The Conference Realignment Merry-Go-Round

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this fall, you’ve probably heard about the massive shakeup in the membership of the major collegiate athletic conferences this fall. If you’ve had trouble keeping up (and who wouldn’t?!?!), here’s a smart, thorough rundown of the driving issues from one of my favorite radio shows, WBUR’s Only a Game.

Key quote in there: “‘Just because a change in conference is good for the football program doesn’t mean it’s good for all the Olympic sports,’ said John Wilner.” No doubt some women’s rowing coaches are thinking just that, especially with conference AQ’s to the NCAA championships on the horizon just next year.

Take Syracuse, for example, where Head Coach Justin Moore is in his second year of a major revitalization project aimed at getting the Orange back to NCAA’s for the first time since 2005. As a member of the Big East, Syracuse’s challenge was to knock off perennial conference champion Notre Dame (and consistent runner-up Louisville) – both ranked outside the top 20 in last year’s CRCA coaching polls – in order to earn an AQ and make the big dance. Now, with the university’s decision to bolt for the ACC, earning an AQ is “only” a matter of beating #3-ranked UVA and #13-ranked Clemson. Ouch.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Big East might be breathing a sigh of relief to see a resurgent Syracuse on its way out the door if it didn’t threaten the viability of the conference as a whole. The NCAA requires at least six teams competing in a given sport for a conference to be granted an AQ. As of last spring, the Big East stood at 8, though recent debate about the definition of a “team” and whether or not all members had to field two eights and a four raised questions about whether Villanova would be counted going forward. The departure of Syracuse and West Virginia brings the conference right to the minimum (assuming that Villanova counts as a team…). But rumors abound regarding the plans of other members, too – administrators at UConn, Louisville, Notre Dame and Rutgers have all raised the specter of leaving the Big East in recent months. Will there be Big East Rowing by 2014? It’s hard to say at this point, and no doubt there are many more twists and turns still to come.

There remains some ongoing debate on whether or not becoming an NCAA sport has been good for women’s rowing. Looking at the big picture, it’s hard to argue that the benefits have not been huge. Many institutions have added or elevated women’s rowing programs since 1997, and the new opportunities on the collegiate level seem to have had a trickle-down effect in stimulating greater interest in rowing and significant expansion at the high school level. At the same time, our women’s collegiate rowing programs have become an unrivaled “farm system” for developing young athletes for international competition. The U.S. Women’s National Team has been absolutely dominant on the world stage since 2004, especially in the sweep events, and the growth at the collegiate level spurred by NCAA status has been a major factor.

Still, the conference realignment merry-go-round is a strong reminder that being an NCAA sport and a Title IX balancer places rowing in a complicated alliance with football – the cash cow and ultimate driver of all collegiate athletics. Syracuse’s move to the ACC, for example, raises the competitive challenges faced by the women’s rowing team. But if it raises more football revenue, it also may be the best way for the university to obtain the resources necessary to help the team compete at the highest level. Rowing coaches sometimes have to swallow hard knowing that when big decisions are being made, football will always be THE consideration. But if football revenues are what make it possible for a rowing team to give 20 scholarships, buy new boats every year, carry three full-time coaches plus a rigger and GA, and travel a large team and expensive equipment out-of-region to gain points with the NCAA Selection Committee, well, that may be our deal with the devil.

So what’s a rowing coach to do? It’s a tough question, and not one that I can pretend to have the answers to. I do know that there have been times when the coaches have been caught off guard by the implications of some of our decisions when interpreted by the NCAA . The tempest over individual boat awards in the wake of rowing’s reclassification as a “team sport” was the best example, but there have been others. Hopefully we’re learning over time that no one else will look out for the tradition and core values of our sport if we don’t. I think we’re also learning that, as protectors of our sport and our programs, we need to develop independent sources of support – alums, parents, community members – so that we don’t become over-reliant on our tangled relationship with football and basketball and leave ourselves too open to the whims of those with little interest in our beautiful sport.

This is a topic ripe for discussion – I’d love to hear others thoughts on all of this. What do you see as the implications for rowing coaches? How do we create the best possible outcomes for our athletes and our sport in this environment?

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