The Fine Print: Northeast Conference and Big East May Have Some Additional Time on Their Hands

Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE

The two leagues may be able to stave off immediate death.

When I was in law school I had a tax professor that used to ask every student whether an exemption or exception applied to a particular tax analysis. Even if no exemption or exception could possibly apply to a transaction or activity, he'd always drill the student -- already subject to the special form of torture known as the Socratic Method -- whether an exemption or exception applied. The purpose behind this was to get us to read the entirety of a statute or regulation, understanding the purpose behind a policy and carrying out work to its natural completion. It makes sense: You're not done until you're done; making assumptions based on known knowledge is a dangerous situation.

I was reminded of this when I read a note from Zach Babo of Inside Lacrosse with respect to a conversation he had with Bryant head coach Mike Pressler:

The near future of the North East Conference – I talked to Bryant coach Mike Pressler the other day, and obviously part of our discussion touched on the future of the NEC. After waiting patiently through its early years as a conference, the six-team league finally has an automatic qualifier for the conference champ to make the NCAA Tournament this year. But before they even start 2013 play, Monmouth, who was slated to join the conference as they enter DI play, and Quinnipiac, a current member, will be departing for the MAAC, stripping the league back down to five teams in 2014. The understanding amongst many was that losing that sixth-team would mean the NEC lost their AQ immediately, but Pressler informed me that was not the case. After earning the AQ, the conference has two years to pull in a new member before they lose their AQ, so even at five teams, the conference will get an AQ in 2014 and 2015.

When I first read that I thought Pressler was getting bad information, probably from a guy that ardently watches the History Channel for updates on whether space aliens are real. I mean, back in December I looked at the 2012-2013 NCAA Division I Manual -- with the caveat of only scanning the potentially relevant provision regarding automatic qualification to the NCAA Championship -- to see if there was any recourse for the Northeast Conference and Big East (both of which will fall below the six-team threshold for earning an automatic bid to May). What the hell is Pressler talking about? It turns out that, were I still in law school, I would have been eviscerated:

31.3.4.4.3 Grace Period. A conference shall remain eligible for automatic qualification for two years following the date of the withdrawal of the institution(s) that causes the conference’s membership to fall below six institutions that sponsor the sport and conduct conference competition together provided the conference maintains at least five Division I members. (Adopted: 8/5/04, Revised: 1/15/11 effective 8/1/11)

I'm an idiot. (As a result, I'm going a little overboard with the rest of this piece.) Now, that provision doesn't mean that the Northeast Conference and the Big East are totally out of the cleansing fire that is conference realignment, but there is a window of opportunity for each (but in different ways). Some notes:

  • The NEC, after the departures of Quinnipiac and Monmouth, will still have five members, allowing the conference to fall within the structure of the grace period exception. If the MAAC, however, pursues Wagner (as was rumored when Quinnipiac and Monmouth jumped ship late in 2012) or the MAAC (or another league) attempts to further gut the NEC, the NEC will not fall within all the requirements of the exception (namely, maintaining five members). At best, the NEC has a two-year period here to figure out its situation, but the conference's future is still unclear.
  • The Big East is in a similar position to the NEC -- it'll sit at five members after Rutgers, Syracuse, and Notre Dame depart and Marquette takes full membership in 2014 -- but there is an important wrinkle here: If Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Providence, and Marquette leave the Big East and form a different conference before or immediately after the conclusion of the 2014 season (as is rumored), is that a conference that is eligible for this particular grace period exception? A strict reading of the provision indicates that the answer may be "no;" the provision appears to apply only to conferences that remain a going concern. What the five schools formerly aligned with the Big East would be forming is -- in function and reality -- a new conference; in other words, the Big East would qualify for the grace period but the Catholic Seven (as a new conference) wouldn't. Under the applicable provisions of 31.3.4: Automatic Qualification, a strict reading of the manual appears to indicate that the former Big East schools would need to go back through the re-certification process (which would require the five schools looking to form the Catholic Seven to find a sixth member and go through a two-year waiting period). You see the issue, right? Good, now to bring the ambiguity into focus . . .
  • . . . and the ambiguity for the Catholic Seven and the application of all these provisions is this: Section 31.3.4.2(b) Requirements -- National Collegiate Championship: "The six active members must have conducted conference competition together for the preceding two years in the applicable event." These five schools will have competed against each other for two years in conference play, but the Catholic Seven would be forming a different league and no longer competing under the Big East flag. Thus, the problem with applying this to the Big East is this: If the five Catholic members stay in the Big East, the grace period will apply; if they go and form a new league, they'd need for the NCAA to apply the grace period provision to a different conference (which is a somewhat aggressive reading of Section 31.3.4.4.3) and/or for the "two preceding years" provision to otherwise apply (which is a somewhat aggressive reading of Section 31.3.4.2(b)). I'm certainly not an expert at NCAA manual interpretations, but looking at this in totem there are hurdles here for the schools looking to form the Catholic Seven.
  • Complicating everything here is the unknown: Section 31.3.4 permits a member conference to appeal to the Championships/Sports Management Cabinet to make a positive finding on a league's automatic qualification status. This becomes an option for both the NEC and whatever form the Big East castaways take, but a positive finding on the petition is no slam dunk. It also means that we're having conversations about so many unknowns that I want to uncork a bottle of bourbon and wonder why I ever started to write an NCAA lacrosse blog.

So, that's kind of the best that I can do at this point. Am I insane on any of this? Am I missing something? The comments are yours, pseudo-ombudsmen.

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