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November 11, 2009

Mediocre Motivations: The MCLA's I-AA Won't Work

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive

The following column appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of MCLA the Lax Mag.

The folks at the MCLA the Lax Mag found a humorous way to tweak my politically conservative tendencies when they added this gem to my column in their magazine.
© Agent Ogden/MCLA the Lax Mag

The MCLA is going to be adding a third division. This is not a possibility. It is an eventuality.

There is already a group of men, bearing the very Nixonian title of "Visions Committee," who have been tasked by the Executive Board to examine the future growth of the association. It is understood that a large portion of the committee's role will be to develop a plan that will most effectively stratify the MCLA.

This is not a bad thing. Planning for the future is part of a smart business model and, if the divisional expansion is done properly, it may prove to be a boon for the organization's members. What should be a serious cause for concern for the Executive Board, and the association as a whole, is the current slow creep toward a third, unsanctioned division that has the potential to not only complicate any future decisions regarding realignment, but also create a considerable obstacle to the MCLA's evolution.

The decision by the GRLC to add a ‘I-AA' component to its league last spring seemed innocuous enough on its face. The 13 programs in the league were broken down into a seven-team I-A league and a six-team I-AA subset, and only games against teams within the letter - A or AA - would count towards the league record. It's not unlike a divisional (i.e., East-West) alignment for large conferences, with one key difference: the I-A league sent four teams to a six-team playoff while the I-AA contingent only sent two.

With that one distinction, the GRLC institutionalized mediocrity.

By breaking up their league into unequal entities based solely on ability, the GRLC provided an excuse for programs to strive for a level below that of everyone else. In essence, the rest of the league patted the I-AA teams on the head and told them they'll never be good enough, and that's okay. It's just fine if you don't want to work a little harder on the practice field, raise a little more money for a better coach, or schedule those key non-conference games. Stay in your comfort zone and have fun. And don't forget the orange slices.

I don't doubt that those in the GRLC who devised the I-AA concept had pure motives. They saw numerous games ending in slaughters, helping neither the premier teams that posted huge wins nor the middling squads taking the hammer. The solution? Keep the "lesser" teams at their competitive level with the hope they'll eventually make the jump, while not penalizing the squads annually seeking the national tournament. From a short-sighted perspective, it makes sense.

Unfortunately, the primary result of this concept is the enabling of programs to settle for their current station in the MCLA. Why should I-AA teams strive for something better when the conference is willing to build in a nice cushion?

Tony Scazzero, the MCLA president, is of two minds on the issue. As the president, he understands that this issue is really one for the conferences and, despite the presence of a somewhat centralized power structure, the MCLA is still the sum of its leagues. On the other hand, rewarding teams willing to settle for ordinary runs against his core principles.

"I grew up in a generation where you sought out the best possible opponent and then worked on your deficiencies in order to stack up to that level," said Scazzero, who is also the head coach at Texas A&M. "Not, ‘Oh, gee, I can skip these guys and play all of these opponents and all of a sudden I'm competitive now. Part of it is the participation aspect of athletics in general. Everybody gets an award. Let's go to McDonald's and get some ice cream."

As much as he'd like to see the conferences handle this issue, Scazzero and the Executive Board will eventually have to weigh in on the I-AA component, and likely soon. Starting this spring, the PNCLL will be adding a I-AA level that mirrors the GRLC model in terms of league games and playoff structure. You can bet that other conferences will follow soon.

Why? Because they'd be foolish not to.

As distasteful as the idea of licensing a section of your conference to continuously operate in the realm of the unexceptional, it is essentially a philosophical dilemma. However, a byproduct is a significant competitive advantage to those conferences who implement it.

Last spring, the selection committee put a primacy on strength of schedule, which was clear with the selections of UC Santa Barbara and Colorado State. With a I-AA structure, the top (I-A) teams have immediately swept away all of the conference lightweights on their schedule, keeping the high-end teams on the slate while opening up coveted dates to tackle more SOS-pleasing opponents. Meanwhile, the high-end teams in conferences without I-AA have to slog through the lower portion of their league with no benefit.

It may seem trivial now, but you can bet when selection weekend rolls around in 2010, there will be a lot of grumbling from bubble teams if they are going up against a team that had the luxury of the I-AA exemption. Since this is fairness issue, the Executive Board will be expected to come up with a solution.

If the EB doesn't take charge now, the I-AA idea will proliferate. With no directive from the league office, every conference will devise its own rules in regards to the sub-league, moving teams up and down in order to maximize the number of bids they will receive to the national tournament. In addition, with every league sponsoring a I-AA format, it will become ingrained in the MCLA consciousness. The call for its own separate tournament will not be far behind. Instead of having a third division that could based strictly on school size or one that will benefit every team, the MCLA will have its next division shoved down its throats because it's just easier to embrace mediocrity.

When it comes to I-AA, the intentions are good, but the concept is flawed. It's time for the MCLA to slam the door on this "division" and keep a jaundiced eye toward other organic sub-leagues emerging in the future. 

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