Bates’ Frank Williams runs for yardage during the Bobcats’ 29-17 win over Williams at Garcelon Field on Saturday.
Mark Harriman is entering his 20th season as Bates College’s football coach, and each year the slate has been the same: Eight games preceded by a scrimmage.
The NESCAC is breaking from tradition and changing its football schedule, starting this fall. The 10-school New England Small College Athletic Conference is switching to a nine-game, round-robin football schedule.
“It’s great,” Harriman told the Sun Journal on Friday. “It’s something that as a coaching body, NESCAC coaches, we’ve been trying to push forward for a long time. You know, it makes sense to have a true playing conference. It gives our guys another opportunity to compete.”
The change, voted on by the NESCAC presidents, was announced Friday.
For many years, Harriman said, the Bobcats would scrimmage either Amherst or Trinity the week before the season, and then open the season against the other team, the one they didn’t scrimmage. Each NESCAC team had two conference schools it would rotate between playing and scrimmaging.
Those scrimmages changed in recent years, and became more regional. Bates, for example, switched to holding an annual scrimmage with Colby, traditionally eight days before the first regular season game. Other NESCAC programs, though, had difficulty finding regional scrimmage partners.
“Converting the scrimmage to a regular season game solves challenges institutions had finding opponents to play in a scrimmage and supports our efforts to improve safety,” Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, chair of the conference committee, said in a news release.
The new schedule allows all 10 NESCAC football schools to face each other. It also means there will be fewer live-contact practices.
The news release announcing the nine-game schedule noted the coaches’ support of the change. It also said that the coaches unanimously agreed to “continue their current practice of players not engaging in live tackling during practice, once in-season.”
“I think one of the biggest reasons (for the schedule change) is, with all the emphasis on safer practice procedures,” Harriman said, “that the data, at least now, is showing that most of the concussions and injuries and things like that, occur in preseason practices, as opposed to regular season practices.
“So I think part of it is, from a safety factor, they think by adding the ninth game, that we’re going to be in another week of in-season practice mode, as opposed to a preseason mode.”
Prior to Friday’s announcement, Bates was set to open the 2017 season at home against Trinity on Sept. 23. Now, the Bobcats will begin the season the week before, Sept. 16, on the road against Amherst, then host Trinity the following week.
Bates will play four home games and five road games in 2017, and five times at home and four on the road next year.
Harriman said there might be further evolution of the NESCAC football schedules in a few years.
Each team currently plays the exact same schedule every season — the same teams in the same order. In the future, maybe as soon as two years, the opponents won’t change, but the order might.
“For instance,” Harriman said, “since I’ve been here, we’ve played (Hamilton) the last game of the year all the time. And Tufts has been our second (now third) game of the year.
“Are there opportunities to switch those things around just to change things up?”
The NESCAC doesn’t allow its football teams to have spring practices, so the Bobcats and the rest of the conference will wait until August to begin preparing for their new nine-game schedule.
“It’s something that’s exciting for everyone involved — coaches, players, the NESCAC overall,” Harriman said. “So, we’re fired up for it.”
Bates College’s 2017 football schedule
Sept. 16: at Amherst
Sept. 23: vs. Trinity
Sept. 30: vs. Tufts
Oct. 7: at Williams
Oct. 14: at Wesleyan
Oct. 21: vs. Middlebury
Oct. 28: at Colby
Nov. 4: vs. Bowdoin
Nov. 11: at Hamilton