The College Restructuring Plan approved recently by the USA Board of Directors is a huge document that will change the domestic rugby landscape as it’s currently known. The two aspects of the plan that resonate loudest are the creation of conferences and the forcing of programs to play at a level on par with their school’s varsity sports.
The first effectively takes the college game completely away from the Territorial and Local Area Unions. By the 2013/2014 season, there will no longer be West, Mid-Atlantic, South, SoCal, Pacific Coast, Northeast and Midwest college championships. Teams will still be required to pay individual and club CIPP dues, but will not pay into the LAUs or TUs. It’s likely conferences will charge their members some form of dues.
Programs will align themselves in conferences, creating their own competitions, leagues, administrations, etc. The DI men’s competitive structure is in its first season under this new system, and as of next season, all DI conferences will need a minimum of seven participant schools to be eligible for an automatic bid to the USA Rugby National Round of 16.
When DI transformed to the conference-based system this summer, leagues were formed in different ways. In several places like the West, Midwest, Sothern California and the Northeast, programs stuck with traditional LAU/TU ties to create conferences. Elsewhere, like the Ivy League and the Atlantic Coast Rugby League, programs formed conferences along the lines of their schools’ varsity conferences.
Despite some confusion, the plan does not call for teams to play in their school’s traditional varsity conference (wise when you consider the turmoil several traditional conferences are undergoing). In fact, USA Rugby and the TUs are not primarily responsible for forming these new conferences whatsoever. The onus falls on the programs themselves. Of Course, some TU and LAU officials may get involved, and ultimately the conferences will have to be approved by USA Rugby, but the bulk of the work falls on the teams.
While these two main components seem fairly clear, there are still several questions left to be answered, like how will schools without an FBS football team be treated? Take, for instance, Saint Louis University. Their basketball program is DI, but they do not have a football program. There are several other examples like this throughout the country; Creighton, St. Joe’s and St. Mary’s, to name a few. There are also schools like Villanova, whose football team competes in the Football Championship Subdivision, indicating they would be eligible for DII rugby, while their basketball team is a big-time DI contender.
The motivation for forcing rugby programs to play in a certain division based upon where their varsity teams compete is also unclear. At first glance, it would seem obvious: enrollment. For what seems like forever, teams from small-enrollment schools at the DII level have complained about having to play teams from large-enrollment universities. But the new plan doesn’t truly account for enrollment.
Take Rice, for example. Its basketball program is DI and football program FBS, but the school’s enrollment hovers around 5,000 students, while Grand Valley State, a DII school, has in the neighborhood of 24,000 students. Rice would be forced to compete in DI rugby under the new plan, while GVSU would be able to compete in DII. Rice is not alone here. TCU, UL-Monroe, SMU and Idaho, among others, are schools that have low student bodies in relation to several DII-eligible institutions
Using a school’s football team’s level of play as a benchmark for its rugby program is highly misleading. When a school is considered for playing in the FBS or considers playing in the FBS, the decision whether or not to let them or whether or not to do so deals as much with desire as it does with sheer enrollment.
By RUGBY’s count, there are 61 FBS schools with a rugby program that will be forced up into DI competition by 2012/2013 (that is if they want to be eligible to advance to any USA Rugby sanctioned postseason). Of those 61 programs, none made the 2010 DII Round of 16, and only seven are currently ranked in our DII top 25. Does forcing these teams into a competition they’re not ready for really help the game?
When USA Rugby restructured DI, the word was they were looking for 16 conferences, with the champion of each gaining a bid to the Round of 16. They ended up identifying 15 and elected to give the Midwest East the lone at-large bid, seemingly because that conference is the most competitive. Because the new DI is in its first year, the decision to award the MWEC the extra bid drew little, if any, backlash. But as time goes on, you can rest assured someone will feel slighted.
What happens if the increase of the minimum number of teams per conference results in fewer conferences, creating more at-large bids? What happens if more than 16 conferences come to fruition? Will the postseason expand? One of the benefits of the conference system is the elimination of travel for Territorial playoffs. If the Tournament expands beyond 16 teams, an additional weekend will be needed.
The place where things could really get hairy is in DII. The number of DII clubs outnumbers that of DI quite heavily, so the possibility of more than 16 conferences is quite high here. The creation of a USA Rugby sanctioned DIII would seem to alleviate some bulk from DII, but in much of the country, the saturation of DIII-eligible schools isn’t high enough to warrant the formation of conferences.
What effect does this have on the budding National Small College Rugby Organization, which expanded to a national competition this season? Does it become the NAIA of college rugby? Do teams simply duck out of the USA Rugby structure and run to the NSCRO?
As with any decision that forces this much change, there are still a lot of questions to be answered. Stay tuned to RUGBYMag.com as we try to do just that.
(In the original version of this article, the author incorrectly inferred that there was no announcement of where new teams would be eligible to compete for a playoff spot. New teams will be able to at the DIII level.)