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While CAA football brethren move, URI sees benefits in stepping back
Since Villanova is hoping soon to play football in the Big East, and UMass is joining the Mid-American Conference, then when is URI heading to the Big Ten?
The Rams did, after all, beat both the Wildcats and the Minutemen last November at Meade Field.
Yet, unlike their Colonial Athletic Association brethren, who are movin’ on up, the Rams will, in 2013, be taking at least a half-step down, leaving the highly competitive CAA — where they play the likes of Delaware, Richmond, William & Mary, and, in 2012, Georgia State – to go to the less-challenging Northeast Conference, which includes the likes of Bryant, Duquesne, Wagner, Sacred Heart and St. Francis of Pa.
Villanova can come up with the kind of cash it takes to play big-time football. UMass believes it can, too.
That’s not the case in Kingston, where director of athletics Thorr Bjorn has seen former CAA members Northeastern and Hofstra drop football because of the costs involved, and wanted to make sure that didn’t happen at URI.
“Our decision to go to the Northeast Conference had nothing to do with how we’re playing,” Bjorn said. “We have a solid team. We have a great coach in Joe Trainer who’s building a program the right way, with a lot of kids from Rhode Island, New England and New Jersey.”
The decision had just about everything to do with finances.
“What we did,” Bjorn said, “was focused on continuing to play football. The fear I had was that the teams we were losing, Hofstra and Northeastern, along with additional budget cuts, could put our program at risk.”
It’s ironic — as well as frustrating, if you’re a Rhody rooter — to see the Rams moving in one direction while two teams they beat last season, UMass and Villanova, are headed in quite another.
But the reality is that there were only 3,144 fans in the stands when URI stunned the third-ranked Wildcats, 17-14, on Nov. 6, and just 3,156 two weeks later when Rhody outscored the Minutemen, 37-34.
“We haven’t gotten great attendance numbers,” Bjorn acknowledged.
Part of the reason for that is that URI has had just three winning seasons in the last 20. Even last year, when they also upset eighth-ranked New Hampshire in Kingston, 28-25, the Rams finished 5-6.
In contrast, UMass won the Division I-AA national championship in 1998, and has played in the title game three times. The Minutemen drew more than 16,000 fans to Amherst last fall for games against Holy Cross and Richmond, and played in front of 32,848 when they took on UNH at Gillette Stadium, in Foxboro.
“We’re averaging 3,000 while they’re averaging 15,000 – that’s a big difference in terms of marketability,” said Bjorn, who played college football at UMass, winning three varsity letters, and was the senior associate athletic director at his alma mater before coming to URI in 2007.
That’s not the only difference between the burgeoning programs at UMass and Villanova, and what has been the somewhat tenuous state of the program at URI.
“They’re looking to invest a lot more money to compete at the next level,” Bjorn said. “Those schools have made that determination to put a lot of resources into the program and, in both cases, it makes some sense. I applaud them.”
A similar move does not make sense at URI, where some people question whether it makes sense to play football at all.
Bjorn, however, is a firm and ardent supporter of the program.
“I think it’s important,” he said, “to keep playing football. It’s a chance to bring people to campus on five or six Saturdays in the fall — which, in my opinion, is the best time to come to Kingston.
“The college football experience is great fun. It’s a great way to bring large groups to campus, and it’s something for the students to rally behind.”
And if the Rams are winning, Bjorn believes, the students — as well as alumni and football fans in southern New England — will turn out in larger numbers.
“Winning is the best marketing tool there is,” he said. “If you’re not winning, people will find other things to do. And regional rivalries, even if they’re new, with teams like Bryant and Central Connecticut, are only going to help.”
It also should help that the Rams will have a better chance of winning the automatic national playoff berth that goes to the Northeast conference champion than of getting into the tournament from the CAA, even though that conference annually garners several at-large bids, in addition to qualifying its regular-season champ.
At one time, Bjorn had hopes of reviving a version of the old Yankee Conference, with Northeastern, Hofstra and perhaps Villanova joining URI, UMass, UNH and Maine. But that idea’s dead now, and northern schools UNH and Maine are, figuratively speaking, soon to be out in the cold, except when they have to head South, where most of the CAA schools will be located.
As for the Rams, they’re content with their impending move to the Northeast Conference.
“We’ve found a home that suits us,” Bjorn said. “I’m happy about the direction we’re going.”
By Jim Donaldson, The Providence Journal