Late Fall in New England is usually replete with chilling temperatures and blustery storms, known as nor’easters, stirring up and down the coast. The season also brings skiing and snowboarding in the green mountain area as well as amber foliage along historic walks through Revolutionary War battlegrounds. There are plenty of activities that are keen to virtually all interests.
However, the one thing absent on these December Saturdays is Ivy League football games. Citing a commitment to student-athletes, the university presidents have all agreed to not allowing any athletic competition during the exam period, which usually runs through mid-December. The ban on athletics happens to also coincide with the course of the Football Championship Series, making participation by Ivy League teams impossible. Thus, the teams of the conference play strict, ten game schedules with the champion being crowned as the team with the best record at the season’s conclusion. But what if there was another solution?
It has long since been established that the south is the epicenter of college football in America. Of the 14 BCS National Championships that have been played, 12 of the winners have hailed from states below the Mason-Dixon line. The theory holds true, as well, in the Football Championship Series where southern schools comprise three of the four teams with the most national championships. But, there is one conference of southern schools, which doesn’t have a chance to add to the numbers.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) is an association of historically black colleges and universities located in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Those five states have a vast majority of football talent in comparison to the rest of the nation, reflected in the percentage of blue chippers-per-the population. Despite a history dating back to 1920, the conference is most known for the legendary, Eddie Robinson. For 53 seasons, Robinson coached the Grambling Tigers to 408 wins. The most of any coach at the Division I level and only second to John Gagliardi for all-time in NCAA history.
The SWAC, like the Ivy League, does not participate in the FCS play-offs. Instead, this weekend, they will be hosting their championship game. The winner will have no bowl or play-off game to reward their conference championship. But what if there was another solution?
The Ivy League, as a formalized conference, dates back to 1954. Prior to that, there was a pact known as the “Ivy Group Agreement” signed in 1945. The accordance affirmed a collective adherence to academic standards for eligibility of student-athletes. Of the statutes put forth, the most notable was that each university would only offer financial aid and academic-merit scholarships, disallowing the use of athletic-only applicants.
Even before 1945, the Ivy teams had such a gentleman’s agreement against some of the vulgar practices of other schools. Their rigorous standards did not impede the success Ivy League teams enjoyed throughout the early parts of the 20th century. Princeton has been credited with having won 28 national championships. Additionally, Yale and Harvard were dominant throughout seasons, winning 18 and 7 titles, respectively (some figures, will dispute the number of actual titles Yale won to be as many as 27).
However, as the country experienced prosperity in the mid-20th century, so, too, did college football. The interest and competition increased as did numerous gambling scandals that rocked the sporting world. As a means to safeguard itself, the Ivy League withdrew from the specter of big time sports, consecrating the “Ivy Group Agreement” and, later, conference creation.
The developments of both collegiate football and the Ivy League seemed in contrast. One was booming and expanding, the other was internalizing and narrowing its focus. Since the Ivy Group Agreement, no Ivy League football team has played in the post-season. In fact, to find the last Ivy League bowl or play-off participant, one has to go back to the 1934 Rose Bowl when Columbia defeated Stanford, 7-0.
The Pelican Bowl, started in 1972, was a showcase between the champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), another historically black conference of teams along the Atlantic seaboard, and the SWAC. The game went into hiatus with the creation of the Division I-AA play-offs, which both teams participated in.
The game was re-introduced in 1991 as the Heritage Bowl using the same format. Unfortunately, the MEAC sent their champion to the I-AA play-offs and their second place team to the Heritage Bowl while the SWAC did the opposite. The game lost some of its appeal and was ended in 1999 and replaced with just a conference championship.
It is unclear why the SWAC stopped sending a representative to the I-AA play-offs. Emails to the SWAC and NCAA concerning the matter were not answered. It is reported that the rift occurred in 1998. The SWAC Champion, Southern University, elected to play a previously scheduled game as opposed to competing in the first round of the FCS play-offs. The game in question was the Bayou Classic, an annual rivalry game between Southern and Grambling that has been played over Thanksgiving weekend since 1930s. The game is also a large event for both alumni and local community bases and it generates substantial revenue vital to both universities’ athletic budget.
Southern declined the invitation to the play-offs and, subsequently, the SWAC did not receive an auto-berth and would not “as long as their season coincided with the play-offs”. In 1997, Jackson State became the last team from the SWAC to play in the post-season.
All across the country, students are preparing for their final exams for the Fall Semester. Nowhere is this truer than in the Ivy League, globally recognized as the largest collection of future world shapers. It cannot be overstated that this test period holds slightly more significance than in years past. The prestigious conference was sullied earlier this semester when a cheating scandal at Harvard indicted a large swath of students, including two standout basketball players. As cases of academic fraud and amateur compromise dot the collegiate landscape, it was thought that the bastion of academia was resistant to such undoing.
Perhaps this can be ammunition to continue the scholastic focus of the original paradigm from which many have clamored the conference was turning. Yet, it should serve as a reminder that everything changes and those that don’t become obsolete.
Even the obstinate presidents of the large, Football Bowl Subdivision universities have relented to the clamor for a semblance of a play-off (even if they won’t use the actual word).
Could the Ivy relent and adapt to this new age? There are some within the conference that believe a move toward joining the FCS play-offs are coming. It could be noted that the Ivy League’s basketball teams compete in March Madness with nary an eyebrow raised. Though, it is worth noting that the Ivy League is the only basketball conference in Division I that does not hold a post-season tournament to determine the automatic berth.
How about this for a solution: The Ivy League Football champion, as determined by the current format, will be invited to play the second or third place military academy in a post-Christmas bowl. This will allow for the Ivy team to observe their “competition ban during exams” clause and provide real intrigue, as they will be matched up with a Football Bowl Subdivision team that doesn’t provide athletic scholarships, either. The game will be a throwback to the early 20th century when the military academies and Ivies were the lords of the football world. The players, referees, coaches, and cheerleaders (I realize there were only male cheerleaders back then, but stay with me) could all wear throwback gear.
Take this year for example. On December 27th in Washington D.C., the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman will be played. Would you rather watch San Jose State take on Bowling Green or the Naval Academy against Penn? No argument can be made for the former. Ticket sales? The latter match-up definitely consists of a much larger alumni base, especially within the region. National interest? I’m pretty sure the Naval Academy and Ivy League have much larger brand appeal than also-rans from the Mid-American Conference and extinct Western Athletic Conference. I know this is radical thinking, but sometimes the best ideas are just the ones everyone is too afraid to try.
On Saturday, Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama will be home to the SWAC Championship. The Tigers of Jackson State will take on the Golden Lions of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The game will be a rematch of a previously played contest won by the Golden Lions, 34-24. The attendance is projected to be in the mid-20,000s, far below the capacity of the venue and of the figures during the height of the game’s popularity about a decade ago.
Despite such setbacks, the conference and sponsors are not deterred. Toyota will be hosting the game and it will be televised on the ESPN network. When it comes down to it, the conference will survive. Just as the SWAC rode out the turbulent 1950s where, at one point in 1957, there were only four members. Today, there are ten strong members noted for being key institutions in their region and specialty disciplines.
How about this for a solution: The top team omitted from the FCS play-offs takes on the SWAC champion the Saturday following the Championship (which should be moved up a week). The game can be played at either Legion Field or another location within the core consistency of the SWAC schools. It would give a deserving team squeezed out of the play-off picture (for this year, let’s say Lehigh) an opportunity to celebrate their successful season in a warm climate and give the SWAC champion a reward with an extra game. Why a non-play-off FCS school as opposed to an FBS team? The SWAC gives scholarships so there isn’t a military academy-Ivy League corollary and the resources afforded the larger schools would make such a game a mismatch. With the Pioneer League garnering an automatic berth, another FCS opponent, with travel remuneration provided by the NCAA as it does with all schools that travel for the post-season, is a close to ideal solution.
Athletics are something we choose to do, or to follow, because of the joy of competition. In that competition, a group must come together and battle against the odds to achieve victory, or else, lose together, as incomplete parts. Right now, in universities across the Northeast and Southwest, there are incomplete parts due to tradition and bureaucracy. Those athletes, those young men banding together, taking the risks, are paying the price for that. They’re losing out on the opportunity to see through their ambition with still more room to go. It’s not complicated. It just requires change. Which, to some, is harder than playing the game in the first place.