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Four Teams Here, All the Rest There
With two CAA teams dropping football, Maine and three other schools find themselves isolated.
They are fierce rivals on the football field.
Off the field, the universities of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are about to come together like never before.
In the wake of the news that Northeastern and Hofstra have dropped football, athletic directors from the four programs will meet Dec. 21 with Tom Yeager, the Colonial Athletic Association commissioner, to advocate for themselves in a league whose alignment and dynamic has changed dramatically.
Less than a month ago the four schools, plus Northeastern and Hofstra, made up the Northern Division of the CAA.
Now the Northern Division survivors find themselves isolated from the rest of a Southern-heavy CAA.
Northeastern and Hofstra cited financial struggles as chief reasons for ending football.
“It sends a message that, you know, isn’t good for those of us who love the college football game,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove. “It’s damaging to the game. It gets people questioning the value system because of the cost.”
Chief among concerns for the four survivors:
* How to minimize an expected increase in travel costs.
* How to remain viable league members while being increasingly isolated geographically.
* How to continue marketing the value of high-level FCS football.
At Northeastern, the end came Nov. 23, just two days after the final game of the season. The administration announced it was cutting football after 74 seasons. The program cost approximately $4 million a year.
Hofstra was next, 10 days later. The school’s board of trustees voted unanimously to end the 72-year-old program, citing cost and waning interest from fans.
The Pride’s football program cost approximately $4.5 million per season. Hofstra has produced such NFL standouts as New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston.
As the dominoes fell, fear and panic followed. What would happen? Who was next?
“I don’t fear for UNH, frankly,” said New Hampshire Athletic Director Marty Scarano, “but the four of us, from my perspective? Our situation is that we all need to kind of hold hands and create value around Northeast football.”
A RISE IN TRAVEL COSTS
Following the news of Northeastern and Hofstra, the league announced a plan to drop division alignments for next year, and reset schedules.
The CAA’s Southern Division had consisted of James Madison (Harrisonburg, Va.), Richmond (Richmond, Va.), William & Mary (Williamsburg, Va.), Villanova (Villanova, Pa., 25 minutes from Philadelphia), Delaware (Newark, Del.) and Towson (Towson, Md.).
Two schools are scheduled to join the CAA over the next two years: a fourth team from Virginia in 2011 - Old Dominion (Norfolk) - followed by Georgia State (Atlanta) in 2012.
Maine, which had home games scheduled next season against both Hofstra and Northeastern, will host two other teams instead. But in 2011, travel costs surely will go up - by an estimated $75,000 to $100,000 - when bus trips that would have taken the team to Boston and Long Island will be replaced with flights to more Southern schools.
Yeager said he’ll be sensitive to the needs of the four Northern teams.
“We do need to be really attentive because obviously the impact going forward is going to be the most dramatic on the New England schools,” said Yeager. “We’ll really sit down and really listen to their concerns and needs.”
Ideally, said Cosgrove and Maine AD Blake James, the Black Bears will remain in the CAA.
This season, half of the quarterfinalists in the NCAA playoffs were from the CAA. In 2008, for the second straight year, a record five CAA teams, including Maine, qualified for the 16-team NCAA playoff field.
“I’ve always said we need the league more than the league needs us,” said Cosgrove. “We are without a doubt in the best football conference in the country for FCS football.
“It’s not the SEC, but it’s our own little version of that. It’s really, I think, a pretty profound statement to say you’re playing in the top conference.”
THE VALUE OF FOOTBALL
Last spring, Maine cut men’s soccer and volleyball to make up for an $871,000 department shortfall, part of an $8.8 million deficit at the school.
That decision was painful, said James, but he doesn’t foresee anything so drastic on the way.
Football at UMaine costs approximately $3 million a year. The team also brings in about $1 million by playing a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent annually for a large guarantee. Maine football also has some well-known private donors.
He cited football’s value going well beyond its financial burden, noting the diversity of the athletes, the alumni support it rallies and the impact on the community.
It also gives Maine’s best athletes a national stage to strive and reach. Two legit impact players from the state of Maine emerged in the last two seasons: fullback Jared Turcotte of Lewiston and quarterback Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth.
A dozen more round out the roster.
“Will this cost us a little more money? Yes. But I don’t personally see us not being in the CAA,” said James. “When you look at everything it offers us as a conference, it’s just a great fit for UMaine in so many ways.
“Can we be more successful? Yeah. We want to win a CAA championship. I think we’re close to getting there.”
REALIGNMENT A POSSIBILITY
After next fall, Cosgrove would like to see two former Southern Division teams bumped into a Northern Division with the New England teams. He suggests Delaware and Villanova.
“The league has the ability to play with 12 teams in 2012 if it’s willing to bump Delaware and Villanova north,” he said. “If they’re not willing to do that, are they telling us we have to get something going? I don’t know if there are any ready-made teams up our way to compete in our league.”
Plan B, if needed, he said, likely would be to resurrect a new version of the old Yankee Conference. The league at one time included the four along with Connecticut, now a Football Bowl Subdivision team; Boston University, which dropped football in 1998; and Vermont (no football since 1974). Delaware and Richmond joined in 1986. Villanova came on in 1988, and James Madison and William & Mary joined in 1993.
“I’d hate to see us step backwards. Let’s stay in the CAA and make this thing work,” said Cosgrove.
The other question is, will that still include Rhode Island? The Rams’ future beyond next fall is less clear.
AD Thorr Bjorn said his program, which went 1-10, 0-8 in the conference in 2009, is committed to staying in the CAA in 2010, but will analyze its plan beyond that.
The Rams, unlike Maine, UNH and UMass, need significant upgrades to their infrastructure.
“Those are three programs who’ve had tremendous success. They’re on very solid footing. We’re striving to get better,” said Bjorn. “I would never speculate what makes sense for another school, but there’s a lot of great I-AA football teams from eastern Pennsylvania north you could put together and play a competitive schedule where you don’t need to get on an airplane.”
MORE PLAYERS AVAILABLE
If some kind of new league is considered, Albany and Central Connecticut - Northeast Conference programs that allow up to 32 scholarships - seem potential candidates.
So does Fordham (New York), which competes in the Patriot League.
It intends to offer scholarships beginning in 2010.
Switching leagues comes with consequences beyond the obvious. To get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, a league must have six teams that have played together for at least three years. Strength of schedule would be lower, leaving few if any at-large berths beyond the conference winner’s automatic bid.
“Football at this level is very important,” said Bjorn, the Rhode Island AD. “But under the circumstances I think we do need to sit back and think about how we conduct our business.
“I don’t think anyone can say with a straight face it makes sense to get on a plane three more times to play a football game. That said, we have to be open-minded.”
Since the fallout, Cosgrove has been on recruiting trips to Northeastern and Hofstra. Quarterback Warren Smith arrived in Orono last spring after his former college - Iona - disbanded football after the 2008 season.
Maine’s recruiting class is nearly complete for next year, but down the road, players from Long Island, N.Y., and the Boston area now have two fewer options - perhaps a silver lining for the surviving New England CAA programs.
“If they’re signing 15 kids a year, there’s 30 kids out there we could look at now without their competition,” said Cosgrove. “I don’t know I’d call it a silver lining, though.”
Coach Rocky Hager, who will stay at Northeastern to help his players find other options, sure doesn’t. His contract will expire in March.
“To place a dollar and cents value upon the game of football, I personally don’t think that’s the way it should be looked at,” said Hager. “There is a value placed upon being involved with a team, being able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off after defeat and be humble with success. Take a look at the Ivy League. Tell me those folks make money? Heavens no. I doubt there’s a single one who’d consider not having the game of football.
“This is America. And in the fall, not to belittle any other sport, that is what people come back to campus for. There’s so much more to it.”
Four teams here, all the rest there
By JENN MENENDEZ, The Portland Press Herald (ME)