The winds of change are blowing throughout college sports and it isn’t just the BCS conferences that are caught up in the storm of realignment. In a football-driven universe, the FCS powerhouse CAA conference has seen its share of change recently and will need to brace itself for more.
"Over the last ten years, six of the schools that were charter members of the old Yankee Conference have departed," according to CAA commissioner Tom Yeager.
In the last two years, his conference has seen Hofstra and Northeastern drop the sport altogether, Rhode Island agree to move to the Northeastern Conference and Massachusetts begin a transition to FBS status and the Mid-America Conference. Only two FCS football programs claim to operate in the black, and according to Yeager, "I’m not sure even those two do, either."
College football is more and more profit-focused at the highest levels, which causes many to look at the financials of the Championship Subdivision, and wonder, "what is the point?"
"I have a friend that jokes that FCS is ‘not-for-profit’ football," Yeager said. "Institutions are sponsoring the sport for lots of reasons that go beyond the dollars and cents of it; Villanova dropped it at one point back in the 80s and then reinstated it; Division II and III play it and there is even less of a financial return."
He cautioned, "I think too often people identify with the Penn States, with 100,000 people and $100 million athletics budgets, and think that goes throughout I-A, but it doesn’t. That stops real close to the top. It’s not the be-all to end-all."
Despite the lack of financial windfalls that are seen by some of the stronger FBS programs, Yeager believes that there is some value in operating a CAA football program that rises above the red or black ink on the balance sheet. He believes that his member institutions do get what they paid for.
"They do it for other reasons, whatever they are, and their value to the campuses," he insisted.
Intangible benefits aside, with the moves being made by Rhode Island and UMass, it seems that the CAA's brand of football may be trapped in an uncomfortable spot. Playing at the highest levels of FCS football is not without it's drawbacks and the financial commitment has caused two CAA members to drop the sport while a third is moving to the less-costly NEC in 2012.
The costs of participating and being competitive in FCS football are higher than ever, and many programs at the CAA level are building stadiums and training facilities on par with those you might find in the Bowl Subdivision. James Madison, for example just completed substantial upgrades to their stadium and has a state of the art football training and support complex."
Villanova's Andy Talley noted that a new training facility wouldn't just be needed in the event of a move to the Big East. "We need it just to stay where we are," he said.
A fourth CAA member, UMass has already begun the process of transforming itself into a Mid-American Conference program, and speculation suggests that other CAA schools may follow suit.
"I think the landscape is going to change again, you know certainly with what Villanova is doing and there’s talks at JMU," Rhode Island coach Joe Trainer claimed.
Delaware's K.C. Keeler was among the most pessimistic about the future of the CAA conference, "The loss of Northeastern, the loss of Hofstra, Rhode Island moving out, Massachusetts moving out, Villanova talking about moving out . . . James Madison and Old Dominion, are they putting themselves in position to move out if the right scenario happens? There is a lot of mystery.
"I think if the Big East or the ACC is looking for a football-playing partner, we would want to get in. I just don’t know where the CAA is going to be in 3 or 4 or 5 years. If we all know it’s going to stay where it’s at, it’s a great place to be and Delaware is very happy with where we are, but I think the thing we have to be conscious of as an institution is that there is some Mystery with going forward.
"If it can stay all status quo for the next ten years, I think we’re in a great position. This is a great conference, but I’m just afraid it’s not going to stay that way."
Though Keeler suggested that Old Dominion, with it's newly renovated stadium and practice facilities, is positioning itself for a move to the greener pastures of the Bowl Subdivision, Coach Bobby Wilder was hoping the league would stay together. Wilder is a veteran of the CAA, coming to Old Dominion after a stint as an assistant at Maine.
"What’s happened in the league is its almost like only the strong survive; you have to be committed to facilities, you have to be committed to scholarships, you have to be committed to football and committed to trying to build championship programs," Wilder stated.
"I hope Villanova doesn’t leave, because I think they make us a strong league," he added, "Villanova is a very strong member of this league based on the fact that they won a national championship in 2009 and Coach Talley has established a dominant program – they’re good for the league."
The fact remains, however, that most of these programs, given an opportunity to jump to a BCS automatic qualifier conference. with all of the revenue it entails, would not hesitate to leave the CAA hanging. UMass left the league for far less.
"Villanova is looking at a chance with the Big East, and it’s different," Yeager noted. "It’s different than UMass’s situation, completely different."
If more teams did leave (and after Rhode Island joins the NEC in 2013 it seems likely that Maine and New Hampshire will have second thoughts), the CAA could go from a position of strength in FCS football to a more frail position. It is fair to wonder whether expansion plans have been contemplated.
"If somebody brings something — you know there’s a certain level of performance and commitment and everything else," Yeager posited. "Does somebody bring something to the equation commensurate with that, or are they just another mouth at the table to feed?"
While expansion is far from ruled-out by the commissioner's comments, he also indicated that there really aren't any solid plans at this point.
"I don’t know that we’ve gotten to the point of figuring out whose going to come in that’s commensurate with what we’ve got going.
"What we will continue to look at and what they need to evaluate is that there are tremendous benefits to being a member of this league. If at some point the costs outweigh the benefits, then maybe there is something else that’s gonna happen. We’re going to work like crazy to make sure it doesn’t, that it’s not going to be at any kind of initiation from us."
One potential addition for the southward-creeping conference is UNC-Charlotte, who are beginning the process of starting an FCS football program just like Georgia State and Old Dominion have. Charlotte has already tried to link up with the Southern Conference (SoCon) and Big South, but both declined to offer the 49ers membership because of their stated desire to use FCS as a stepping stone to FBS. Would a potentially temporary arrangement scare off the CAA?
"The initial statements [about moving to FBS] have been tempered significantly, and I’ve been in several meetings with the Chancellor – he’ll be at this retreat that’s coming up in a couple weeks – they have a much more deliberate approach.
"The other thing is the structure of the NCAA and conferences is locking down pretty good, so you know, it is for the foreseeable future, I don’t think they’re talking about the same thing anymore.
"Is that something we might look at? Sure. If they seriously want to talk about it, I’m sure we’ll seriously talk to them and see if there’s a meeting of the minds."
Some observers have suggested that with so many CAA programs waiting to find a home in an FBS conference, that perhaps they should just reclassify the entire league as a whole. If they pulled it off, the CAA schools could all have a home in FBS football without losing traditional rivalries – and based on the last few years' performances, some believe it would be a very competitive league.
Yeager takes a more cautious approach to the idea, however.
"Lets pose that question: We’ve got a great TV package, we’ve got great rivalries, it all kind of flows until you get to the postseason. You’d have to invent a couple more bad bowl games, because the present ones are already spoken for.
"When you are going through the playoffs, you’re national champions, you didn’t just win the International Bowl in Toronto that nobody went to. So that’s the debate. We’re comfortable in our skin. I think the FCS can be in the 20-30,000 seat [range] in attendance and be very good."