Monday, December 17, 2012

What If: Money in the Bank

Late 1970s: Scholarships come to RPI

The Knack - My Sharona

The program survived the turbulent 1960s, and once the 1970s began, the Engineers were back to being regularly competitive within the ECAC. Leon Abbott took over for Garry Kearns in 1969, leaving after three years with a winning record. Jim Salfi became RPI's fifth head coach of the modern era after Abbott's departure, moving to Troy from the University of Pennsylvania, which was the Ivy League's seventh program at the time.

Competitiveness was a relative thing in the 1970s, and it started slowly - the Engineers qualified for the ECAC Tournament in 1971, 1972, and 1973, but were blown out each time in the one-game quarterfinals. In 1974, they broke through with an overtime win over a UNH team considered the best in the nation (keeping the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament in the process), but were humbled by Harvard and Cornell in the semifinals and consolation games. 1977 and 1978 brought more tournament qualifications, but no breakthroughs, not even at home against eventual league champions Boston College in 1978, the Engineers' first ever home game in the tournament (a 7-6 overtime loss).

For a side that wasn't among the beasts of the east in the 1970s, six tournament appearances in eight years was no slight feat. Only eight teams made the tournament back then, and the league was comprised of 17 programs for much of the decade. But the Engineers were surely facing a bit of a ceiling that they just couldn't break through. They couldn't get past the BUs, BCs, Cornells, and Harvards of the league, and although they'd put a serious gap between much of the rest of the league, they weren't looking likely to breach the top tier any time soon.

Looking back, it's fairly impressive that RPI was able to do what it did without having the Ivy League pedigree of Cornell and Harvard, or the big school/scholarship allure of most of the teams that eventually formed Hockey East. RPI had a solid educational background, but without the fanfare that came with being Harvard. The only thing to do was pretty obvious - athletic scholarships.

The concept of athletic scholarships had been around since 1950, but it wasn't until 1973, when the NCAA developed clear guidelines for scholarships (and the three divisions) that they became a strategic element. RPI was (and still is) a Division III school - one that did not offer athletic scholarships at all, but the hockey program was certainly incongruous with the rest of the athletic department.

The debate over athletic scholarships was simple - the Division III mentality saw them as a watering down of the educational foundation of the school, by and large, and the question at RPI was really one of philosophy over expediency.

By the time Holy Cross coach Mike Addesa arrived in Troy in 1979, the argument was pointed. Addesa looked at the situation, and made his case to the administration - the program needed scholarships to compete, and they needed them immediately. Now 25 years removed from the national championship that had placed the school on the map, the school could not draw the top Canadian talent that was flocking to Clarkson and St. Lawrence thanks to proximity, could not draw the talent that flocked to the Ivy League pedigree, and couldn't hope to compete with BC or BU on equal grounds without being able to offer financial incentive.

Addesa clashed with administration on this issue until he finally got his way. He made enemies in the process, which would lead to his downfall a decade later, but in time for the 1981-82 season, the first set of scholarship athletes arrived in Troy. They didn't know it right away, but these would become names etched in RPI history. Tim Friday. Ken Hammond. Mike Sadeghpour. Pierre Langevin. All four would eventually skate for and win RPI's second national championship in their final game in the Cherry and White.

The second scholarship class was even bigger. George Servinis. Kraig Nienhuis. Mike Dark. Mark Jooris. John Carter. And, of course, Adam Oates. An NHL-caliber goaltender in Daren Puppa arrived in 1983, and the rest is history.

The speed with which Addesa brought RPI from the middle of the ECAC to the top of the nation with the mere addition of athletic scholarships is a testament to his abilities as both a recruiter and a coach. When Adam Oates was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, he singled out Mike Addesa by name for what he'd done for his career in bringing him to Troy.

This "what if" scenario is a bit of a two-fer. What if RPI had failed to institute athletic scholarships in the early 1980s, and alternatively, what if Adam Oates had never come to RPI? The latter would have been a possibility had Oates been drafted by the Ontario Hockey League, but the confluence of scholarships and a lack of interest from major junior set into motion events that would lead to RPI's second national championship.

There is little argument that the team Addesa assembled to become one of the greatest college teams in the history of the sport would never have come together without the incentive of athletic scholarships, but the addition of Oates to the lineup in 1982 was just as vital. It helped attract additional key pieces to the Engineers for their monster seasons in 1984 and 1985.

Without scholarships, RPI likely maintains the trajectory they were on in the 1970s, and after the Hockey East split, would have probably put together a path similar to that of Dartmouth in the late 1980s and 1990s, perhaps a touch better - in the lower half of the 12-team league most years, occasionally reaching the middle of the conference but never more than that. If resistance to scholarships had continued through 2003, when the NCAA grandfathered Division III schools offering them in their Division I sports, by the time the present day rolled around, there would surely have been discussions whether moving to Atlantic Hockey, with its restrictions on scholarships, would be in the program's best interest. In all likelihood, the program would probably be more similar to that of RIT today.

If the school had instead offered scholarships later down the road, the effect probably would not have propelled them to the heights they reached during the mid-1980s - Colgate and St. Lawrence, when they began offering scholarships, did not suddenly become world beaters. The timing had to work out just perfectly for the Engineers in the early 1980s, and historically, it was the right move at the right time in order to get the right players.

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