Pioneer Football Does it Their Way

Pioneer Football League Does It Their Way
The Pioneer Football League is trying to do what no other conference in the FCS is doing; play at a high level without the aid of athletic scholarships.  Of course, they are not the only FCS conference that doesn’t allow athletic scholarships.  The Ivy League doesn’t either, but the Pioneer sends its conference champion to the FCS playoffs, while the Ivies send their kids home for Thanksgiving dinner. 
The Ivy League has always done things their way.  It was the Ivy that really solidified the then 1-A/1-AA split in 1982 when in essence, they de-emphasized football.  As a result, no longer would we see Cornell play Syracuse or Harvard play Boston College. 
In 1986, the Patriot League adopted the Ivy League model.  They formed a then 1-AA league, but said no to the athletic scholarships.  The Ivy League loved it.  The schools were close geographically; neither offered athletic grants so therefore, Holy Cross could schedule games against Yale, Harvard and the rest of the Ivies.  The Patriot League could offer need-based aid to prospective athletes, provided it was at the same percentage as non-football players.
Eventually, the Patriot League felt that they needed athletic scholarships to compete with the big boys of what we now call FCS football.  Bucknell may not offer the full allotment of 63 scholarship that a North Dakota State does, but offering 40 to 45 puts the Bison—and the other Patriots—at a much more competitive level.
In 1993, the Pioneer Football League began play.  It was an odd collection of schools, but the reasons for its founding were solid ones.  Schools like Dayton had played Division III football for years while its other sports played at the Division I level.  The NCAA wanted that to stop.  They wanted schools that played Division I in one sport to play it in all sports.  For schools like Dayton, that would mean millions of dollars in improvements and handing out 85 full scholarships.  So, some schools got together and decided to play 1-AA football without scholarships and thus, the Pioneer League was born. 
The great thing about the league is that the schools (now 11) are on the same playing field.  It’s Division I football and when competing for a conference title, all the schools are the same.  The problem of course, is when Pioneer League teams play non-conference games against FCS schools that have 63 or even 45 scholarship players. Can PFL schools effectively narrow the gap against the big boys of FCS football?
How does a Pioneer League school secure a player knowing that they can offer some type of athletic scholarship at another school?  How does Marist recruit against Bucknell?  What type of player does Dayton get?  Is it a bonafide Division I player?  Is it a Division II player who would rather say they played Division I football regardless of level?  Is it a Division III kid that Marist beat out Ithaca or Mount Union to secure? 
We all know that many players at Pioneer League schools are receiving some type of aid.  For some, it’s need-based aid; for others, it comes in the way of grants or academic scholarships.  With college costs escalating beyond control, we can assume that a good number of students receive some sort of financial assistance. 
For Marist, the recruitment of a football player is much harder than the recruitment of a basketball player.  As a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), all Marist has to do is offer an athlete a full-ride and hope that he signs.  In football, they have to “sell” the athlete on the school.  They have to sell the academics, the Pioneer League, the vision and everything else.  They have to look for financial aid and be clever and creative, along with following the rules and guidelines set forth by both the Pioneer Football League and NCAA.  They do all this, and at the last minute, here comes Delaware with a 50 percent scholarship.  For PFL schools, this makes things tough. 
Just who are Pioneer League schools competing against for players?  Are they really competing against schools that play in the CAA and the Missouri Valley; or are they going against Division III schools such as Ithaca, Utica and Cortland State?  Division III powerhouse schools like Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater are getting kids that the normal Division III schools aren’t. How are they are doing it?  How are they convincing kids to choose a Mount Union over an FCS school that might be offering a partial scholarship?  And, could a Mount Union beat a Pioneer League team?  How close is the talent level between Pioneer, Division II and Division III? 
Like all conferences, there are programs that tend to dominate.  Just like Alabama and LSU tend to rule the SEC, the Pioneer League has seen three teams rise to the top in Dayton, Jacksonville and San Diego.  But, because of the challenges that come with recruiting and the offering of aid, things can get murky.  San Diego was ineligible for conference title consideration and Jacksonville had to forfeit a conference title in 2014 because of misappropriating leadership grant money.  Last year, Dayton won the conference and proceeded to the FCS playoffs, losing to Western Illinois 24-7.  In three playoff appearances, the PFL is 0-3, but as the league gets more and more competitive, the hope is that the PFL will spring an upset the Saturday after Thanksgiving sooner than later. 
The PFL is unique.  They don’t offer scholarships but they do participate in the FCS playoffs.  Because they adhere to what the Ivy League does by not offering scholarships, one would think that the Ivy and the Pioneer would schedule more games against each other but that hasn’t been the case.  In fact, the only Pioneer-Ivy matchup in 2016 is Brown-Stetson.
When the Patriot League started offering scholarships many thought that the Ivies would storm away and stop scheduling Patriot teams, but that hasn’t happened.  Most Ivies cite the fact that the geography is close and schools like Lafayette, Lehigh, Colgate, Bucknell, Fordham, Holy Cross and even Georgetown are natural, ideological and academic rivalries.  It makes more sense for Harvard to play Holy Cross than it does to play Marist, even though both the Crimson and Marist don’t offer athletic scholarships.  And, the fact that the PFL ranges geographically from San Diego to Florida to upstate New York makes travelling difficult for Ivy League schools accustomed to taking the bus for games.  In the end, the Ivies cried and made threats over Patriot League scholarships, but they didn’t abandon the games. 
The Pioneer League is going strong and is here to stay.  With 11 members, it has appeared to have found its comfort zone.  The league plays eight conference games and that can create a challenge because in theory, two teams could finish 8-0 in league play because they didn’t play each other in the regular season.  Then, the league has to use a dreaded “formula” to crown its champion and playoff participant, something that nobody really likes. 
Marist is the lone northeast school.  Back in the day, the Red Foxes were members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) and when the MAAC stopped sponsoring football, schools like Siena and Iona were quick to drop the sport.  But Marist hung in there, upgraded Tenney Stadium and found a home in the Pioneer.  The Foxes do a lot of travelling, but administrators believe having football enhances the college’s profile.
The Big South is struggling to retain its members and with Coastal Carolina gone, the conference only has six football members remaining.  And, with Liberty exploring a potential move to FBS, the league could not only lose its automatic qualifier to the FCS playoffs, but the conference may have to stop sponsoring football, like the FBS Western Athletic Conference did years ago.  Campbell plays in the Big South for every sport except football and the Big South has tried to woo the Camels to become a football member.  Campbell, thus far, has refused, opting to stay in the Pioneer.  Whether it’s a financial decision, an ideological one or somewhere in between, it’s definitely a victory for the Pioneer Football League. 
The 2016 season will be an interesting one for the PFL.  It’s safe to say that the league, which formed in 1993, is not going anywhere and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on this fall.  San Diego, Jacksonville and Dayton should battle for the conference title this year and could this be the year that one of them—or another member—breaks through and wins an FCS playoff game?  If you love the underdogs, you’ll be rooting for the Pioneer.
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