The University of Rhode Island football team earned a win Tuesday morning even though the season doesn’t start for another week.
Just 21 months after URI director of athletics Thorr Bjorn announced the Rams would be leaving the ultra-competitive Colonial Athletic Association to join the Northeast Conference in 2013, Bjorn told the team Tuesday morning he was reversing course and the Rams will continue competing in the CAA.
“We’re certainly excited to play in the best conference at this level in the country,” said URI coach Joe Trainer by phone Tuesday evening. “I’m excited for our school and for our players. It’s good to be staying with some of our traditional rivals like Maine and New Hampshire who we have been playing for a long time.
“We may not have had a ton of success in terms of wins over the last couple of years, but we’ve certainly shown we can compete at this level.”
According to URI’s media release, CAA conference commissioner Don Yeager invited the school to stay with the conference on Aug. 7 and the Rams agreed to stay three weeks later.
“We are very appreciative of the CAA, commissioner Yeager and all the football-playing member institutions for the re-invitation to stay in the league,” said Bjorn in URI’s release. “They have made it clear that the University of Rhode Island is a very important and long-standing member of their association.”
Trainer said he allowed Bjorn to deliver the news to the team. The team was scheduled to play a special-teams scrimmage Tuesday morning, but before the first whistle blew Bjorn told the team they were staying put in the CAA.
“It was really cool,” Trainer said. “The locker room erupted and our kids are certainly ecstatic about staying here and competing in the best conference in I-AA.”
So what has changed since Bjorn made the decision to leave two years ago?
The CAA, whose corporate offices are in Baltimore, welcomed new football members Stony Brook, which is on Long Island, and the University of Albany. Both schools will join the league in 2013.
All-sports members Georgia State (Sun Belt Conference) and Old Dominion (Conference USA) will be departing next year. Massachusetts, one of URI’s old Yankee Conference rivals, left the CAA after last season for the Mid-American Conference.
“I think Thorr was very cognizant of the shift in the landscape,” Trainer said. “I was very supportive of that because I felt we showed the ability to compete at this level and certainly play at it. I’m really, really excited for that challenge.”
What a challenge it will be.
The Rams have not fared very well in the best conference in I-AA. Rhody is just 10-32 since joining the CAA from the Atlantic 10 in 2007. URI’s best year was 2010 when the squad went 4-4 and Trainer netted CAA Coach of the Year honors.
Last year the Rams were 2-6 and will do well to reach .500 this season against the likes of nationally-ranked Georgia State, Towson, New Hampshire, Delaware and Maine.
Staying in the CAA also changes the recruiting process for URI. The Rams were working to get down to the Northeast Conference’s 40 scholarship cap, but now URI will be, once again, allowed to offer up to 63 scholarships.
“We’re going to be as competitive as anybody with resources and those things,” Trainer said. “I’m not worried about that. Every school has budgetary constraints. I can promise you that we are going to be as competitive as anybody when it comes to that.”
The biggest reason the Rams left the conference two years ago was the migration of the league from the northeast corridor to the Mason-Dixon Line. Northeastern, which is in Boston, and Hofstra, which is on Long Island, both canceled their football programs following the 2009 season and the CAA replaced those schools with Old Dominion and Georgia State. The CAA’s migration south means more flights and fewer bus rides for a program which doesn’t bring in much money to the university.
“Leaving the conference was more of a demographic decision than anything else,” Trainer said. “Twenty-four months ago it was becoming a southern conference and now I think the pendulum is swinging again.”