William and Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll watches the shifting college landscape with the surprise of a longtime fan and the objectivity of an administrator.
Because of the nature of the school and its athletic profile, William and Mary isn’t a pro-active player in conference realignment. However, the recent and current movement of schools and leagues prompt continuous conversations with coaches, alumni, donors and administrators as he attempts to secure the Tribe’s athletic future.
“It’s reality and it’s reality not just at our level, but everywhere,” Driscoll said. “Rivalries and all the traditional reasons conferences were formed – geographic proximity, like types of institutions – we’re seeing all of that kind of be blown up. It’s been driven by the opportunity to generate even more revenue than they’re generating right now.
“As I look at that, I still have to go back and say, through these next round of machinations, if it becomes apparent that we can’t provide the experience we’re trying to provide, then we would have to think seriously about doing other things. It’s not like we have our head in the sand and we’re not looking at what’s going on. We’re very well aware of it. There’s still the factor of, we want to compete at the highest level.”
In his 16 years at W&M, Driscoll has seen the school’s athletic home for the past 28 years, the Colonial Athletic Association, expand from a relatively tight, collegial bus league to one that stretched from New England to Atlanta.
Now, with recent and impending departures of VCU, Old Dominion and Georgia State, and the upcoming addition of the College of Charleston, the league again will change.
The splintering of the Big East Conference, and its so-called “Catholic 7” basketball schools peeling off, are likely to affect the Atlantic 10 and perhaps the CAA, depending on who they target moving forward.
“Because there’s so much uncertainty out there, it’s a little premature for us to say, we must do something,” Driscoll said. “Not that we’re not aware of what’s going on and we’re not thinking about it.
“You have to look at where you’re leaving and where you’re going to go, and what’s it going to look like when you get there. There’s a lot of thought in the process, but I wouldn’t say that we have great concern that we would not be able to compete.”
William and Mary is one of only four original CAA members remaining. Look west to James Madison’s newly expanded football playpen, and there’s predictable discussion about whether the Dukes, original CAA members, might be interested in moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision, a la ODU.
George Mason, another original member, seriously considered jumping to the A-10 last spring before deciding to stay put. However, there’s no long-term guarantee, as CAA basketball has taken a step back and the Patriots aim to please their high-profile coach with the ACC and Final Four pedigree, Paul Hewitt.
At what point might William and Mary look around and say: This is no longer the league we remember; we no longer fit.
“It goes back to sort of the character of William and Mary,” Driscoll said. “Even from the very start, we really don’t look like most of the other schools in the conference – from the original conference – other than being one of the state public universities. We don’t really look like them and have never really done business exactly like them because we have a little different academic standard. Quite frankly, our size affects our funding somewhat because of the way institutional support is calculated.”
Driscoll often thinks back to a description he heard from former Tribe football coach Marv Levy. Levy, who coached in the 1960s, referred to William and Mary as “the greatest group of overachievers he was ever associated with.” He meant both athletically and academically.
“It probably says something about the character of the place,” Driscoll said. “The institution itself wants to be nationally and internationally prominent. Because of our size we can’t do it in everything, but you can do it in certain areas where you have a recognition and a legitimate claim that you’re really a world-class university in certain disciplines.
“On the athletic side, our goal has always been to push that academic piece and the athletic piece as far as we could, in terms of qualified kids coming in, good graduation rates and be as competitive as we can – meaning winning. We want to go to the NCAA tournament in as many sports as we can. That’s always been the goal.
“The conference that we’re in impacts that, if for example we were unable to be competitive. If we couldn’t be competitive for whatever reason – financial reasons, recruitment reasons, facilities – if we weren’t able to be competitive so that our coaches would not have an opportunity to provide a winning experience for our student-athletes, that would be something that would go against the mission here.”
Doing more with less and the challenge of competing, even with fewer resources than your competitors, Driscoll said, seems to be part of the Tribe’s DNA. He pointed to the football program’s consistent practice of scheduling FBS programs, not for the paycheck, but because coach Jimmye Laycock views doing so as part of his mission.
“For me in the role I’ve had here and the role I see right now, I see that our coaches like competing, even when maybe we have to overshoot a little bit to win conference championships,” Driscoll said. “I like the idea of playing up.
“We want to compete against the best that we can. If we can do that and be successful – maybe not every year, but more often than not – where we are, that’s OK. If that were to change, then you might say: We have to think about something else, because the experience we’re trying to offer, we can’t offer. To me, that would be a big consideration in William and Mary trying to find some other affiliation.”
The affiliation most often mentioned is the Patriot League. Driscoll said that W&M has had discussions with the Patriot League through the years, though he characterized them as never more than informal and exploratory. No invitations or expressed desires to move.
“They are far more similar to each other than we are to them,” Driscoll said. “Inherently, we’re different because we’re a public (institution). We’re a much larger school than several of them. In terms of the liberal arts piece, very much the same. And we compete for a lot of the same kids. There are definite academic similarities. But they do business a little differently than we do because of the nature of private schools.”
Driscoll said that Patriot League folks inquired as recently as last summer to gauge W&M’s interest in playing PL football. The Tribe, he said, wasn’t interested. Both sides spoke several years ago, he said, when the Patriot League considered offering athletic scholarships (PL schools, like the Ivy League, offer need-based aid and can put together creative aid packages). About 10 years ago, they spoke as well, after the CAA expanded from six to 10 schools.
In terms of compatability, Driscoll said that the Patriot League “is probably the closest thing to a good fit, compared to where we are.”
Whatever the CAA becomes, Driscoll said, he is inclined to see how the Tribe competes over time and get feedback from all of his coaches before recommending anything so dramatic as a conference change.
“You’d like to test the hypothesis,” he said. “I think there would have to be some empirical evidence that we couldn’t compete. I’d hate to speculate and say, I don’t think we can compete any more. If it becomes that all of a sudden we’re competing against teams that have kids on their bench who would start over anybody on our team, those are the kinds of things we have to take into consideration. It’s an assessment you make with some experience.”
Two of William and Mary’s three most visible sports – men’s and women’s basketball – have struggled historically. The men’s program under Tony Shaver has made progress in recent years, getting to two CAA tournament championship games and winning 20 games before last season’s injury-plagued free-fall. The women’s program continues to try to gain traction.
“Maybe there could be some shift within the CAA that it could be so evident that over a long period of time we wouldn’t be able to compete,” Driscoll said. “You have to be aware of that. I wouldn’t push for changing an affiliation I think for one sport, unless the benefits that would accrue from that sport would benefit the entire department, or a big part of the department. That’s one reason we have 23 sports here, because the focus of the program is they want to have a broad-based program and provide that kind of experience.”
On the flip side, Driscoll said, a depleted CAA in men’s basketball might provide a better path to a potential conference title and NCAA tournament berth. That would be a consideration, as well, were the membership to change further.
“If you think of the profile of William and Mary, the athletic program as a rule doesn’t have the same prominence as it has at a lot of the other institutions that we compete with,” Driscoll said. “Some of them use their athletic programs very differently than we do at William and Mary. Some places, the athletic program or specific teams are the first things people talk about. The tagline here is, the balanced pursuit of academic and athletic excellence. That’s the bottom-line stuff.
“I’m certainly listening to people, I’m certainly looking around, we’re certainly thinking about ourselves and things that we may be able to do as we deal with the future here. It’s not that another affiliation is inconceivable or anything like that. It’s just that, as we look down the road, it’ll always be: OK, here’s what we’re trying to do; can we see that we can continue to do this, or is it starting to get a little cloudy? Or do we see more than clouds? Do we see a tornado coming over the horizon? If I was that clairvoyant, I’d probably be at the racetrack or Las Vegas or someplace like that.
“I’m watching and I’m listening, but I haven’t identified a tipping point right now where I can say it really looks like (a conference change) is going to happen. It’s a little premature for me to say at this point. It probably would be a sequence of things more than just one thing.”
The present climate makes identifying such sequences all the more challenging.
“If Armageddon comes and within 5-10 years, there’s four 16-team conferences, the rest of us could look very different in a lot of ways,” Driscoll said. “You try to make long-term decisions that you can live with over the next 20-25 years. With everything that’s going on, you may not be able to do that. You make the best decisions you can and move forward.”Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times