Monday, November 23, 2009

How many dominoes will fall now that Northeastern has dropped football?

What school will be the next to hang up the helmets for good?

If you’re like me and passed up the Flying Dutchmen football game at Northeastern nine days ago, you missed out on the final home game in Huskies history. Northeastern confirmed the rumors flying around on message boards last night when it announced the school is dropping football, effective immediately. The Boston Globe has a story about it here as well as a column by Dan Shaughnessy here.

It’s a seismic decision whose impact will be far-reaching. In the short term, what does it mean for the CAA? Will the conference make do with an uneven alignment next season until Old Dominion becomes the 12th member in 2011? Or does the conference immediately replace Northeastern with another northern school—and there is absolutely no better or more obvious candidate than Stony Brook—and proceed as if it will eventually end up at 14 teams with the additions of ODU and Georgia State?

More importantly, what does the decision mean long-term for the CAA and Hofstra? What happens if the tealeaves are correct and the CAA wants to be known as much for football as it is for basketball? Is there a home in the league for Northeastern if it is not playing football?

As for Hofstra, it is already restless in a conference in which all the power is wielded by the core southern schools. The increasing emphasis on football by the CAA is only further widening the gap between the university and the conference.

Conference shifts seem to occur easiest when there are multiple schools involved. Might our thinking-out-loud idea of Hofstra, Northeastern and Drexel moving to the Atlantic-10 look a bit more realistic this morning?

This, too, is nothing more than thinking out loud. Just because Northeastern dropped football doesn’t mean Hofstra will follow suit. But the similarities between the schools—located in markets where college sports barely register with the fans and run by a president and athletic director who inherited swimming-in-the-red football programs—are also difficult to ignore.

Hofstra and Northeastern, of course, are not alone in operating unprofitable I-AA programs. The viability of I-AA football has been an increasingly regular topic of conversation in these toxic economic times.

It was one thing for most of the MAAC football schools to drop football, since those programs were playing non-scholarship ball and had only joined I-AA at the NCAA’s insistence in 1991. But it’s quite another for Northeastern—which is in the best I-AA conference in the land, has played at this level since it was established in 1978 and has sent multiple players to the NFL—to cash out.

The thinking here for months has been that schools would be more likely to let their football programs down gently by going the non-scholarship route instead of pulling the plug entirely. But the precedent has been set.

Yeah, Northeastern played at a rundown field and had reached the I-AA playoffs just once in its history, but if it can bury more than 70 years of tradition with one stroke of the pen, guess what? Anyone can.

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