It may not be the first controlled nuclear reaction, but in 2008, Maroons football will once again put Chicago in the history books.
The University Athletic Association and the North Coast Athletic Conference will cross-schedule 38 football games between teams in their respective leagues in 2008 and 2009, league administrators announced July 29th.
The interconference scheduling agreement is the first of its kind in Division III athletics. The Ivy Group and the Patriot League utilized a similar arrangement in Division I-AA football in the 1990s.
"Lack of necessity is the main reason this has not been done more in the past," said UAA executive secretary Dick Rasmussen. "With most institutions, there is either enough membership in the conference or there are enough institutions in the geographic area to fill out the schedule. They don't face the challenges that we do."
While just two seasons have been scheduled, the agreement is open-ended, and should continue as long as both conferences are satisfied with its results. The four UAA squads and nine teams from the NCAC will face off 19 times a year, with home sites alternating every season and match-ups changing every two years. In 2008, the Maroons will draw Kenyon College and Oberlin College at home and will travel to Wabash College and Denison University.
Since the NCAA began requiring seven institutions to compete in a sport for a Div. III conference to qualify for an automatic playoff berth in 1995, scheduling non-conference games has been difficult for UAA football teams. With only Chicago, Case, Carnegie Mellon and Washington competing on the gridiron, UAA teams have more open dates to fill late in the season than other programs, and the league expansion that resulted from the rule change left increasingly fewer opponents not already committed to league play in the final weeks of fall. The Maroons were forced to travel as far as Los Angeles to fill their schedules in recent seasons.
Over the last three years, conference officials have sought to address these difficulties via a football-only adjunct conference with the UAA and other local teams or a cross-scheduling consortium of three or four different leagues across the Midwest. Dennis Collins, the executive director of the NCAC, had been involved in these discussions, and after these efforts fell through approached the UAA about a formal arrangement between the two leagues last summer. Athletic directors from both leagues responded positively to the proposal, and at the NCAA Conference in January requested that league administrators begin setting up a schedule.
The NCAC is well-reputed in college sports for its successes on the field and for a league philosophy that, similar to that of the UAA, prioritizes academics over athletics. The conference includes such top-tier liberal arts colleges as the College of Wooster, Kenyon, Oberlin, and Ohio Wesleyan. Wittenberg is favored to win the league title this year, and along with Allegheny is one of the league's historic football powers.
"The North Coast Athletic Conference is a very good collection of small colleges that play a very competitive brand of football at the Div. III level," said University of Chicago athletic director Tom Weingartner. "Their schools line up very well with ours as institutions."
Chicago athletic department officials and league administrators have high hopes for the success of the scheduling agreement, and are largely unconcerned about the complications of travel time and cost to the involved colleges. The schedule was built with the goal of limiting 8 to 10 hours bus rides.
"Compared to what we had to do prior to this agreement, we will be better off [with regards to travel issues,]" Weingartner said. "It will cost us the same as in previous seasons, because we won't be traveling over such long distances to Los Angeles or Pittsburgh, and the bus rides should be reasonable."
Many other conferences across the country will be closely observing the UAA-NCAC pact. Institutions in both the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference and the Northwest Conference have had similar trouble finding geographically reasonable non-conference opponents in the past decade.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see some other groups doing this [type of agreement] in the next couple years," Rasmussen said. "I think some people will look at this and see that this is a possibility."