Conference realignment, SoCon style: finally, expansion rather than contraction

Previously in this series:

SoCon style: history repeats itself

SoCon style: some actual news and a little speculation

SoCon style: the football/hoops conundrum

SoCon style: a look at the varsity sports portfolios of candidate schools

SoCon style: it is definitely nitty-gritty time now

Links of interest (a lot of them)…

From The Post and Courier:

SoCon commish has had enough

Q-and-A with the commissioner

New members bring “stability” to SoCon

SoCon wrap, extreme makeover edition

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Southern Conference adds three members

SoCon expects to hold steady at 10 schools

From the Burlington Times-News:

Southern Conference steps towards stability by adding three future members

From The Macon Telegraph:

Mercer heading to Southern Conference

Audio interview (three parts) with Mercer’s AD

From The Roanoke Times:

VMI accepts invitation to rejoin Southern Conference

From the Johnson City Press:

ETSU accepts invitation to Southern Conference

From the SoCon:

Audio of the teleconference announcing the additions

Not linked: a horrendous column on the conference’s football situation from the Asheville Citizen-Times. In the piece, factual errors were interspersed with snide and generally uninformed commentary.

Several columnists in the league’s geographic footprint decided to pen a “woe is the SoCon” story. The problem was that some of them had obviously not been paying attention to the league since around 1985.

Our nation’s long national nightmare is over…for a little while, anyway. The Southern Conference has added three schools while not losing any other schools in the same 24-hour period. Progress!

SoCon officials said their goal was to replace those schools without expanding its traditional Southern-states footprint.

“We’re not chasing dollars, we’re not chasing markets,” said Wofford [Director of Athletics Richard] Johnson. “We’re chasing what’s best for our student-athletes, and going back to why conferences exist, where athletes are an extra-curricular activity and we can minimize missed class time.”

[The] Citadel athletic director Larry Leckonby said the new league “is really solidified with 10 members who all want to be in the SoCon. They want to be in a geographic conference where we can bus our teams everywhere and give fans a chance to watch all the games if they choose to.

“Most leagues in today’s world have certainly gone beyond regional footprints for other reasons.”

This was a theme repeated throughout the league meetings. Unsaid but implied: the CAA is crazy to have a Boston-to-Charleston geographic footprint.

Time will tell if that is true or not (I tend to think it is), but at any rate the league can’t worry about the likes of Elon, Davidson, or College of Charleston. It has to move on without those schools and the FBS dreamers at Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. Did it get it right with Mercer, ETSU, and VMI?

Most observers seem to think adding Mercer was an excellent move for the SoCon, even if the Macon school is just re-starting its football program. Mercer will be a contender in baseball (38+ wins in each of the last five seasons) and men’s hoops (regular-season Atlantic Sun champs in 2013) as soon as it joins the conference, and has the resources to be competitive in football sooner rather than later.

It’s a good thing the school has those resources, as the Bears’ football program will begin conference play in the SoCon in 2014. Mercer is going to gradually phase in scholarships under Bobby Lamb, the former Furman coach now overseeing things in Macon. In an interview with The Greenville News, Lamb described the enthusiasm for football at Mercer:

We sold 4,000 season tickets, and to put that in perspective, the most I ever sold at Furman was 1,100. The interest we generated was so great that we went ahead and set up for a second level on [the stadium]. What we’ve got down here is pretty special.

Mercer already has a competitive football-specific website: Link

The school last fielded a football team in 1941. The schedule for the Bears that year:

Georgia
Georgia Southern
Wofford
Rollins
Presbyterian
Mississippi College
Newberry
Samford
UT-Chattanooga

There is just a hint of back-to-the-future with Mercer and the Southern Conference, even though Mercer (unlike ETSU and VMI) has not previously been a member of the league. Mercer will be the 44th different school to join the SoCon.

The geography of the Southern Conference will benefit Mercer. Its school president noted this in an op-ed in The Macon Telegraph:

This move will also reduce travel burdens for our student-athletes, whose first priority must always be their work in our classrooms and laboratories. The average distance from Mercer to the nine other Southern Conference member institutions will be approximately 40 miles less than the average distance to Atlantic Sun institutions.

The travel burdens will be reduced to an even greater degree for our student-athletes in football, who will move from competition in the Pioneer Football League to the more geographically compact Southern Conference.

One other thing: while The Citadel’s basketball team has never won the Southern Conference tournament, the hoops program does have one post-season tournament title to its credit. In 1927, The Citadel won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA) tournament. In the final, the Bulldogs defeated none other than Mercer (42-41).

That was the last time The Citadel beat Mercer on the hardwood, though the two schools have only played once since 1930. Now they will be competing on the same circuit again. Does that portend a tournament championship for the Bulldogs? (Please let the answer be yes.)

East Tennessee State won the A-Sun baseball tourney this season, and it wasn’t a fluke. That program is on the rise under head coach (and noted clutch hitter) Tony Skole, thanks in part to a new baseball facility. ETSU’s success or failure as a member of the Southern Conference may have a lot to do with another new facility, one for its soon-to-be-reborn football program.

ETSU is scheduled to start playing a full SoCon slate on the gridiron in 2016. By that time, a new football stadium will presumably be in place or well on its way to completion. If it is not, then the SoCon will probably be perceived as having made a mistake in issuing an invitation to the school.

No one wants to play football games in the Mountain States Health Alliance Athletics Center, better known as the “Mini-Dome”. Truth be told, playing basketball games in the building isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a good time, either.

That may be why there has apparently been some discussion about ETSU moving its men’s and women’s basketball games to Freedom Hall — no, not the University of Louisville’s old arena, but a facility located in downtown Johnson City. The linked article also contains this passage:

But before basketball or football, ETSU has stated their new performing arts center comes first and the university does have its eyes on one piece of land in particular.

That doesn’t sound overly promising for the sports programs.

East Tennessee State was clearly invited back to the SoCon for the benefit of Chattanooga and Western Carolina (and perhaps Samford to a lesser extent). The addition of ETSU gives those schools a closer geographic match for the purposes of travel and/or rivalry.

There are other positives about ETSU. Just to name one of them, I wouldn’t be surprised if the decision by the league and the City of Asheville to extend their agreement for Asheville to host the conference’s basketball tournaments was partly influenced by the Buccaneers’ fan base. That contract will now run through 2017.

Let’s face it, though: when it comes to football, the school currently has no players, no coach, and no stadium. There seems to be no agreement on where a new stadium would be located or when work on its construction would begin.

East Tennessee State will also have to add up to three women’s sports for Title IX reasons (due to the resumption of football), or drop a similar number of men’s sports.

While VMI has been the most-critiqued new addition by the league, ETSU may actually be the biggest risk. I hope the school is ready to take this step.

I would prefer being sure about it.

Ah yes, VMI, a school with a football program one publication described thusly:

You could…say the VMI football program has an upside, in the sense that it really doesn’t have anywhere to go but up.

During the SoCon teleconference, Jeff Hartsell asked the question that had to be asked. What are VMI’s plans for improving football? Will it make an effort to improve football? John Iamarino’s response:

They’ve taken some internal steps, I think, with regard to how they fund the program, how they allocate resources. They are quite aware that football is very important at VMI and certainly to the Southern Conference. I’ve often said, and it’s true I believe, nobody joins a conference to be the doormat, and I know that’s the case with all of [the new members].

None of them are coming in wanting to be at the bottom of the league. Everybody is going to be competitive. We hope that being in the Southern Conference will aid recruiting efforts at VMI, and at Mercer, and at East Tennessee State. That’s what we’ve been told by their administrators and head coaches when we’ve visited those campuses, and we trust that will be the case.

When VMI left the SoCon and moved to the Big South, its recruiting suffered, which may have come as a surprise to certain officials in its administration. Obviously, VMI doesn’t recruit in the same way as some other schools. It has a more limited pool of candidates from which to draw. However, even within that group of potential recruits, the level of competition (to include conference affiliation) does matter.

Being in the SoCon will indeed help VMI. However, it will help all the schools in the league. VMI may get better recruiting classes, but its competition will be better too.

If VMI wants to truly be competitive on the gridiron, it has to be flexible. That doesn’t mean lowering standards. It means giving its coaches and students a fair chance to be successful on the field.

When it comes to football, a commitment has to be made by the folks running the show in Lexington. We will see if that happens.

VMI’s women’s sports were not discussed during the teleconference. I wish someone had asked about them, specifically whether or not VMI will be required to add another women’s sport sponsored by the SoCon.

The school’s varsity sports portfolio for women, while understandably limited (only 10% of Keydets are female), doesn’t quite match up with the league. VMI doesn’t have women’s teams in SoCon staples like basketball, softball, volleyball, cross country, tennis, or golf — but it does have water polo and swimming teams for women.

While it is fair to wonder if VMI can be competitive in football (and in its other varsity sports), it appears that the remaining league members were happy to welcome VMI back to the fold. One school that wasn’t too thrilled about VMI, however, was soon-to-depart Elon:

Sources have said Elon and [school president Leo] Lambert, specifically, have not supported East Tennessee State and VMI for potential Southern Conference inclusion.

That revelation raised some eyebrows, particularly in conjunction with John Iamarino’s rather curt (especially for him) statement on Elon’s move, in which he referred to “Elon’s negative view of the diversity” of the SoCon.

Did Elon’s leadership have a problem with public schools? What were Elon’s relations with the existing SoCon public schools? And which schools did Elon want to add to the league in the first place?

Lambert attempted some damage control, as described in a later article:

“It is absolutely the opposite of the truth [that Elon opposed VMI],” Lambert said. “The fact of the matter is we were active proponents of VMI. I love VMI.”

Lambert said the last vote Elon participated in regarding Southern Conference expansion was to authorize campus visits for East Tennessee State, Mercer and VMI.

“Elon voted for all of them. So that’s the record,” Lambert said. “It was unanimous across the conference. That’s the record.”

Asked about Elon’s collective comfort level with East Tennessee State, Mercer and VMI as prospective Southern Conference members, Lambert responded: “In the final analysis, we voted for all three. But as we were talking about all three, Elon was always really excited about VMI. I think the world of VMI. It’s an excellent school.”

I doubt many of the folks in Lexington really believe Lambert when he proclaims his “love” for VMI. To be honest, I don’t either. Elon’s president got backed into a corner just when he thought he was going to be in extended, full-on celebration mode. (The Burlington paper also ran a column stating in part that it was “reasonable to call Elon ungrateful and greedy.”)

Lambert is well aware that while VMI may not be so hot on the gridiron (to say the least), it has a few other things going for it. History, prestige, cachet. A lot of schools, especially those striving for upward mobility and status, would like to be associated with such an institution. Lambert and Elon apparently did not, which would probably puzzle some of his peers.

After all, a future U.S. president once portrayed a VMI baseball player in a popular movie. On the other hand, probably the most famous video associated with Elon baseball is one of its star athletes starting (and then running away from) a brawl.

Lambert didn’t bother to express any affection, real or imagined, for ETSU.

I don’t enjoy “piling on” Elon — after all, four other schools have left or are leaving the SoCon — but its decision to bolt is a curious one. It is making an arguably lateral move to a more expensive conference, one that has been even more unstable than its current league. I really would like to know what schools Elon would have preferred as new SoCon members. Duke, Vanderbilt, and Boston College weren’t really options.

I will say that the CAA has its fair share of public schools, too, either as football-only (like Maine and Stony Brook) or full members (such as Towson and UNC-Wilmington). Maybe the grassy fields on the campuses of those schools are greener than the lawns of the SoCon institutions.

Some other things from the concluded SoCon meetings worth mentioning:

– This flew under the radar, but the league decided that all eligible teams should compete in conference championship events, starting in 2014-15. What that means is that the baseball, women’s soccer, and volleyball tournaments will not be restricted to just the top eight teams. In baseball, for example, there will be nine schools competing in the SoCon in that season, and even the last-place team will play in the conference tournament.

– All the departing schools are eligible for league titles in 2013-14 with the exception of football for Appalachian State and Georgia Southern (because they will be over the FCS scholarship limit and ineligible for the playoffs as a result).

– A decision on whether or not to raise exit fees won’t be made until the three new members begin participating in league meetings.

– Chattanooga AD David Blackburn said that he expected the league to stay at ten schools:

I anticipate it will stay at 10 for a little while. I think we’re all comfortable staying at 10 and making sure that we develop some quality and further cohesiveness before we just go out and land grab.

Don’t close the door on future additions, though. Furman AD Gary Clark:

We’ve just talked about making sure we do what makes the most sense for the Southern Conference, and I think right now that’s making sure we do the best job of integrating the new members, but we’re always going to be keeping our eyes open and constantly planning and talking strategically.

Of course, when talking about additions you also have to consider potential subtractions. It is my opinion that of the “core group” of seven schools, the one most likely to move is Chattanooga — but not to the OVC, a scenario that has been occasionally mooted.

I could see UTC considering a move to FBS in a few years, though, and leaving for a league like the Sun Belt. It isn’t in position to do anything like that right now, but it is something to keep in mind.

As for future additions, I suspect the SoCon will not go back to the Big South for another school, and at this point I’m not sure any school in the Atlantic Sun is on the short list. That might change if certain schools decide to add scholarships for football.

The other league worth watching, of course, is the perpetually unsettled CAA. The key school right now in that league is James Madison, which appears ready to go the FBS route. JMU is a little picky, though; it’s hoping for a CUSA invite, and likely won’t join the MAC (or Sun Belt) until it has no other options.

That’s all for SoCon realignment news and analysis — for now. The wheel keeps on turning…

3 Responses

  1. Thank you . Will UNCG leave as the only non-FB school or will other NFB schools be added?

  2. I don’t think UNCG is going to leave the league any time soon. Right now, it really doesn’t have a place to go. However, I don’t see the SoCon adding other non-football schools either.

    Of course, the current conference climate is so volatile things could change on both fronts in the blink of an eye…

  3. Thank you

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