By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Nashville, TN (Sports Network) - When Bobby Wilder interviewed back in December 2006 to become Old Dominion's head football coach, he already knew the university would be joining CAA Football.
Now that the long wait is finally over, and the Monarchs are set for their first season in the conference after returning to football with two successful campaigns as an independent, the CAA doesn't look the same anymore.
Especially for Wilder, a former player and longtime assistant at the University of Maine, one of the original CAA schools from the old Yankee Conference.
Northeastern and Hofstra dropped their programs after the 2009 seasons. Rhode Island announced last year it will be moving to the lower Northeast Conference in 2013. In April, Massachusetts accepted an invitation to join the Mid- American Conference and is now playing its final FCS season before rising to the FBS next year.
It would seem the hits eventually have to stop coming to what has become the FCS' premier conference (four national championships and three runner-up finishes in the last eight seasons). Don't they?
The many changes -- and, yes, Georgia State will be following ODU into the conference next year -- has turned Villanova's possible move to the Big East and/or FBS vital to the CAA's future. The Wildcats, 2009 FCS national champions, have helped raised the conference's bar both on and off the field.
William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock, whose team was installed on Wednesday as the CAA's preseason favorite, points out that regardless of the many moves, including the one involving Villanova, "one constant that will not change is the competitiveness of the league."
If the decision was up to Villanova, it probably would have announced a move to the Big East this past spring. But the conference put its invitation on hold to do more homework on 'Nova and its possible new home stadium at PPL Park, the MLS stadium in Chester, Pa., which currently falls below Big East standards with 18,000 seats, yet would be expanded in the future.
"It's played havoc with us a bit. Kids are going to want to know what you're going to do. I mean you can say we made the decision to go and the Big East now wants to do more study. I really don't know what we're going to do because it's not in our hands, it's in the Big East's hands."
No other schools are cringing more than Maine and New Hampshire. They already have been left out on an island in the northeast as the only CAA programs north of Villanova. Neither of those programs want to go anywhere else. They just don't want the CAA to keep moving farther away from them to the south.
"It's difficult for us to be where we are and not feel close to what's going on," Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. "I don't know, there's not a lot of information (as to) where we going or where the league's directed to or where Maine fits in.
"We have just become that remote spot up north that's still a part of the conference. I'm feeling a little bit disassociated just because of the distance."
Said Wilder, who coached under Cosgrove: "It's incredible how far south this league has gone. When I was playing in the league in the mid-80s, it was the Yankee Conference. Then all of a sudden Richmond came in and we all went, 'What? What's Richmond doing in the Yankee Conference?' And then it just kept going south. And then we became the Atlantic-10. And then all of a sudden it became the CAA.
"I knew back in the mid-90s, when I was an assistant coach at Maine, where the league was going. I think it's difficult to watch it happen, to see what's happening with the northern schools. But the strength of this league now, the reputation with this league, it's at a point now that teams want in."
That's where the relatively new programs at ODU and Georgia State come in, as well as potentially others like Charlotte's future program. It's not so Yankee anymore.
Still, the CAA no longer is built around ODU or Georgia State or, well, some of the struggling northeast teams that have or are moving on. The conference needs the likes of Villanova, Delaware, James Madison and William & Mary to remain strong.
If Villanova steps through stage door left, the conversation about who's next then switches to Delaware. And then James Madison. And then...
"At one time this is the best conference in America - you have six in the north and six in the south," said the coach of last season's national runner- up squad. "And then you have Northeastern drop football and Hofstra follows suit. And now Rhode Island is moving out. Massachusetts is already moving out. Villanova's talking about moving out. I'm concerned about I-AA football. I'm concerned about the Montanas and the Appalachian States of the world.
"Now you wonder what we're going to be in two or three or four years. And that's why I encourage our administration, if an ACC or an Big East (enters the picture) -- because those are the places that we want to be -- we would be foolish not to jump on board and do whatever it would have to take to get into those conferences. But it is a little nerve-wracking what may happen with I-AA football in the future."
James Madison, with its newly completed stadium renovation up over 9,000 seats to about 25,000, seems capable of living up to its second-place prediction in the CAA's poll of head coaches and sports information directors. But the possible banner ahead could be a prelude to what Villanova is going through.
"If you haven't been there the last six months, you've never been there," coach Mickey Matthews said of his stadium. "Right now, you feel like you're in Tuscaloosa, Alabama."
Tuscaloosa, of course, is not home to FCS football.
CAA coaches are openly rooting that Villanova won't leave the conference. If the Wildcats stay, you get the sense that the league can keep from unraveling further, that a JMU will start to accept that the grass isn't always greener on the other side of Bridgeforth Stadium.
And PPL Park.
William & Mary collected 12 of the 22 first-place votes in earning the CAA's preseason nod, ahead of James Madison and Delaware in the 11-team conference.
The Tribe had six players make the preseason all-conference team, including four-year standout Jonathan Grimes, the conference's preseason co-offensive player of the year along with fellow running back Andrew Pierce of Delaware. Massachusetts linebacker Tyler Holmes earned the defensive honor.
"All I tell them is I want them to be as good as they can be," Laycock said. "Now whatever that is, whatever that is, whether that's .500, whether it's 7-4, whatever that is ...
"You want to give people your best shot and you want to do your best in preparation. I ain't worried about what other people's expectations are. All I want is our kids to be as good as they can possibly be."
CAA FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL (Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors)
1. William & Mary, 12 first-place votes
2. James Madison, 4
3. Delaware, 2
4. New Hampshire, 2
5. Massachusetts, 1
8. Rhode Island, 1
10. Old Dominion
PRESEASON CAA ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
Offensive Players of the Year -- Jonathan Grimes, RB, William & Mary, and Andrew Pierce, RB, Delaware
Defensive Player of the Year -- Tyler Holmes, LB, Massachusetts
QB - Steve Probst, Rhode Island, Sr.
RB - Jonathan Grimes, William & Mary, Sr.
RB - Andrew Pierce, Delaware, So.
FB - Kendall Gaskins, Richmond, Jr.
WR - Tre Gray, Richmond, Sr.
WR - Julian Talley, Massachusetts, Sr.
WR - Norman White, Villanova, Sr.
TE - Alex Gottlieb, William & Mary, Sr.
OL - Roane Babington, James Madison, Sr.
OL - Gino Gradowski, Delaware, Sr.
OL - Rob McDowell, Delaware, Sr.
OL - James Pagliaro, William & Mary, Sr.
OL - Dan Shirey, Villanova, Sr.
DL - Michael Atunrase, Delaware, Sr.
DL - Frank Beltre, Towson, Jr.
DL - Marcus Hyde, William & Mary, Sr.
DL - Antoine Lewis, Villanova, So.
DL - Brian McNally, New Hampshire, Sr.
LB - Dante Cook, William & Mary, Jr.
LB - Matt Evans, New Hampshire, Jr.
LB - Tyler Holmes, Massachusetts, Sr.
LB - Stephen Robertson, James Madison, So.
LB - Paul Worrilow, Delaware, Jr.
S - Jerron McMillian, Maine, Sr.
S - Vidal Nelson, James Madison, Sr.
CB - James Pitts, Villanova, Sr.
CB - B.W. Webb, William & Mary, Jr.
PK - Wil Kamin, Richmond, Jr.
P - David Skahn, James Madison, Jr.
RS - Travis Hurd, Rhode Island, So.