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Friday, November 18, 2005

The Patriot League Hypothesis

Years ago, the Ivy League encouraged the formation of the Patriot League in order to have schools with a similar mission against which to compete, especially in football. Initially, this proved to be a good deal for the Ivies, because none of the schools provided athletic scholarships, and Colgate, Lafayette, Lehigh and Bucknell proved almost every bit as expensive as an Ivy. Which meant that the Ivies had the advantage on the gridiron and won more than their fair share of games -- at the outset.

Times have changed, though, on the gridiron and basketball court, as all Patriots (including American and Holy Cross) except Lafayette give athletic scholarships. Army and Navy are in the Patriot League for basketball (and not football) and they give full rides to all of their students (as everyone knows). Now, I'll put aside the football question for a moment, because it takes a lot of resources to mount a competitive football team, and I'd really like to focus on basketball.

Last year, Bucknell was the darling of the eastern media, the Little Liberal Arts College That Could. They beat Pitt at Pitt during the regular season, at a time where Pitt was ranked in the Top 10, and then they surprised Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament in a great game. They have all five starters returning, a strong recruiting class, are picked in the top 10 in the current mid-major poll and SI has them rated as the 30th best team in the country. They are in pretty good company, given that most conference champions from non-major conferences rank no higher than say an 11th seed come tournament time. History has shown that, with certain exceptions. If Bucknell performs up to expectations, they could approach the accomplishments of the '98-'99 Princeton team, which rose to as high as #8 in the national polls before losing to ultimate Final Four team Michigan State thanks to a clutch three by Mateen Cleaves in the final minutes. (Before Bucknell fans get too giddy, remember that they have a tough opener tonight against a very talented Rider team that, before the season is over, could be a surprise mid-major team and a potential NCAA tournament team -- so beware of the Broncos tonight in Lawrenceville, New Jersey).

Meanwhile, the Ivies haven't had an NCAA first-round win since that Princeton team. That doesn't mean that the Ivies are in decline. In fact, I'd argue that the average Ivy team is better than it has been in say almost 20 years, and the worst team is better than it's been in a while, relatively speaking. The Ugonna Onyekwe-led Penn teams were very talented, only to disappoint by not winning an NCAA first-round game. Penn and Princeton have outstanding hoops traditions, Penn's coach Fran Dunphy is the dean of Ivy coaches, Penn plays in the Palestra, and Princeton coach Joe Scott worked the miracle of miracles a few seasons ago when he led Air Force to an at-large NCAA berth.

While they might not offer athletic scholarships, they do offer financial aid based upon need, and several Ivies grant full rides to kids whose families earn under a certain threshold and then don't count home equity in a family's assets in financial aid calculations where the family income is under a certain (if greater) amount. For these students, the aid comes in the form of grants, which means that loans and student jobs are no longer part of the package. Not all potential players qualify for this form of aid, but this type of aid philosophy should help some players defray the $40,000 price tag with minimal family contributions.

Looks rosy for the Ivies, right? Look, Penn and Princeton will lose out to Duke and Stanford every time when pursuing the same recruits. Both wanted Dan Grunfeld, a HS star out of suburban Milwaukee who happens to be Ernie Grunfeld's son. Well, Grunfeld the younger went to Stanford, where he's become the star of a nationally ranked team. Top-35 HS senior Brian Zoubek, a very able 7' center from southern New Jersey, is the son of a former Princeton football and baseball player -- and he chose Duke. They probably will lose out to Notre Dame and even Vanderbilt (Penn was hot after now-former Vandy PG Russell Lakey, who went to the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School in L.A.), and maybe even Northwestern and possibly even Rice and Tulane. The reasons are clear -- bigger time competition, along with a full ride. You can debate the relative merits of the education offered at any of those institutions as well as a chance to get to the NCAA Tournament, but if the money isn't equal (that is, if the athletic scholarship schools offer a full ride when the Ivies don't), the decision could be easy for a kid and his family to make. (Kids being kids, they'll want to go to the biggest-name school possible in most cases, although there is a certain gravity pull that might keep them closer to home to enable their folks to see them play).

But what about the Patriot League now that most of its schools are offering basketball scholarships? There are some excellent academic schools in the Patriot League, although my guess is that the top students out there would choose Princeton and Penn before say Lehigh and Bucknell if athletic scholarships weren't part of the equation. Please don't label me an academic snob, as I'm not trying to get into a debate about the relative merits of those schools. Call that an assumption, which, if true, would lead you to conclude that the hypothetical hoops recruit would choose Princeton or Penn over Bucknell and Lehigh because of the schools' academic reputations and Ivy status, not to mention their sterling hoops traditions and their place in the Top 15 on the NCAA list for all-time wins by a DI hoops school.

Now toss athletic scholarships into the picture. There are those parents who value an Ivy education over everything and would do anything to have their kids play hoops for Princeton or Penn. I would submit, though, that there aren't as many as you think there are given the high cost of education, the fact that there are many families with more than 1 kid who wants to and can go to college, and the fact that the difference among these outstanding schools isn't as readily apparent to all parents. Put differently, if Bucknell knocks on the door and offers your kid a full ride worth $38,000 per year and Penn knocks on the door and offers you $19,000 in aid and suggests that you take out a second mortgage to pay for the rest (as they did for football for the grandson of a family acquaintance who ended up going to a service academy), your income is such that that five-figure contribution would seriously drain your disposable income and you have two other kids to educate, what do you do?

Now, it's one thing if the kid really, really wants to go to Penn, has dreamed about playing in the Palestra, or has dreamed about playing the Princeton offense and following in Bill Bradley's shoes (to the extent that they still hear about his legend today). Then the question doesn't become "How can you afford Princeton?" but "How can you afford not to go?" It's just that the hypothetical kid (and, of course, not the kid whose dad heads up an investment bank and can pay the full freight) will have to take out substantial loans to go there and have to pay off that debt upon graduation. Many parents would support that decision if the kid really wanted it badly, but others would countenance a debt-free existence and encourage true economic freedom post-graduation. For those kids who aren't heck-bent on the Ivies or who don't see the magic in them as others do, the full ride -- and the view that there's power in having earned that ride -- could take precedence over the lure of the Ivies -- even Penn or Princeton -- even if that kid is a very good student.

Because those very good students can do math very well, and if they're competitive enough they'll figure that their work ethics will suit them well post-graduation, whether they go to a Patriot School or an Ivy. Some might surmise that a demonstration of true smarts is taking the full ride and giving yourself a better balance sheet post-graduation and removing any worry from your family about financial support. Others (read: Ivy alums) might surmise that the economic decision puts short-term interests over an expansion of one's horizons at a school with international appeal that could pay greater long-term dividends (financial and holistic) that only an Ivy can offer. Both arguments have merit -- for grownups.

But there's also the little man that stands on the other shoulder of parent. Because if you're a parent of that HS kid and you hard, are generally tired from going to work, are a good parent and spouse and chauffers your kids to tons of activities, you might begin to wonder when it gets more relaxing, when it gets easier, when you'll have enough money to say to the man that you've had enough and want to retire to your small bungalow in the mountains where the bass bite in the summertime and when you can take long walks without hearing traffic, when you can relax because your kids won't need your financial support. And then it gets interesting.

Do you take the full ride or don't you? Do you encourage your kid to play at Harvard (former Maryland back-up center Mike Mardesich passed on the opportunity, triple-majored at Maryland and played on an NCAA title team), a school with a lousy hoops tradition that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in a long time if ever, and pay $15,000 a year (if that's what you're left with after you see the financial aid package) or take the full ride from Bucknell and play for a hot coach and an NCAA tournament team? Is it that easy a decision to make?

I am sure that some of my friends would say, "how can you turn down Harvard?" (who, by the way, has a good coach who seemingly doesn't get enough good players admitted), while others would say how can you turn down that type of money (and hoops opportunity)? Especially if you have other kids who won't earn scholarships.

If you're a HS kid, well, I can't begin to go there, because I haven't been one in a while. You'll want to go where you believe you can fit in best, where you develop a rapport with the coach. Some kids like the flash and dash and promises of playing time, and some kids like it when the coach who recruits them tells them that they'll have to earn their playing time and that there are flaws in their game that need correcting. Some will see the magic of the offer the full ride as something they've always dreamed of, and take it at the expense of a "better" school. Others might focus more on life after basketball and what school would they want the degree from if they were to get hurt and pick the more prestigious school (Bill Bradley broke his foot after his senior HS hoops season and had been all set to go to Duke; after the injury, he thought about life after hoops -- and ended up at Princeton -- but then the cost of the two schools wasn't that different, and as the only son of a bank president Bradley could afford to go to Tigertown in the early 60's as a frosh with minimal financial imposition on his family).

My hypothesis is that more kids will opt for the Patriot League at the expense of the Ivies than you think, especially with dynamic coaches such as Ralph Willard, Billy Taylor and Pat Flannery. And, if they don't, they'll most certainly have given the Patriot schools a very hard look.

It's an expensive world out there, and it's not like you're making a deal with the devil to go to most Patriot League schools over the Ivies. In fact, some would say it's a very smart decision, indeed. If, in certain cases, a very difficult one.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting essay. One correction, however. Patriot League schools do not offer football scholarships. They continue to offer grants etc similar to the Ivy League if the player's parents are not rich. These grants normally will be for less than 100% of the cost of an education.

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