Baseball

Minium: What CAA did to ODU in 2012 Was Wrong and it’s Just as Wrong to do the Same to JMU

24 Nov 2021 | 07:27

NORFOLK, Va. – According to the Colonial Athletic Association football media guide, Villanova, Towson, New Hampshire, and Richmond all shared the 2012 league championship with 6-2 league records.

Yet anyone who follows Old Dominion football knows that had the championship been determined on the field, where it should have been, the Monarchs would have won the title.

Because ODU had announced it was leaving the CAA to join Conference USA in 2013 to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the league declared the Monarchs ineligible for team titles in all sports.

The Monarchs won the mythical football title, defeating James Madison, 38-28, in their final CAA game to finish 7-1 in the league on a team that would go 11-2 and finish sixth in the nation.

Yet you don’t see a CAA championship trophy in ODU’s L.R. Hill Sports Complex.

No other conference in the country has a similar policy. Even if you plan to move to another league, your teams are eligible for championships in every other Division I league.

What the CAA did was unfair to ODU, but most of all, unfair to the coaches and athletes, who bore the brunt of the punishment meted out.

Now, nine years later, the CAA has brought the hammer down on JMU.

JMU was a founding member of the CAA in 1985 and has been a valued member in the 36 years since. In fact, no one school has done more to burnish the CAA’s reputation than JMU.

Times change over 36 years and JMU has outgrown the CAA.

JMU is a growing school with nearly 22,000 students and an elite Football Championship Subdivision program. JMU fans, students and alumni have long been clamoring to move up to FBS, and the Dukes have the facilities, fan base and budget to be successful.

JMU wisely took advantage of the current round of conference realignment to join the Sun Belt Conference, where the Dukes will be reunited with ODU, with whom it carried on a brief but torrid football rivalry, and old FCS rival Appalachian State.

ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., spoke on JMU’s behalf Friday at a state hearing in which officials approved the school’s request to move up.

JMU will join ODU, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Liberty as in-state FBS programs, and will open the way for JMU to begin scheduling home games against Power 5 schools.

But even before JMU had received state permission, the CAA declared the Dukes ineligible for league championships.

The CAA has an antiquated bylaw that allows the league to declare schools ineligible for championships if they announce their intention to leave the league.

JMU pleaded with league presidents to make an exception and media reports indicate it was almost unanimously rejected.

JMU Athletic Director Jeff Bourne and President Johnathan R. Alger co-authored the appeal. Bourne, speaking during a press conference Saturday to announce JMU’s move to the Sun Belt, said “I thought we did a really good job of trying to explain the scenario relative to the bylaw.”

The results were immediate and heartbreaking.

JMU was scheduled to host the CAA Men’s Soccer Tournament next week but now won’t. JMU’s volleyball team is tied for the league lead but is out of the CAA tournament, and thus has no realistic postseason hopes.

The same is true for men’s and women’s basketball, who will play this season knowing they almost surely won’t go to the NCAA Tournament.

Even JMU’s softball team, the feel-good story of last spring’s World Series, must hope for an at-large bid to return to the NCAA Tournament.

The CAA is being roasted by the national media and deservedly so. All this does is hurt students and coaches, not the decision makers.

It was worse than tone deaf. Given what we’ve all been through the last through years, it was cruel.

Every college athlete lived through the pandemic in 2019 and 2020. Do I need to remind you what a nightmare it was.

In order to play last spring, athletes around the country lived in “bubbles,” meaning they associated only with their teammates and coaches. They gave up their social lives and basically spent their days huddled up in their homes.

And this was months after campuses were closed and students were forced to take classes online. The country virtually shut down and so many people lost their businesses and many thousands lost their lives.

Understandably, many students, including athletes, were traumatized.

Many athletes have needed mental health counseling and for all of them, the joy of competing in 2021-22 was something they cherished more than ever.

How, hundreds of JMU athletes have seen those dreams shattered.

“Their lives are centered around fighting for championships,” Bourne said. “And who we’ve hurt through this is not the institution as much as the student-athletes.”

I could hardly bear to watch JMU coaches being interviewed on TV because of the pain they are going through. Just imagine how the athletes are coping.

An excerpt of a statement released by JMU says things pretty clearly:

“In an era when the industry of college athletics stresses student-athlete welfare, this decision is completely contrary to those ideals. We were thorough and heartfelt in appealing to the league’s council of presidents, but that appeal was denied. Eight other Division I conferences have full members that have publicly announced an exit and yet all eight have allowed the student-athletes at those institutions to continue competing for championships.”

College athletics has rightfully moved toward a more caring model over the last decade for athletes. More academic advising. Limits on practice, in-season and out of season. A greater emphasis on mental health. Payments to many athletes to compensate for the full cost of attendance.

I see the results of these efforts every day at ODU. The academic performance of athletes at ODU far exceeds that of the general student population in spite of all the work that goes into being an athlete.

ODU raised money in 2012 to buy its football players CAA championship rings and declared themselves CAA champions. They weren’t, of course, and unspoken among all the bravado is that they know other teams got trophies and they didn’t.

The ODU men’s soccer team was so good it won an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

But the same wasn’t true for so many other teams, including women’s soccer, baseball golf and tennis, which were unable to compete for team titles.

The pain, and hard feelings, from nine years ago still resonate.

ODU’s 2013 baseball team won 32 games and nine of its last 12, but after winning their final game at Wofford, 8-1, the Monarchs simply packed up and went home.

“The people I felt worse for were the seniors,” ODU baseball coach Chris Finwood said. “We had a pretty good ballclub. We Had a pretty good chance of winning the CAA tournament.

“We did the best we could. We finished out the season. It was just a tough way to end things.”

As for JMU, Finwod said “I feel bad for those kids having to go through that.

“It’s a shame that they’re being so punitive. What is there to gain?”

CAA officials say they don’t want their league to be represented in the NCAA tournament by a team from a university that’s leaving.

So why isn’t that an issue for Conference USA, the Atlantic Sun and so many other leagues?

Bourne drew a loud ovation Saturday morning when he said he will continue to press CAA officials to reverse their decision.

“Our goal right now is to fight for our student-athletes, our kids and our coaches,” he said.

I hope CAA presidents are paying attention to the uproar, and the pain, they’ve caused and realize they made a terrible mistake. Reversing course is the right thing to do.