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May 8, 2012

Part 1: RMU reacts to realignment, NEC's future

This is the first part in a special three-part series examining Robert Morris' place in athletics. Today, ColonialsCorner examines how conference realignment is poised to impact RMU.

In an environment increasingly plagued by vagueness and multiple qualifiers, Robert Morris athletic director Craig Coleman's response to a certain question is refreshingly specific.

Has Robert Morris been contacted by the Horizon League or any other mid-major conference?

"We have not," Coleman said this week. "We're a happy member of the Northeast Conference. We're a founding member with a lot of tradition there and a lot of rivalries there. It's not like we're going around looking for other conferences to join."

That doesn't mean the phone is turned off. But Coleman cautioned that merely listening doesn't necessarily indicate interest.

"I would listen to anybody about anything. I wouldn't necessarily react to it and I couldn't begin to predict what our reaction would be because I couldn't begin to predict what I'd be hearing," he said. "But I think you're silly if you don't at least listen. But it's not like we're actively searching for a new home."

In fact, Coleman and Robert Morris president Gregory Dell'Omo learned of the Colonials' rumored candidacy to fill Butler's vacancy in the Horizon through the same source that the general public did: A Cleveland newspaper report. Dell'Omo even spoke with Coleman to make sure they were both in the loop.

"Has anybody contacted you?" Dell'Omo recalled asking. "Because this is the first I've heard of this."

Such is life in the realignment age, where even university presidents and athletic directors can be caught off guard by the latest conference realignment rumors. As the BCS schools slowly settle into what appears to be a vague form of stability, the aftershocks have filtered down to the mid-major level. Football, television, and the growth of specific schools drove the first wave of conference realignment. Basketball and the scramble to avoid being left without a conference home is driving the next wave.

But ultimately, at every level, conference realignment is being driven by the almighty dollar.

"From the largest land grant university to the small private schools, everybody's resource challenged," Dell'Omo said. "It's all relative of course, but I think schools are just trying to find where they can get the most for their athletic programs which will then help the other costs they have."

It is a constant battle between revenue and expense for universities, especially at the mid-major level. Cost is very much at the heart of Robert Morris' comfort level with the Northeast Conference. Dell'Omo and Coleman understand that all too well. In 2006-2007, as Dell'Omo settled into his second year as the head of the university, he directed the design of a five-year plan to expand Robert Morris' footprint. Along with a multitude of other factors was a desire to start leveraging athletics more as a potential revenue stream. He understands, then, what's become the NCAA-equivalent to a cash grab as schools leap for the highest conference bidder. But he has his doubts about the after effects of the moves.

"I can understand the TV contracts. And I will never begrudge a fellow president for looking at those revenue sources and say I would not give it serious thought," Dell'Omo said. "But when it starts going down to all of the other sports, not only the cost but the student athlete experience, it starts to get some serious issues. I think that's the piece that will begin to backfire a little bit."

Dell'Omo and Coleman pointed to the Big East as a perfect example. Where a one-game travel trip for Rutgers football out to San Diego State might be a mere annoyance, sending Rutgers volleyball out for a Thursday night game against SDSU suddenly becomes cost prohibitive.

"My fear is the solution will be to eliminate these sports, and you'll see the bigger schools will eliminate Olympic sports," Coleman said.

Robert Morris is no stranger to travel costs. As the school farthest west on the NEC map, the Colonials incur their fair share of expenses on treks to Bryant, Central Connecticut State, and others.

"We're always conscious of our travel costs," Dell'Omo said.

The NEC's growth has been along the east coast, including the recent addition of Bryant as an all-sport member. In 2013, Rhode Island will join the conference as an associate-football member. Duquesne did the same just decently, and Dell'Omo said that addition helped the Colonials.

Dell'Omo and Coleman said Robert Morris has consistently explored, in conjunction with the NEC, ways for the conference to expand west if necessary, alleviating some travel issues and helping the Colonials with competitive balance. That figures to be the most likely impact on the NEC in the near future. It won't be a school like Robert Morris departing, but a new neighbor or two joining the league. But Coleman is hesitant to even suggest that.

"It is so unpredictable and the critical steps are two and three steps away from us. You can go crazy trying to predict it and trying to anticipate it," Coleman said. "We're in a happy home that's a pretty stable conference, and we'll see what happens and how it affects us. If there are other options that present itself, we'll look at them with that in mind."

There is one more element at play: Robert Morris has been here before. The men's and women's ice hockey programs struggled to find stable conferences when they were launched several years ago. It took until just last year for the men's side to find a seemingly permanent home in the Atlantic Hockey Association, and the women's team is in College Hockey America, a conference without an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs.

"I think it gave us a dry run. Hockey is, in many ways, a microcosm of what's going on across the multi-sport conferences," Coleman said. "Hockey gave us a direct taste of what it's like to be in the middle of that and how to negotiate those stormy waters."

And hockey is still in flux. For multi-sport conferences, stability means revenue, revenue from consistent rivalries, manageable travel costs, and marketable opportunities. Stability is what Robert Morris has in the Northeast Conference. Yes, if approached, the Colonials could move to a league like the Horizon and have a better platform for its basketball program.

But football, lacrosse, and others could be left in the cold, hampering the athletic department as a whole. As much as Robert Morris wants success in individual sports, its administration is not willing to sacrifice the overall health of the program to do it. That includes competition level, not to mention the aforementioned travel costs.

"This is not professional sports. These are student athletes who have to be in class," Dell'Omo said. "And you have to think about the field hockey team as much as you think about the football team."

For that reason, among many others, Robert Morris will likely be a major component of the NEC for years to come.

Tomorrow, this special three-part series continues with a look at how new academic and scholarship reform will impact the bottom line and the quality of play at RMU

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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