The origins of the Patriot League began after the eight Ivy League schools each expanded its football schedules to ten games starting in 1980. Needing opponents with a similar competitive level on a regular basis for each teams' three nonconference games, the league contacted two university presidents, the Reverend John E. Brooks, S.J. of Holy Cross and Peter Likins of Lehigh, about the formation of a new conference that also prohibited athletic scholarships. The result was the Colonial League, a football-only circuit that began competition in 1986. Its six charter members were Holy Cross, Lehigh, Bucknell, Colgate, Lafayette and Davidson, which dropped out after the 1988 season for reasons related to geography and a reluctance to relinquish its basketball scholarships in case the conference expanded into other sports.
In 1990, the league changed its name to the Patriot League. At the start of the 1990-91 academic year, the league became an all-sport conference, with 22 sports (11 for men and 11 for women), and now had seven full members, including Fordham and the United States Military Academy (Army) as new members. In 1991, the league gained an eighth full member — the United States Naval Academy (Navy).
In 1993, the league hired Constance (Connie) H. Hurlbut as executive director. She was the first woman and youngest person to be the leader of an NCAA Division I conference.
In 1995, Fordham resigned its full membership (leaving the league with seven full members) but continued as an associate member in football. In 1996, Fairfield and Ursinus joined as associate members in field hockey. (Fairfield left after the 2003 fall season, who is now an associate member of the America East Conference. Ursinus left after the 2001 fall season, who is now a full member of the Centennial Conference.) In 1997, Towson joined as an associate member in football. (Towson left after the 2003 fall season to join the Atlantic 10 Conference, whose football conference would be absorbed by the Colonial Athletic Association in 2007.) In 1999, Hobart joined as an associate member in men's lacrosse and Villanova joined as an associate member in women's lacrosse. (Hobart left after the 2004 spring season, to join the ECAC Lacrosse League, while Villanova left after the 2006 spring season.) In 2001, American University joined as the eighth full member and Georgetown University joined as an associate member in football. Two schools announced in summer 2012 that they would join the league for the 2013–14 academic year, with Boston University making its announcement on June 15 and Loyola University Maryland doing so on August 29.
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