Evolving CAA a good fit for Maine grid program

Posted Oct. 22, 2009, at 11:17 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 19, 2010, at 11:19 a.m.

The Colonial Athletic Association is the largest and most respected conference in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.

Proving there is strength in numbers, last season — for the second straight year — the CAA placed five teams in the 16-team field for the FCS playoffs.

The University of Maine was among four CAA teams to earn one of eight at-large berths. And UMaine is pleased to be a member of the CAA, which took control of the former Atlantic 10 Football Conference in 2007.

“It’s the best and, without question, everybody recognizes that,” said 17th-year UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove.

“It’s outstanding that we’re in the league. It’s important that we’re in the league.”

Even so, the Black Bears and their Northeast football counterparts may have to keep an eye on the development of the CAA to see how, or if, they will fit into its future plans as league expansion continues.

This season, CAA football includes 12 members. However, Old Dominion (coached by former UMaine player and coach Bobby Wilder) begins league play in 2011 and Georgia State will follow in 2012.

That will swell the CAA ranks to 14 teams stretching from Orono to Atlanta, Ga.

“I don’t think anybody thinks 14 teams is a magic number, but it is what it is,” said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager.

“When you look at the benefits because of the profile that we’ve been able to carve out here recently, they far outweigh, at least for the time being, whatever the drawbacks are,” he added. “Are we at the absolute limit? Yeah.”

The CAA is built on a foundation of Yankee Conference charter members Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Those programs competed in all versions of what is now CAA football.

Delaware and Richmond joined the league in 1986, followed by Villanova in 1988, James Madison and William & Mary in 1993, Hofstra in 2001 and Towson in 2004.

The size and breadth of the CAA raises issues that include the disparity in enrollments among the schools, varied conference affiliations, geography and travel.

Enrollments range from a low of 2,650 at Richmond to a high of 24,100 at Massachusetts. Some are private schools, while others are state universities.

They are similarly spread out in terms of their conference affiliations for most other sports. Maine and New Hampshire belong to America East.

Delaware, Hofstra, James Madison, Northeastern, Towson and William & Mary compete in the CAA. UMass, Rhode Island and Richmond are in the Atlantic 10 and Villanova is a member of the Big East.

All appear to coexist well now, but questions abound about possible changes in the league alignment, or even a split into two leagues.

“I hope they don’t ever feel that way, but everybody’s got to make those calls,” said Yeager, who explained there aren’t any such changes forthcoming — for the moment.

“There are challenges, but when you look at what are the benefits, and what would we lose going a different direction, I think at this point, with all the complications, we still believe that the benefits outweigh the tradeoff,” he said.

Cosgrove and UMaine athletic director Blake James both think the university and the CAA are a good fit.

“We fully fund our football program as well as, if not better than, teams in the league as far as scholarships,” said James, who pointed to UMaine’s recently renovated Morse Field at d Alfond Stadium, the Mahaney Dome practice facility and the Latti Fitness Center as other key pieces of infrastructure.

“We have a very good situation. I don’t see anything out there that would put us at a disadvantage,” James added.

Cosgrove said UMaine utilizes its position in the powerhouse CAA as a drawing card. The number of national champions and playoff teams from the league, as well as its reputation, are attractive to recruits.

“We say those things to our student-athletes that we recruit to get them here and we promote it because if you’re good in this league, you’re pretty darned good,” Cosgrove said.

CAA also has television deals to air 50 of its games this fall.

“I’ve always thought that we need to be in this league because it raises the standard of excellence that we can achieve as a football program,” Cosgrove added.

The present setup, which involves two, six-team divisions based mostly on geography, seems to work well for most CAA teams,. Teams play five games against division teams and three against squads in the other division.

That leaves three nonleague games, usually including one profitable matchup against a Football Bowl Subdivision program. This season, four CAA teams beat FBS foes.

“It helps recruiting. It helps profile,” Yeager said.

It has been suggested travel outside the division creates hardships for some teams. It’s a sentiment that sometimes arises when South Division teams have to play in Orono.

Yeager pointed out most CAA teams, including UMaine, are near major airports and use charter flights rather than commercial arrangements.

He said teams generally are looking at a maximum of three flights to CAA games every two years, regardless of which division they’re playing in.

That reality helps diffuse the misconception that a split of CAA teams into two leagues — one in the Northeast and one in the Mid-Atlantic — would result in a big cost savings.

“Even if you broke away, you haven’t really changed the economy of who you’re playing,” said Yeager, who surmised teams would then likely have to charter flights for some added nonleague opponents, erasing any potential savings.

After the addition of Georgia State, there will be changes. Yeager said the league’s southernmost school would be placed in the North Division. And the Panthers will play four games against teams in each division.

That was a concession to South teams that did not want to relocate to the North. It also will lead to some teams not playing a geographic or traditional rival as the schedule rotates every two years.

“Some of the alignment things that look to be in the future are a little skewed,” Cosgrove said of the current plan.

What may eventually force the CAA’s hand is continued expansion. There are four CAA schools that do not sponsor football, but some appear to have the means to do so.

When the CAA took on football, it guaranteed all its schools a spot in the league.

“They’re going to have to demonstrate they’re ready to play with everybody else, then they’d be guaranteed membership,” Yeager said.

If the CAA ever voted to limit participation to full members, UMaine and the Northeast schools would have options. Current CAA football members UMass, UNH, URI, Villanova and Richmond also would be “homeless” for football but could band together.

In the meantime, UMaine is happy with its affiliation.

“As long as we can continue to make the balance work from a scheduling perspective, and as the league continues to get the number of teams into the postseason as we are, I don’t see us going away from it.”

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