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URI Football To Stay In CAA

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

 

The 2012 season was supposed to be the URI football program’s last season in the Colonial Athletic Association before their anticipated move to the Northeast Conference in the fall of 2013. CAA schools can cancel the farewell parties planned for the Rams because the program will be staying in the conference for the foreseeable future.

The University of Rhode Island officially announced that it would remain in the CAA for football yesterday on the school’s website http://www.gorhody.com. Their decision comes a few weeks after the CAA asked them to reconsider their move to the NEC.

“This was a possibility we knew about back in June,” said URI athletic director Thorr Bjorn. “We were very transparent with the NEC throughout the whole process.”

Rhode Island’s decision a couple of years ago to eventually leave the CAA to join the NEC was based solely on geography. “It was always about geographical sustainability for us,” said Bjorn. “The CAA was losing 3 northern schools when Hofstra and Northeastern decided to drop football and UMass decided to go to the MAC. Losing that northern exposure would have made it very hard for us to continue in the conference because our travel expenses would have gone through the roof.”

What changed the equation for URI was the decision by two southern schools – Georgia State and Old Dominion – to leave the CAA and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS – formerly 1-AA) to make the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS – formerly 1-A).

Those moves prompted the CAA to add two new programs to the conference, which they did by adding two New York schools in Stony Brook and Albany.

Following those additions, the conference approached URI about reconsidering its move to the NEC with the hopes of creating a Northern Division in the CAA consisting of URI, Stony Brook, Albany, Maine and New Hampshire.

However, as URI prepares to now stay in the CAA, there will be some challenges for the football program to overcome.

First off, most schools competing in the CAA hand out the maximum 63 scholarships for the sport of football where URI does not. In anticipation of their move to the NEC, the program was in the process of reducing scholarships for the sport of football to that league’s maximum number of 40.

Heading into this season URI football was down to 47 scholarships, a number Bjorn now hopes to elevate in the near future. “We’d like to get the number up to 55 but we’ll have to do some fundraising to do it,” he said.

There are a number of different ways to raise funds to support the addition of football scholarships. The first way is to play “guarantee games” against FBS schools which would hand URI a substantial paycheck to play them at their stadium.

“Short term, we won’t be able to play any of those games against bowl-eligible FBS teams because, in order for it to count for them, an FCS program like ours must have a few year rolling average of 52-55 scholarships,” said Bjorn.

“However, it is not out of the question that we could play a guarantee game against an FBS program transitioning to 1-A or a program that is not eligible for bowl play because of NCAA sanctions,” he said.

That would mean, for example, URI could theoretically play a school like Penn State in Happy Valley and receive a big paycheck for doing so in the interim.

The other way to raise funds to support the football program would be through its boosters. “Our football boosters are very loyal and they have been great,” Bjorn said. “Right now they probably account for 25-30% of our budget. However, we are going to need to expand that if we are going to reach our goal and hopefully we can.”

As a program, URI football has struggled to remain competitive in the CAA with powerhouses such as Delaware, Richmond and William & Mary to name a few. They have had just three winning seasons in the last 26 years and have not been to postseason play since 1986.

That lack of success and financial crisis the state has been in during recent years has led to speculation that the university might drop the sport of football altogether.

“Dropping football has never been on my radar,” said Bjorn. “I think it’s a great sport that brings our community together down here and helps attract people back to the university in the fall.”

There are some people who believe that dropping the sport would be a good idea to reallocate those scholarships to other sports. “If I were making the decision, I’d drop the sport of football and add men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse as varsity sports,” said a URI alumnus who did not want to be named. “They don’t draw well for football and their club hockey program is traditionally one of the best in the country every year.”

That scenario does not seem to be in play at URI because Bjorn is very much behind the football program. However, he did say that it will be very important moving forward for head coach Joe Trainer and his staff to recruit as many of the best Rhode Island high school players to play at URI because the cost of a scholarship for an in-state student-athlete is significantly less than the cost of a scholarship for an out-of-state player.

“Joe and I will have a cash number to deal with for the program,” Bjorn said. “How that number is met through half scholarships or in-state scholarships which run about $18,000 less remains to be seen.”

Bjorn also said that the decision to eventually up the number of football scholarships should have little or no effect on the school’s compliance with Title IX which mandates equitable athletic scholarship opportunities for both men and women based proportionately on the gender of the school’s undergraduate population. “We have been really on top of our gender equity numbers and we are fine with our percentages,” he said.

With all of the conference realignment going on throughout college sports these days, one other question that arises from URI’s decision to agree to join the NEC and then renege and go back to the CAA is: will the university have to pay a penalty for opting out of its agreement with the NEC?

“There will be no $20 million payout. It’s nothing like the Big East, that’s for sure,” said a laughing Bjorn. “What we will be responsible for is our league fee which is $15,000 a year for four years.”

“I’m excited about things,” Bjorn said. “Our facilities may not be the best in the CAA like a James Madison, but they’re not at the bottom of the league either. With our stands connected to the Ryan Center and the luxury suites and our newly redone press box, they’re pretty good. We also have the only grass field in the league and I think that people would prefer to play on a nice grass surface.”

The URI football team will kick off its 2012 season a week from Saturday at Monmouth. Their home-opener at Meade Stadium will be against James Madison on September 22nd.

 

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