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Decision on scholarships is Patriot League's big issue

Bethlehem, PA (Sports Network) - Fordham football coach Tom Masella motioned toward three of his key seniors - wide receiver Jason Caldwell, linebacker Nick Magiera and defensive lineman Jordan Bledsoe - and said something he knows is not entirely accurate.

"He's a scholarship player, he's a scholarship player, he's a scholarship player," Masella said at Patriot League football media day on Tuesday.

It's not that simple in the Patriot League. Caldwell, Magiera and Bledsoe are at Fordham on need-based scholarships, though Masella doesn't want to differentiate them from any other player who takes the football field. To Masella, they're all football players.

Fordham has begun to award athletic scholarships in football - not just need- based scholarships given to those student-athletes seeking support to bridge the financial gaps for the rising costs of college - and because of that the small private school in the Bronx Borough of New York is ineligible this season for the Patriot League championship and the automatic bid to the FCS playoffs that comes with it.

Whether other league members follow Fordham's direction toward athletic scholarships is the big issue in the Patriot League.

Three Key Games
Holy Cross at Colgate, Oct. 23 - The defending champion, and passing-strong, Crusaders must be happy they no longer are playing this game in the mid-to late-November cold of Hamilton, N.Y. Colgate is this year's favorite, having posted a winning record in 13 of coach Dick Biddle's 14 seasons.

Colgate at Lehigh, Oct. 30 - Lehigh coach Andy Coen faces an important season after going 20-24 in his first four years with the Mountain Hawks. His squad returns a solid defense, led by Jarard Cribbs and John Kennedy in the secondary, to challenge Colgate's dominant rushing of QB Greg Sullivan and RB Nate Eachus.

Lehigh at Lafayette, Nov. 20 - It doesn't get any bigger in the Patriot League than the most played game in all of the FCS (this is the 146th meeting). Lehigh won last year's meeting, 27-21 in overtime, to close the Leopards' lead in the series to 76-64-5.

While Colgate has been installed as the preseason favorite behind quarterback and preseason offensive player of the year Greg Sullivan, what happens off the field is as important as the action on it. Patriot League executive director Carolyn Schlie Femovich expects league membership to vote in December on whether to add athletic scholarships in football, as it has done in other sports.

"I can only speak for our university," Masella said. "The future without scholarships wasn't very bright; the future with scholarships is extremely bright. We're not spending a dollar more than we spent before this - it's the same exact money allocated for need-based scholarships (as) for athletic scholarships. So that hasn't changed for us. What it's opened is an avenue of student-athletes that we couldn't recruit a year ago."

This season, Fordham will offer full athletic scholarships to 15 players and need-based scholarships to 43 other players, according to Masella. Other Patriot football programs offer only need-based scholarships. The issue to branch out to athletic scholarships has Title IX implications and comes, of course, with bad timing considering how the dismal economy is hurting so many colleges.

Fordham teams generally compete in the Atlantic 10, but its football team is an associate member of the Patriot League. The Rams are so anxious to stay in the league that their administration agreed to be ineligible for the title through the 2012 season, though it clearly wants a resolution to the athletic scholarship issue sooner rather than later. If they aren't approved, the Rams likely will look to join another league.

The addition of athletic scholarships would likely be capped at a number far below the 63 allowed to FCS programs. Colgate and Lehigh are believed to be in favor of adding the athletic scholarships, Georgetown against it, Bucknell and Holy Cross still open to it and Lafayette, which resisted adding them in other sports, more of a wild card. Fordham will be allowed to vote on the issue - obviously a yes - and American, Army and Navy - league members, but not in football - will cast ballots as well.

"My concern is that the decision is done quickly and not (to) wait too long one way or another," Colgate coach Dick Biddle said.

Feelings across the league are varied, though people in the football programs figure to be more in favor of adding athletic scholarships than the administrators who are considering factors beyond Saturday afternoons in the fall.

"In my own personal opinion - which certainly may not be the opinion of other people at our school - for the good of the future of the league, I think scholarships are inevitable," Lafayette coach Frank Tavani said. "I think they're coming at some point one way or another and at this point need to be. I really don't believe that we can get any credible additions and new membership to the conference without it. To me, that's critical - sustaining the league. And beside the point, let's not just forget the fact that we're doing it in every other sport, but not with football."

Georgetown coach Kevin Kelly is anxious, he said, to see league members "all get on the same page. It is an odd situation with Fordham.

"There's a lot of questions that are being asked by recruits right now, and rightfully so," he added. "They're confused about what's going on because Fordham offers scholarships, Georgetown doesn't, Holy Cross doesn't. I think whatever direction that the league decides to go, it will still be a strong league."

Fordham won the Patriot League title in Masella's second season in 2007, but has finished with a losing record in five of the last six seasons. The Rams were 5-6 overall and 2-4 in the league last season, when they were led by quarterback John Skelton, the fifth-round draft choice of the Arizona Cardinals.

Despite his graduation, the Rams remain strong at the skill-positions with Caldwell, tight end Stephen Skelton and running back Xavier Martin. Magiera was their leading tackler last season.

"We can't win the Patriot League, and this means we need to win all 11 games," to make the FCS playoffs with an at-large bid, Bledsoe said. "It's a huge difference from previous years and it's going to give us a little extra motivation every week as opposed to other years where non-conference games maybe weren't as pumped up as league games."

"Listen, we all keep score," Masella said. "Our players will know where they fit in the league standings. So we can't win it in a public sense, but I guarantee you if we win a league championship our kids will have Patriot League rings (he laughs).

"The goal is to go out and win football games week-in and week-out. A league game is a league game and our kids will understand."

Colgate (9-2, 4-2) received half of the 12 first-place votes in the preseason poll while earning the favorite's role. Sullivan gives the Raiders the type of returning leader at quarterback that generally is lacked across the league, and trusted tailback Nate Eachus (16 touchdowns in only seven games last season) remains at his disposal. Cornerback Demitri Diamond is coming off league rookie of the year honors.

"We do have a nucleus of some good, talented players; obviously, you never have enough of them," said Biddle, who has a 66-18 record in Patriot games and has won six league titles in 14 seasons with the Raiders. "I think the key for us is some unknown guys that haven't played before are really going to have to step up and play."

Five Patriot League players made The Sports Network/Fathead.com Preseason All- America Team last week: Fordham's Caldwell and Skelton on the first team, Lafayette wide receiver Mark Layton, Lehigh offensive tackle Will Rackley and Holy Cross safety Anthony DiMichele on the second team.

Other key returning players around the league are Holy Cross defensive end Mude Ohimor, the preseason defensive player of the year; Lehigh quarterback J.B. Clark; Bucknell defensive tackle Robert De La Rosa and senior strong safety Ahkiel White; and Georgetown linebacker Nick Parrish.

PATRIOT LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL
(Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors)

1. Colgate (6 first-place votes), 46 points;
2. Lafayette (2), 36;
3. Lehigh (3), 35;
4. Holy Cross (1), 34;
5. Bucknell, 17;
6. Georgetown, 12

PRESEASON PATRIOT LEAGUE AWARDS

Offensive Player of the Year - Greg Sullivan, QB, Colgate

Defensive Player of the Year - Mude Ohimor, DE, Holy Cross

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director


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