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Departures, additions change face of CAA football
Bobby Wilder had no way of knowing that his professional future would include being part of history or a geographic trend, but as an assistant coach at Maine 15 years ago, he had an inkling which direction the winds were blowing for Division I-AA football on the eastern seaboard.
The man charged with resurrecting Old Dominion’s program saw the passion for and commitment to football in the south. He saw the original six-team league of New England schools with which he grew up and in which he played add Richmond and Delaware and Villanova and William and Mary and James Madison.
Wilder saw the new programs thrive, while the established New England schools often grappled with decisions about the status of their football programs. He saw schools de-emphasize or disband programs, while a couple of others chose to take the plunge into Division I-A.
The result is a league that began 65 years ago as the Yankee Conference soon will have seven members located south of the Mason-Dixon line and just two teams north of Philadelphia — Maine and New Hampshire.
“It’s difficult to watch it happening, to see what’s happening with the northern schools,” Wilder said last week at the Colonial Athletic Association’s preseason football media day. “But the strength of this league, the reputation of this league, it seems like teams want in.
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“If you’re not in an established league and you’re in the mid-Atlantic or southern states, it seems like everybody’s calling Commissioner (Tom) Yeager and saying, how do we get in this league? It’s exciting because of the strength of the league.”
The CAA is in the midst of a decidedly southern shift. Massachusetts leaves after this season, moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Mid-American Conference. Rhode Island announced that it would leave following the 2012 season for the Northeast Conference, a clear de-emphasis of football.
Two years ago, Hofstra and Northeastern dropped their programs, citing the rising costs of competing at the top level of FCS.
Meanwhile, Old Dominion and Georgia State, two large public universities in football-hungry states, added the sport. ODU enters its first season of CAA competition after three years of building the foundation, while Georgia State becomes a full competing member in 2012.
“I looked up and said, this is the framework, geographically, of the Pac-10,” longtime Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. “You’ve got Washington and Southern California. You look at us at Maine, and now we’re all the way down to Atlanta. It’s a lesser degree, in terms of level of football, but it just brings so much diversity to the conference.”
Cosgrove, a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander who played in the Yankee Conference and has spent his entire life in the northeast, said it’s a little difficult to watch the league’s transformation, but understands that the sport seems to trend southward.
“What’s going on is it shows the importance of football in the mid-Atlantic and southern states compared to the northeast,” he said. “Down south, there might be three sports: football, spring football and NASCAR. In New England, there’s 75 sports. Because of that, I think the value of football gets lost at some institutions. They look at the bottom line and the cost and things like that.”
Yankee Conference football existed from 1946-97, when the Atlantic 10 took over the sport and administered the league for a decade.
Six years ago, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager leveraged a takeover that brought the Atlantic 10 under the CAA umbrella. When the CAA offered Northeastern full membership, it gave the league the six schools required to be a football conference.
Yeager and the CAA football schools rejected a suggestion from the A-10 and the northern schools to maintain separate leagues, but enter a collaborative scheduling arrangement. For convenience and competition, the northern football schools agreed to play under the CAA banner.
“Obviously, we’re committed to trying to find answers to work for all the members,” Yeager said. “We’re acutely aware that for Maine and New Hampshire, they’ve lost some long and valued opponents. And then on the institutional level, they’re going to have to sort out a cost-benefit analysis. I don’t know that anybody has an answer.”
Adding to the CAA flux, traditional power Villanova’s future is uncertain. The Wildcats, the 2009 national champs and 2010 semifinalists, could move up to FBS status and the Big East Conference, in which all of its other teams compete.
The Big East, which went way outside its geographic box to add TCU, is still studying its options in regards to Villanova.
“Nothing’s more consistent than change, and I’ve seen a lot of change,” said William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock, who enters his 32nd season and whose team was picked to win the conference. “But the thing that I have seen, that’s been consistent, is that everybody within this league is good and capable of playing with anybody. I promise you that.
“We’re picked No. 1, somebody else is picked last, and they may win the league. There’s no question about that. That’s been the one consistency is the competitiveness of the league, top to bottom.”
Indeed, seven different schools have won or shared the conference title since 2005. The league has sent 21 teams to the playoffs in the past five years. CAA schools have won four of the past eight national championships and made the title game three other occasions.
“I don’t worry about that much,” New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said of the CAA’s southward tilt, “because the league is the best league in the country. Being involved in that type of league really gives your program, your school and more important, your kids, the feeling that this is the most important thing you’re doing in the fall.
“The way I look at it now is that New Hampshire and Maine are sort of the (Boston College) of the ACC. We’re up there, good schools, good football programs, good academic institutions, and you’ve got to travel down to at least Maryland to start playing some really good teams that play in a great league, and that’s what we’re doing.”
New Hampshire has thrived, making seven consecutive playoff appearances and advancing past the first round six times. Maine has made three playoff appearances in the past decade, most recently in 2008.
Cosgrove said that he believes Maine will continue to compete in the CAA and at the highest level of FCS football because the program has cultivated a core of committed donors and boosters.
“Those are the guys that can make the value of football important to certain segments of the school or the administration that may not want it because it doesn’t meet the bottom line,” he said. “That’s really what has become a strength of ours, and something that hopefully prevents this complete gravitational pull to the south. Personally, I have no interest in coaching a lesser level of football than the University of Maine.”
League officials continue to expand the conference’s TV package — last week’s media day, held at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, was broadcast by ESPN3. Coaches expect ODU and Georgia State to field competitive teams out of the chute. Member programs continue to upgrade facilities — witness James Madison’s Bridgeforth Stadium project that will increase seating capacity to approximately 25,000 and Richmond’s new on-campus stadium, not to mention the brand new infrastructure at Old Dominion and Georgia State.
“The only thing that’s changing, to me, is that instead of taking some bus rides, we’re taking plane rides,” McDonnell said. “Travel will change for us. But when you get off the plane to go practice or you get off the plane to go play, you’re in some really great venues. You know football is important when you go down to play those teams. I think our kids like that. I think our alumni love it, that you’re always playing against the best and that’s something we want to do.”
By Dave Fairbank, Newport News, Va., Daily Press