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PSAC schools closing the gap on powers

A college football field is 100 yards long and about 53 yards wide. But when it came to the top teams in NCAA Division II, it wasn't always level.

For years, a self-imposed scholarship limitation handicapped the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and made it nearly impossible to compete with some of the other Division II powers.

"It was," Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik said, "always an uphill battle."

This is the second full season since the PSAC, one of the nation's premiere Division II conferences, ended its scholarship equivalent limit of 25. The 16-school conference follows the NCAA limit of 36 scholarships per football team.

The move allowed PSAC schools — at least theoretically — to be on nearly even terms with other top programs such as Grand Valley State, Valdosta State and Minnesota-Duluth, who annually reach the NCAA scholarship limit and, not coincidentally, have combined to win each of the past seven national championships.

"They have a lot more margin for error," said Cal (Pa.) coach John Luckhart, whose Vulcans have lost in the NCAA Division II semifinals each of the past two years. "You've got guys that are tired or hurt. They have the advantage of having 36 (scholarships). It's a big difference."

The PSAC, in its 75th season of playing football, is still without a national crown. The past five D-II semifinals featured a PSAC team. Each time, they lost.

The conference is a combined 3-11 in the Final Four since 1989, and no PSAC team has reached the D-II title game since 2000, when Bloomsburg allowed a record-63 points in a loss to Delta State (63-34).

"I think we're close," said Will Adair, an assistant commissioner for the PSAC. "I also think it would be nice, from a football perspective, if we could just break through and win that first one."

More success is expected this year. Five PSAC schools are among the top 25 in the D2Football.com 2009 preseason poll, released last week, more than any other conference. They are No. 9 California, No. 11 Bloomsburg, No. 20 West Chester, No. 21 Edinboro and No. 22 IUP.

"I think we will be able to compete with a lot of teams," Cal's All-American cornerback Terrence Johnson said.

The national powers still have some built-in advantages over the PSAC schools — namely, they can accept state money for scholarships — but national experts believe an NCAA title is inevitable.

"California was within a whisker of the national championship (against Valdosta State in 2007) and that was without 36 scholarships," said Bob Eblen, the national columnist for D2Football.com . "Now, it's just going to be matter of time before one of them wins it."

Ironically, it was the decision last year to bring aboard two new members — Gannon and Mercyhurst — that could help the PSAC win the elusive crown.

Because the newcomers are private schools that each award about 34 scholarships, the PSAC was obligated to eliminate its cap of 25.

The limit was instituted in the early 1990s, presumably because coach Frank Cignetti's Indiana (Pa.) team, using upward of 30 scholarships, was running rampant over the rest of the conference on the way to the 1990 national title game (losing to North Dakota State) and the 1991 semifinals.

"They called it the IUP rule," Luckhart said. "They kind of squeezed Frank (Cignetti) down, so that everybody else would be a little closer. But it didn't help the league."

IUP coach Lou Tepper agreed, saying parity in the conference came at the expense of any realistic hope for a national title.

"If you are just satisfied — as the PSAC had been for a while — to be a good regional conference and be competitive, you could put the limit at 20 if you wanted to," Tepper said. "But we will be clobbered in the national playoffs. This gives us a chance, with time, to compete."

Just because the PSAC lifted the limit doesn't mean the schools will take advantage of it. California will use about 34 scholarships this year, but other schools dole out fewer than a dozen. Last year's numbers, the most recent available, show football scholarships among PSAC Western Division schools ranged from 35 (Gannon) to eight (Lock Haven).

A lot of it comes to effort and athletic priorities. Because the PSAC schools are not allowed to use any state money toward athletic scholarships, all of the money for football scholarships — roughly $525,000 last season at Cal — must be garnered through fundraisers and donations.

Gannon and Mercyhurst, meanwhile, are private schools, so they can use more financial resources on football scholarships and gain a competitive advantage.

Tepper was adamant against the two private schools joining the PSAC. But he now believes they will spur other schools to increase fundraising and scholarships for their football programs and help the conference on the national stage.

"It gives us incentive all across the league to get to that point," he said, "or we will get run off the field."

Class acts

Here are the football grants and scholarship equivalents for PSAC-West schools.

School: Total athletic grants — Scholarships

*Gannon: $1,094,653 — 35.1

*Mercyhurst: $1,080,848 — 34

California: $524,118 — 29

IUP: $344,423 — 21.4

Slippery Rock: $245,308 — 16.1

Edinboro: $227,850 — 14.8

Clarion: $154,472 — 10.95

Lock Haven: $119,688 — 7.8

*-private school

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