By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — In every place in America that I’ve lived, there’s been evidence of the times of the American revolutionary war.
Close by, in some form or another, I’ve been amongst 18th-century farmhouses and ancient taverns where George Washingon, Ben Franklin or John Adams might have sipped madeira or stayed the night.
I’ve visited 12 of the original 13 colonies (South Carolina is the only one that has evaded me). I’ve been to Boston, the epicenter of civil disobedience against the British, and live near Philadelphia, where the founding fathers made a functioning government amidst the chaos around them that still, to this day, serves as an example worldwide.
The theme of revolution seems to be apropos to the collegiate realignment maelstrom that continues to swirl through collegiate athletics as we speak, making ridiculous ideas like Boise State in the Big East and Pitt in the ACC seem somewhat justifiable in the face of all logic.
In such an environment, could there be a way to protect Eastern scholarship programs from the gale?
If there is, it will require out-of-the-box thinking and consideration of ideas that once seemed foolish. In short, it requires revolutionary thinking – and, perhaps, even a new conference alliance.
Lately, I’ve been imagining the situations some of those English farmers as the actions of the British became ever more punitive and more destrictive.
Did they try to concentrate on their crops, willfully denying the chaos around them? Did they take up arms? Did they declare their loyalties to the British or the Revolutions? Or did they become politically active in trying to create solutions?
Probably, in reality, some combination of all of these motivated those colonial farmers during this time.
While there’s a whole lot less at stake in collegiate athletics realignment than the founding of a new nation, the current NCAA landscape certainly is chaotic, especially in terms of Eastern FCS football.
Over the course of a six-week period, Old Dominion went from being completely comfortable in the Colonial Athletic Association to joining Conference USA and upgrading their program to FBS, a move that has shaken the CAA to its core.
That comes in conjunction with the long-awaited transition of Rhode Island to NEC-level football coming in 2013, UMass leaving the CAA to play FBS football in the MAC this year, and Georgia State departing this season to play low-level FBS ball in the Sun Belt.
(At least this time around there haven’t been any CAA programs that have unexpectedly dropped football, like Hofstra and Northeastern did in 2009.)
Even with all this change, does that mean on the football side, the CAA is in trouble? Hardly.
The remaining eight members include four recent FCS national champions in Delaware, Villanova, Richmond and James Madison, and the other four have all been in the playoffs in the past decade. Competitvely, there’s no question about the solidity of the eight programs there now.
But clearly, in this landscape, there is strength in numbers. It seems that you can wake up one day and see, thanks to “industry sources”, see three of your teams rumored to depart.
The CAA continues to be in a good position now for the very reason that they had a large inventory of teams and could survive a raid.
It was my observation of the situation in the CAA that finally made me realize that my thinking about the collegiate conference landscape had to change – that I couldn’t work on my crops in denial anymore.
I’ve been on the record before as saying that 12, 14, or 16-team “mega-conferences”, especially at the FCS level, made no sense, since there can be no championship game if those conferences wish to participate in the playoffs.
In my opinion, there is still nothing more anticlimactic than determining a conference champion via a tiebreaker, and in large conferences it’s a virtual certainty that this would be the case.
But with the new uncertainty around college athletics, maybe it’s time to think in a new way about things – something revolutionary.
What if Tom Yeager, the commissioner of the CAA, and Carolyn Schlie Femovich, the executive director of the Patriot League, formed a football alliance?
The CAA, with eight members, and the Patriot League, with seven members, currently have good things going in football.
But in this new world they also are one school away from the risk of disbanding as well.
An alliance between the two conferences would create a 15-team football alliance of teams.
Add Stony Brook, a football-only member of the Big South, and you have a 16-team conference with North and South divisions.
William & Mary
Such a large league would be a strong buffer against any more realignment uncertainty.
Competitively, it can’t be beat in terms of Northeastern football, holding all the elite teams under one umbrella.
But just as importantly, it can’t be beat geographically, either.
Suddenly, every single divisional game is a bus trip, not a charter flight.
There’s more to be excited about as well.
Four of the best, historic rivalries at the FCS level would be contained in this Revolution Football Alliance – Lehigh/Lafayette, Maine/New Hampshire, Delaware/Villanova, and Richmond/William & Mary.
It’s also not hard to envision Fordham/Stony Brook blossoming into a strong rivalry, either, nor any of the other Southern combinations.
I’ve got to believe these rivalries would be something that NBC Sports Network might be very, very interested in.
With such a large conference comes new logistical problems – but these problesm have potential solutions.
The Patriot League is immensely proud of its Academic Index, or AI, to ensure that its athletes are representative of the rest of the class.
Could the model be extended to the rest of the CAA? Or could it be modified to simply be a floor under which schools could not recruit, for football only?
I’ve got to believe that it could.
Then there’s the problem of the championship. How do you determine a conference champion at the FCS level?
Oddly enough, that solution could be easier than you might think.
In a 16-team conference, schools can design 10-game football schedules with the final week open – three out-of-conference games and seven divisional games.
The final week could be the “cross-division” slate of games, where 1st place on the North plays 1st place in the South, 2nd place plays 2nd place, and so on.
A tiebreaker could be devised to determine who is home and who is away.
That ensures a clean conference champion – and also could provide some mouth-watering matchups in terms of qualifying for the FCS playoffs as well.
Imagine, if you’re a Lafayette fan, a chance to run the table in the Northern division of this league – and then hosting James Madison the week before the playoffs.
Or if you’re a Maine fan, hosting Delaware in a third-placed matchup, with a likely playoff bid on the line.
Again, that’s got to be something that is exciting for the folks at NBC Sports Network as well as FCS fans, who would suddenly have not only fantastic rivalries but a large number of playoff-implication games the final week of the season.
Remember, too, this also still allows three out-of-conference games for all schools in an 11-game regular season, which means teams can still schedule FBS games or other rivalry games with schools in other conferences.
The only hangup might be: would teams be willing to move their rivalry games to Week 10 of the regular season in order to do this?
Before this year, I would have argued – quite emphatically – “no”.
But isn’t it time for some revolutionary thinking on this matter?
I’m starting to think the excitement this would generate – and the safety this would give the football schools – would outweigh the hassle of moving the games.
At the FCS level, wouldn’t this situation be awfully hard to beat – eight conference games, seven guaranteed conference games within busing distance, the strongest TV contract in all of FCS, the best competition, the best rivalries?
Might this be something that CAA commissioner Tom Yeager and Patriot League executive director Carolyn Schlie Femovich be discussing?
If not, they should be.