December 11, 2008

Small College Scoop: Trust Busting

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Denison was one of three NCAC teams to qualify for the 2008 NCAA Division III men's lacrosse tournament.

May is a comfy time of year for members of the North Coast Athletic Conference.

While numerous programs are sweating out inclusion in the NCAA Division III men's lacrosse tournament simply because they belong to a conference with at least seven teams, the NCAC institutions kick back, casually awaiting at least two - sometimes three - free passes to the dance.

As many of us know, the NCAC's good fortune comes not from its position as the preeminent league in D-III, but rather the cozy niche it has carved out for itself with the aid of Pool B. The beta pond, for those who don't know, is reserved for institutions that do not play in an automatic qualifying conference.

To complete the alphabet soup, Pool A (consisting of 21 teams in 2008) is for automatic qualifiers and Pool C (four berths) is for the teams from AQ leagues that don't win them, a.k.a., "at-larges." Pool B, comprised of 30 eligible teams, had three spots in the final NCAA field.

For the fourth consecutive year, the members of the NCAC - Denison, Kenyon, Oberlin, Ohio Wesleyan, Wittenberg and Wooster - captured all of the available Pool B slots. Not since 2004, when there were two spots available and Whittier (Calif.) grabbed one of them, has another school been able to break the vice grip.

What has this Pool B monopoly meant for this Ohio-based league?

In the past four years, the NCAC has snared 10 total bids to the NCAA tournament, tying the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) for the most berths in that span and eclipsing the numbers of the Centennial Conference (eight), the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (six), the SUNYAC (six) and the Empire 8 (five). The Capital Athletic Conference, which has produced three of the last four national champions, has a total of four during the same time frame.

At first glance, there appears to be nothing untoward about the situation. Sure, those in automatic qualifying conferences will gripe that Pool Bs get too many slots for a group that, over the past five or six years, hasn't really been a contender. NCAC types will quickly counter by saying, "Hey, we didn't make the rules."

This is certainly true. However, while they didn't set up the current format, the NCAC is still gaming the system and bastardizing the true intent of Pool B. Two big issues stand out.

Conference Crutch

Despite possessing the operating structure of every other automatic qualifying conference in Division III, the NCAC is still somehow able to keep its confederation in the independent pool. This is made possible because only six of the 10 traditional NCAC schools sponsor men's lacrosse, keeping the league one team short of the seven mandated by the NCAA to be an AQ conference.

Even though, by NCAA tournament standards, the six teams are judged as separate entities, the NCAC: a.) names a conference champion and has done so since 1985; b.) sponsors men's lacrosse, one of 22 sports in both genders; c.) keeps its own conference record book; and d.) has been naming all-conference teams since 1985.

Does this sound like a group that should be considered independents? Further, does this sound anything remotely like what the NCAA had in mind when it provided a tournament opportunity for non-affiliated programs?

But because Alleghany (which has a women's program, thus making the NCAC women an AQ conference), Hiram, Earlham and Wabash don't have men's lacrosse, the conference can shrug its collective shoulders and keep raking in the bids.

The NCAC could bump its roll up a team to get the AQ very easily if it wanted to. It would have to go outside of its traditional conference schools, but there is plenty of precedent for that in all divisions. Trine University sits on the eastern border of Indiana, and Adrian is located on the southern border of Michigan - both current independents and well within acceptable driving range.

Perhaps the most telling clue that the NCAC has no desire to add another team is that Washington & Jefferson - located nearly 100 miles closer to Denison than conference rival Allegheny - has idled as an independent since 2002. With the recent announcement that Otterbein, an Ohio school, will be going varsity in 2010, the reasonable excuses for not adding a seventh team continue to dwindle.

Schedule Bullies

Due to the disparate geographical nature of the independents - one that expands every year with the emergence of more programs - the NCAC has a huge advantage over the rest of its unaffiliated competitors because it has five in-region Pool B contests within easy driving distance. By just playing their conference slate, the NCAC gets as many games as most other indies manage for an entire season.

Take Hendrix (Ark.), Colorado College, Whittier and Fontbonne (Mo.). All of those programs have to hop on a plane to get to their closest Pool B competitor. Why is that important? Because they are all included in the same "region" as the NCAC, as stipulated by the NCAA. Thus, if those teams want to satisfy enough criteria to overcome the NCAC's built-in advantage, the independents have to play them.

And the NCAC teams know it.

In an effort to earn its first NCAA touranment berth, Colorado College has absorbed a huge financial and competitive burden. In the last four years alone, the Tigers have made seven separate trips - do the math on those flights - to Ohio to play 14 games against NCAC teams on their own fields.

The entire reciprocal effort by the NCAC to match that effort consisted of Denison traveling to Colorado Springs in 2007.

That's it.

If any independent team wants to go to the tournament, it'll have to do it on the NCAC's terms. Granted, Colorado College did not win the games they needed to win for a berth, but does a ratio of 14 away games to one home game over the course of four years sound like a level playing field? Not surprisingly, the average is about the same for Whittier, as well.

Perhaps the most frightening prospect for other Pool B teams - and it hasn't happened yet - is if they wanted to, the NCAC programs have the ability to freeze out teams from the tournament picture if they operated in collusion. This is the working definition of a monopoly.

Would they do this? Of course not. As Machiavellian as I may have made the NCAC programs sound, they are well-run with upstanding coaches who care about their players and the sport. They just happen to be in a position of strength because of the guidelines put in place by the NCAA, and they're smart enough to weigh the system in their favor. While coaches and fans who may be affected by the NCAC's fortune gripe about the current situation, they would work the exact same exact angles if given the opportunity.

With that said, it's time for the NCAA to tweak the Pool B parameters and put the NCAC into the peer group in which it rightfully belongs. It should happen one of two ways.

The first option is to mandate that the NCAC co-opt one of the nearby independent teams (of its choosing) to push the league to seven teams and an AQ. This would mean a longstanding conference with a great tradition would have an interloper thrust upon it, but since the four current NCAC institutions lacking men's lacrosse can't seem to figure it out, outside influence is necessary.

The second, and perhaps more egalitarian, solution is to drop the team minimum for an AQ from seven to six. The NCAC would be able to keep its conference structure intact and easily welcome future members while joining the rest of the AQ world. A potential drawback would be the temptation for large conferences to split to gain an extra automatic berth, but there are only two conferences with as many as 10 teams - the NESCAC and Commonwealth Coast - and neither of those will fracture any time soon.

It's not like this change would force the NCAC to shrivel and die. The top teams in the conference - Denison and Ohio Wesleyan, mostly, as well as Kenyon, to some degree - are traditionally solid squads that play strong non-conference schedules. If they are deserving of a second bid through Pool C, they'll get it.

As far as Division III lacrosse goes, the hoariest debate is the worthiness of Pool B teams in the national tournament. Every year, a qualified program - and their fans - just missing the tournament field unfailingly points the ugly end of the stick at the independents who "stole" their spot.

Moving the NCAC into Pool A/C will not change this. It will, however, return Pool B to its intended purpose: providing a chance for developing programs to take a bite at the apple while simultaneously using the tournament as a way to boost its stature (see: Whittier, late 1990s).

With two or three teams coming online each year in Division III, the NCAA competition needs to make a concerted effort to open doors that are now just shielding brick walls. It's too late for this year, but it needs to be a priority for 2010.

The NCAC has had a great run, but it's time for the league to join the big boys. Their continued monopoly of tournament bids stands in opposition to everything Division III should strive to be.

Slides & Rides
- Otterbein, the perfect fit if the NCAC wanted to expand even though it is affiliated with Ohio Athletic Conference in the rest of its sports, named its first head coach in Colin Hartnett - technically. Hartnett might be the first head coach according to the Otterbein press release, but Michael Caravana, now the head coach at Denison, had a coaching cup of coffee with the Cardinals earlier this year before signing back on with the Big Red, which he previously coached from 1991-2004.

Hartnett, who looks like a redheaded Gen. George S. Patton, is a graduate of Wooster (of the NCAC), where he finished fourth all-time in scoring, and spent the last five years as an assistant for St. John Fisher. While Caravana might have the pedigree, Hartnett has the hungry look of guy who has been itching to make a name for himself. Nothing allows for that like a start-up program.

- It wouldn't be fair to beat up on the NCAC for working the system and not turn the spotlight on the Division III women's side, particularly The College of New Jersey. There are no less than seven conferences that TCNJ would easily fit into, with the Skyline being the obvious pick. But like the NCAC, New Jersey has found a nice spot as an independent.

In defense of the Lions, they have a slightly better pedigree than any NCAC school. In addition to the 13 national titles and five runner-up finishes, TCNJ typically plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation. For a little more perspective, in the 24 years that there has been a D-III women's championship game, TCNJ has been involved in all but six of them.

- As was reported two months ago here, the East Coast Conference finally made official last week that it was adding Lake Erie (Ohio) College, Seton Hill (Pa.) University and Wheeling Jesuit (W.V.) University to its men's lacrosse conference starting in 2010.

Lake Erie and Seton Hill will also join the conference on the women's side in 2010. With Mercy, Queens and Bridgeport - all ECC members - adding women's lacrosse, the league will swell to 11 teams (Adelphi is joining the Northeast-10 in 2010).

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