Johns Hopkins is sitting out this month's NCAA lacrosse tournament for the first time since 1971, its 9-5 record not enough to snag it a postseason berth.
The Blue Jays are also planning to seek a conference affiliation after a storied 130-year run as an independent in one of their two Division I sports (women's lacrosse is the other).
The first event didn't cause the second. Not in the slightest But there's a definite degree of correlation as Hopkins-to-whoever appears to be the latest bit of realignment intrigue in a wild three and a half years both in lacrosse and throughout the collegiate sports landscape.
"What's the best way to get in? Give yourself two options," Hopkins athletic director Tom Calder said on a conference call with reporters Friday. "Play an extremely tough schedule, but it would be another advantage to play in a conference championship. We wanted a second chance to get into the NCAAs."
For all the discussion about excitement (possibly joining a league by 2015), transparency (Hopkins commissioned a committee to draw input from campus and submitted a report to university president Ronald J. Daniels late last week) and how no firm decisions have been made, the central priority is clear.
Hopkins, a Division III school in everything but lacrosse, has no interest in ceding its place in the national lacrosse hierarchy. And it's grown more obvious the best way to do it is to have a league to play in.
The 16-team NCAA tournament included eight automatic qualifiers this season, the most in its four-decade-plus history. The ACC (with the additions of Notre Dame and Syracuse) and the freshly formed Atlantic Sun (a collection of southern schools, most of whom added lacrosse within the last decade) will be eligible for automatic bids next year.
Toss in the shrinking divide among the dozen or so schools that have historically ruled the sport and another 10-15 fast-rising programs, and there's less and less room for the Blue Jays to count on. Just look at the results: Hopkins hasn't reached Memorial Day weekend in five years after never previously having a semifinal drought of more than two years.
"The decision to seek conference affiliation is a monumental decisions, which means the next decision is equally as big," coach Dave Pietramala said.
And it surely will draw interest throughout lacrosse just who the Blue Jays ultimately align themselves with.
Might it be the ACC, which will have Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Virginia in 2015 and will need another school to maintain an automatic bid for more than a few years? Add Hopkins in as an associate member, and there's little question which league would stand as the sport's best. Plus, Hopkins would only need to carve out room for Duke and Notre Dame while tinkering with its schedule.
Could it be the Big East, which offers a far more manageable set of opponents in Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John's and Villanova? All are private schools. All but one is on the East Coast. Given its investment in the sport, Hopkins would be an annual favorite.
And how about the formation of a Big Ten lacrosse league? With the arrival of Maryland and Rutgers, the conference would have five men's lacrosse schools (Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are the others). For those who require academic window dressing for their athletics-driven moves, Hopkins and the Big Ten would make solid partners.
"It would be safe to say we've been approached by a few conferences," said Pietramala, whose team will likely be the lone Division I independent next year.
Because this is 21st century college sports, television will play a factor as well --- even in lacrosse. The Blue Jays have a long-standing deal with ESPNU to televise all of their home games, and Calder said the contract was recently extended four years through 2017.
Of the four recommendations issued from Hopkins' committee, three (setting an initial membership term of five years, having the chance to review it after three seasons and a guarantee not to get bumped out of a conference if someone else joined it) were precisely what would be expected of a school entering unknown territory.
The fourth --- maintaining its existing ESPNU deal --- was a Hopkins-specific issue.
"Our partnerships are very important to us, whether it is sponsors for specific teams as well as TV," Pietramala said. "Lacrosse has changed and your brand is important. Ours certainly is. It's become a national brand in large part because of our success and in part because of our relationship with ESPN and ESPNU. That's an important consideration here.
"We value that we can be in homes not only nationally but in Canada as well. That will be an important part of this decision moving forward."
That has the potential to prove a stumbling block with any league that boasts its own network, such as the Big Ten.So much else must be sorted out. Hopkins would like to maintain a blend of rivalries both historical (North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia), local (Loyola, Towson and UMBC) and a combination of both (Maryland and Navy), and it's not hard to envision some of those series getting squeezed out depending on which conference the Blue Jays join.
Pietramala acknowledged he probably wouldn't have considered these possibilities two years ago. Last spring, he wondered aloud to Calder whether the Blue Jays might one day join a conference.
After a year without a postseason and half a decade removed from lacrosse's biggest stage, the future arrived in a hurry for a school still hoping to maintain a place at or near the top of its signature sport.
"We feel like it is necessary and we're excited," Pietramala said. "I want to make sure I say we're excited, but it's something important to this program now and in the future."
--- Patrick Stevens