Nothing has occurred recently, William and Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll said this week, that would prompt the school to consider bolting the Colonial Athletic Association for a new conference.
Driscoll pays attention to the landscape and said that if things change or it becomes apparent that Tribe teams cannot compete or won’t be able to compete in a reconfigured league, the school would act.
Driscoll’s remarks pretty much echo what he’s said for the past 15 months, as the CAA underwent radical change.
“In terms of staying abreast of everything that’s going on, things have been incredibly quiet given the way we started the year,” he said. “Other than reading about the 4th division of the NCAA and where all the money’s going, there hasn’t been any new information or anything around that would change what you and I have talked about before. Obviously, the same elements are out there: Can we be competitive where we are, which always gets back to the student-athlete experience.
“For us to move anywhere would be significant. As I think I’ve said before, it would take something either we sense immediately, or we see over a period of time that we’d say, where we are right now is not going to allow us to continue what we’re doing the way we want to do it, and we need to look to do something differently.”
Several things prompted me to revisit the topic of William and Mary’s commitment to the CAA: the impending start of the school year; the new-look CAA that includes Stony Brook and Albany for football, College of Charleston this year and Elon next for all sports; the release of administrative e-mails that showed William and Mary officials discussing overtures from the Patriot League; Commissioner Tom Yeager’s rant at last week’s football media day and the potential JMU factor.
Driscoll believes that all of the new members are good fits for the CAA, athletically and institutionally.
Those nosy-pokers over at the W&M-centric blog Shadesof48.com (and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible) caused a bit of a stir earlier this summer. Using the Freedom of Information Act, they obtained e-mails in which Driscoll and other big hats, including prez Taylor Reveley, discussed pros and cons of Patriot League membership.
“That would be a good example of a conversation that we would have internally, but there was no external component,” Driscoll said.
Meaning, he said, that though the Patriot League made it known that they were interested in William and Mary, he never got past the research phase. There were no stealth campus visits or airport huddles with PL types.
Driscoll said that the e-mails also created a misleading impression of the athletic department’s approach to conference affiliation and commitment.
“For a time, there was the impression that we were kind of ignoring everything that was going on around us and we weren’t doing anything,” he said. The blog’s e-mail report “made it seem like we were focused on it every day or at least every week. The truth is actually somewhere in the middle.”
Driscoll meets monthly with Reveley to keep him abreast of what’s going on, internally and externally. When it comes to NCAA and realignment issues, he provides the prez with his best estimate of how they affect the athletic department and school.
From William and Mary’s perspective, something as significant as changing conference membership is akin to pivoting a battleship. It can’t be done quickly or quietly.
“At the higher level, if somebody dangles $20 million a year in front of you, I guess you can make those moves more quickly,” Driscoll said. “But at our level there’s a process that you have to go through in order to get to the point where everybody’s informed, everybody’s had a chance to comment and most everybody agrees what should be done. It’s not something where I pick up the phone and make a decision.”
At CAA football media day last week, commish Tom Yeager took the opportunity to deliver an impassioned soliloquy about the potential perils of schools moving up to Football Championship Subdivision leagues. It was clearly a shot at Old Dominion and Georgia State, which bolted the CAA for Conference USA and the Sun Belt, respectively.
It was also an un-subtle warning directed at James Madison, which built a bigger and snazzier football playpen and is in the midst of a study to determine the best course for its athletic department. What to do with football – FCS or FBS – is the primary component in that study, because that will dictate everything else.
William and Mary has seen the Virginia-based CAA drastically reshaped, with the departures of traditional and in-state rivals George Mason (Atlantic 10), ODU and VCU. If JMU were to bolt, W&M would be the only state school in a very different league. Might that force the Tribe’s hand and prompt it to look elsewhere, i.e., the Patriot League?
“Nothing forces our hand,” Driscoll said. “The Virginia-based league is gone, over the past year-and-a-half.”
Driscoll pointed out that big changes began in 2000, when the CAA was down to six members and chose to expand northward, rather than provincially. The more recent additions of Northeastern, Georgia State and now College of Charleston and Elon, Stony Brook and Albany, were equal parts competitive, geographic and institutional.
“We helped engineer where we are now,” Driscoll said.
Driscoll is keenly aware of recent remarks by various Bigfoot conference commissioners about separating themselves for football. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be concentrated among the five power conferences as the new playoff system takes shape and leagues rake in money from their own networks and various TV contracts.
Driscoll isn’t in the business of telling other schools how to run their athletic departments, but he, too, believes that moving into the lower levels of FBS is a dicey proposition.
“For Madison, from a financial standpoint, I don’t know that the revenue opportunities that potentially existed still do,” he said. “Very few non-legacy conferences had much participation in the existing BCS. Realistically, where are the media companies that are fueling this, where are they making their investments? They’re making them in the big guys. Now, there’s still going to be a need for additional content, so there will be some money around. But I don’t know to what degree the amount of money available is going to make these programs profitable or break even.”
“I can’t speak for Madison and Delaware,” Driscoll said, “but it behooves them to delay any decisions they can until they see how the landscape looks after this supposed new championship structure evolves.”
As for the Pantsless Griffins, again it comes back to the ability to compete. The final football alignment will be a factor, but not the only factor.
“It’s like us saying, here’s a football experience that goes with the academic side of the house here,” Driscoll said. “Where’s that best happen? Some people could say the Patriot League because they’re a lot like us.
“One of the things that William and Mary takes pride in is the fact that, although we may have a smaller recruiting pool, we may have some higher academic standards, and we may not have every resource, but we’re not starved by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ve been able to compete in a pretty substantial way across the entire program. And we take pride in that ability. So do we want to perpetuate that and continue to go up as well as we can compete, or do we want to change that experience somehow? Would this new landscape give us more or less opportunity?”
That’s something Driscoll doesn’t know, nor will he for probably the next couple of years. Yes, William and Mary may have more in common with Patriot League schools, institutionally and academically, than with a number of CAA partners. But how much did the Tribe have in common with traditional partners Mason, Old Dominion or VCU – big, sprawling urban and suburban schools with less strict admission standards – besides a Virginia address?
“From my perspective, we know who we are,” Driscoll said. “We know what we want to do. We’re extremely attentive to what’s going on. If we see something change, we would have to initiate some things, but we aren’t there yet.”