Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Glorious Revolution

In Basketball, Football, William & Mary on May 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Evaluating William and Mary’s future in a post-CAA world.

It’s springtime in Virginia. The year’s shad has been planked, flowers are blooming and the days are meandering through that languid period between bitter winter and oppressive humidity. If you’re a sports fan, last season’s shortcomings have vanished amid the seductive promise of recruiting updates and conference reshufflings.

Unless you’re a William and Mary sports fan.

Fresh off a disappointing slate in football and a disastrous year at Kaplan Arena, the last month’s machinations have not been kind to the Tribe. With Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University likely moving to the Atlantic-10 and Old Dominion fleeing to Conference USA, the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference in many ways a near-perfect scenario for the Tribe, might be entering its death throes.

In reality, it was never going to last. Rising programs at sizable schools in significant media markets are targets for desperate second-tier conferences, and few are more attractive than the aforementioned CAA schools. Richer conferences were always going to come calling with promises of an elevation to the next level of three- or four-bid leagues or FBS football.

William and Mary, long the awkward stepchild of the CAA, holds little allure. As if the school’s equally limited and unreliable fan base and small student body size weren’t handicapping enough, the Tribe has also found itself unable to tap into any major media market. Surrounded by schools with the aim of building national reputations, William and Mary is as invisible as can be.

This fact is to the eternal frustration of the small portion of the Tribe’s fan base that is as fervent as any other, but it’s true. The CAA, under its present constitution, represents the ideal of what the Tribe could gain from its conference — a very good league that is elite in FCS football, strong in basketball, and competent in many of the smaller sports in which William and Mary has found considerable success. The Tribe was never going to be invited to join a league as strong in basketball as the CAA is now, and the conference’s evolution in that area was an added bonus. It also featured as fearsome a collection of football programs as exists in FCS, making this conference the perfect fit for the Tribe.

Some of those programs became a bit too good, created a bit too much financial potential, and are now reaping the rewards. The future of the CAA now looks bleak to nonexistent.

So, what options do exist for William and Mary? To preempt one line of thought, any suggestions of FBS football are delusional to the point of concern. The Tribe lacks the necessary fan base, student body and profit margin to accommodate such a switch. That won’t change.

That leaves the Patriot League or the Southern Conference, as the conventional wisdom goes. Should it come to that, the school would have to choose between peer programs that are an academic fit and those that are a regional fit. Across all sports, the former would be the superior choice, but would severely underserve a football program with a long and storied history.

The best potential for an ideal future may lie in a radical realignment of the college football landscape. Hinted at here and there, a plan has been discussed around the margins of reliability that would see four to six major conferences, likely with a total number of around 64-70 teams, break off to form a league not governed by the NCAA, possibly one in which players were paid. These schools, flush with the media money, would then compete amongst each other, hopefully with a playoff system in place. Then, a second league would be formed, remaining under the NCAA, which incorporated the bottom half of the current FBS and the top part of the current FCS. Those schools would compete under the system already in place and governed by NCAA rules and regulations. Incidents of schools profiteering at the expense of players and the NCAA’s excessive governing hand could be diminished, and the Tribe could find a level of play tailor made for its abilities and tradition.

Similarly, all other sports would exist separate from conference restraints imposed by football, allowing the Tribe to select the league that best suits it across the board: the Patriot League. Basketball would compete at a level much more suited for the program’s available funding, and olympic sports would find a solid and varied collection of opponents of a similar academic clime.

To be sure, this scenario is in no way imminent (and may never even make it off the drawing board). But it is the Tribe’s best hope for an ideal future in a post-CAA world.

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