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Friday, July 30, 2004

The Last Holdout in the Patriot League

Two interesting stories about the Patriot League's Lafayette, and they create a good juxtaposition that is worthy of some discussion.

First, the Patriot League Hoops blog questions whether Lafayette can continue to cut it in the Patriot League since every other school in the league is giving athletic scholarships and the Leopards are not.

Second, after seeing their head coach's name bandied about with openings at other northeastern schools, the Lafayette administration gave head men's b-ball coach Fran O'Hanlon a ten-year extension, ostensibly making the fifty-six year-old O'Hanlon coach for life.

So what gives up in Easton, Pennsylvania? Can Lafayette compete or not? The Patriot League hoops blogger seems to think not; the Leopards seem to think they can.

Of course, with the elite colleges (and I count Lafayette among them), what is and is not an athletic scholarship can be the subject of some debate. (See Ivy Basketball's excellent interview with Chris Lincoln, author of "Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League"). In other words, given the availability of financial aid at some of these schools, kids can end up getting full rides because, ostensibly, of their body of academic and extracurricular work combined. Seemingly, it happens a lot in many places (given antitrust concerns, the financial aid battles for potential Ivy hoops and football stars might be fierce). Of course, the JV roller hockey player who plays the French Horn and teaches the Israeli Army's brand of self-defense to senior citizens might not get that type of aid, but if that kid can play defensive back or point guard, he just might.

So where is Lafayette going? Would Fran O'Hanlon have stayed put if he didn't think his beloved Leopards could not continue to compete in Division I? Will Lafayette soon roll out a financial aid program for athletics? Or will Lafayette simply try to do it the way some of the Ivies apparently have done it for some of their kids? Or, will Lafayette be passive about the tough Darwinism that transpires at elite universities? (As to the latter question, you don't become an elite by being passive about anything).

Sports Prof's guess is that Lafayette gave O'Hanlon good money and job security without requiring him to make a buyout payment if he decides to leave. It's hard to imagine O'Hanlon staying if he continues to finish behind schools like Lehigh, which he used to paste with regularity, because Lehigh's aid packages are better than Lafayette's. That's not to say that Lehigh doesn't have a good coach (it does) or that it hasn't recruited good players (it has), but when the playing field was level, Lehigh was a doormat, year in and year out.

The old coaching saw is that you can be a great coach, but if you coach against a bad coach with great talent, even the great coach would bet on the bad coach because the talent makes the difference. A corollary to that old saw is that scholarship money attracts better talent to a school with a so-so coach than just an acceptance letter with a happy face drawn on it from a school with a great coach that doesn't offer comparable aid. After all, schools like Lafayette are very expensive, and SportsProf's guess is that 2/3 of the kids there get some form of aid. As a result, it's easy to respect a kid for turning down a chance to play for O'Hanlon if a rival school pays for his education and he doesn't come out of college burdened with debt in the high five or low six figures. And, if he's capable of getting into Lafayette, he's capable of figuring out the math all by himself.

SportsProf has a great deal of respect for Lafayette and Coach O'Hanlon and hopes that everything will work out for the Leopards of Easton, Pennsylvania.

But, given the aggressive Darwinism of college athletics and the increasing costs of going to a great place like Lafayette, he gives credence to the Patriot League Hoops blog's warning that Lafayette might be on a course for Division III.

Given that none of the Patriot League schools will contend for a national title in basketball anyway (or most major sports, for that matter, with Navy's tough loss for the DI lacrosse title notwithstanding), going Division III might make a whole lot of sense in the frequently misguided world of intercollegiate athletics.