In the comments section of my last Duquesne piece, a reader noted that I should take a longer look at the Duquesne football program and write more about them. I don’t plan to as I noted in my response, but I will use the football program for the launching point of this piece even if it’s not exclusively about them to illustrate a point. Duquesne has a better all around athletic department than Robert Morris.
This should not come as a shock to anyone, as it’s a position I’ve kept for a very long time, citing the Dukes’ all sports record against the Colonials over the years, their position in the Atlantic 10, their budget on key sports and a notion that I think says it all — Duquesne could hire Robert Morris’ coach if they so chose in just about every sport both schools sponsor, save for maybe football. If Duquesne doesn’t have a better program, why would the job be better? Still, my argument was dismissed based on Robert Morris’ recent head-to-head dominance in the basketball version of the County Game, their hockey programs and general perception in the media of where the two programs were at.
Before I move on, I want to make the distinction between athletic department, program and team and what I mean by them. An athletic department is every sport the schools have to offer. A program is an individual sport over time. This includes where the program has been recently in terms of success and how it’s positioned for the future. Team describes the current group of players and coaches for a given sport. My primary argument is that Duquesne has been better as an athletic department, but I’ll show that by breaking down a few key comparisons between sports.
Let’s start with football, since it’s both the most recent incarnation of this rivalry and the easiest one to one comparison as both schools play on exactly the same level, the NEC. Duquesne is a relative newcomer in the conference that started in 1996. The Dukes joined in 2008 while the Colonials were a charter member. Robert Morris dominated the early years of NEC football, winning the outright title or a share of the title each of the first five seasons. Robert Morris drew in a higher percentage of the Western PA talent not quite good enough for D-I or high FCS, as the NEC is a scholarship league. Duquesne got their share, too, but Bobby Mo had the money card, a very strong card to play. The Dukes had been playing in the MAAC, dubbed part of the FCS mid-major level at the time. When it failed, the Dukes joined the NEC, started offering scholarships and began swimming in the same pool for prospects that Robert Morris dominated at one point. Robert Morris’ last league title came in 2010 with its last classes of upper classmen before the scholarship Dukes interfered with their recruiting supremacy. They also got creative, giving the area’s wayward D-I sons a happy landing spot when it was time to transfer home. The year after the Colonials last title, the Dukes won their first NEC title, a share with Albany. They’ve gone on to win three more in the last five seasons, including an outright title and a trip to the FCS tournament in 2015.
This past weekend’s 51-14 victory by Duquesne became the most lopsided in the series and earned the Dukes their fifth consecutive football County Game. Recent history shows the Dukes have been the better program and little suggests that will change any time soon.
When analyzing the school’s flagship sports, things get a little messier as there is no easy comparison between hockey at Robert Morris and women’s basketball at Duquesne. While college hockey is climbing fast in the national interest, women’s basketball is still one of the top three in terms of prestige. Women’s hoops has nationally televised regular season games and top schools get attention from the national media year round, not just the post season like in college hockey with the Frozen Four or College Baseball with the World Series. I wanted initially to use RPI over five years to compare the two schools, but I couldn’t find men’s hockey RPI older than two years. Last year the Colonials finished 28th while the Dukes finished 128th following a down year. So let’s wrap this one up and put a bow on it for Robert Morris right? Either that or let’s do some math. Sure the Colonials finished 28th but that’s out of 60 teams, putting them just on the inside of the top 50% of the schools last year. Despite settling for 128th, the Dukes still finished comfortably in the top 40% in a down year among the roughly 350 competing in women’s basketball. For perspective, the Dukes finished 18th in RPI the year before and 48th the year before that out of the same 350 schools. While the Robert Morris hockey gets a lot of attention locally, their place in the grand scheme of things is lower than Duquesne women’s basketball.
For the record, Robert Morris women’s basketball’s highest RPI finish in the last 13 years is 79. Their highest in the last five was 130, despite making two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. In truth, they have an argument for love over hockey!
So this is where it gets testy. Who has the better men’s basketball program? Note that if you’re going to dismiss Duquesne by the 1-4 head-to-head record over the last five years, I will be happy to dismiss any argument for Robert Morris’ entire athletic department by the citing the Dukes head-to-head advantage of 22-8-1 in traditional head-to-head team sports over the same span. Robert Morris has mostly had a better team than Duquesne in men’s basketball the past handful of years. They’ve made an NCAA appearance, albeit as the automatic bid from one of the weakest conferences in the country. They’ve also had their coach turn down an Atlantic 10 job to stay put, casting doubt that the Dukes could lure Andy Toole away. However, the gulf between the two schools recent success seems like it’s often overblown. The Colonials have posted a 187.8 average RPI over the last 5 years, while the Dukes averaged 215.4. That’s 27.6 positions lower to be certain, but as with women’s basketball that 27.6 positions out of 350’ish or only around an 8% difference, putting them both in the same below average boat. Brag all you want about head-to-head, but neither school should be proud of what they’ve accomplished lately in men’s basketball. In truth, they’re roughly the same though Robert Morris does have the advantage.
But as I noted above, program is not just about the present or recent past. It’s about where a school is heading, too. Duquesne has hired a coach in Keith Dambrot with a salary of just over half of what Robert Morris spent in 2015-16 on their entire basketball team. Money isn’t everything, but the Dukes have shown a stronger commitment to taking their program to another level than Robert Morris is currently capable of. To be fair, Robert Morris has some big things going for them as well, like their new multi-purpose arena, while Duquesne’s AJ Palumbo Center upgrades remain up in the air. A new arena might allow Robert Morris to bump up their conference in the next round of reshuffling, but they won’t move up far enough that an at-large bid is likely. If Dambrot turns things around and gets the Dukes competing in the top part of the A-10, not only will at-large bids be possible, they could occur with regularity. If Duquesne men’s basketball gets to where the women’s program is, Robert Morris simply wouldn’t be able to compete with. Granted, Duquesne has to actually get there, but while I’d point the arrow for where the programs have been recently slightly towards the Colonials, projection lies with the Dukes. To be fair though, I’ll call it a push.
So does Duquesne have the advantage over Robert Morris all around? They’ve far surpassed the Colonials to become the most consistent leading program in the NEC. Their flagship program women’s basketball competes at a higher level nationally than Robert Morris’ flagship men’s hockey. When comparing women’s basketball directly, the Dukes’ worst year in the last five still yielded a slightly higher RPI than the Colonials’ best. What could be the Dukes flagship program soon, men’s basketball, isn’t as far behind Robert Morris as perception and head-to-head record indicates. The programs’ potential at least makes the programs roughly even in my opinion. There are other sports that factor in and if someone wants to dispute my argument based on women’s lacrosse or men’s soccer, by all means comment. However, the Dukes appear to be ahead or in the ball park where it counts the most and their athletic department has staked a solid claim ahead of the Colonials.