We knew it was coming. If Cal’s exit from the league wasn’t a factor in the budding dismay following the DI-A regular season, it was certainly foreshadowing.
We’re still working on unconfirmed rumors, and perhaps will be until after the June 23rd coaches meeting in Houston, Texas, but the future of DI-A looks bleak.
WHAT CAN SAVE THE MID-SOUTH?
Texas A&M and Rutgers are out. Oklahoma appears to be out, and Notre Dame is most likely leaving the Mid-South, if not DI-A, which leaves the league with just two teams -- Life and Arkansas State. Here are the three possibilities we’ve identified.
1) It is enveloped by the Rugby East. Lots of issues with that possibility, including the fact that some Rugby East coaches don’t want to play Life and Arkansas State. Does that conference get four seeds? Can the Rugby East teams afford the travel to Jonesboro, Ark. and Marietta, Ga.?
2) Lindenwood and another school join the Mid-South. Lindenwood appears to be game. They have the resources to travel to both life and ASU every year and compete with them, and they want to. The trick is the fourth team.
Davenport? No. For a couple of reasons. Coach Kruger van Biljon says it’s not in his budget to make that much travel in the regular season. He’s also skeptical of putting the four best programs, or four programs with the most potential to be the best, in the same league.
There is no other team in the South that makes sense at this time. Wheeling Jesuit, the newest varsity program, is a half-day’s bus ride from Marietta, Jonesboro and St. Charles, Mo., where Lindenwood is, but hasn’t even played a game, yet.
Florida State? If I were their coach, I wouldn’t even entertain the thought. Why slaughter your momentum by jumping up to play in that blender. Even if they did do it, they’ll reconsider shortly thereafter.
Any team in the Southeast Collegiate Rugby Conference? No. They have a great thing going there, it seems. The conference system is partially to blame for the demise of DI-A, since it’s so attractive for some teams, so I don’t foresee any team in a solid league leaving for the shaky ground of DI-A.
3) USA Rugby allows the Mid-South to play as a two-or-three-team league. Surely, that will rub a lot of teams the wrong way. If that league got two bids to the quarterfinals, the conferences two and three times larger would harbor resentment. If that league gets just one bid, the three teams in it will be upset that one or two of the best teams in the country are being left out of the playoffs.
Going beyond the Mid-South, Navy may well be out. It‘s not confirmed, yet, but the Midshipmen are most likely not returning to DI-A.
Ohio State? The word is Ron Bowers, who is taking over for Tom Rooney as head coach, wants to remain in DI-A. Delaware, Kutztown, Army and Penn State all want to remain in DI-A, as long as it makes sense. Add in Notre Dame, which seems rather possible, and you’ve got a pretty good five-team league.
Add Davenport? While it seems like a no-brainer to me, it’s probably not. Apparently some coaches within Rugby East, and DI-A as a whole, think academic standards and marketability of the school’s brand name are issues.
Five teams, though, is still somewhat viable. Again, the larger Pacific and West conferences could be understandably peeved if they have the same amount of bids as these much smaller leagues.
WHAT HAPPENS IF DI-A FOLDS?
If it does, like so many expect it to. There will be major ripple effects.
For starters, these former DI-A teams need to find conferences to be a part of. Some have already been told by leagues nearby that they won’t be let in, so they’re going to have to create their own leagues.
In Texas, Texas A&M is supposedly working with Texas Tech and Oklahoma to form something called the Allied Rugby Conference. They still need four teams to make that a viable league. Maybe they poach a couple of teams from the Southwest and make it happen.
For the Rugby East teams, they already have a good core to build a conference. Penn State, Kutztown, Delaware, Army and Navy could all stay together. Ohio State, you’d think, would play closer to home in the Mideast. Same for Notre Dame, but the Irish could also see value in playing with better “brands” in something akin to the old Mid-Atlantic premier league.
The Pacific Conference could stay the same, but Colorado, Colorado State, Air Force, Wyoming, Arizona and Arizona State might not mind not having to play Utah and BYU in the regular season, too.
A Pac-12 rugby conference could come together and include Utah and BYU, who have proven the ability to travel extensively before, as well as UCLA, Cal, Oregon State, Arizona and Arizona State. BYU would have to be made an exception, since they’re not in the Pac-12 in varsity sports, but Cal would be willing to advocate for that exception, I think. Maybe UCLA would rather play in the Pacific Mountain West and Oregon State in the NCRC.
There are a lot of possibilities for teams as far as conference choices go, but it seems fairly clear that at least three new conferences would have to be made. That gives us 16 DI conferences, including the already established DI-AA leagues.
What if we end up with more than 16 conferences that meet the minimum requirement of having seven teams? Totally possible if Northern California beefs up to seven or more, which you would think it would with UC-Davis back in the mix, along with several other teams who opted to stay in DII now being scheduled to move up.
Now you’re talking about having to either expand the playoffs, change the automatic qualifier regulations to more teams per conference or have play-in games between conference champions.
The first idea isn’t feasible. That would mean more travel, and we’re already at capacity as far as that’s concerned.
The second would definitely eliminate the amount of automatically qualifying conferences there are, but wouldn’t make the teams affected very happy.
The third one would assuredly upset conferences that were forced to play play-in games, and it would be a mild regression to the old system.
Interested observer: “You won the EPRU, so now you go to Nationals?”
Rugby person: “No, now we have to win the Mid-Atlantic.”
Interested observer: “You won the Atlantic Coast Rugby League, so now on to Nationals?”
Rugby person: “No, now we have to beat the champion of the South Independent.”
And those are just some of the questions to be answered if the Pacific and West conferences choose to stay together. It also assumes we are still interested in crowning a true national champion.
Coaches have talked about not playing for a national title for years, that they can make their own schedule and be happy to play great rugby. What have we learned from the Cal saga this season? That’s bologna. This is America. We want champions.
How about the All-American team? Without centralized playoffs, a place or a vehicle (like mandatory video of DI-A games) for selectors to scout from, how do we find the best in the country? All of a sudden it’s like finding our High School All Americans. That scouting system is extremely porous, evidenced by the Washington all-stars beating the HSAAs second side in 7s.
What about 7s and seasonality? If the Rugby East teams aren’t mandated to play a spring 15s season by the DI-A schedule, they’ll go back to playing in the fall, during the newly dubbed college 7s season.
It’s a mess at the moment, but one thing is pretty evident: this weekend figures to be really amazing, with two games that should be really close being played in opposite corners of the country. Teams representing Utah, California, Georgia and Arkansas are playing elite rugby, and DI-A has helped make it all possible. It'd be a shame if we ever went to something where weekends like the one upcoming were not possible.