CAA commissioner not a fan of I-AA to I-A jump

CAA football media day at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium.

CAA football media day at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.

This ran in Monday’s paper (July 29, 2013). CAA commissioner Tom Yeager surprised everyone, even other CAA officials, by ranting about the perils of I-AA football teams leaping to I-A. He even had a handout. 

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Around lunchtime at the Colonial Athletic Association’s football media day last week in Baltimore, Tom Yeager, following a couple of innocuous speeches from CAA coaches, stood at the podium to give what everyone assumed would be an uneventful talk.

Instead, the CAA commissioner unleashed a polemic, outlining in detail — and in a severe tone — why Division I-AA football programs considering moves to I-A should think again.

Yeager’s argument focused on the cost, as well as the lack of competitiveness of former I-AA schools in I-A. No former I-AA schools are currently members of the five power conferences: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. That means they are locked out of the $20 million-plus that these conferences distribute to each of their member schools as a result of lucrative television contracts.

“When you get behind all this stuff, when you broach the subject of [I-A], everyone thinks Rose Bowl, everyone thinks Michigan, everyone’s thinking Alabama,” Yeager said in an interview following his speech. “That’s not where you’re headed. That’s not where you’re headed at all. So when you start sorting all that other stuff, it starts to make less and less sense.”

Yeager said that if the five power conferences break off and form their own division — a new fourth classification that has been often theorized — being I-A will just mean paying more to play in meaningless, “nondescript” bowl games. I-AA has a playoff system, which affords every school a shot at a national title.

“The general public, I think, is going to draw a very bright line below those [five power] conferences, and everybody else is going to be pretty indistinguishable,” Yeager said.

The speech was in reaction to conference realignment, which has had a severe impact on the Colonial. The Atlantic 10 poached Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason (both non-football schools), while three other former CAA members jumped to I-A football leagues: Massachusetts to the Mid-American Conference, Georgia State to the Sun Belt and Old Dominion to Conference USA.

The movement left the CAA on life support, but the league has since reloaded, adding Albany and Stony Brook for football only, and College of Charleston and Elon as full members.

“I think we’re refortified and ready to go for quite a while,” Yeager said.

Still, there are defection risks — notably James Madison, which is conducting a study on the feasibility of a jump to I-A. Even JMU coach Mickey Matthews acknowledged that of the current CAA schools, Madison — with its 25,000-seat stadium and nearly $35 million athletics budget — is the most likely candidate to leave the conference. Delaware also is an oft-rumored possibility.

“I don’t think our conference is staying the same,” Matthews said. “… We would probably [be a likely choice] based on, ‘Let’s have a consultant group on campus.’ I would say — you hear Delaware, you hear some other teams.”

Yeager is confident the CAA, once believed to be on its way to nonexistence, has stabilized. He even seemed confident that the CAA wouldn’t lose Madison to I-A, where a likely landing spot is Conference USA — a league ODU has openly lobbied for the Dukes to join so it can have a nearby rival in a conference that stretches to Texas.

“First off, when a president comes in, he’s going to do a 360 analysis of the university, including athletics. That’s not uncommon,” said Yeager, referencing new JMU President Jonathan Alger and the university’s I-A study. “Yeah, is it a topic of conversation when these guys go out and about and everything else? Sure. Is there a way to really collect information so that President Alger can have an intelligent conversation with the mob at the next function he’s speaking at — most of the discussions that are coming out about their interest in moving up and all this other stuff is coming out of where? Norfolk, all right? It’s other people attributing all kinds of motive and rationale to somebody else.”

Norfolk, of course, is ODU’s home.

But do the coaches believe the Colonial has stabilized? It depends on the definition of stable. Many said last week that they expect more change, but there is no dire fear that the league may cease to exist.

“If we lose someone, I think we’ll probably pick someone up,” Albany coach Bob Ford said.

Ford, who has been at Albany for more than 40 years, pegged JMU — which won the I-AA national title in 2004 — as a candidate to bolt. He also echoed Yeager.

“James Madison had a little success. Will they buy into this and move up?” Ford said. “It’s the old story: What would you rather be? Big fish, small pond, or small fish, big pond? I don’t know.”

Neither Ford nor Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore expressed any worry they were joining a conference in peril. Priore even said there had been discussion at his university about Stony Brook one day joining the CAA as a full member.

Yeager further backed the security of the CAA. He said there isn’t much of a difference between the non-BCS teams and I-AA.

“I think that I’m passionate about [I-AA] and its strength,” Yeager said. “… We’re not threatened by [realignment]. The people who are threatened by it are the other five leagues, the low [I-A leagues]. … But that gap is splitting, so you have people that are precariously associating with the big fellas, when they’re more like us than they ever will admit.”

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