In the FCS Huddle: Scholarships all the difference in Patriot

It was always one thing for Patriot League football programs to lose a high school recruit to a scholarship school.

Coaches at the Patriot schools could rationalize they didn't stand a realistic chance because they couldn't offer football scholarships.

But it was another thing to recruit an interested student-athlete and then come to learn several months later there was never a chance of getting him in the first place.

Like his brethren around the league, Lehigh coach Andy Coen had seen it happen before. An impressive young player would shine at the school's summer football camp, and the Mountain Hawks would try later to recruit him. Several months would pass in the process and then the coaches would learn of the player's family's financial situation, and that it couldn't afford to send their son to the school without a scholarship.

The league's first football scholarship class this year is changing the recruiting dynamic for most of the Patriot schools. Their coaches are anxious to collect signed letters of intent and unveil their recruiting classes on Wednesday, the beginning of the nearly two-month signing period.

"The whole process has been different to us, it's been a much more streamlined process, I would probably say," Coen said. "I think in the past, all the Patriot League schools would go out in the springtime and start their evaluations. Quite often the players that we all valued as players were going to be off the board quickly due to scholarship schools. This year, the process was a lot different for us in a positive way. We did spend more time in the springtime evaluating players, just knowing that we were going to have the opportunity to recruit more of these guys than we had in previous years."

"A lot of players, maybe you would try to go after under the old system but really not have much of a chance to get them because when it came down to applying for financial aid, they may or not have gotten enough to go," Colgate coach Dick Biddle said.

The decision by Patriot schools last February to add 15 football scholarships each year basically ended an unsettled period for the league. Football was the only league sport not allowed to offer them, and Fordham was forcing the issue.

The Bronx, N.Y., school was already two years into offering scholarships, having surrendered eligibility for the league title, and it was planning to leave the league if other schools didn't follow suit with scholarships.

In past recruiting years, the league's coaches often recruited by casting their net as far as possible because they knew so many prospective players would be lost to scholarship programs. In the last year, they could target fewer recruits and concentrate more on them. This time, a coach could back up his offer of a high-end education at the school with an actual scholarship.

"You get your foot in the door," Biddle said, "whereas before the door was very hard to get open. You may get one in 10 or one in 15 (who had a scholarship opportunity elsewhere) to do it."

"We're looking for Division I football players, but also kids with (high) grades," Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore said. "I don't think that initial pool has changed. The big difference, I think, is the best athletes in the pool - the kids at the very high end of that pool - wound up pulling out of the process for us very early because they had scholarships to other schools. The financial consideration in and of itself took them out of the equation or they pulled themselves out of the equation for us because of the financial part of it. I think this year, we started with the same pool and we had a lot of those upper-end kids who started with it for a long time in the process and we yielded, I would say, more of those kids than ever before."

Patriot coaches have found the scholarships aid them particularly with recruits from middle-class families. Tuition at the league's seven football- playing schools - Bucknell, Colgate, Fordham, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh - can cost upwards of $50,000-$55,000 annually, and the football programs have had an easier time attracting student-athletes from a lower-income background because they qualified for significant financial aid or a higher-income background because their families could afford the price tag. It was harder to recruit student-athletes who fell in between and didn't qualify for enough need-based aid.

Now the Patriot schools don't have to just hope scholarship-worthy players will commit to them without receiving an actual scholarship, the schools can make a competitive offer to recruits who also have offers from other conferences, such as the Colonial Athletic Association, even Bowl Subdivision programs. The lure of a scholarship also can help the Patriot League win recruiting battles against the Ivy League.

Georgetown was against the decision to add football scholarships and punted on the chance to offer them this year. That puts the Hoyas behind the six other programs and surely will counteract coach Kevin Kelly's recent work to improve the once-struggling program.

The effects may not be felt this season when the Hoyas can return a senior class of 29 players, but it will over time. Kelly is bringing in a class of 22-23 recruits, and he said there are still discussions on campus about going to scholarships in the future.

"We're Georgetown. We're the best school in the league (academically)," he said. "We've got to dig a little bit deeper possibly than some of the other schools. The one thing that we have an advantage is we are a national brand.

"We've got the best location. On the horizon, we're going to have new facilities. I think all those things combined still make us a very, very attractive opportunity for young men. We find guys that are high-need kids and guys that are no-need. The ones that we probably lose out on are the middle- class-type of family that might have to pay half of it, which is still $30,000, which is a lot of money. You're going to lose some to scholarship programs that might be able to give them a full scholarship."

The league's other head coaches, including Bucknell's Joe Susan and Lafayette's Frank Tavani, have the 15 scholarships at their disposal. Most offers are for full scholarships, but the coaches can offer partial scholarships to increase the recruiting class size and create depth for their rosters, which have a maximum of 95 players this season. Need-based financial aid can still be offered to non-scholarship members of the recruiting classes.

The addition of the scholarships and the fact the league doesn't allow for redshirt seasons - including freshmen - makes it more important to be correct in the evaluation process of players, and not waste a scholarship.

"Whether you're giving aid or not, you don't want to make a mistake on a kid," Biddle said. "If you're bringing in 30 people, you can make four or five mistakes. But when you're only bringing in only 15 or 20, you can't make a mistake. There's a lot that goes into it and I'm sure there's going to be some hits or misses. But your margin of error is extremely low."

Lehigh won an FCS playoff game in both the 2010 and '11 seasons, but there has been no others since Colgate made a run to the 2003 national championship game. The league has a 2-11 playoff record in that span.

Add in that the NCAA selection committee left Lehigh out of last year's playoffs despite a 10-1 record, and the timing for scholarships couldn't be better for the Patriot League.

"I think it improves the profile of the league," Fordham coach Joe Moorhead said. "If you look at the playoff picture and the teams that get in, a lot of the leagues that get multiple at-large teams in are full-scholarship teams. So, hopefully, the decision to go full scholarship in the Patriot League allows us to recruit a better caliber of student-athlete, and it raises the profile of our football throughout the country."