Conference realignment, SoCon style: the College of Charleston is (probably) heading to the CAA

Update: Conference realignment, SoCon style: Is it nitty-gritty time?

I wrote about potential changes in Southern Conference membership over the summer. Now, something has actually happened…

After a somewhat contentious meeting, the College of Charleston’s Board of Trustees voted 12-5 “to begin negotiations with the Colonial Athletic Association”:

The board met for 90 minutes before passing a resolution to open official talks with the CAA. The resolution, which passed by a 12-5 vote, does not guarantee the Cougars will join the nine-member league. The College of Charleston has been in the Southern Conference since 1998.

The final vote is expected to come at the board’s next scheduled meeting in January, although a vote on the school’s athletic conference affiliation could come before the start of the new year, according to board members.

While it’s not guaranteed that the CofC is moving to the CAA, it’s all but assured, barring some unexpected problems in the negotiations.

The biggest immediate issue for those negotiations, it appears, is travel expenses. While some observers thought the estimate put forward by the school was too high, others within the college weren’t sure it was high enough.

I think the CofC’s move was “sold” to some of the BOT members as part of a larger migration from the SoCon to the CAA, a shift that would have created a “CAA South” division with Davidson and one or more of Appalachian State, Elon, and Furman.

When Davidson decided to stay in the Southern Conference, that scenario essentially ceased to be a possibility. As a result, the CofC had to recalibrate its travel expenses.

The move by the CofC, assuming it comes to pass, is being made almost exclusively for the benefit of the men’s basketball program, platitudes by the school’s president notwithstanding. For the school’s other varsity sports programs, it is basically a wash, with the notable exception of baseball, which will suffer greatly from the transition.

However, while none of those other programs really mattered in the decision, they did provide good drama. At the occasionally confusing BOT meeting, board member and baseball supporter Jeff Schilz had this to say:

This move is made assuming there’s more money in the CAA. This is a men’s basketball decision and they would have to reach goals they haven’t reached in a while.

Schilz wasn’t finished. He also opined that “our athletic programs have been ignored by the [CofC] administration” and questioned the stability of the CAA, at least as compared to the SoCon.

All of the above quotes came in the BOT meeting. The proceedings were “live-tweeted” by several different media members, a very 21st-century (and cool) development. One of the more interesting tweets came from WCIV-TV sportscaster Scott Eisberg:

Schilz says he knows 1 sport that will lose 4 recruits if they go. Audible to me,Natasha Adair says,’what abt teams that will gain recruits’

Adair is the new women’s basketball coach at the College of Charleston. I wouldn’t advise inviting her and Schilz to the same party.

I don’t know if the move will be a good one for the CofC. I tend to doubt it, but I could be wrong. At any rate, the school has every right to make a mistake. It’s the American way.

When you shake out all the pluses and minuses (exposure, travel, recruiting, etc.), it comes down to this: is the CAA really a multi-bid league? Because if it isn’t, the CofC leaving for basketball reasons but staying in a one-bid league is very hard to justify. I suspect that Davidson passed on joining the CAA at least partly because it wasn’t sure the CAA would regularly put two and three teams into the NCAA tournament.

Since 1987, there have only been three years in which the CAA received at-large bids: 2006, 2007, and 2011 (when it got two at-large bids). While that recent run does suggest upward mobility for the conference, two of the three schools largely responsible for that success have left (Virginia Commonwealth) or are leaving (Old Dominion) the league.

The other school that has carried most of the league’s water in hoops, George Mason, could easily bolt for the Atlantic 10 if that conference made an offer. (There have also been football-fueled rumors about James Madison and/or Delaware eventually leaving the CAA.)

Last season Drexel won the CAA regular season title (with a 16-2 conference record) and advanced to the league tourney final, but did not get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, thanks in large part to an unbalanced league schedule and a poor non-conference slate. If a 16-2 CAA team can’t get an at-large berth in the NCAAs (and that was with VCU and ODU in the conference), then it seems unlikely the Colonial will be a multi-bid nirvana going forward.

 —

Okay, so the CofC is (probably) gone. It’s just as well, too, given Joe Hull’s comments about the Southern Conference earlier last month. As soon as the diplomacy-averse Hull made his remarks, I believe every fan and journalist affiliated in some way with the league pointed out that the school hasn’t won the “invisible” SoCon in hoops this century.

What does the College of Charleston leaving mean for the SoCon…and what does it mean for The Citadel?

The league has three options: A) do nothing, B) add one school to replace the CofC, or C) add three more schools to get to 14.

Moving to 14 schools would be a way to solidify the SoCon in the short-term while protecting the league from the eventual departures of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, assuming those schools get an invite from an FBS league in the near future.

I want what is best for The Citadel. Is what is best for The Citadel also what is best for the league? Maybe.

At this time, I don’t see why the league has to expand to 14 schools, although there are indications that is a possibility. I also don’t think it’s absolutely vital to immediately find a twelfth member. The league can afford to wait.

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern don’t have their FBS tickets punched yet, and may still have to wait a while (particularly GSU). I think league decisions should be made based on the general idea that both schools will be around for at least another year, but will leave in the next five years or so.

The SoCon’s biggest membership issue is that it is made up of several different groups of schools which have competing interests — from the smaller schools, to the larger ones, to the universities west of the Carolinas, to the institutions that don’t have scholarship football programs.

The league has historically always been a mishmash of schools, of course. However, trying to get everyone to agree on potential “adds” for the conference could prove especially problematic right now.

It has been suggested in various places around the internet that a “compromise” could be in the works, one that would be agreeable to the smaller school bloc (most of the private schools, plus The Citadel) and the larger schools (App State, GSU, etc.). This would result in the league moving to 14 schools by adding one private and possibly two larger public schools, in an effort to appease the bigger schools and also the institutions west of the Carolinas (which want company on their side of the league).

I don’t think that would be in the best interests of The Citadel. Depending on the schools involved, it also would be close to anathema for Furman and Davidson. I find it hard to believe Davidson would have elected to remain in the SoCon knowing there was a good chance the conference would be adding multiple schools with significantly different institutional profiles.

As for the other schools in the league, I am less certain. For example, take the North Carolina universities. Elon is a bit of a wild card; I’m not going to even try to guess what its decision-makers may be thinking. UNCG is a non-football school with limited history in the league. Western Carolina is a smaller public school (as compared to Appalachian State and Georgia Southern) in a relatively remote location.

I’ve seen all kinds of schools mentioned as possible new SoCon members. Some of them may have little to no interest in joining the league; some of them would name all their incoming freshmen after John Iamarino in order to get in the club. Below are my comments, opinions, etc., about a few of these schools. Remember, I’m doing this with a bias. I want what is best for The Citadel.

Do I have insider knowledge on any of this? Nope. If you read something on the internet from someone who claims to have insider knowledge on any of this, should you believe that person? Nope.

Let’s start with the favorite to be the next school to join the SoCon.

- Mercer: mentioned by an actual media person, Adam Smith, who seems to have a decent handle on SoCon info. Would make sense on a lot of levels. Mercer is just starting its football program, which will begin as a non-scholarship entity. Still, a natural replacement for the football-free CofC.

Negatives: no scholarship football (yet). Could be blocked by larger schools that want the aforementioned compromise so as to jam two or three big public universities into the league.

After Mercer, there are no obvious picks.

- Virginia Military Institute: left the league a decade ago. Would probably like to come back. I could see all the privates plus The Citadel favoring VMI’s return.

Negatives: league currently has nine football schools, and a nine-game SoCon schedule could be tough to implement. The alternative is to not have a round-robin.

Another consideration is that VMI has been terrible in football for 30 years. That counts (and is why it left the league in the first place). I could see VMI making a return to the SoCon when App State and/or Georgia Southern depart. If the league went to 14, I am not sure VMI would be one of the three additions.

- Coastal Carolina: ah, here comes controversy…

This is the school many of the larger state schools want in the league (at least, their fans do). So which schools are not so crazy about CCU joining the SoCon? That would be Furman, The Citadel, and Davidson. I am not as sure about Wofford, although I would think it would be in the same group.

From the perspective of The Citadel and Furman, adding another, larger South Carolina school with a different mission and budget is a complete non-starter (and another Palmetto State school also may not sit well with Samford and Chattanooga). It doesn’t benefit either S.C. school. I also suspect longtime SoCon types look at Coastal Carolina and think “Marshall II”, and one Marshall was enough for a lot of people.  That may be unfair to CCU, but it’s reality.

Also, I don’t think Appalachian State’s and Georgia Southern’s wishes (in terms of new members) should even be considered by the other schools. App and GSU have stated they want to leave, and they eventually will, which is fine. However, why should the schools remaining in the conference make a decision on league membership for the benefit of schools that aren’t going to be in the SoCon much longer? That would be stupid.

- Kennesaw State: reportedly discussed in the league’s meeting in June. From an April article in the Marietta Daily Journal:

One of the big challenges for Kennesaw State’s athletic programs will be to find a conference before the football team kicks off its inaugural season since the Owls’ current conference, the Atlantic Sun, does not sponsor football. [New Kennesaw State AD Vaughn] Williams said he has had some preliminary conversations with representatives from the Southern Conference and the Ohio Valley Conference about joining their leagues in the future.

I could see Chattanooga and the other state schools in favor of Kennesaw State, which I suppose would be part of a three-school add-on, with Mercer and some other institution. KSU won’t start its football program until 2014. It would basically be like adding UNC Charlotte to the league.

Would adding such a school to the SoCon be in the best interests of The Citadel? Not really. Could it happen? Sure. Trying to get into the Atlanta market would be the major justification for inviting Kennesaw State.

- South Carolina State: allegedly was also discussed at the (surely infamous) June league meeting. It is hard to imagine the league seriously considering SCSU, which has a host of institutional problems, including serious financial issues. SC State has had more school presidents in the last five years than Western Carolina has had league victories in football.

I also have my doubts that it would be in South Carolina State’s best interests to leave the MEAC in the first place.

- Tennessee Tech: located in Cookeville, Tennessee. Public, but on the small side (around 10,000 undergraduate students). Would appeal to Western Carolina, Chattanooga, and probably Samford. Whether or not the conference wants to venture any further from its current geographic footprint is open to question.

As far as The Citadel is concerned, it is probably a more palatable option than any of the above-mentioned schools save Mercer and VMI. Tennessee Tech is in the OVC and I am not sure why it would want to leave that league.

- William & Mary: would be a great get, but is not happening unless the CAA implodes, and even then W&M’s first choice would likely be the Patriot League.

- Richmond: would only join the SoCon as a football-only member if the CAA dropped football sponsorship, as UR is happy to have its hoops program in the A-10.

I don’t see any school joining the SoCon as a football-only member. I saw a report suggesting Kennesaw State might be interested in this option. That should not happen, and I don’t think it will.

- Presbyterian: another Palmetto State school, which is PC’s biggest problem. Furman and Wofford aren’t interested in “elevating” the Blue Hose.

- Jacksonville: I wrote about JU in September of 2011, when I previewed The Citadel’s football season opener against the Dolphins that year. JU has potential (and a good market), but it’s another non-scholarship football program.

- Jacksonville State: wants to go FBS, like App and GSU. I don’t see the point of adding a member school like that. I doubt JSU does either.

- Liberty: see the entry for Jacksonville State.

- East Tennessee State: dropped football, dropped out of the SoCon. Now may want back in, though it still doesn’t have football. I’m not sure how serious a possibility ETSU is as things currently stand. Would not be the first choice for any of the current league members with the possible exception of Chattanooga.

A few other schools have been mentioned in passing, including Gardner-Webb, High Point, Murray State, Winthrop, Eastern Kentucky, North Alabama, and West Georgia. I don’t see any of them as realistic options for the SoCon (though I could be wrong).

A slightly different question: is the College of Charleston leaving the SoCon good or bad for The Citadel?

The real answer to that question is “to be determined”. Ultimately, though, it will depend on two things:

1) Which (if any) schools replace the CofC in the league

2) What (if anything) The Citadel does to take advantage of the CofC leaving

The Citadel has something to say about the first item, and everything to say about the second.

If the school(s) that replace the College of Charleston in the SoCon are from The Citadel’s perspective “like” institutions (smaller schools, good academics, etc.), then the CofC leaving will present the military college with an opportunity. That opportunity is greatly lessened if the new member schools do not fit that profile.

With the College of Charleston’s departure, The Citadel takes complete control of the Charleston market for the SoCon, and that’s a good thing. The Charleston area will, in my opinion, more easily identify with a football conference that has a long history, and that has “familiar” schools (like Furman and Wofford). The Palmetto State is, ultimately, a football state.

The Charleston market has also already proven over time to be supportive of SoCon baseball (with its long tenure as the league tourney host). That reminds me: it’s time for John Iamarino to step up and give the Low Country a long-term contract to host the tourney again.

Speaking of baseball, it’s possible that Monte Lee’s loss will be Fred Jordan’s gain in terms of recruiting for their respective programs.  I think Coastal Carolina may also benefit from the CofC joining a lower-tier baseball conference (and Charleston Southern will have something to say about it as well), but it won’t hurt The Citadel at all to pick up impact local recruits who want to play against quality opposition closer to home.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if a few other varsity sports at The Citadel benefit from the “only local school in the local league” phenomenon.

What The Citadel needs to do is get the message out to the local populace that the Bulldogs are the hometown team of choice, especially in a football-crazy state that also loves its baseball. It should be, to steal a term from college basketball officiating, a “point of emphasis”. I know that is already happening, but now more than ever it is a strategy that needs to be pushed.

I just named three sports in consecutive sentences. That means it is time to wrap this up…

The next few months are going to be very interesting for fans of the Southern Conference. Few other leagues have the potential for divisiveness quite like the SoCon, thanks to its disparate membership. For The Citadel, it is important that the school’s administration looks out for the school’s best interests, even if they are not in line with what league officials may propose.

This is not the time to “go along to get along”. Earlier, I mentioned three SoCon options. One of them was to do nothing and stay at eleven schools. There is nothing bad about that option right now. If the alternative is something that is not optimal for The Citadel, then the school should not be afraid to be intransigent.

We’re good at that.

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3 Responses

  1. This is what happens when you admit schools that do not participate in all three major sports. I opposed cofc’s entry to the SoCon (as well as UNCG). The SoCon was just fine before them, and will be fine going forward. I agree that the SoCon should be proactive, but until we see how the CAA shakes out, there is not much the conference can do at the moment, because Richmond and W&M are natural SoCon members (I disagree with your take on the Patriot League for the Tribe). If ASU and GSU begin to look like a lock for FBS in football, both W&M and Richmond might find things enticing in the SoCon.

    Good riddance to cofc. I hope the CAA knows what they are getting into, because the football school aren’t going to like it, especially if they lose a member like JMU or Villanova.

  2. Not real confident in the Commish handling this well. He has appeared weak in all the bashing from CofC that the SoCon has taken. He should have pointed ut to Hull that CofC has done nothing to help the SoCon in basketball.

  3. It is a shame that Furman and Wofford would want to block any attempt by Presbyterian to gain entry into the Southern Conference as it makes sense in so many ways from the standpoint of travel expenses , tradition and rivalry between these highly academic schools.

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