- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

The Patriot League changed to survive. Now it is struggling to deal with abandoning its core principles and turning itself into a conference of haves and have-nots.

The league, which is holding its tournament at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro this weekend, was modeled on the Ivy League as a primarily academic conference with no athletic scholarships and some of the nation's oldest and most prestigious schools as members. The Patriot's relative virtue was noted in Washington author John Feinstein's 2000 book "The Last Amateurs," which celebrated the league as the proper blend of basketball and studies.

But the league took a giant step toward being a more sports-oriented conference when it revoked its nonscholarship policy after Holy Cross threatened to leave a move that would have jeopardized the league's existence.

Now the Patriot is on firmer, if less pure, ground. Several schools have stuck with a nonscholarship policy and have been passed on the basketball court by programs like those at Holy Cross and American that have fully funded teams. The conference is feeling the effects of scholarships, which started with freshmen in 1998.

Holy Cross and AU, which is in its third Patriot season, have risen to the top because of scholarship players. Meanwhile, Lafayette and Colgate, which do not have scholarships, have been passed by. Army and Navy also have been hurt, and other league members have put more money and emphasis on basketball. Lehigh and Bucknell are in the process of adding scholarships.

It's certainly a big issue," Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon said. "You still feel like you have a chance, but you just wish the playing field was level. When it was somewhat level, we were doing pretty well."

O'Hanlon led the Leopards to the league title and NCAA berths in 1999 and 2000. Lafayette is the sixth seed in the conference tournament after posting a 6-8 conference record. The coach remembers being able to recruit against top Patriot teams for players with high academics but not anymore.

"You have to go in a different direction when Lehigh and Holy Cross are involved," O'Hanlon said. "You just can't go head to head. [Financial aid] used to be based on need. We didn't want to be like other conferences. … I'm just trying to do the best I can under the system."

The Patriot became an all-sports league in 1990-91 and soon felt pressure to allow scholarships. Fordham forced the issue, and when it was voted down, the New York school left for the Atlantic 10 in 1995.

Holy Cross, which dropped its scholarship status when it joined the Patriot, brought up the issue again in 1996, and the conference chose to approve grants rather than face an uncertain future.

"It's up to each school to find ways to remain competitive, but you can see where the league is heading," Colgate athletic director Mark Murphy said. "What we have really found is it's challenging to find post players. When we play against Holy Cross, their frontline is 7-foot-6, 6-10 and 6-9. Our biggest kid is 6-8."

Holy Cross has risen from the middle of the pack to become the class of the league the past three years. This season the Crusaders have a 23-4 record overall and are 13-1 in the Patriot and the top seed in the tournament when they face No. 8 Army (5-21, 0-14) today.

Holy Cross, a 2,700-student school in Worcester, Mass., has a RPI of 64, an unthinkable number for previous league champions that rarely broke the top 150. Holy Cross won the last two league titles under former Pittsburgh coach Ralph Willard and has attracted players like Neil Fingleton, the 7-6 center who transferred from North Carolina. It now recruits from the nation's top prep programs, such as New York's Christ the King.

"We believe when you have scholarships, you tend to attract a better student because it opens you up to a lot more people," said Holy Cross athletic director Richard Regan, who remembers the Crusaders' RPI being around 280 before scholarships. "In order to compete, if you don't have scholarships, you have to lower [academic] requirements."

The league remains committed to academics and uses a formula based largely on high school grades and SAT scores to ensure that athletes are similar to the rest of the student body.

But there is an increasing gap between Patriot basketball programs. American, the No. 2 seed, won the league's regular-season title last season and has met Holy Cross in the conference championship game the last two seasons. The new order has left one-time powers like Lafayette and Navy in the second tier of nonscholarship programs.

While Lafayette has not wavered from its no-scholarship stance, Colgate has discussed a wide-range of ideas including adding scholarships or perhaps downgrading to Division III designed to keep it competitive. The Red Raiders tied AU for second in the regular season, but the school knows it will be increasingly difficult to match the top teams.

"It's going to be hard to sustain over the long term," said Colgate's Murphy, a Washington Redskins defensive back from 1977 to 1985 who is in his 10th year as AD at his alma mater.

"We need to find student-athletes that have high financial needs so we can compete with a full scholarship," Murphy said. "We might have to take chances with kids who are more at risk. For someone who's middle income and has to pay $15,000 to $20,000, it's hard to get them to come to Colgate and not some place that will give them a full scholarship.

"We would be better with scholarships. There is a perception that good schools don't [give athletic scholarships]. However, Duke, Georgetown and Stanford do. We have to decide if we want to emulate them or emulate Swarthmore and Vassar [in Division III]."

The problem for programs like those at Lafayette and Colgate is that there are few options if they want to stay in Division I. The Ivy League has shown no interest in expanding, and it is hard to maintain a program as an independent.

The service academies also have fallen back in the redefined Patriot. Army always has been near the bottom of the league, but Navy was a force until recently. The Midshipmen earned three NCAA bids and advanced to five league championship games in seven seasons, with their final appearance in 2001.

"We're not as good as we were, but I have to believe scholarships had an effect," said coach Don DeVoe, whose Mids are the seventh seed for the tournament with a 4-10 league mark. "We won eight in a row over Holy Cross before scholarships. Since then, they won eight in a row. I guess you could say the tables have turned."

It is all a new world of disparity in the Patriot League.

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