The Richmond Spiders’ Patriot League Tale, Part Two: The CFA Splits College Football, And Splits Two Rivals

(This is Part Two of my series detailing the Richmond Spiders’ journey to the Patriot League. You can read part one here, which describes Richmond’s decision to leave the SoCon shortly after the NCAA split into Divisions I, II, and III.)

BETHLEHEM, PA – In 1977, all the major sportswriters at the time could only agree on one thing: Without major action, collegiate sports would be finished.

Just five years prior, the NCAA’s membership took a loosely structured set of conferences and associations and started to restructure and sort them into divisions.

The effort was led by the so-called “major” college programs, trying to impose their will on the rest of the NCAA’s membership, in part to try to clean up messes that had been created about football scholarship rules and GPA requirements.

Dating back to the Sanity Code of 1948, the establishment of athletic scholarships was a problem that never was really solved. Some schools decided that scholarship inducements were just fine – especially those who were making quite a bit of money from the sport – while others shunned scholarships altogether, thinking (not without reason) that the whole scholarship system was a corruption problem. More often schools fell somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

While the rules for each divisions were not codified completely, broadly speaking the schools self-selected into the divisions in which they wished to compete. While the larger schools were successful in creating the divisions they alone wanted, they were unsuccessful in getting reorganization in the form they wanted.

Division III was created by a breakaway faction of mostly smaller, private colleges that wished to compete without scholarships, but under the umbrella of the NCAA.

Division II was the next evolution of what “College Division” had been in the NCAA since the 1950s. They were the group of smaller schools, mostly at that time public schools that still wanted to offer athletic scholarships, under the umbrella of the NCAA. The NCAA created and organized their own basketball tournament to determine the Division II National Champions.

And Division I was everyone else. It encompassed massive state institutions which sponsored many sports (e.g. Texas or LSU), small sectarian schools with religion-affiliated education that had football teams (Villanova, Holy Cross), schools that wanted to field championship-level basketball teams but didn’t want to field football teams any higher than club level (Marquette, Xavier), globally prestigious private academic institutions (the Ivy League), schools that were academic and athletic powerhouses (the Big 10), and pretty much every type of school in between.

The larger schools were eager to create rules and limits for football scholarships, but a very significant faction of schools thought the better (or perhaps only) solution was to ban them altogether.

People don’t remember a key fact – there was no real definition as to what a “Division I”, “Division II”, and “Division III” school was at first.

Officially, the divisions of the NCAA were supposed to be self-selecting – the only schools that had automatic admission were the “major football schools” to Division I. Schools were supposed to select where they felt they belonged, and then later, the criteria for membership was to be created.

And then officially, inside Division I, a cartel of schools formed. It was a cartel whose formation was years in the making, hinted at for decades.

It happened because the members of sixty or so schools and conferences, the richest schools and conferences of the NCAA, wanted more, wanted to stifle dissent, and didn’t want to share with the entire membership.

Richmond, and their Rivals, William & Mary, were medium sized schools in medium sized markets with successful programs for their size and ambitions.

Thanks to an entity called the “College Football Association”, or CFA, Richmond and William & Mary’s world was about to tear apart.

Before 1978, they, and countless other football-playing schools, were muddling along in a world that had divisions, and for the most part were okay. They had no want or desire to divide into subdivisions.

The CFA ruined all of it.

The College Football Association

The CFA, or College Football Association, was a group of 60 Division I programs that includes “all major college football independents at conferences except the Big 10 and Pac 8,” an Associated Press article said on June 18th, 1978.

This was not true.

Richmond and William & Mary, five years prior, self-classified as Division I schools, playing “major college” football. Per the rules at that time, they were automatically Division I schools, along with independent football schools like Colgate, Rutgers and Syracuse. Unlike many others, they didn’t have to choose Divisions. They were in Division I, where they felt they belonged.

They played football in Division I against Division I schools. They had both even played in bowl games during the past decade. When it looked like the SoCon might be reclassified to Division II, the conference where Richmond and William & Mary had been members since 1936, they chose to leave and compete as Division I football independents, leaving no doubt as to their desires about Division I status.

But mysteriously, as the CFA formed, the adjective “major” in front of “college” appeared when it was described in the press. In the press’ eyes, and the CFA’s eyes, Richmond and William & Mary were not considered “major college”.

“Yesterday morning,” the AP article continued, “the group [the CFA] met as a body and voted to sponsor the following… to seek again (emphasis added) a restructuring of the NCAA Division I football membership, in effect to separate CFA schools from smaller programs.”

The use of the word “again” gave away the fact that the CFA were already a block of schools that were banding together well before 1978. In fact, even before the CFA was formed, before the schools had split into divisions, many of these schools were linked together as a voting bloc in the NCAA.

To be fair, the way the voting structure was in the NCAA made it difficult for anything but broad-based rules to pass. Before divisions, schools that had to vote on matters of athletic scholarships had to pass their legislation with schools who didn’t offer scholarships at all.

But that understates one of the very important goals of the CFA – an effort to create a super-conference of schools, an idea that had been around ever since the NCAA had taken control of college football TV broadcasting rights in 1952.

There is a direct line from the CFA to TV.

“They date back to a meeting [in 1975] at Salashan Lodge in Glen Eden Beach, Ore.”, John Feinstein wrote in The Washington Post back in 1981. “There, commissioners from seven conferences – the Atlantic Coast; the Southeast; the Southwest; the Big Eight; the Western Athletic; the Big Ten and the Pac-10 — gathered to discuss their frustrations with the so-called ‘Robin Hood amendments’ being proposed to the NCAA.”

Calling them ‘The Robin Hood Amendments’ was meant pejoratively.

Proposed by President Dr. Stephen Horn of Long Beach State, his proposals involved in part cutting grants-in-aid for football from 105 in 1976 to 65 in 1978. (The number of grants was only set for the first time in 1973, when the NCAA split into divisions and scholarship limits were legislated for the first time.) More horrifyingly to the richest schools – and what made him a target of the sports media at the time – he proposed that 50 percent of the net proceeds from the NCAA’s exclusive TV contract be provided to Division I (which, to be fair, generated virtually all of the TV revenue) and 25 percent to each of the other divisions.

The largest schools were furious about having to share the TV revenue.

The invitees to the Oregon meeting were the members of the following conferences: the ACC, Big 8, Big 10, Pac 8, SEC, Southwest, and WAC. In addition, representatives from the following independent schools were invited: Air Force, Army, Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Memphis State, Miami (FL), Navy, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt, San Diego State, South Carolina, Syracuse, Tulane, Utah State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

Organizing the meeting were Bob James, commissioner of the ACC, Father Edmund Joyce of Notre Dame, and Penn State athletic director Ed Czekaj.

“The amendments did not pass, but out of that meeting, the concept of the CFA was born,” Feinstein’s article continued. “Two years later, in June 1977, five of those seven conferences joined with 17 independents, including Notre Dame, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Florida State, formed the CFA. The Big Ten and the Pac-10 stayed out because their presidents disapproved.”

The CFA devised their own membership criteria. Ostensibly James, Czekaj and Fr. Joyce themselves came up with the criteria for membership.

  1. Seventy percent of their football schedules (7 out of 10, or 8 or of 11) had to be against fellow CFA members. For schools in the included conferences, they could meet this number easily simply through a conference schedule, at most requiring one CFA-affiliated game outside that number.
  2. A stadium seating capacity of 30,000,
  3. An average home attendance in the past five years of 20,000,
  4. An average of at least 80 football scholarships for the last five years.

The CFA didn’t realize it, but they were defining the worth of its football team by the size of its stadium and its attendance numbers. Education, TV market share, or the overall quality of the overall athletics program had nothing to do with it.

The first thing to note is that of these criteria, there were multiple schools that did not qualify that were still invited. Wake Forest averaged 19,520 fans per home game in 1977, whose home field, on campus Groves Stadium, barely met the standard at 31,500 capacity. Syracuse, too, with Archbold Stadium, officially listed their stadium capacity at 30,000 even though their stadium was partially condemned.

The next thing to note is by adding the criteria “80 football scholarships for the last five years”, they were purposely trying to cut out the Ivy League as potential CFA football members.

“This is an ongoing problem,” Fred Davison, president of the University of Georgia and president of the CFA said in 1978. “We thought it (restructure) was close fulfillment [sic] until the Ivy League Amendment. We will sponsor legislation again asking for restructure with requirements similar to those for membership in the CFA.” (Emphasis added.)

The Ivy League had as its charter that they would not offer football scholarships, and brought up in NCAA meetings every year proposals to ban them – something that most certainly irked the members of the CFA almost as much as the Robin Hood amendments. It certainly irked Fr. Joyce, who richly predicted “widespread cheating” multiple times in the press when the Ivy League made their proposals to the NCAA to make all athletic scholarships based on need.

“It is interesting to note that the proposed membership in the CFA is identical to the Division One group originally selected by the 1975 Interim Classification Committee of the NCAA,” Ernie Roberts of The Boston Globe wrote in 1976. “When two dozen more schools, including the Ivy League, appealed and were accepted for Division One Status by the Committee, the NCAA Council tabled the idea of reclassifying its football membership.”

The third thing to note is the enormous pressure this put on other independent schools like Richmond and William & Mary if they wanted to remain I-A, especially the scheduling requirement.

“In effect, this makes it incumbent on an independent college, such as BC, to join the CFA or run the risk of being eliminated from future schedules of Association members,” Roberts wrote.

But more to the point, the CFA cartel was formed because they wanted to throw their weight around about a variety of topics.

They wanted to silence voices like Dr. Stephen Horn’s. (“I think he’s been sent back to the forest, never to appear again,” Lou Meyers, former athletic director of the University of Arizona was quoted as saying in 1978 after the ‘Robin Hood’ amendments failed.)

They wanted to pass rules on scholarships, but it’s impossible to separate that aspect and the idea that they were trying to control TV revenue and the TV product (by standardizing the rules of competition for the richest programs). Oh yeah, and also to not share the money with the rest of the NCAA membership.

“The football powers are just being greedy,” Bob Murphy, San Jose State’s athletic director, said at the time. “They already have most of the television money and all of the bowl money. Now, they want even more.”

While the Big 10 and Pac 8 refused to join the CFA – perhaps to preserve their historic ties with the Ivy League institutionally – the ensuing 60 school group nevertheless ended up forming a powerful force inside the NCAA, which shaped college football to its own ends.

Their ends had no use for Division I “major college” football programs like Richmond or William & Mary.

“Reorganizing” Into I-A and I-AA

Throughout the 1970s, it’s undeniable that Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno’s national presence as spokesman for college football grew.

He had deep seated views on academics, freshman eligibility and running a football program that had similar overlap with Ivy League principles. He was quoted often, and his views on such things ran counter to the philosophy of many other CFA schools.

In a series by Richard Starnes of the Scripps-Howard News Service back in 1973 on recruiting abuses, Paterno was front and center. (“The worst part of it is that [illegal recruiting, professionalism and rampant overemphasis on college sports] it that it’s so blatant. It isn’t that anyone’s being cute, or smooth. It’s right out there in the open and you get kids saying to you ‘so-and-so is going to give me this’,” Paterno was quoted as saying.)

Paterno’s griping about illegal recruiting led to the revelation in the column that he was an outspoken advocate within the NCAA of reorganizing college football. This was before the NCAA officially split into Divisions I, II, and III.

“What we’re talking about is people who have a vested interest in the game (of football) making their own rules,” he was quoted as saying. “Schools like Wagner and Albright don’t have any idea of what we are trying to do with our program. Let us run our programs and we will have less recruiting evil.

“They (the NCAA) have to recognize that certain schools have different interests and different problems. We have to group schools with common problems so they can make decisions that affect them. Have a group that gives grants on the basis of need, then have a group that wants to play as good football as anybody that will give athletic scholarships. I’ve got to figure that categories like that would be realistic.”

It is important to recognize here that Richmond and William & Mary were emphatically in the second group.

They were not Wagner or Albright. And they had just as vested an interest in the game of football as Wagner, William & Mary, Brown or any other NCAA school.

Richmond and William & Mary offered football scholarships. They wanted to “play as good football as anybody that will give athletic scholarships.”

The leadership of the two schools at the time were not interested in giving grants on the basis of need or reducing scholarships, which the Ivy League was advocating at that time.

Richmond and William & Mary were in Division I, the same division as Penn State in football. When it looked like their conference, the SoCon, might be re-classified to Division II, they abandoned the athletics conference they were members of since the 1930s. They were determined to be I-A.

But that didn’t fit in with the CFA’s vision of Division I-A football in 1978. They never did.

It was not said if Ed Czekaj consulted Joe Paterno about the criteria for football membership to the CFA, but it seems quite likely.

The plan all along was to force schools like Richmond and William & Mary out of the same division of football as Penn State. They could have chosen to invite other Division I Eastern independents at the time to the CFA, like Villanova, Richmond, William & Mary, Colgate, Temple, East Carolina, or Holy Cross. But they did not.

The reason the I-A and I-AA subdivisions were defined in this way was simply – that’s what the CFA decided it was going to be.

The commissioner of the ACC at the time, the President of Notre Dame, Penn State’s athletic director (with Joe Paterno at a bare minimum whispering in his ear) and a few others came up with the criteria for “membership” in the CFA, and when it came time to define what a I-A and a I-AA institution was, those criteria were used.

Since the CFA membership rules purposely cut the Ivy League out, when the CFA pushed the concept of I-A and I-AA they were thus attempting to force the Ivy League to be in I-AA.

The original CFA rules had stadium size mentioned as a criteria. That almost certainly was due to coaches’ input at the time.

“The big thing in having a profitable football program is the size of your stadium,” Alabama head coach Bear Bryant was quoted as saying in Richard Starnes’ 1973 article. (Emphasis added.) “You’ve got to play in a big stadium to make money and you must have Rivals. We have two good ones in Tennessee and Auburn. I think a college’s schedule has to be attractive, say, such as having four big Rivals that sell out and a couple of appealing intersectional games that also sell out.”

Ironically, then, as now, most college football programs were not profitable in the capitalistic sense. The vast majority of football programs spent more than they brought in. Very, very few college football programs had (or have) four big Rivals that sell out and two intersectional games that also sell out.

Nonetheless, from there, a line was created.

The line had nothing to do with television, which does not care about the size of a football stadium, whether it can seat 22,000 or 30,000, or whether the gate receipts actually made the athletic department money.

It seems like they were created because head coaches like Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno had vague opinions on what they thought was a “major” football program, and it was tweaked to allow in the schools they wanted, and tweaked to prevent a bunch of other schools from joining – like smaller schools that might dilute their TV profits, and the Ivy League.

Maybe it was hubris, or maybe CFA spokesman Joe Paterno and his fellow coaches truly believed they could do a better job than the NCAA of solving all of college football’s problems if they just sat down in a room and “take a look at all the rules and regulations and come away with better rules to regulate our programs,” as Paterno himself put it.

But these numbers for inclusion into I-A, backed by no data or hard evidence, backed by no competitive evidence that a school in a 22,000 seat stadium was not as worthy a school in a 30,000 seat stadium, would have a profound impact on college athletics for the next 40 years.

Essentially, the CFA’s clubhouse rules became the NCAA’s law.

These “vague opinions” on I-A and I-AA membership changed the course of college football forever, and unfortunately Richmond and William & Mary, through no fault of their own, were victims.

Reorganization Passes – With A Key Provision

The CFA came very close to getting what they wanted at first – I-A membership based on stadium size and attendance figures, with the others getting force-reclassified to I-AA.

Through horse trading – CFA members helping vote down an amendment that would have required basketball schools to sponsor 10 sports to remain Division I – the non-football playing basketball schools backed the CFA on their plan to reorganize into I-A and I-AA.

As it turned out, the rules on I-A membership were flexible – if it kept the schools they invited in the fold.

“The initial criteria for Division I-A would require institutions to participate in eight varsity sports, have an average home attendance of 17,000 over during one of the last four years, and play home games in a stadium seating 30,000 or more,” it said when reorganization into I-A and I-AA passed.

This was different than the rules published in 1975, where the average home attendance requirement was 20,000 fans, and there were no requirements to have broad-based athletic programs.

This weakened criteria allowed several schools, most notably Wake Forest and Syracuse, whose attendance numbers dipped below 17,000 per year, to be able to still “qualify” as I-A.

Syracuse, who was a regular, annual opponent on Penn State’s football schedule, could still count the Nittany Lions as a “rival,” even though Penn State routinely beat them during the 1960s and 1970s. Without a game against Penn State every other year in their decrepit stadium, it’s highly unlikely they would have qualified. (In 1979, Syracuse played their “home” game against Penn State in Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, which certainly allowed them to meet the I-A attendance average with ease.)

In the eleventh hour, a proposal called the Ivy Amendment was floated.

The Ivy League, whom the CFA were desperately trying to exclude from I-A football, proposed an hail-Mary amendment to keep them as I-A schools.

Colgate and William & Mary were critical co-sponsors of this amendment.

The Ivy Amendment allowed any school with 12 or more varsity sports that hold NCAA Championships to be allowed to define themselves as I-A. This would allow 25 more schools to continue to qualify as I-A – crucially, without any sort of stadium or attendance requirement.

“We did not qualify [under the attendance and stadium rules],” William & Mary athletic director Ben Carnevale said at the time. “But at the same time, there has been a continued discussion regarding broad-based athletic programs and William & Mary has one of the best. We sponsor 15 [men’s] intercollegiate sports and 12 women’s intercollegiate sports.”

The Ivy amendment offered a different philosophical viewpoint than the CFA about football programs.

The CFA judged a football program’s worth by the size of its stadium and its average attendance (implying its worth was based on its ability to generate money for the athletic department).

The Ivy amendment judged a football team’s worthiness by the number of sports sponsored by the school itself.

To them, sponsoring a large number of sports, including football, and having a “well rounded program” were just as important as attendance figures, so much so those programs should be able to choose I-A.

Carnevale noted that it was a big deal for William & Mary to put their name on the amendment.

“There were a lot of schools in agreement, but were afraid and hesitated adding their name to the Ivys [sic] for fear that the big schools would knock the Ivys out.”

The amendment barely passed. It scraped through, passing with a 73-70 vote.

Carnevale mentioned that some of the schools that voted in favor were Navy, Army, Air Force, Virginia, North Carolina, Stanford, and Northwestern. Notably, five of the schools mentioned were also members of the CFA (Stanford of the Pac-10 and Northwestern of the Big 10 were not).

“If two of them had voted otherwise, we would have been defeated and we would not have qualified. We would have automatically been in I-AA,” Carnevale said.

Cary Field, William & Mary

Legacy of the Ivy Amendment, And Plans

The passing of the Ivy amendment in 1978 had a much longer legacy than it might seem at first.

The immediate effect is that it bought a significant number of schools time.

In Richmond’s case, it gave them a potential path to remain I-A.

Technically, William & Mary would qualify for I-A as long as the 12 sport rule was in place. While Richmond was still technically short of the 12 sport limit (because indoor and outdoor track counted as one sport, not two), it was expected that they would be able to add the required number of sports to make the number.

The Ivy League would remember William & Mary’s backing at a critical time.

Richmond was trying to meet the requirement both ways – both by adding a sport to get to 12, and to meet the 17,000 requirement and to lobby the City or Richmond to upgrade City Stadium to meet the arbitrary 30,000 attendance requirement.

Richmond was trying to follow a similar path as East Carolina and Louisville – meet the football attendance and stadium numbers however they could to hit the arbitrary level.

Even so, some very large hurdles remained.

Since the NCAA was meeting every year, there was the constant threat that the CFA could band together the following year and simply revoke the Ivy amendment and force-classify the 25 schools to I-AA – or perhaps change the numbers further.

After all, the attendance numbers and stadium numbers to make a school qualify for I-A weren’t backed by any hard data or science – they were based only on the whims and feelings of the CFA head coaches.

Carnevale downplayed the possibility.

“So many schools have discussed having a broad-based athletic program. How can they encourage it and then vote against it?,” he opined. “It [would be] hypocritical… Basically, it is similar to speaking against motherhood.”

As problematic, though, was the scheduling requirement that 60% of I-A school’s football schedule be comprised of other I-A football members.

For members of the CFA, who all were members of established conferences or independents who were national championship contenders every year, this was never going to be a problem. Their collusion would ensure that everyone would be in compliance.

For schools like Richmond and William & Mary, however, this meant clouds on the horizon.

The 12 sport rule emboldened most of the schools that would have been disqualified under the stadium/attendance rules to choose to remain I-A, despite incentives to reclassify to I-A. Notably, the SoCon, Richmond and William & Mary’s former longtime conference, voted to remain I-A, despite none the schools that were members averaging more than 17,000 in attendance or possessing 30,000 seat stadiums.

For the moment, games against VMI, a traditional in-state Rival of both Richmond and William & Mary, would count as I-A competition, as would their own Rivalry with each other.

William & Mary met the 12 sport requirement easily. But VMI and Richmond still needed to officially add sports to become compliant with the 1978 I-A rules.

If Richmond, William & Mary or VMI for whatever reason couldn’t make the requirements in the future – or if the requirements were to change – it would force some very hard choices.

If Virginia or Virginia Tech wanted to help any of the three schools to make the 17,000 attendance number, they could have done so by scheduling and out-of-conference game on the road with them.

But that wasn’t easy. Football schedules are usually made out years in advance, and unless CFA members Virginia or Virginia Tech wanted to help them out – and embolden a school that might try to steal away recruits they thought of as theirs – they were likely to remain on the sidelines, and did.

Besides, Virginia and Virginia Tech were not eager to schedule Richmond or William & Mary. 15,000 seat Cary Field was not a place where Virginia Tech wanted to play.

“If we have 5,000 more seats along the sideline,” Carnevale noted, “that would be $35,000 in addition to the seats we already have. That could be a decent guarantee where we could encourage better teams to come here. That is why [Virignia] Tech does not like to come here.”

William & Mary’s long-term survival strategy appeared to involve the Ivy League.

“William & Mary now seems to be looking for more games with Ivy League opponents and less with the southern teams, not counting the traditional rivals. This was a major factor in William & Mary’s drop from the Southern Conference before this season,” the article from The Virginia Gazette read. (This was notably different than the justification Richmond made for leaving the SoCon, which was ‘upgrading the program’. )

As long as the Ivy League remained I-A, this seemed like a pretty sound strategy for the Indians. And as long as Richmond and VMI also self-declared their intent on competing in I-A – which they did – William & Mary seemed like they would be able to meet the scheduling requirement, and Richmond and VMI would have three years to meet the requirements, whatever they would end up being.

Richmond’s survival strategy was less clear, but looking at their 1978 schedule shows hints.

It was a schedule against a hodgepodge of schools that included no-doubt-about it I-A schools (Wisconsin, North Carolina, West Virginia), some teams who were in the same struggle boat to keep I-A membership (Cincinnati, Southern Miss, Villanova, East Carolina), a few SoCon schools that were not traditional rivals (Appalachian State, Chattanooga) and Rivals VMI and William & Mary.

It’s worth noting that in 1978, Richmond met – barely – the arbitrary attendance numbers the CFA required, in line with Syracuse. During a 3-8 season, including attendance numbers of 20,000 vs. VMI, 17,500 vs. William & Mary and 23,000 vs. East Carolina at Foreman Field (former and future home of Old Dominion), they averaged 17,083 fans during their six games. (A home win over 3-4 North Carolina, in front of 15,000 fans, dealing the Tar Heels a serious blow to their bowl eligibility, was the highlight.)

It wasn’t easy, but they were on the path towards compliance. And since the SoCon declared themselves I-A, all of Richmond’s opponents were also I-A.

But the battle lines were clearly drawn, and both Chuck Boone and Jim Carnevale seemed to sense clouds on the horizon. If the CFA were to insist on those completely subjective numbers of 17,000 average attendance and 30,000 seat stadiums in the future – or increase them – and they decided in the future to overturn the Ivy Amendment, over the next three years they’d have to make some major upgrades in facilities. And upgrading or building stadiums take quite a long time.

“That decision (on a new stadium or expansion of Cary Field) would have to be made now,” Carnevale said. “Until we build a stadium, which would take three or four years, we could not get the 17.”