Within the last two months, the Big East started a lacrosse conference and the East Coast Athletic Conference expanded into the Midwest where the Great Western Lacrosse League once stood. The GWLL is dust in the winds of change. Before we get to my take on the big changes to the college lacrosse configuration, here's how the new conferences will look in 2010.
The seven schools that will participate in the newly formed Big East Conference are Georgetown, Notre Dame, Providence, Rutgers, St. John's, Syracuse and Villanova. The teams will play each other once in the regular season. The conference hopes to receive an automatic bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament field.
The new ECAC Lacrosse League will include former GWLL members Air Force, Bellarmine, Denver, Ohio State and Quinnipiac and existing ECAC schools Fairfield, Hobart and Loyola. The conference already has an automatic bid.
The new Big East and ECAC are two strong lacrosse conferences that deserve an automatic bid and will likely place at-large teams in the tournament as well. I have no criticism of the new alignments and in the case of the Big East, all is finally right.
Anyone who saw the news in June about the formation of the new Big East conference must have noted that the conference raided the ECAC for its members. Georgetown, Rutgers and St. John's were gone in a flash. That left the ECAC scrambling for new teams to keep the conference going and it left the Great Western Lacrosse League without its marquis team, Notre Dame.
Now the Big East can't be blamed for going after the lacrosse teams from schools that are established as traditional conference teams in most sports. It can be blamed for taking so damn long to do it. Some blame the Atlantic Coast Conference for starting a conference, prematurely, with only four teams. But those teams have an identity that matches the other teams at their schools and that the fans can relate to. And while they don't have enough teams for an automatic bid, they respect the sport and claim their teams. Players in the ACC are proud of it and the ACC is proud of its lacrosse.
The Big East's argument might be that it was appropriate to wait for the proper number of playing members. Actually, the proper number of willing members is important too. Ten-time NCAA champion Syracuse brings unequaled clout and immediate standing to the conference, and I would be surprised if they weren't compensated in some way. Maybe I'm cynical but that's how I perceive Syracuse athletics -- money first, kids next. It's not the lacrosse people, who are some of my favorite people in the world. It's the athletic department, which are not lacrosse people.
The ECAC has been a make-shift conference of ever-changing definition for years. This new configuration may last a few years but the conference is still a temporary entity as long as they rely on eventual Big Ten teams for their numbers. The Big Ten, like the Big East, will eventually have enough teams and form its own lacrosse conference, leaving the ECAC again with some recruiting to do. By then, more colleges may play and that shift of Big Ten teams may leave a perfect scenario for others to participate in the conference system, like in this case. It really is perfect for now.
The GWLL was perhaps the easiest conference ever to raid. They had an automatic bid to the tournament and only lost one team – Notre Dame. They had University of Detroit-Mercy coming in for 2009 and would have been just fine, as far as I can see. They would have had Air Force, Bellarmine, Denver, Ohio State, Quinnipiac and Detroit. But the GWLL was a "made-up conference," born from necessity, with no big financial structure and no staff that would fight for its very existence. The conference was just extra work for the teams and schools in it. It was a bloodless battle. It's like they outsourced to the ECAC, as mercenary a conference as there ever was.
The only "victim" I see from all of this shifting is Detroit, which had a terrific path ahead of it with a GWLL schedule as a brand new college team. Now they will play one season of all away games, including GWLL teams, and then we'll see. I use the word victim lightly. These guys will be fine and knew what was coming like all of us did. They embraced it just the same in Detroit. They even hosted the 2008 GWLL Tournament, seen exclusively on E-Lacrosse.
The GWLL was a misnamed conference anyway with the Rockies as its western barrier. It's like in U.S. history when the "western frontier" was Ohio, then Missouri, and so on. One day we may get a "Great Western Lacrosse League" revival. Hopefully the teams assembling that conference will be real western teams on the Pacific Coast. History will repeat itself, as this will likely be a precursor to the Pac 10 and Big West lacrosse conferences, but it will not be soon. And by then, after so many iterations, the ECAC may be that far west, still seeking teams.
One more thing: Nobody ever thinks, when something ends, that it had a great purpose or that it was as necessary as it really was. But for those who had the vision of the GWLL and made it happen, all of lacrosse owes you a huge debt. The growth of our game was in your hands for a few years there and you carried it well. Three GWLL teams -- Denver, Ohio State and Notre Dame -- made the tournament field last year as a symbol of that success and growth. The league will be forgotten soon, but hopefully not its great and historic accomplishments.