Robin Harris is not shy about calling the Ivy League “traditional” in its ways.
But the conference’s executive director is overseeing something distinctly non-traditional at Franklin Field this weekend: a postseason tournament in one of the Ancient Eight’s most important sports.
This year brings the first ever postseason tournaments in lacrosse, for both men and women. The highest seed hosts the semifinals and the finals, and on the women’s side that’s Penn. The top men’s seed will be determined today, when Cornell visits Princeton to finish the regular season.
Even though the Ivy League has more sports and athletes competing than any other Division I conference, this is the first time the Ancient Eight has put its toes in this kind of water.
Up until now, the only team-sport postseasons in the league were for baseball and softball. But the Ivy League splits its teams into two divisions for those competitions, so the “championship series” isn’t quite the same.
So why lacrosse? For one thing, the coaches really wanted it.
“I think it’s going to help promote our lacrosse as one of the best leagues in the country,” Dartmouth coach Amy Patton said. The No. 2 seed Big Green beat No. 3 Cornell in the semifinals, and will face top-seed Penn in the final tomorrow at 12:30 p.m.
But why lacrosse in particular? Why not - to pick a sport completely at random - basketball?
The biggest reason is that lacrosse is a sport at which the Ivy League succeeds on a national level. Multiple programs are ranked each year on the men’s side, with Princeton and Cornell the best-known. On the women’s side, Penn has been to three straight Final Fours, including the 2008 national championship game.
This year, Penn and Dartmouth are the top two teams. Quakers coach Karin Brower Corbett said it’s “the best-case scenario for the league” that both teams won their semifinals.
“I’m happy that Dartmouth [won], because they have a big win over Syracuse and we really need to try to get as many teams into the tournament as we can,” Corbett said. “I think it gives both of us an opportunity to make the [NCAA] tournament no matter who wins tomorrow.”
Harris made a similar point, using language that might sound familiar to basketball fans.
“There is the opportunity by having an extra game or two for our teams against another highly ranked team, their RPI goes up and the selection committee looks at their success in the tournament and it gets another team in,” she said. “Whether that exists in men’s basketball is really a separate issue, and that’s one that at this point is not on the table.”
Well, there’s a news item. An Ivy League men’s basketball postseason tournament “at this point is not on the table.”
“With this economic climate, we’re not looking to add more tournaments right now,” Harris said. “We’re waiting to see how lacrosse does, and really that’s going to be a decision to come from within the league as to what they want to do.”
Historically, most of the league’s basketball coaches have been in favor of a basketball tournament. Harris has only been in the job since last summer, and there’s been a lot of turnover among the league’s coaching ranks this offseason.
But most of the pro-tournament stances have come from coaches who didn’t play in the league, and both of the new coaches so far - Dartmouth’s Paul Cormier and Cornell’s Bill Courtney - fit that bill.
“What’s happened in the past is that coaches might be in favor, and then you say: ‘How many teams, where should it be, what’s the format?” Harris said. “Then there hasn’t been as much unanimity.”
Still, it’s not off the table entirely.
“We’ll just have to see how it goes,” Harris said. “I think that’s something we’re open to considering in the future, but right now there are no plans.”
I then asked whether things could have changed had the NCAA Tournament expanded to 96 teams. It was floated by more than a few people that as part of expansion to 96, regular-season champions and conference tournament champions would have received automatic bids. Would that have forced the issue?
“That would enter into the discussion, but I knew it was a long shot for 96 teams to pass,” Harris said. “The other conference commissioners weren’t unanimous at all about that.”
Another news item, sort of. Then again, it’s done with for now.
The other postseason from which the Ivy League is noticeably absent is the FCS football playoffs. There have been many reasons given over the years for this, most notably that the final rounds of the football playoffs overlap with end-of-semester exams.
But that argument was dented when the lacrosse tournament was announced. None of the eight schools are technically in finals yet, but they start soon. The Ivy League being what it is, I would venture a guess that the athletes probably need at least a little bit of time to study beforehand.
Harris was ready for the question, and gave about as thorough an answer as I’ve ever heard from a league official.
“That’s an issue that with the presidents is absolutely a non-starter, and it has to do with more than class time and exams,” Harris said. “It also has to do with focusing on the tradition of intra-league competition in football, and our history, and the tradition of culminating with certain games at the end of the season - certainly the Harvard-Yale tradition.”
There, for the first time ever, was an on-the-record statement of something I’ve heard off the record from a lot of people over the years. The belief is that Harvard and Yale are the biggest obstacles to the Ivy League participating in the playoffs, because they want their rivalry game to be the most important of the season.
I put that to Harris.
“It’s actually the presidents in general,” Harris said. “It’s really based on the tradition and the focus on intra-league competition, and not intruding on the student-athletes’ time demands.”
Ah, yes. A reminder that Harris doesn’t actually have much decision-making power. The Ivy League schools’ presidents make the rules. So I guess the Penn-Cornell game still matters to some people, even though it’s been quite a few decades since Franklin Field was sold out for it.
I asked Harris whether anything could change the current situation.
“One thing I’ve learned is to never predict what presidents will do,” Harris said. “This is a presidential issue and we’ll just have to see how it plays out. But at this point, it’s a non-starter.”
So there we have it. As interviews go, I thought Harris was pretty forthright. But it doesn’t look like things in her conference are going to change much any time soon.
Do you think they should?