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Ivy League Remains Absent from Expanding FCS Playoff

After finishing the 2014 season undefeated for just the third time in a century, the Harvard football team will look to take home another title.
After finishing the 2014 season undefeated for just the third time in a century, the Harvard football team will look to take home another title. By Kevin H. Lin
By Jacob D. H. Feldman and Scott A. Sherman, Crimson Staff Writers

In November 2011, the Harvard football team wrapped up a dominant season with a 45-7 thrashing of rival Yale.

The Crimson, which finished the year ranked No. 14 in the Football Championship Subdivision, went 9-1 overall and undefeated in the Ivy League on the way to winning the conference title.

“We got beat by a better football team today,” former Yale coach Tom Williams said after the contest. “They’re the best team in our league—the best team we’ve played this year—and it showed.”

It was a meaningful statement from Williams, whose squad had also faced the Patriot League’s Lehigh Mountain Hawks in a non-conference contest earlier in the season. In the week following The Game, Lehigh would go on to play in the FCS Tournament, where it reached the quarterfinals and finished the season ranked No. 5 in the nation.

Harvard—in Williams’ mind a better team than Lehigh—never had such a chance.

That’s because the Ancient Eight does not allow its teams to compete in the six-week, 20-team championship playoffs.

Though winners of 11 conferences, including the Patriot League, earn automatic bids to the field, the Ivy League continues to decline a bid. That means that no matter how well an Ancient Eight team plays during the regular season, its year will come to an end a month before that of its elite peers.

The conference is one of just two FCS leagues to opt out of the playoff—the other being the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which instead splits its members into divisions and plays a conference championship game of its own.

As an explanation for this ban on postseason play, Ivy conference administrators cite concerns about both tradition and academics, noting that the playoff—which begins the weekend after Thanksgiving—could interfere with reading period and finals.

Denied the opportunity to test themselves against the nation’s best FCS squads, teams like the 2004 Crimson—which finished the regular season as the nation’s only undefeated FCS team and was ranked No. 13 in the country at year’s end—must be content with only winning an Ivy League championship.

Though some support this ban and share the belief that the football season should conclude before the start of reading period, others point to the spring NCAA tournaments for golf, softball, tennis, and lacrosse—all of which feature the participation of the Ancient Eight champion (and sometimes multiple Ivy teams), despite the fact that they can and often do extend into the heart of finals.

The Ivy League’s continued rejection of postseason play for football, on the other hand, has left many players, coaches, and fans disappointed about the missed opportunity for the best of the Ivy League to test itself on the gridiron against the nation’s elite in a quest to win a national championship.

AN INFLEXIBLE POSITION

Though the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) has continued to use the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) computer system to determine the participants in its national championship game—a setup that will change when it implements a four-team playoff in 2014—the FCS has used a tournament model since the inception of Division I-AA football in 1978.

That year, the playoff included just four teams; the tournament then expanded to eight squads in 1981, 12 in 1982, 16 in 1986, and 20 in 2010.

In 2013, the playoff will expand to 24 teams. The Ancient Eight champion will not be one of them.

“Other commissioners would love to see the Ivy League be part of the playoffs, but they understand it’s a long-standing traditional decision,” said Robin Harris, the Executive Director of the conference. “They would love to see us and they mention it occasionally, but they understand that we’re not participating.”

Crimson coach Tim Murphy says that the Ivy presidents have been mostly quiet on the issue during his 13-year tenure, despite the fact that—according to Brown coach Phil Estes—the league’s coaches will often ask to have playoff participation put up for discussion among the conference’s presidents.

“I think [the coaches would] all be in support of it,” Estes said.

So far, though, the presidents haven’t budged.

“There was a point, maybe back in 1998-99 [when] there were a few presidents that tried to make a push to put it on the agenda,” Estes said. “But it didn’t go anywhere from there.”

Currently, the Ivy League remains an active member of the subdivision, meeting two or three times per year with its commissioner and maintaining regular communications about FCS administrative issues. But it continues to remain rigid when it comes to joining the playoff.

“The position on this issue is the same. There’s been no serious discussion about changing it since I’ve been here,” said Harris, who joined the Ivy League in 2009.

ACADEMICS VERSUS ATHLETICS

The most commonly-cited reason for the conference’s lack of participation in the playoffs is academics.

This past year, the tournament ran from Nov. 24 through Jan. 5, meaning it overlapped with the finals period of every Ivy League institution except Princeton.

“Postseason play would undermine the student identity of our student-athletes by carrying the season on into exam times and through a greater portion of the year,” University President Drew G. Faust said in November.

But football remains the only one of Harvard’s 41 varsity sports that is ineligible for postseason play, and other Ivy League teams are routinely asked to balance the academic-athletic scheduling conflict.

Earlier in May, for example, the women’s golf team traveled to its NCAA Tournament, which took place during the spring reading and finals period. Players were often required to take finals early in the morning before heading out to play a full tournament round of golf.

“I found it pretty difficult,” said freshman Christine Lin, who took an exam at 8 a.m. in the coaches’ room of the Stanford Golf Course, where the Crimson was competing. “On the one hand I really wanted to play well in golf, but I also had my exam to focus on.... It was pretty hard to split the difference and switch my focus from one to the other.”

Lin says she already finds it challenging to balance athletics with academics while at Harvard, and asking students to take exams on the road makes it “10 times as hard.” But despite the difficulty involved with the process, Lin says she does not support the Ivy League banning postseason football due to academic concerns.

“Athletes are recruited to play for the school in their sport,” she said. “I’m not saying academics aren’t important, [but] I feel like it can be scheduled around.”

Andy Nguyen, co-captain of the men’s tennis team—which also recently returned from an NCAA Tournament that took place during reading and finals period—agrees, saying that taking exams on the road “wasn’t that big of a deal.”

“The academic officials are really accommodating,” explained Nguyen, who took a take-home test while at the tournament in Mississippi this year. “They understand we’re students first.”

Nguyen says that though things can become difficult when players are asked to take exams right after their matches, he does not find maintaining academic success while on the road to be inordinately challenging.

“I think the guys did well [on the tests they took at the tournament],” Nguyen said. “It’s what we’ve been doing all year, balancing tennis and school.... It’s just a little bit more intense.”

According to Tim McDonnell, who covers the subdivision for The Sports Network, one of two organizations that releases an FCS poll, football teams in other conferences, such as the Colonial Athletic Association, often face similar conflicts and thus have permitted their players to take tests on the Friday before the game or earlier in the week in order to allow them to compete in the playoff.

“I understand there’s a big difference academically between the Ivy League and other schools in the FCS, but I do look at some of those FCS schools [where] I know academically it’s not the same standards, but it’s still manageable,” said McDonnell. “It’s not like it’s impossible.”

Charlie Cobb, Chair of the Division I Football Committee, also says that were the Ivy League to agree to join the playoff, participating teams would undoubtedly be able to concurrently meet its academic requirements.

“We’ve done it in years past where we’ve had to proctor exams with our academic support staff, [or with] our faculty athletic [representative] when we’ve been at the championship site,” Cobb said. “Obviously you’ve got to take care of your work academically, and everybody understands that, but I think there is a way to do both.”

A POST-“GAME” LETDOWN?

Another reason often cited by Ivy League administrators for the postseason ban is tradition.

Some at Harvard claim playoff participation would be meaningless because the team already has what it considers a championship contest—The Game, the season-ending match between Harvard and Yale that annually draws sellout crowds of 30,000 to Harvard Stadium or 60,000 to the Yale bowl. By comparison, the first-round FCS playoff games last season drew an average of 4,442 fans.

“To be perfectly honest with you, to be able to end our season in a great national rivalry, on national TV in front of a full house...there’s nothing that could happen in the FCS playoffs that’s going to be a better experience for our kids than that, or a better way to end your season,” Murphy said.

But not all of the league’s teams have that luxury; over the past two years, the season finales of the other six Ancient Eight squads drew an average of just 5,392 fans per contest.

“We’ve got a tremendous way to finalize our season, [and] I don’t think we can do any better than that,” Murphy said. “[But] I know my fellow coaches of the league may feel very differently.... I don’t think there’s any question—if I’m the Brown coach or I’m the Princeton coach or I’m the Penn coach, I may have a much different take on it.”

Viewing the situation from Providence, R.I., Estes is one of those coaches who sees things differently.

“In the past, it’s always been about the Harvard-Yale game, and they feel maybe the playoffs would be a bit of a letdown after that,” he said. “I think the rest of the league would like to have the opportunity...to play in the playoffs.”

Harris says she feels Ivy League fan support for existing games and rivalries stands independent from whether teams compete against national competition in the playoffs.

“I think our fans care about Ivy League football,” she said. “Rivalry games are going to draw the most fans [to] a given game, and whether or not a team is going on to the FCS playoffs, I don’t think is going to [have an] impact.”

Tradition, therefore, continues to dominate when it comes to Ivy League football.

“The Ivy League presidents are not interested in allowing participation in the playoffs because they value Ivy football as it currently exists,” Harris said. “The focus for our teams is on the regular season and the value of Ivy League play. The tradition and history of Ivy League football is paramount.”

A COMPETITIVE DISADVANTAGE?

Even if the Ivy League did participate in the FCS playoffs, the question remains whether the conference champion could even contend with the best teams from around the country, who are not burdened with the same academic restrictions on recruiting that Ancient Eight squads deal with.

“I think the general conception of the Ivy League is...[that its teams are] not going to be able to compete with the North Dakota States, the Sam Houston States, or the Georgia Southerns,” McDonnell said.

But McDonnell, who covers all of the subdivision’s programs, believes that perception is the wrong one.

“You can make the argument that some teams that made the field this year didn’t have as good of a season as Harvard did, or Penn, and that’s what the strange thing is,” he said. “It’s not like they have bad players in the Ivy League; some people don’t realize that. I look at [senior running back Treavor] Scales from Harvard, I look at [Crimson senior quarterback] Colton Chapple, those are guys we talk about all the time. It just stinks we’re not able to talk about them at a championship level.”

Murphy agrees that the league’s top squads would do fine in a national tournament.

“The best teams over the years from the Ivy League could compete at the highest level, I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Murphy said. “And I say that not as conjecture, but having been in [the playoff] four times as a head coach at Maine and as an assistant coach at Boston University back in the day.”

McDonnell even says that in the league’s best seasons, two or more Ancient Eight squads could earn tournament bids.

“You could see an at-large happen, for sure,” he said. “It’s not like these teams are going to play in the playoffs and get rolled over. It’s going to be competitive.”

ON THE PLUS SIDE

The possibility also exists that playoff participation could provide benefits to the conference that it does not currently receive, with one potential area of growth being recruiting.

Both Murphy and Estes, two of the three coaches to win an Ancient Eight championship in the last seven years—the other, Penn’s Al Bagnoli, declined to comment for this story—say that they do not believe that the conference’s ban on postseason play has a major impact on the talent they are able to attract.

“With the type of kids the Ivy League recruits it’s such a small part of their decision-making process, and they seem to see the big picture,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t seem to be a huge issue whatsoever.”

“I’ve never encountered an athlete that decided not to come to Brown because we don’t play in the playoffs, as far as I know,” Estes echoed. “We just don’t talk about it. There’s certainly enough interest [because players] understand the value of the education...the chance to be an Ivy League champion is what we talk about.”

But Scales, who led the Ivy League in rushing this year, disagrees.

“To say that that [the playoff ban] doesn’t come into play in some people’s decisions would be ludicrous,” the running back said. “Everybody wants to be able to measure themselves against the rest of the nation, and everybody wants to be able to play against folks from their hometown or have their family and friends from nearby come see them. It can impact recruiting in some way.”

Because a sustained playoff run would increase the exposure and reputability of any program, Cobb says that tournament participation could benefit recruiting by attracting more attention around the country to the conference itself.

“What it gets back to is the experience of playing different teams in different places,” Cobb said. “I think that’s the piece that probably the Ivies are missing and the Division I playoffs [are] missing [without the Ivies].”

Currently, each Ancient Eight squad plays three non-conference games per year—contests that are largely meaningless to the teams’ ultimate goal of winning an Ivy League title because they cannot advance beyond their respective 10-game schedules. The Quakers, for example, won a league championship last season despite going 0-3 in non-conference play.

“Certainly the talent’s there, and you can make the argument that the Ivy League can play with some of the big boys in FCS football,” McDonnell said. “But until that happens, there will also be the question of what the Ivy League is actually competing for.”

Another benefit of playoff participation is that it would make those three non-conference games more significant because they would impact potential playoff seeding and at-large bids. But Murphy says those non-conference games are just as meaningful to his team as the league ones are.

“When you work probably 300 days a year in some facet preparing for those 10 games, there’s no question that they’re [all] very important,” Murphy said. “I don’t sense any different type of preparation or motivation to win those [non-conference] games.”

And while Cobb says the ability to put an additional game in the Northeastern market of the Ivy League is appealing to the subdivision, Harris says that partaking in the tournament would be “cost-neutral” for the conference itself.

“[Money is] not even a factor,” she said. “This is not like Orange Bowl participation where you might get some payment from it.... Cost is not the issue here at all, and a non-storyline.”

A SUBDUED SUBDIVISON

Despite understanding the academic, traditional, and competitive reasons why the Ivy League does not partake in the tournament, McDonnell says that the “general notion” among fans of the FCS is that the Ivy League should be allowed to compete.

“It’s just disappointing because you know one of those slots should be going to the Ivy League,” McDonnell said. “Anyone who is an FCS fan, anyone who covers FCS football wishes that [the Ancient Eight] could participate, because no one wants to see a team not have a chance to win a national championship.”

Cobb, who also serves as the Director of Athletics at Appalachian State—a perennial top FCS program that achieved one of the greatest upsets in college football history when it beat No. 5 Michigan in 2007—says that teams around the country would love the chance to compete against Ivy League schools—an opportunity the tournament would provide.

“I think for Appalachian State and Harvard to play a football game, that would be an awesome experience for [us],” Cobb said. “To me that’s what I get excited about [with] the playoffs.”

Harvard players of past and present say they too would relish the chance to participate in the bracket.

“We’d all love to be able to compete on a national scale,” Scales said. “You’re frustrated [by the ban], but that’s one of the sacrifices you make in attending this great institution and playing in this great conference.”

“I guess there’s always that underlying sentiment [of wanting to play on],” added Chris Lorditch ’11, who started at wide receiver on the 2011 championship team. “But coming into Harvard, you know the deal that The Game against Yale is your Super Bowl, and you kind of get used to that.”

Though Murphy says there was a time when he was “a bit frustrated” by the ban, he has come to accept that it’s not going to change. But Brown’s coach says he wishes it would.

“[It’d be nice to see] how far we can go, and to have the opportunity to compete against the other best teams in the country,” said Estes, whose Bears won at least a share of the Ancient Eight in 1999, 2005, and 2008. “Any time we have the opportunity to compete, I’d think we’d like to do that.”

The disappointment held by these coaches and players is shared by many small-school football supporters around the country.

“I think FCS fans in general, and anyone associated with FCS football wishes that [the Ivy League] could compete for a national title,” McDonnell said. “If you have a football program, why should you not be able to compete to be the best?”

—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at ssherman13@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at jacobfeldman@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Jacobfeldman4.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: June 1, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Robin Harris, the executive director of the Ivy League, said she does not think participation in the FCS playoffs would attract the interest of Ivy League fans. In fact, Harris said she feels fan support for existing games and rivalries stands independent from whether teams compete against national competition in playoff games.

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