By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
Nobody outside of the inner circle saw this one coming.
With most dimestore pundits (including this one) thinking that Boston University might be a target of the CAA’s effort to solve their current woes, Boston University president Robert A. Brown and the eight presidents of the Patriot League pulled the trigger on a shocker of a conference move.
It’s a move that was years in the making — yet proceeded at the speed of the winds of rapid change that are coarsing through collegiate athletics.
It’s a move that doesn’t make immediate sense — but makes perfect sense, the more you look at it.
But more than anything, the move, which will take place on July 1st, 2013, is a throwback to how conference expansion used to be.
It was an inauspicious press release from the Patriot League offices in Center Valley, PA that announced the first new member to join the League in all sports since American did so in 2000.
The release started with “Boston University has formally accepted an invitation to join the Patriot League on July 1, 2013, for the 2013-14 academic year, Daniel H. Weiss, Chair of the Patriot League’s Council of Presidents and President of Lafayette College announced Friday.”
Not content with simply making news in February with their decision to allow schools to offer full scholarships in football, the Patriot League decided to announce their second piece of jaw-dropping news in the matter of four months.
The pieces all fell together in a timely way, and it’s a great opportunity for the Patriot League and Boston University,” said Patriot League executive director Carolyn Schlie Femovich. “We’ve got a new partner. They are a great match on a number of fronts.”
When I talked to Boston University athletic director Mike Lynch about the surprise of the announcement, he simply responded, “Good! We like to keep things like that private.”
Keeping things private isn’t the only thing that Boston University and the other presidents of the Patriot League have in common.
When you look at the roster of 24 sports sponsored by the Patriot League, the Terriers currently field teams in 19 of them.
The ones that the Terriers sponsor but the Patriot League does not — wrestling, and men’s and women’s hockey — are firmly placed in CAA wrestling and Hockey East respectively.
And when Boston University starts their men’s lacrosse program, the number of sports playing in Patriot League competitions would jump up to 20.
“We know football is a big piece of their history, but we know that lacrosse is a big piece of their future,” Lynch told the Boston Globe. “That’s more of what we were attracted to,” adding to me that the Terriers were attracted to the Patriot League’s strength in lacrosse.
“American does not play lacrosse, so getting Boston University gets us to an even eight in that sport,” Femovich added.
The Terriers also add to the Patriot League’s strength in mid-major hoops as well.
The league that the Terriers are leaving, America East, finished 29th in terms of Real Time RPI in regards to men’s basketball, while the Patriot League clocked in at 23rd.
While the addition of BU (RPI 190 last year) won’t suddenly make the Patriot League into an at-large bid basketball conference, based on last year’s RPI number plus BU they’d have finished well over their closest competition, the SoCon, and would have inched closer to the leagues that they trailed: the OVC and Atlantic Sun.
More importantly than the addition to the large number of sports, however, Boston University’s consistent attention to academics. Academically, there is no question they are a perfect fit in that area.
“We believe that the philosophy of the league is a good match for Boston University and that the schools in the league will give our athletes a rich competitive environment,” President Brown said in the release.
While also mentioning the academic connection between all the Patriot League institution, Femovich also emphasized what Boston University brings to the table in women’s athletics as well.
“Their women’s lacrosse and field hockey programs are particularly strong, and if you look at their success over the years, that will help complement and strengthen us on the women’s side of the house too,” she said.
Like everything in terms of collegiate realignment these days, things came together quickly.
It’s “something that evolved over the past few months” among the presidents , according to Lynch, in regards to the “evolving collegiate landscape”.
“There had been some interest at the presidential level a couple of years back,” Femovich told me. “For a variety of reasons, it wasn’t the right time or place to consider a partnership. But we left it on the table, awaiting the results of the discussions on football scholarships.
“As much as it may not seem connected,” she continued, “we definitely wanted to address the football question, and then see what opportunities that presented for membership. We felt it was important for the league to decide our future direction.”
Boston University has not sponsored football since it noisily discontinued its program in 1997, and when I gently brought up the idea to Lynch, he said that bringing back football “unequivocally is not in our plans.”
“Sometimes opportunities present themselves, but not in the sequence and the timing you expect them,” Femovich added. “We certainly would not make a decision because we felt like we needed to get on this bandwagon of conference realignment. But the timing seemed right.”
Not only was the timing right, but it seemed to be made for the right reasons as well on both sides.
Remember when conferences expanded because they shared the same philosophies, not because they appeared in apposite media markets? That they gazed together, for the most part, in the same direction when they looked towards the future, and that future wasn’t solely based on dollar signs?
It’s not like Boston University doesn’t care about athletics. But like the other full members of the Patriot League, it seems like they value athletics in proper perspective.
In this way, the move by both sides seems like a throwback to a different time.
In terms of travel costs, it’s not that much different for Boston University than before. An extra trip to Boston isn’t undue hardship on the existing membership, while the Terriers will be trading bus trips to Orono, Maine for trips to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
The addition of the Boston market is also beneificial in recruiting and media markets.
When you look at the fit between the Patriot League and Boston University, the sports they sponsor and their visions of academics and athletics, you start to ask yourself a different question.
Why didn’t this happen earlier?