America East and make the case that expenses won't rise too much moving from there to the Patriot League.
Instead of chartered flights to Maine, it's chartered flights to Maryland — you can sub out one with the other. Most are still bus trips.
But you can look at it another way. What is the Patriot League offering in value, aside from lacrosse, that America East is not?
Certainly you can point at Bucknell's and Lehigh's recent men's basketball success as value for the "other" BU, Boston University.
But realistically, though, the Patriot League is still a one-bid league to the NCAA Tournament, and the Terriers' inclusion doesn't change that at all. On the Boston University side of the ledger, the Patriot League perhaps keeps them out of the First Four, but that's about it.
What the Patriot League seems to offer the most to BU is stability.
“The Patriot League presents an opportunity to go someplace that’s extremely stable with brand-name institutions,” Terrier athletic director Mike Lynch told the Boston Globe last Friday.
The outside perception seems to be that the core schools that have joined the Patriot League have essentially stayed in the Patriot League.
Bucknell, Holy Cross, Colgate, Lehigh, Lafayette, Army and Navy have been there for the last 25 years. American has been there 10. (Even Fordham, who left full membership over a mutiny over men's basketball scholarships, still thinks highly enough of the place to stay involved in football only.)
Having said that, the Patriot League family is hardly as homogeneous as outsiders believe.
The issue of football scholarships almost broke the league apart and you can't count on the fact that those ideological rifts may still be simmering below the surface.
But compared to America East, the issues seem mild.
Stony Brook already offers 63 football scholarships, and Albany seems to want to sponsor football at a level higher than the maximum football scholarship level of 40 allowed them by the NEC:
UAlbany football coach Bob Ford said he could foresee the Great Danes moving into a full-scholarship FCS league such as the Colonial Athletic Association, or even the America East, should that conference decide to sponsor football.
“Yeah, possibly,” he said. “I think the America East, there’s been talk about that conference adding football. I’m not sure if it’ll happen or when it’ll happen. But I think that’s where this institution belongs, with the (full-scholarship) Delawares and the UMasses, and the New Hampshires and the Maines. That’s where we belong.”
The drumbeat of football in the halls of America East got louder this past season when all four America East teams that compete in other divisions, Albany, Stony Brook, Maine, and New Hampshire, made the FCS Playoffs.
Some think that America East football — you remember, the league that Delaware wanted back in 2000 — might be a very good idea.
Just add Central Connecticut State, Bryant, and, say Rhode Island as an associate member in football only, and suddenly you have a compact, New England-based conference with four playoff teams from last year.
But with Boston University gone — and that 75% rule still in place — six out of eight members would still need to say "yes" to approve any membership changes due to football.
That still gives three non-football schools - Vermont, Binghamton, Hartford, or UMBC - veto power to adding football.
Is that threat enough for all four football-playing schools to break free? Possibly.
The CAA, one of the top FCS football conferences, is looking for new members to replace Old Dominion and Georgia State.
The four America East schools who sponsor FCS football could fit the bill in multiple sports, and they could also be very tempted by a TV deal with NBC Sports that blows away the TV contract of America East.
It would be easy for New Hampshire and Maine, already in the CAA for football, to flip from America East to the CAA.
And if the CAA adds Albany and Stony Brook in all sports, they get two more football schools that are part of the New York State system, along with fairly decent hoops, lacrosse, and baseball programs. (Stony Brook just recently qualified for the College World Series, and was America East's representative in the men's tournament for lacrosse.)
Here's another interesting observation from the Bangor Daily News regarding the Black Bears' place in America East:
Barring the addition of new schools in the meantime, BU’s departure means UMaine teams will have only one league opponent (UNH) located less than a five-hour drive from Orono starting with the 2013-14 season. And the Wildcats do not sponsor baseball, which makes the five-plus-hour trip to Hartford the Black Bears’ nearest conference competitor.
Interestingly, Maine would add a shorter trip along with New Hampshire if they were to join the CAA in all sports: Northeastern. And Albany, Stony Brook and Hofstra, are all doable trips, relatively speaking.
All four would have to deal with a bigger travel bill, but perhaps a CAA takeover involving divisional play in basketball and Olympic sports might mitigate some of that for all the schools. And it's not like trips to UMBC were not all that easy.
And there's historic precedent. They've been the landing point for America East programs before in 2000 — when Delaware wanted America East football, and Boston University, among others, said "no".
There might be reasons why the CAA might not choose to go down this route - travel costs, the southern schools still in the conference like UNC-Wilmington may not approve, basketball strength. Certainly there are better schools, hoops-wise, that the school could target.
But whatever might happen, it seems clear that there's a clear line of demarcation between the two factions remaining in America East, and that line is football.
Football will either bring the America East together, or tear it apart.
LOOKING FOR REASONS
Whether BU left America East to upgrade lacrosse or to get away from a messy situation in America East concerning football, the irony-o-meter goes off the charts when you think about it.
Whether the Terriers are leaving for lacrosse, or moving for "stability", a gigantic reason for that instability is the very action that Boston University endorsed, in terms of sponsoring football.
The Terriers almost certainly vetoed the CAA/America East merger — that saw the top football and lacrosse teams in America East leave for the CAA, either of which might have stabilized America East membership today.
But it goes back to the reason. Why leave? And, why now?
It seems like there are two possibilities: that lacrosse is big enough a reason to move, or that America East is on the brink of falling apart over a rift regarding football.
Which is it?