By David Coulson, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is no doubt that, at worst, many conference alignments in college athletics are marriages of convenience. But the post-nuptial agreement reached this week between Fordham and the Patriot League seems more like an old-fashioned shotgun wedding.
Months after Fordham coach Tom Masella let the secret out at an alumni gathering that the Rams would pursue a scholarship route in football, Fordham and the Patriot League announced on Friday that the Rams would begin offering scholarships for the 2010 season but would remain an associate member of the league.
The PL will continue to schedule a full-slate of games for Fordham through 2012, but the Rams will not be eligible for the conference championship or the league's automatic bid to the playoffs starting in 2010.
This agreement, which was voted on this week by the Patriot League football presidents, seems to buy time for all parties. It gives Fordham three years to determine the best conference solution to match its long-term plans, and it provides the notoriously slow-moving PL with a more comfortable timeframe to grapple with and discuss the issue of scholarships.
But make no mistake, this is anything but a perfect solution, and when the next three years are up, we could see Fordham move to a conference more in line with its future goals, unless the PL follows the Rams' lead.
When Fordham joined the Patriot League for football in 1989, the Rams were scratching their way back into the realm of Division I. The school, which had given the football world Vince Lombardi, Alex Wojciechowicz and the Seven Blocks of Granite and had played in the Cotton Bowl and the Sugar Bowl in the 1940s, was still rebuilding its program after the disastrous decision to drop in 1954.
The Rams were bottom-feeders in most years before Dave Clawson led them to a Patriot League title and NCAA quarterfinal appearance in 2002. After a brief downturn following Clawson's departure to Richmond, Masella has built the program back to a strong position, winning the PL crown in 2007. He should have them back in title contention again in 2009.
"This is a great day for Fordham football," Masella said. "Being able to award scholarships based on athletic ability will greatly increase the pool of student-athletes that we are able to recruit. We are pleased to be able to maintain our Patriot League schedule and at the same time, look to enhance our schedule with the addition of some FBS schools along with top FCS schools. In the end this will aid us in achieving our ultimate goal, a chance to compete for an NCAA FCS championship."
Fordham athletic director Frank McLaughlin did a concise job of boiling down the Rams' reasons for moving forward in his public remarks on Friday morning.
"I would like to publicly thank the Patriot League as this has been a long process of ongoing discussion and I appreciate everyone's understanding," said McLaughlin. "We look forward to continuing our relationship with the League's schools, along with our ongoing annual rivalry with Columbia University. We also look forward to the opportunity to compete in future games with other Ivy League schools now on the schedule such as Cornell, Penn, Yale and Harvard. Finally, the scholarships will allow us to renew rivalries with Army and Villanova and to enhance our schedule with the addition of schools such as Navy and Connecticut."
Fordham announced it will eventually fund 60 of a possible 63 scholarships, and the Rams already have games in place with UConn in 2011, Navy and Villanova in 2012 and Army in 2014 and 2015. The game with Army will be the first between the one-time New York state powerhouses since 1949.
You can also expect Fordham to eventually enhance and probably enlarge outdated, 7,000-seat Jack Coffey Field.
While Fordham was forcing the Patriot League's hand on the scholarship situation, much in the same way Holy Cross did when the Crusaders pushed the PL towards basketball scholarships in the late 1990s, the timing isn't right for the PL to follow the Rams just yet.
It wouldn't be surprising to see schools like Colgate, Lehigh and Lafayette make an argument for a move from need-based aid to a scholarship model, with Holy Cross and even Bucknell likely on the fence. But the current economic climate isn't going to let those schools take such a risky financial plunge just yet.
There are also signs that the Patriot League sees a future where the non- scholarship system might cause its teams to fall further behind the rest of FCS in terms of competitiveness.
"There is strong desire both on the part of Fordham and the Patriot League to continue our long-standing relationship," said Bucknell President Brian C. Mitchell, the chairman of the Patriot League Council of Presidents. "The interim arrangement we have agreed to will allow Fordham to begin to award scholarships in football while affording the league time to address merit aid for football and broader issues related to membership expansion. This issue comes at a very difficult financial time on all of our campuses."
Here is hoping that this shotgun wedding, while a little awkward right now, will blossom into true love...of the scholarship kind.
06/05 15:24:44 ET