By Bob Ryan
BOSTON, Feb. 14, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Legendary Boston sportswriter Bob Ryan writes about UMass Lowell and the America East Conference. This column can be posted and republished.
What do we have here? Could it be? Nah. Impossible. But wait. It might actually be true.
What a shock! In this day and age there is an NCAA-affiliated multi-sport (hockey being an exception) conference that really makes sense.
Welcome to the America East!
OK, it's not the only one. The Ivy League certainly makes sense, and so does the Patriot League. But we live in a circumstance in which the Big Boys are all in mad pursuit of the football dollar. It is also a time in which the Atlantic-10 has 16 teams, the Big Ten has 12, the Big 12 has 10, what does West Virginia have in common with Oklahoma State, and is Boulder, Colo. anywhere near the Pacific Ocean?? Then there's the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which up to now has allowed itself to stretch from Ruston, La. to Seattle (it's currently in re-alignment to something a bit more geographically coherent).
In the midst of all this abrogation of geography, tradition and just plain common sense, we present to you the nine-team America East, which runs vertically from Burlington, Vt. to Baltimore, Md. And which has striven since its inception to group institutions who feel comfortable with each other in every way.
"We're the Conference That Makes Sense." That is not America East's official motto, but it very well could be.
The America East is currently comprised of the following nine schools: Stony Brook, Vermont, Boston University, Albany, New Hampshire, Maine, Binghamton, Hartford and Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC).
Dr. Sam Stanley is Chair of the America East Board of Presidents, and the Stony Brook University President wholeheartedly endorses the premise that the America East Conference makes sense.
"Absolutely," he says. "I agree totally."
Dr. Stanley and his school are basking in the glow of an electrifying run to the College Baseball World Series in Omaha. "It has given us a national boost," he says. "Our admissions are up. "Maybe not the (Doug) Flutie effect yet, but we are definitely seeing the benefit."
The America East makes sense because it has some geographic continuity. It makes sense because the schools have a similar academic and social composition. Of the nine members, only Hartford is not a public research university. In fact, with the addition of UMass Lowell, all eight public institutions are ranked in the Top 100 Public Universities in the latest U.S. News and World Rankings.
The conference may be something of a minnow when it comes to its RPI ranking among the 31 Division I basketball conferences, but in terms of having legitimate student-athletes to trumpet, it is an industry leader. Only the Ivy League and Patriot League have a higher overall Academic Progress Rating (APR) than the America East. And in terms of on-court achievement, the University of Vermont has won two NCAA tournament games since 2005 and was ranked among the Top 25 overall basketball programs in America by Basketball Times, the sport's leading authority.
The league has not been without its inner upheaval. It had a somewhat different look at the turn of the 21st century, with such members as Hofstra, Towson and Drexel, which have all defected. But suitable replacements have always been found, and that is happening once again as Boston University has chosen to move to the Patriot League and UMass Lowell has been chosen to take its place and thus keep the America East firm at nine members.
The River Hawks are taking the dual step of moving into a new league and upgrading itself in the basketball world from Division II to Division I. NCAA rules make this a tedious four-year process, and UMass Lowell Director of Athletics Dana Skinner knows his squad will go through some trying times before attaining permanent Division I status in the 2017-18 season.
"It's a four-year process," he acknowledges. "We know it won't be easy."
But he and school Chancellor Marty Meehan agree that it will all be worthwhile.
"We like our positioning for the future," Skinner explains.
"It just feels like a very good fit for us," concurs Meehan.
You could almost say this marriage between institution and conference is a match made in Athletic Heaven.
Now the university itself did not start out actively wooing the America East, or any other athletic conference, for that matter. The gestation period began in the spring of 2012 when the school embarked on an internal study entitled the Chancellor's Strategic Planning Committee, a group consisting of 32 members encompassing faculty, staff, alumni, students and local business leaders.
"We wanted to take a good, thorough look at the athletic program," explains Skinner, a Merrimack College grad who during his 70s heyday as a player teamed with Ed Murphy to comprise what the late, great Dave Gavitt, then the Providence College mentor, called "the best shooting backcourt in all of college basketball."
During the research, the committee became aware of a very obvious fact.
"What we realized was that all our peer institutions were playing Division I basketball," Meehan explains.
And by "peer institutions" he means?
"It's a broad range of criteria," says Skinner. "It includes research dollars, endowment, U.S. News and World Report rankings, graduation rates, to name some."
On the flip side, when the conference set about seeking an institution to replace BU, the search was short-lived.
"Lowell bubbled to the surface," says America East Commissioner Amy Huchthausen.
So, what does UMass Lowell bring to the table?
A proven track record in high-level competition, for one. Hockey has been a marquee sport. The River Hawks are a long-standing member of Hockey East, arguably the best conference in the land. The River Hawks have been to the NCAA tournament four times, including an exciting run last year in which UMass Lowell came within a goal of going to the Frozen Four.
Don't think that didn't make an impression on the America East honchos.
"This is evidence that when Lowell sets its mind on being excellent in something it can achieve it," points out Commissioner Huchthausen.
The River Hawks have known their basketball success, as well. The school just held a 25th reunion of coach Don Doucette's 1988 Division II national championship
Facilities are hardly an issue. Lowell is blessed to have the Tsongas Center, which is a first class winter facility. And wait 'till the league's baseball teams show up. They will find themselves in a big-time venue, LaLacheur Field, the home of the New York-Penn League Lowell Spinners, a Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
The folks at UMass Lowell see this as their moment.
"And this has all happened organically," stresses Meehan. "We didn't go into this process expecting to come out looking to go Division I. But this opportunity fits in perfectly with our plans. This league fits us in every way."
"This move reflects who we thought we were as a university and who we want to be 15 to 20 years from now," affirms Skinner. "These are the people we want to be affiliated with."
What else is there to say? It all makes perfectly good sense.
Bob Ryan is a retired columnist for the Boston Globe's Sports section whose work appears in the section semi-regularly. He has been writing for the Globe since 1968, covering all of Boston's sports teams. Ryan is a regular panelist on ESPN's Sunday morning roundtable, "The Sports Reporters."
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