By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA — It's the time of year where you hear about schools like Old Dominion, Villanova, and Georgetown, but not in terms of their football programs.
It's March Madness time, and along with the familiar hoops programs like the Hoyas and Wildcats, we see other programs like the Monarchs of Old Dominion.
If the chips fall right, we also might possibly see either the Patriots of George Mason or the Spiders of Richmond in the "Big Dance" this year.
But this year, it feels like there's more at stake than hoops bragging rights and NCAA money.
There's plenty of indicators that there are some significant changes in the wind in one of the Football Championship Subdivision's elite football conferences, the Colonial Athletic Association.
And could the direction of those changes be affected by the performance of certain basketball teams in this year's NCAA tournament?
In this reporters' opinion - yes, they could.
PUTTING THINGS IN CONTEXT
To get some context, let's first take a peek at the most recent developments and rumors that have been swirling about the composition of CAA football in the future.
Three years ago, the Colonial Athletic Association comprised of 12 teams — Delaware, Hofstra, James Madison, Maine, UMass, New Hampshire, Northeastern, Rhode Island, Richmond, Towson, Villanova, and William and Mary.
They were so big that they had split into North and South divisions, and were the largest football conference in Division I that didn't play a championship game.
With full CAA members Old Dominion and Georgia State both creating new programs from scratch, it seemed back in the summer of 2009 like the CAA could expand to fourteen teams.
Fast forward to today. Northeastern and Hofstra dropped their programs in the dead of night at the end of the 2009 season, causing the league to drop to ten teams and scramble to fill football schedules.
Then, Rhode Island publicly mulled, and finally decided, to take their football program to the limited-scholarship NEC after the conclusion of the 2010 season.
"Once, there was a local New England sports scene that thrived in the fall," I wrote when the rumors were strong. "Harvard/Yale, Boston College/Holy Cross, Amherst/Williams and URI/UConn were some of the highlights of the fall schedule, and they were interesting games that were big deals in their communities.
"But a lot of factors conspired to break the party up. Boston College chose to chase the money, first in the Big East and now the ACC. So did UConn, as part of the Big East. Holy Cross chose to turn away from the corrupting influence of big-time football, and joined the Patriot League. Amherst/Williams and the rest of the NESCAC proudly went to Division III and never turned back, while the Ivies went from the AP Top 25 to sequestering themselves from everyone, even from the rest of FCS football. And — last week — URI looked at its remaining three football-playing, former Yankee neighbors and thought: 'How are we all that similar anymore?'"
If it were simply a function of replacing the Huskies and Pride with Old Dominion (in 2011) and Georgia State (in 2012), that would be one thing.
Unfortunately, there is plenty of drama swirling around other CAA affiliate members as well.
THE DECISION FOR UMASS
Start with UMass.
Since November, talks between the MAC conference and UMass have been extensive, with the FBS conference making official visits to Amherst and talk running wild in the Massachusetts newspapers. An affiliate member of the non-football-sponsoring Atlantic 10, the thought is that UMass will upgrade their football program to FBS, and join the MAC as an associate member in football only.
While the merits of UMass/Ball State, UMass/Buffalo or UMass/Temple games in football to the campus thoroughly escape me given the costs of moving up and maintaining FBS membership - not to mention no realistic shot at a BCS bowl or championship - nonetheless, it seems like an announcement is due very soon that UMass will be leaving the CAA as an affiliate member.
UMass student trustee Mike Fox, who said “The board of trustees has indicated a willingness and a desire for us to upgrade our athletics program,” gives one of many strong indicators that this is a done deal.
That's not enough evidence? Well, with UMass chancellor Robert Holub making statements like “That's where we want to be, and I believe that's what our students and alumni want from us as well” and UMass athletic director John McCutcheon stating that their talks with the MAC are an "active, ongoing conversation", it sure seems like the decision on their move, scheduled to be announced in the next few weeks, is as close to a done deal as could possibly be reported.
Then, of course, there's situation with Villanova.
Days before their game in September with Lehigh, Fr. Peter Donohue, the president of Villanova, fired off an email confirming a rumor that Big East commissioner John Marinatto had extended an invitation for the Wildcats to join the Big East Conference in football. In the same email, he announced that a feasibility study was going to be undertaken and the results of that study — and a decision on a move — would be made by April.
Here's what I wrote on the issue when it was announced:
For the Big East, the allures of Villanova as a Big East football school are obvious. It pulls a ninth team from their "non-Big East football" camp to the "Big East Football" camp of the teetering 16 team conference - thus tilting the playing field towards the teams that play Big East football, and almost certainly precipitating a split of the football and non-football schools. It also probably goes a long way in insuring that the Big East keeps a lucrative BCS slot — and the money it generates for its mostly-public school teams.
For Villanova, too, the allure may be to stay in the Big East in all sports — including the straw that stirs the drink, basketball, with most of their historic Big East basketball rivalries. The Wildcats would become tied at the hip for a long way into the future with Rutgers, Syracuse and UConn if they all share football and basketball, which could be a good thing.
Since that announcement, Villanova's feasibility study has continued apace, and according to VUHoops.com, Villanova's board of trustees has set a fundraising goal for deep-pocketed alumni, which started slow, but has picked up significantly.
However, two huge questions remain.
Upgrading aging Villanova Stadium, on the campus in Radnor Township and in the middle of a residential area, is a non-starter, so the Wildcats will have to rent a stadium to play in, with the Linc already rented out by Temple from now until the forseeable future.
Right now, the smart money is on PPL park, home of Philadelphia Union FC of MLS, to rent out their stadium to Villanova to play home games, with a possible "event game" at Citizens Bank Park in late November or December.
Even with a good venue and Big East membership, however, will Villanova develop any sort of size of football fan base to support their team?
Considering that the FCS semifinal game against William & Mary in 2009 had an attendance of less than 10,000 — including a decent-sized Tribe contingent — it's an open question as to whether they have the fan base to do it.
Adding intrigue to this debate are two hot rumors, one stating that Villanova is "near a deal to join the Big East", according to the Sporting News:
A Big East source told Sporting News that Villanova is the “clear leader” in the conference’s goal of expanding to 10 teams, but that the university still is trying to complete a revenue plan of $25-30 million in startup costs.
Villanova announced it would have a decision by April, but the process could be moving along faster than expected.
The other is that Villanova's plans are rumored to be opposed — by Pitt.
Lately, it has emerged that the Big East conference has been lukewarm toward Villanova’s preferred venue for games, PPL Park in Chester, PA.
The soccer-specific stadium currently seats only 18,500 fans, and while it would not be the smallest stadium in the Bowl Subdivision (both Idaho’s Kibbie Dome and FIU Stadium are smaller), it would be the smallest stadium in the Big East conference by over 16,000 seats.
According to sources close to the situation, administrators at the University of Pittsburgh are unhappy with the idea of having such a small venue in the conference, and would prefer that Villanova plays it’s home games at a venue that can hold a minimum of 35,000 fans (to match Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium).
To this reporter, it seems awfully unlikely that the Big East, who already is heavily invested in Villanova joining the Big East in football (going as far as extending them an official invite) would let PPL park be the sticking point.
More likely, Pitt could be part of a contingent that wants to jettison all the non-FBS-playing schools from the conference, including Villanova.
Why? It's hard to say, but as a private, religious institution, Villanova would be a very different type of school than Pitt and the rest of the state schools (and humongous, private Syracuse) that sponsor FBS football.
If that unlikely scenario is true — and admittedly, it's a stretch — such a contingent would most likely be predicated on a host of football-playing schools (think Memphis, UCF, East Carolina, and possibly others) already being lined up to join this new conference, which seems like an awful lot of dominoes to have lined up in order to happen. (Besides, something similar to this has been rumored for years, and nothing has happened.)
While everything involving Villanova Big East football is still in the "rumor" stage until April, it still seems like the Wildcats are at least a 50/50 shot to leave the CAA in football and join the Big East.
It's not the apparent imminent announcement that UMass seems to be, but it seems like a real good possibility based on what's known already.
STARING AT THE FUTURE
It's in this context — a CAA in 2012 with two brand-new members (Old Dominion, Georgia State), the loss of three known members (Northeastern, Hofstra, Rhode Island) and the potential loss of two more members (UMass, Villanova) — that commissioner Tom Yeager is staring at.
Granted Yeager has a lot more on his plate these days than just football.
Old Dominion, winner of the CAA Tournament, is definitely going to the NCAAs. George Mason and, reportedly, Virginia Commonwealth are both strong contenders for at-large consideration as well.
That politicking for at-large bids might mean a lot more than in most years, too.
By many projections, the CAA seems guaranteed their autobid and at least one at-large bid. If the NCAA committee accepts both George Mason and VCU, it could come at the expense of another highly-regarded mid-major basketball conference — the Atlantic 10.
For the A-10, Xavier, who won the conference tournament, is definitely in the field, as is perennial NCAA tournament dark horse Temple. The question is whether Richmond — which has two wins over Top 50 teams — will make the field as a third representative.
The CAA, A-10, Horizon (Butler) and Missouri Valley (Northern Iowa) all lay some realistic claim to being a premier mid-major conference in basketball. The CAA boasts a Final Four team (George Mason, a few years ago) and the Horizon had a team just last year one halfcourt heave away from being national champions.
Richmond, ironically, is the sort of school which benefits from their football-only CAA membership come FCS playoff time. So is UMass, who seems to be one step out the door.
If reports are true, UNC Charlotte — which is starting up an FCS football program in 2013, with not-so-secret designs on FBS membership after that — is interested in joining the same program as the Spiders and Minutemen, namely, Atlantic 10 membership in all sports except football.
"Multiple sources" claimed that the CAA offered UNC Charlotte membership, but only as an all-sports member. According to the report, which basically comprises of tweets from UNC-Wilmington beat reporter Brian Mull, the 49ers refused.
The rumors have gotten such play that David Scott of the Charlotte Observer posted this very interesting blog posting on the matter:
"I'm told there's nothing to the idea that Charlotte has turned down an offer to join the Colonial Athletic Association as a full member. That doesn't mean there haven't been discussions (there have) or that such an offer might not be forthcoming (it could). But Charlotte is only interested in finding a temporary spot for its football program and wants to keep the rest of its sports in the Atlantic 10. Of the three leagues Charlotte has been talking to, it doesn't appear the CAA or the Southern Conference would be interested in such an arrangement. The Big South might be, however (Stony Brook is a football-only, temporary member now)."
That this appeared to happen — despite the contortions of the schools involved — is amazing in its own right. What's more amazing is that the CAA appeared to be trying to poach UNC Charlotte from the Atlantic 10, promising CAA basketball as at a minimum an even trade in basketball.
That's never happened before. It long has been assumed that A-10 basketball is THE mid-major conference that all others aspire to become. Yeager's actions prove this, at a bare minimum, is no longer the case.
As Mr. Scott implies, a "rejection" here won't imply that UNC Charlotte won't ask the CAA in the future for football-only or all-sports membership.
Whether the 49ers will seriously consider full CAA memebership in the future, however, could be linked to this year's NCAA tournament.
Suppose it's April 15th, and you're 49er athletics director Judy Rose.
George Mason has made the Final Four, narrowly losing to Ohio State, while Xavier got upended by Marquette and Temple was upset by a surprising St. Peter's in the first round. How do you view the Atlantic 10?
As a fading basketball conference without football?
And how do you view the CAA?
As a rising basketball conference with two Final Four appearances AND the highest level of FCS football?
Now, suppose it's April 15, and Temple has made it to the Elite Eight while Old Dominion loses to Illinois in the first round while George Mason gets blown out by Wofford.
Is Ms. Rose really willing to give up her A-10 membership so easily?
(And as Patriot League fans, suppose you change Ms. Rose's name with Fordham athletic director Frank McLaughlin's. Might the folks at Rose Hill also be looking at this year's tournament with the same level of interest as the 49ers?)
SUMMARIZING THE LANDSCAPE
All that can be said with certainty is that the supposed conference leader in FCS football, could conceivably have three different configurations in the next three years as Rhode Island leaves, Old Dominion joins, and Georgia State joins.
Add to that possible (probable?) defections of UMass and Villanova, and it gets even more interesting as to how the conference will look in five year's time.
At a minimum, the CAA will be looking to add new members, preferably (it seems) in all sports.
Will it be a world where the CAA will be nabbing Atlantic 10 members, promising at worst an even trade in basketball money and influence?
Will it be a world where UMass, against all odds, stops short of going to the MAC and instead considers joining the CAA in all sports?
Will it be a world where Villanova decides to hitch its wagon to FCS football instead of chasing a dream of Big East football, with a CAA that has plenty of NCAA money and ambition at the FCS level?
The answer to all those intriguing questions - and more - might lie in this year's NCAA tournament.