Thursday, September 24, 2009

When it comes to football, the CAA and scholarships, breaking up is hard to do--but necessary

That Jennifer Aniston is really hot is a secondary reason I posted this photo. OK maybe not.

The following is not solely a reaction to the Flying Dutchmen’s 47-0 loss to Richmond Saturday. It’s a truth that would have been easier to ignore or conceal had the Dutchmen been more competitive in defeat, but one that is more stark and obvious following such a one-sided thrashing.

But it’s time. Enough is enough. Enough with the pretense that Hofstra can compete any longer at the highest level of Division I-AA football.

I realize such a stance will inspire unhappiness (at best) from the small but loyal army of football supporters. Nor am I saying Hofstra should drop football entirely (more on that later), or that the coaches suck or the players stink.

But the current arrangement is not working, on multiple levels. To watch Hofstra in the CAA is like watching a loveless marriage or a workplace relationship lacking any cohesion. It cannot go on forever like this, so at some point, someone has to say it’s not you, it’s me or utter something about how the chemistry just isn’t working, and wish the other good luck with no hard feelings attached.

As noted multiple times this calendar year, the CAA cannot simply add to the current roster of 12 once Old Dominion and Georgia State complete their probationary periods at I-AA. Nor are the CAA’s decision-makers likely to display much patience with programs that can’t keep up with the conference’s record-setting pace.

And a pretty clear line between the haves and have-nots can be found here: The only three CAA schools to suffer shutout losses to I-AA opponents since the start of the 2007 season are Hofstra, Northeastern and Rhode Island.

Hofstra is the only school to suffer multiple shutout losses to I-AA opponents, and the three blankings at the hands of CAA schools in the last 11 games are as many shutout defeats as the program absorbed in the preceding 328 contests dating back to 1978. At some point, the CAA is probably going to clear its throat and ask Hofstra if it can have “The Talk.”

I’m pretty sure the decision-makers at Hofstra are well-aware of this, and have already held some internal version of “The Talk” and pondered how to tactfully tackle the giant elephant in the room.

Supporters of the football program have long been worried about its long-term prognosis, but I didn’t really begin wondering too until Jack Hayes’ interview with WRHU on May 31. Asked to summarize the 2008-09 season for Hofstra athletics, Hayes mentioned nine squads by name and spoke generally of how many teams displayed improvement that was largely produced by underclassmen.

He did not mention the football team, which seemed to be a particularly glaring omission given the one positive to come out of last year for the Dutchmen gridders was how many underclassmen got valuable playing time in a rebuilding season. (The interview is no longer available on the WRHU blog, but I transcribed the entire Q&A and have the quote here if you’re interested)

Now Hayes didn’t mention the cross country teams, or the tennis teams, or baseball, either. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? It’s one thing to be irrelevant and a blip on the bottom line. It’s quite another to be irrelevant and to account for a giant chunk of the entire athletic budget.

To even take a cursory look at the numbers is to be glad you’re not in the shoes of Hayes or President Rabinowitz. According to, the athletic department budget at Hofstra in 2008 was a little more than $19.5 million. The highest-profile program on campus, the men’s basketball team, had an operating budget of just beyond $1.85 million. But the scholarships alone for the football team cost almost $2.7 million.

I-AA football is a monetary eyesore even for the most successful programs in the land. “Football costs at this level, and the benefits you get are not financial,” Richmond athletic director Jim Miller told the Richmond student newspaper, The Collegian, last October, a mere two months before the Spiders won the national championship.

The benefits of I-AA football are certainly not being felt within the Long Island community. Twenty of the top 35 all-time football crowds at Hofstra/Shuart Stadium have occurred during the Dutchmen’s 18 seasons at I-AA. Twelve of those occurred on Homecoming. So once every other season or so, Long Islanders show up to a Dutchmen game in droves—or waves, or at least groups—for the actual football.

It’s too bad, because there’s plenty of pageantry to be enjoyed at the I-AA level. The food smells just as good during the pre-game tailgate parties. The sounds and sights of the game are far crisper from your seat at Shuart Stadium than at, say, Rutgers Stadium. And, once again, if you’re a pure sports fan, you have got to love the idea of a college football national champion being determined on the field, not by equal parts computers and politics.

But it’s been close to two decades now and it’s just not working. The New York sports fan—spoiled by the expectations, success and coverage that accompany the area’s professional sports teams, the Islanders excepted—is a snob. Watching a local team compete in a sport whose national championship game is played on a Friday afternoon or evening on ESPN just doesn’t do it.

The community not being inspired by I-AA football was a surmountable hurdle in the 1990s, when Hofstra’s power brokers were football alums who wanted to see the program race up the ladder. And under the direction of the likes of James Shuart, Harry Royle and Joe Margiotta, a program that began the decade as a Division III power ended it a regular visitor to the I-AA playoffs.

But the folks in power no longer have any ties to the football team. And if the program is not benefiting the president and athletic director who have made personal investments in it, then does it really have a chance to succeed?

It’s always dangerous to try to gauge the emotions of an entire football program. But is it too much to wonder what kind of effect the tepid support of the administration—or at least the perception thereof—for the program has on the Dutchmen?

How is it that the Dutchmen are on equal footing—financially, at least—with the top programs in the country yet farther away than ever before? How is it that the 1994 team handed Yankee Conference champion New Hampshire its only regular season defeat—by three touchdowns, no less—yet the Dutchmen have lost their last two games to a no. 1 ranked team by a combined score of 103-0?

Is it that crazy to think the Dutchmen of 15 years ago were fueled as much by the passion and support of President Shuart & Co. as Joe Gardi’s declaration that Hofstra could run with the big dogs?

The Hofstra football dilemma is another example of college athletics providing a life lesson. At some point in your career, you will be inherited by a new boss who wants to put his or its own stamp on the company. Perhaps the new boss man will decide you’re a building block. More likely, he or it will want his or its own people in there and either outright fire you or make things so difficult you have no choice but to leave. They say it’s not personal, and of course you take it personally, and the fact it occurs every day in every state in every walk of life doesn’t diminish the upheaval it causes. But that’s life.

And that’s what’s happening here. There are no bad guys. Just an administration that wouldn’t have had the football team in mind when it leaped to the CAA.

Now, for the betterment of everyone involved—the players, the coaches, the conference and yes, even the fans—it’s time to find a solution, one that I certainly hope still includes football at the non-scholarship level. No longer mingling with the Richmonds and Delawares and Montanas of the world will be a difficult pill to swallow for those who took—wait for it—pride in the rise of the football program, but past glory isn’t getting these Dutchmen anywhere nor is it resonating with those currently in charge.

Perhaps, in these toxic economic times, Hofstra will be far from the only I-AA school to deemphasize the program, and maybe those schools can compete in an NIT-like tournament to determine a champion of the new division. Or maybe the non-scholarship league we envisioned in May will not only form but eventually earn an automatic bid to the I-AA tournament, where the conference champion will have an opportunity to make a Colgate-type run.

There can still be football at Hofstra, and the pageantry of I-AA football can still be enjoyed by those who are aware of it. But the journey that began 15 years ago is coming to an end. And quite frankly, the sooner it happens, the better.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

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