By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Even with all the maneuvering going on in college football, what has been developing in the Colonial Athletic Association is as incredible as any of the changes nationally.
The Big Ten and Pac-10 - if that's what you still want to call them - haven't faced nearly as much offseason change as CAA Football.
At the end of the 2009 regular season, the premier conference in the FCS had two programs drop the sport - first Northeastern, then Hofstra. Now word is filtering out (including via a Richmond Times-Dispatch report) that Rhode Island, which for decades has struggled to be competitive in a conference full of bigger members, is studying a possible departure from the CAA to join the smaller Northeast Conference for the start of the 2013 season.
CAA Football will get back two of the losses when Old Dominion joins the conference for the 2011 season and fellow independent Georgia State, which is debuting its program this season, will follow in 2012. Yet considering the conference has seen five different members play in six of the last seven FCS championship games, including champions Delaware in 2003, James Madison in 2004, Richmond in 2008 and Villanova in 2009, it hardly seemed like a conference that would encounter such change.
The possible move by Rhode Island wouldn't be surprising, however. Although this season will be the Rams' 110th season of football and they were one of six charter members of the Yankee Conference in 1947 (the conference became known as the Atlantic 10 in 1997 and then CAA Football in 2007), they don't have a successful tradition.
The Rams were on an elite level when two-time All-American quarterback Tom Ehrhardt led them to 10-win, FCS playoff seasons in 1984 and '85. But since then, they have posted winning records in only three of the last 24 seasons (6-5 in 1991, 7-4 in 1995 and 8-3 in 2001) while going a combined 81-185 (.305) overall and 48-145 (.249) in conference play. Second-year head coach Joe Trainer was 1-10 in his first season last year, including 0-8 in CAA games.
They had CAA Football's smallest attendance average in 2009 - 3,786 - in the conference's smallest stadium - 5,180-seat Meade Stadium - and lack the resources of many other schools in the conference, especially those in the south.
"The Northeast Conference and the University of Rhode Island are in productive and serious conversations regarding the University of Rhode Island becoming a football playing associate member of the NEC beginning in the year 2013," the NEC announced in a statement.
"Both parties are discussing the logistics linked with associate membership and a formal announcement regarding the status of a future partnership will be made by mid-August."
Rhode Island is allowed to offer the full 63 scholarships as a member of CAA Football, but that would drop to the 40 that the NEC will allow in 2012. The move would greatly improve the Rams' chance of reaching the FCS playoffs for the first time since Air Ehrhardt took them there. The NEC will have an automatic bid for the first time this season, and the Rams would be competitive with the nine NEC programs - Albany, Central Connecticut State, Duquesne, Monmouth, Robert Morris, Sacred Heart, St. Francis (Pa.), Wagner and Bryant, which would provide an intrastate rival.
The question facing CAA Football is, have all the dominoes stopped falling? If Rhode Island makes the move, half of what was the North Division - Northeastern, Hofstra and Rhode Island - would be gone by 2013. That would not only take away winnable games for the former division's other three programs - Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire (who would be the last three remaining original members of the Yankee Conference) - but it would mean they will have to make a bigger commitment to football financially (including travel) to remain competitive with the southern schools in what will be a true Atlantic Coast conference. The conference powers are mostly in the south with Villanova, Delaware, Richmond, James Madison and William & Mary, and ODU and Georgia State seemingly are strong enough to surpass Towson.
Still, it's possible all the chairs in the conference may not remain filled. UMass doesn't appear to be going anywhere soon (unless it's to the FBS, as some have suggested), and New Hampshire has been a national power since the late 1990s, but Maine struggles to keep up with the CAA programs that are from better-heeled states and have bigger stadiums, bigger fan bases, bigger athletic budgets and better high school talent. The Black Bears are much more competitive than Rhode Island, but they face an uphill battle as well.
While colleges want to be aligned with other conference schools on an academic level more so than on an athletic level, hard times on the playing field force athletic programs to make tough decisions - a la Northeastern, Hofstra and perhaps Rhode Island. So if Maine, long known as a hockey school, is going to make a hard decision, now would seem to be the time, perhaps in a piggyback move with Rhode Island to the NEC.
If both schools depart the conference, that really would make CAA Football unbalanced geographically.
Maybe the Big Ten and Pac-10 are relatively calm after all.