Monday, August 1, 2011

Excellence, Leadership, and Community

You know what today is? It's Monday. Yes, it's the first of the mooooooooonth. First day of August. Last full month without college hockey since the women get underway with an exhibition game in late September. Freshmen will begin arriving on campus this month, with captain's practices and then classes shortly to follow.

There's one other thing going on today that should be considered, however - the lifting of the NCAA's four-year moratorium on Division I membership. For the last four years, no school has been allowed to move their athletic program from D-II or D-III (or the NAIA) into the nation's top level.

With all that's going on in this offseason, it does beg the question - is this something RPI should consider?

During the Prop 65 debates in late 2003, the Institute began investigating contingency options for the proposal's passage. Having been a minor party to some of the discussions at the time, the option to move the entire athletic program to Division I was certainly explored. One of the more popular rumors had RPI and Johns Hopkins (which was similarly fighting for its lacrosse scholarships) joining the Patriot League, a D-I conference which consists of American University, Army, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh, and Navy as full members, with Fordham and Georgetown included for football (replacing Army and Navy, which play as independents at the highest D-I level).

A couple of weeks back, we discussed the possibility of RPI having the opportunity and the option to move to Hockey East. We discussed some of the pros and cons from both RPI and Hockey East's vantage point. BC Interruption, an all-BC blog, examined those pros and cons a few days later, coming to the conclusion that the con of RPI's Division III status might be a hurdle that would keep them from being considered, which was one of the things we expected Hockey East might not be too thrilled with.

But even if we lay Hockey East aside for a moment, is Division I a good fit for RPI? It's not outside the realm of possibility, especially if we're still talking about the Patriot League, which in many ways is Division I's answer to Atlantic Hockey. It started out as a cost-containment league without any athletic scholarships to speak of whatsoever, but that changed a little over a decade ago when American University was added to the conference's numbers. Today, athletic aid is available in every sport but the usually scholarship-heavy sport of football, which is limited to need-based aid, just as with all aid in Division III.

In 2003, when the idea was approached, it was obvious that the Institute's facilities were a huge stumbling block moving forward. The East Campus Athletic Village only existed on paper - but now that it is a reality, it is far less of a concern. ECAV Stadium and ECAV Arena are admittedly small by Division I standards, but neither would be the smallest and both have room for growth. Houston Field House, too, is just yards away if a much bigger capacity is needed for basketball games - they have been held there in the past, and the renovated Field House has been called a centerpiece of the ECAV.

RPI's position as a "small school" in the grander scheme of things, is largely linked to their Division III status. Yet, in the Patriot League, by enrollment, the Institute would be outpaced only by Lehigh and American. By selectivity, if that's an important metric, RPI actually fits better in the Patriot League than it does in the Liberty League, its current home.

There are a number of positives that could be gained from a move to Division I. Remember that Ivy League connection we said the school cherished about its ECAC membership? Well, basically every Patriot League program has at least one or two non-conference games against the Ivy League on a yearly basis.

Locally, there's really not much of a college football scene outside of RPI and Union - though UAlbany's clearly trying to grab the brass ring with their new stadium proposal. A Division I (FCS) program, even one without scholarships, would be an instant attraction.

Division I would also potentially grant RPI access to the biggest sport scene of all in the Capital District - college basketball. It's owned by Siena, but UAlbany has their own following, and a third team could make for some very interesting local rivalries indeed.

The impetus for ECAV is found in the pages of the Rensselaer Plan, a set of operational guidelines the school has followed for over a decade which has as its stated goal, "[t]o achieve greater prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact." Now, athletics doesn't directly make us that world-class technological research university. But at its core, the Rensselaer Plan is about striving to be the best in everything that we do as a school, as students, faculty, and alumni alike. It could be argued that Division I athletics would be a part of that aim. As the plan says, "three fundamental markers will drive our actions: excellence, leadership, and community."

Of course, there are plenty of downsides to the idea, too. Those traditional rivalries we talked about in the Hockey East discussion wouldn't just be compromised, they'd be gone. No more Dutchmen's Shoes. No more baseball and basketball rivalries with Union and Clarkson. Those would definitely be a thing of the past, and that definitely wouldn't be easy to say goodbye to.

Hockey's special status would potentially be in jeopardy as well. Hockey is part of the school's identity in part because its Division I separation from the rest of the athletic program sets it apart. If the school were to change that, it would potentially be threatened by the two sports much more followed nationally - football and basketball.

There's also the scholarship question. Does the school want to commit to scholarships for its athletes in other sports? Would some sports get the shaft - to include a potential ax? If so, which ones?

This is all just food for thought as the possibility becomes real again. We don't have an opinion on whether RPI should try to make this move, because the negatives are very difficult to tangle with, and the positives are far from assured. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written, Mr. Reale. Thanks much for your insight - it has not gone unnoticed!

    IMHO, the Patriot League would relish the notion of having RPI as a member. Given current NCAA guidelines, nothing whatsoever about Rensselaer hockey would have to change should Engineer supporters successfully persuade the Institute's decision makers to supplement its athletic funding in order to join the Patriot League as an NCAA Division I member.

    Of course, a move to Division I and the Patriot League would require more spending. But take a hard look at the current Patriot League members. Study their academic profiles, endowments, campus size and demographics, and their percentage of budget/working capital spent on athletics.

    Now, look at the history of of Patriot League members and their record of success against peer institutions.

    You'd have to play Colgate, Harvard, Cornell and Holy Cross in football, though. Would you like that?

    I think that RPI can, and should, step up and participate in Division I athletics with the Patriot League. You'd have to vastly expand football and recruit top scholarship basketball talent, but it can (and should) be done at RPI.

    As a Patriot Leage fan (and nothing more), I'd love to have you here.

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