American University isn’t a jock factory that awards degrees. It’s an academic institution that also has a Division I athletic program. It competes in the Colonial Athletic Association, an utterly average conference, and struggles mightily to keep up with that company.
The men’s basketball team just finished an 11-18 season that cost the coach his job. The women’s team was only slightly better. Men’s soccer did pretty well three years ago, reaching the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, but couldn’t keep it going. The fact of the matter is, AU athletics hasn’t given us sportswriters a whole lot to wax poetic about. The only time in recent years I’ve been at the school was to speak to a journalism class, not to watch a game.
But there they were Tuesday, marching on campus to protest American’s possible move to the Patriot League. The Patriot League, in the opinion of basketball players Patrick Doctor and Jarion Childs, is simply beneath them. “I can’t play in the Patriot League,” said Doctor, an all-conference forward.
Let’s be honest, though. Joining the Patriot League Navy, Lafayette, Lehigh et al. would make a lot of sense for American. For one thing, it wouldn’t be that big a step down. The CAA, after all, only gets one NCAA tournament bid, too. Also, three teams in the Patriot League this season finished with higher RPI ratings than AU almost half the conference.
Beyond that, though, American, with its lengthy list of academic All-Americans, would seem to have much more in common with Bucknell and Colgate than with UNC-Wilmington and East Carolina. So why not stop the charade? Are AU athletes really going to miss finishing in the middle of the CAA pack or lower season after season? At least in the Patriot League they would have a chance to go to the Big Dance every now and then.
Besides, says Barry Goldberg, the women’s volleyball coach at American, “Recruits ask me what conference we’re in now.” So how big a deal would it be to move to the Patriot League? “If I was in one of the top seven or eight conferences, then it would be a big blow,” he says. “But I’m not. And there’s no reason I can’t recruit for the Patriot League [just as he did for the CAA]. I’m still in Washington, D.C.”
Carolyn Femovich, executive director of the Patriot League, says, “Sometimes perceptions get in the way of reality. There are sports where the CAA is stronger than the Patriot League and sports where the Patriot League is as strong or stronger than the CAA. We have some very fine athletic programs. Field hockey and women’s lacrosse have always been real strong. Men’s and women’s soccer continue to get better. Bucknell and Navy have done well nationally in track and Army in swimming and diving. Whoever comes into the Patriot League is going to find competition.”
And the conference might be getting even more competitive. Right now it allows scholarships only in basketball, but it’s willing to loosen that restriction to bring American into the fold. And if AU is permitted to give scholarships in other sports, it stands to reason that the rest of the Patriot League will have that option, too which will only raise the level of play.
The big concern at American, says Goldberg, “is that we would go to a no-scholarship, no-funding situation. But President [Benjamin] Ladner has told us that’s not going to be the case. He said the Patriot League was going to [go back to offering] scholarships. So maybe those teams can come up to our level instead of us going down to theirs… . If the conference did have scholarships, I’m not sure if there’d be much of a gap at all.
“Now, some schools may decide not to grant scholarships [in some sports]. Some may stay on a need-based system. But you always have that in conferences schools deciding to emphasize one sport over another. As long as you have scholarships, though, you can build a [respectable] program.”
The Patriot League wants American badly. But not just because it might need an eighth member to keep its automatic NCAA bid. (The issue will be voted on next month.) It wants AU because AU would fit in nicely with its other schools all of them private institutions, not too big, with an academic bent.
Geographically, American would be ideal, too. “It would be great,” says Femovich, “to have a second team in the Washington area for competing and traveling reasons.”
AU and the Patriot League. Sounds like a perfect match. Now if we can just get President Ladner to say, “I do.”