Saturday, December 22, 2012

What If: Purity

* January 2004: Division III grandfathers programs with Division I scholarships

OutKast - Hey Ya!

When word got out in the summer of 2003 that the president of Middlebury College was proposing to restrict Division III schools that "play up" in Division I from offering athletic scholarships in their Division I sports, it sounded like a cruel joke.

"Let's issue is athletic scholarships, " John McCardell had said. "Let's debate that issue. The evidence is the [1983] waiver [allowing the "play up" scholarships]. It's a general acknowledgement that what they're doing is at variance from what is the Division III philosophy."

Thus, the gauntlet was thrown down. Division III was suffering the impure stain of scholarships offered by eight institutions - RPI in men's hockey, Clarkson and St. Lawrence in men's and women's hockey, Colorado College in men's hockey and women's soccer, Johns Hopkins in men's and women's lacrosse, Oneonta State in men's soccer, Hartwick in women's water polo, and Rutgers-Newark in men's volleyball. In McCardell's view, this was an affront to the 416 other Division III schools, and demanded their immediate revocation, for the sake of Division III purity. Proposition 65 was born.

McCardell assembled his allies. "There's nothing that prevents them from continuing their Division I competition, but do it without giving financial aid. Division III schools should never give athletic-related financial aid, ever." So said Donna Ledwin, commissioner of the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference, against all semblance of logic.

"It's special interest legislation that gives special treatment to eight members," declared Lincoln College president Ivory Nelson.

Battle lines were drawn. Twenty years after RPI's first scholarship athletes graduated, that privilege was in serious danger. The old Tri-State League rivals - RPI, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence, bitter enemies on the ice, found themselves sharing a foxhole in a fight for survival. Fortunately, RPI had a dynamic young leader helming the athletic department in Ken Ralph. In just his second year on the job, he was facing a serious threat to his school's premier athletic program, and he was ready to take the lead in order to fight it.

Ralph banded together with his counterparts at the other seven institutions to put together an all-out counteroffensive against McCardell's crusade, seeking to educate presidents and athletic directors all over Division III about the importance of defeating the measure - after all, it was one that affected only a very small percentage of the wider D-III membership, and could easily have just been voted in without a great deal of thought.

Ralph and his cohorts pulled out the big guns, launching an internet campaign called Stop Prop 65. Hockey games turned into pseudo-political rallies. Senator Charles Schumer hosted a press conference at Houston Field House urging the NCAA to defeat Proposition 65. The greater college hockey community mobilized - Ralph even received a phone call from a season ticket holder at Northern Michigan, a school RPI had never and still has never played, asking what he could do to help.

And still, heading into the NCAA's Division III convention in Nashville, no one was sure of success. There had been a great deal of hemming and hawing "we'll see" responses, and plenty of support for the measure to be found. So as the convention began, the eight schools went on offense. They proposed an amendment to Prop 65 - Proposition 65-1 - that would bar Division III schools from offering athletic scholarships, but grandfather the eight institutions which were already doing so.

It was a gamble. The eight schools ran the risk of appearing to be asking for even more special treatment, and the supporters of Proposition 65 tried their to make that argument. Ultimately, the education campaign paid off. 65-1 was taken as a legitimate compromise between the nature of the programs in question and the drive for a more pure Division III, it passed 296-106. Proposition 65 was then passed as amended, 304-89. 65-1 was ultimately supported by all but one Division III school that shared a conference with one or more of the affected schools (Union).

Thus, going forward, RPI, St. Lawrence, Clarkson, and Colorado College continue to offer athletic scholarships. This is also why Union and RIT are unable to do so, Union didn't offer them at the time and RIT didn't move to Division I in hockey until 2005.

RPI also made the announcement that women's hockey would move to Division I shortly after the vote.

A win was a win, and a bullet was dodged thanks to some very hard work by a number of stakeholders. But what if their argument had failed to persuade the fence-sitters in Nashville? What if the McCardells of the world had won the day, and scholarships had been stricken from those eight institutions?

At the time, public discussion on what would be done if Proposition 65 passed unamended was pretty much forbidden. After all, it would have done little good for the campaign if it appeared that members were prepared to either swallow the measure or bolt Division III to avoid its effects. For the sake of recruiting, both RPI hockey and Johns Hopkins lacrosse insisted they would continue to play in Division I, but the lack of specifics to potential recruits across the board on whether or not they would still have scholarships as seniors (with Prop 65 slated to take effect in 2008) surely played a negative role regardless of the declarations.

This scenario is easier to examine than some of the other ones, because there were only a few options available as contingencies if Proposition 65 had been enacted.

First, RPI could have chosen to drop the hockey program to Division III for the sake of competitiveness. This was practically always considered probably the least likely scenario, given all that the program had survived over the course of its history.

The next option would have been the "do nothing" option, simply playing in Division I without scholarships in hockey while remaining in Division III in other sports. In hindsight, this possibly could have been made to work, especially given that the last two Division III programs to reach the Frozen Four were... RIT and Union. They're getting by without scholarships, and it's possible that the other four schools could have managed to get by without them too (although Colorado College specifically would have had a much harder go of it), although to say that RIT and Union "don't offer scholarships," without putting the word "athletic" into it, is a bit misleading.

The third option was to move out of Division III, and was ultimately a pair of options - a move to Division II, or a move to what was then Division I-AA. Division II, geographically, was a poor option - it would have left RPI playing against schools like Saint Rose, Le Moyne, Pace, and Adelphi on a regular basis, schools which don't have a great deal in common with RPI other than location.

Division I-AA, however, would have offered some clear potential. As we've mentioned before, RPI would have found a number of similar schools in the Patriot League, and (at the time) would have even been able to keep costs down due to a lack of football scholarships in the league. At the end of the day, this option, presuming the Patriot League would have been open to accepting RPI as a member, would have been the most likely scenario.

Hindsight tells us that RPI's window for Division I accession would have been slim - in 2007, the NCAA issued a moratorium on teams moving into Division I, which means the school would have had three years to get the process underway. With scholarships scheduled to be revoked in 2008, it's likely that it would have been done relatively quickly.

There is one event in particular which took place a month before the vote in Nashville that may have nudged RPI in that direction. The football team, a local laughingstock for decades, broke through with not only its first ever NCAA tournament win, but three in a row as the Engineers advanced to the national semifinals before falling to eventual national champions St. John's just one win from the Stagg Bowl. The football team captivated campus at a time when it was in need of a pick-me-up, given the Prop 65 fight.

The combination of the football team's success and the fight to stop Proposition 65 was a bit of an enlightenment for RPI president Shirley Ann Jackson. Having focused almost entirely on academics since her arrival on campus in 1999, she began to see in full the popularity of athletics between the march through the national tournament in football and the impassioned response of alums to the NCAA threat in hockey. It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that in the wake of a lost battle against Prop 65, she could have been convinced to push forward with expanded early plans for a new East Campus Athletic Village that would allow the football and basketball teams to take on Ivy League opponents with a similar regularity as the hockey team while allowing the school's premiere sport to maintain competitiveness in Division I.

Money was the issue - but Dr. Jackson has never had a problem coming up with money when the urge or the need arises, that's for sure. Had Proposition 65-1 failed, it's very likely that we'd be seeing RPI competing as a Division I Football Championship Subdivision school today - but the possible cost to the hockey program of such a move weighs just as much as what it would have gained through continued ability to offer athletic scholarships.

No longer separated from other offerings by a special distinction, hockey would be jockeying for position with a football team now facing Colgate, Holy Cross, and Yale rather than Union, Merchant Marine, and Alfred, and basketball teams able to tap into the very popular Albany basketball market with competition against Siena and UAlbany, not to mention the money bonanza that would go along with a potential invitation to the March Madness dance.

Despite the likelihood of this scenario, RPI is far better off today because of the success of 65-1 regardless of the excitement that Division I athletics would have brought to campus. Despite its opposition to the purity drive of Prop 65, RPI as an institution does place its emphasis on academics and research, and it's commitment to Division III values allows the school to keep that emphasis there, while allowing for the special history of hockey at the Institute. It's a win-win, despite the allure of what could have become.

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