The news that Robert Morris is considering a move from the Northeast Conference to either the Horizon League or Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference for most sports, has left the school’s football program without an obvious home.
The Colonials are coming off their best season since the retirement of Joe Walton, as Bernard Clark led the 2019 squad to a 7-5 record, including a 6-1 mark in NEC play, for RMU’s first winning season since 2010.
But neither the Horizon League nor the MAAC sponsors football, so Clark’s squad won’t be able to make the jump with the rest of Robert Morris’ teams. So where will the gridiron Colonials end up? Let’s examine the options.
STAY IN THE NEC
This is probably the most attractive option from a football perspective. The Colonials have finally found some purchase in the league after spending most of the 2010s in the basement, and it’s clearly a level they’re capable of competing against. The NEC also contains cross-town rival Duquesne and St. Francis University, two of the three closest FCS-level schools to RMU’s campus.
But staying in the NEC might not be an option. The last team to make the same leap, Monmouth in 2013, went from the NEC to the MAAC in most sports, but was told it could not keep its football team in the NEC. The Hawks instead joined the Big South for football.
The Colonials could follow the Hawks to the Big South, and in fact, Pittsburgh Sports Now has learned that Robert Morris has at least looked into the possibility of joining the league.
The conference was ranked eighth amongst FCS leagues by Athlon Sports in 2019, two up from the No. 10 NEC. So it would be an increase in level of competition, but not demonstratively so. The conference has a 63-scholarship maximum, 18 more than the NEC’s 45-scholarship limit.
The 3,000-seat Joe Walton Stadium would be the smallest in the conference, behind Charleston Southern’s Buccaneer Field. The Big South goes from there to North Alabama’s 14,215-seat Braly Municipal Stadium. In 2021, North Carolina A&T will join the conference, along with its 23,000-seat BB&T Stadium.
It’s also a tough fit geographically. Monmouth, in northern New Jersey, is about a six-hour drive from Pittsburgh. Hampton, near Virginia Beach, is nearly seven hours. Campbell, in eastern North Carolina is eight hours and Gardner-Webb, in western North Carolina, is nearly nine. North Alabama and Kennesaw State in Georgia are more than 10 hours distant.
The Big South currently sits at eight members. The league is scheduled to lose Presbyterian to the Pioneer League in 2021, while adding North Carolina A&T. The Colonials would make an uneven number of teams, but Pittsburgh Sports Now has learned that South Carolina State could be a candidate to also leave the MEAC and join the Big South, along with North Carolina A&T, in 2021.
The Patriot League is a middle-of-the-road option for Robert Morris. At 60 scholarships, the league maximum is less than the full 63 FCS limit, and with the conference just becoming full scholarship in 2016, many do not offer that many.
The geographic footprint is forgiving, with Bucknell, Lafayette and Lehigh providing a trio of in-state foes. Fordham and Colgate in New York and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. are certainly doable trips, with only Holy Cross in Massachusetts as a lengthy drive.
Robert Morris would make eight teams in the league, giving it an even number. The level of competition would be a slight downgrade, with the Patriot League ranked No. 11, just behind the NEC, by Athlon in 2019.
The big question here is if the blue bloods of the Patriot League would have Robert Morris. The conference is full of older (the newest institution was founded in 1893) and richer (the smallest endowment is Lafayette’s $694 million — nearly 20 times RMU’s).
PIONEER FOOTBALL LEAGUE
The Pioneer Football League is spread out across the country, with teams in California, Florida, the Midwest and Northeast.
The binding tie for those schools is that they offer football as a non-scholarship sport. That could be an option for Robert Morris, but as the Colonials have just six men’s Division I sports, they would have to add another scholarship offering in order to drop football to non-scholarship status.
From a travel standpoint, the league would involve some closer opponents, like Dayton and Marist (a potential MAAC conference-mate) in Upstate New York. Davidson (North Carolina), Morehead State (Kentucky) and Valparaiso (Indiana) would be of intermediate distance. But Drake (Des Moines, Iowa), San Diego and Stetson (DeLand, Florida) would be long hauls.
There’s also the unknown factor of whether non-scholarship football can work in Pennsylvania. Unlike other regions of the country, there is a lot of competition from schools at the Division II (scholarship) and Division III (non-scholarship) levels.
It’s safe to say that basketball is leading the charge into a new conference. Besides the two basketball teams, the RMU programs with the most recent success over the last decade either won’t be impacted at all (men’s and women’s hockey) or minimally (men’s and women’s lacrosse). Football, meanwhile, has lagged far behind until the 2019 season.
So if finding a place for football becomes a hindrance to moving the rest of the athletic department forward, could leaving it behind altogether be an option?
Like a drop to the Pioneer League, such a move would require adding a men’s sport, but such a move is far from impossible. RMU could reinstate its men’s cross country, and indoor and outdoor track and field programs that were cut in 2014.
With 10 full-time coaches, football has by far the most expansive coaching staff. The 45 football scholarships also require Robert Morris to have more than the minimum number of female sports in order to maintain Title IX compliance, so cutting football could allow the school, which just needed to overcame a $10 million overall budget shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to reduce the overall size of its athletic department.
But new athletic director Chris King touted the importance of having a football program as part of a well-rounded athletic department, particularly in Western Pennsylvania.
“Football plays a big part,” King said in May 2019. “You’re looking at football as the sport in the fall, even with soccer and volleyball, with all due respect. It is the sport that starts the alumni engagement, the community engagement at games. That excitement leads into basketball. It leads into hockey. Then of course, basketball and hockey lead into lacrosse.”
• Youngstown State, the second-closest FCS school to Robert Morris after Duquesne and the only Horizon League school that offers football, plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, a league that stretches from eastern Ohio to the Dakotas and is the toughest FCS football league in the country. RMU would be a geographical and competition-level outlier.
• The Ohio Valley Conference would be a more modest step up in competition, but with schools clustered in Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee, Robert Morris would be far out of the footprint. Eastern Kentucky would be the closest opponent at six hours away. The OVC does currently have an odd number of football teams because Morehead State plays in the Pioneer League.
• The Colonials could also strike out as independents. That would allow them to continue to play Duquesne and St. Francis and play as many FBS buy games as they can load up on. Being an FCS independent has not been a popular move. Presbyterian will spend 2020 as an independent in between conferences. They’ll be the only one. No school has spent more than two seasons as an FCS independent since 2004.