Friday, October 10, 2008

Hofstra vs. Bucknell: Like clockwork, every 14 years

"Hey Nat I know you said you'd tell my dad if I ever bet again, but this guy wants to bet me Hofstra won't play Bucknell again for another 14 years!"

Seeing Bucknell on the football schedule brings back a lot of fond memories. The first football game I ever covered at Hofstra—and the first road game I ever covered in any sport—was at Bucknell on Sept. 10, 1994. It involved getting up at 5:30 am—amazingly, I did not sleep through the alarm—and taking the spirit support/band bus to Lewisburg, PA.

I remember packing a Walkman (click the link, kiddies) and a lot of tapes I’d recorded off CD, including this criminally underrated gem by Cheap Trick which I now have loaded on my iPod. (No idea why I can remember stuff like that, yet forget to do the laundry)

I remember Bucknell handing out “Hammer Hofstra” buttons as fans walked in. I should have grabbed one of those, especially since Hofstra hammered Bucknell 45-21. It’d be a cool memento—not as cool as a basketball signed by VBK and three other guys, but pretty neat nonetheless.

You probably could have made a lot of money if you bet me that night that Hofstra would not play Bucknell again for another 14 years—if only I could have found somebody willing to bet on the future schedules for Hofstra football. Hey, I bet this guy would have chased that action! (Watching a Very Special Episode of Beverly Hills 90210 as I write has its advantages)

At the time, the Flying Dutchmen were in their second season as a full-fledged Division I-AA independent and just beginning to stir as The Little Team That Could. The administration recognized it couldn’t remain an independent forever and was hopeful that playing multiple games per season against Patriot League foes would lead to an offer to join a conference that, like Hofstra, was filled with schools whose football teams had just moved from Division III to I-AA and did not award scholarships in football.

Hofstra also believed it was a good academic fit with the Patriot League, which is one tier below the Ivy League (I’ll pause long enough for you to choke your laughter). The Patriot League—filled with institutions at least a century older than Hofstra—did not think likewise and ignored Hofstra’s pleading eyes.

The Flying Dutchmen’s brilliant ’94 season changed the University’s expectations for the football program. In January ’95, Hofstra gave up on the Patriot League—whose existence appeared endangered with Fordham and Holy Cross reportedly seeking new homes—and began offering scholarships as it turned its gaze towards the Yankee Conference.

“The reason we held back on football scholarships is that we wanted to maintain our relationship with the Patriot League,” President James Shuart told Newsday in 1995.

That relationship came to a screeching halt once Hofstra began offering scholarships. The Flying Dutchmen played four Patriot League teams in 1993 and three apiece in 1994 and 1995, but since then, the program has played more playoff games against Patriot League foes (two) than regular season games (one).

“We’re not playing with the same type of kids they’re playing with,” Fordham coach Nick Quartaro told Newsday after Hofstra beat the Rams, 36-15, in 1995. It was the last game between the two schools, who met 22 times in the previous 23 years.

While feelings were no doubt bruised on both sides, Hofstra and the Patriot League thrived independent of each other. Hofstra eventually landed in the conference formerly known as the Yankee and currently known as the CAA and made the playoffs as an independent in 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2000 before winning the A-10 in the program’s debut season in 2001. A CAA school has reached the I-AA title game four times in the last five years and four of the top 10 teams in this week’s I-AA Top 25 poll are from the CAA, including top-ranked James Madison.

The Patriot League survived, but with just six football schools, it accepted Towson as a football-only member in 1997. Joe Gardi, who was offended by the Patriot’s snub, always took great delight in pointing out how the conference had to stoop to accepting a state school in order to remain viable. (Towson left for the CAA after the 2003 season)

Despite its non-scholarship status, the Patriot League receives an automatic bid to the I-AA tournament—Lehigh lost to Hofstra in 1999 but beat the Flying Dutchmen in 2001—and Gardi had to like what he saw in 2003, when Colgate proved non-scholarship opponents could run with the big dogs by reaching the Division I-AA championship game, where it fell to Delaware 40-0.

The funny thing is I’d bet today’s Powers That Be would be perfectly content if Hofstra had landed in the Patriot League and if Bucknell was an annual foe instead of a once-every-three-Olympiads-and-then-some non-conference opponent. It’s no secret that the football team is a blight on the bottom line—as one unidentified member of the athletic department described the program to Newsday’s Steve Marcus in 2004: “Dig a hole, put five million in it and throw dirt over it”— nor that President Rabinowitz isn’t a huge fan of athletics in general.

But Hofstra’s too invested in the CAA to turn back now. The bright side to remaining in the top I-AA conference in the land is the opportunity to make back some of the football investment via $250,000 games against I-A schools such as UConn, Boston College and Army.

There’s no money to be had in visiting Bucknell for the first time in 14 years, just a chance for the Flying Dutchmen to erase the sting of last weekend’s record-setting thrashing at the hands of James Madison. Conventional wisdom says Hofstra should beat the non-scholarship Bison, who were picked to finish sixth in the seven-team Patriot League, but, well, that didn’t work so well against Albany. And Bucknell—which is 3-1 and no stranger to nail-biters; its four games have been decided by a total of 14 points—is surely not lacking for motivation in its only game of the season against a program with the full allotment of scholarships.

I’ll guess two things: That Dave Cohen and his staff pray Cory Christopher can continue to take every single snap…and that special teams will be the difference in another game decided by less than seven points. Which, you know, makes me nervous.

(To the surprise of no one, I wrote much more than I expected, so the mailbag and links will have to wait until next week)

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1 comment:

KACattack said...

I just did a happy dance when I saw that picture! In fact, I was so excited to see Brandon and Nat that I decided to comment before even reading a word of your post!!! (Which I'm gonna do now, I swear...)