Conference realignment: an open window to the world of the CAA (with guest appearances by the SoCon, America East, and Patriot League)

A few things I’ve written about conference realignment as it relates to the SoCon over the past few months (listing the most recent first):

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

Conference realignment, SoCon style: history repeats itself 

Conference realignment, SoCon style: the football/hoops conundrum

This post was inspired by some great work recently done by Shadesof48, a blog focused on William & Mary athletics. Shadesof48 sent in a Freedom of Information Act request to W&M. That request asked for information (primarily emails) from the Tribe’s AD, associate AD, an assistant AD, and the head football coach. The description of the FOI request was as follows:

[M]aterial regarding the school’s future plans about conference affiliation. For example, any correspondences between those people I listed and officials at the Colonial Athletic Association or other conferences as they relate to membership and composition of the Colonial Athletic Association or those other conferences (the Southern Conference, Conference USA, the Atlantic 10 conference, the Big South conference, the Patriot League, or the Sun Belt Conference).

Shadesof48 received copies of 45 emails (with a few attachments) as a result of the request, and published its findings in two posts. The first post delved into emails relating to William & Mary and a possible move to the Patriot League. The second post, released last week, was a look at emails directly tied to CAA realignment discussion.

What I want to do is look at this information in relation to other moves taking place concurrently, and what else had been reported — follow a timeline of events, if you will. By combining information that was already acknowledged with what has been divulged via the CAA emails, a more complete picture of the events of the last two years can be created.

Before reading the rest of my post, I would highly recommend reading both Shadesof48 posts. As I noted earlier, that blog did an excellent job acquiring and then putting together the information, with appropriate analysis to boot. Again, links to those posts: here (William & Mary/Patriot League discussions) and here (general CAA expansion hijinks).

In the spring of 2012, things weren’t going so well for the CAA. Georgia State announced in April that it was departing the conference. In May, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion both declared their intent to leave as well.

On the very day ODU announced it was heading to CUSA, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager called his opposite number with the SoCon, John Iamarino, to inform him that the CAA would be talking to multiple SoCon schools about making a switch. However, it appears that Yeager had already been talking to schools in other leagues.

One of those schools was Boston University, then a member of the America East conference and perhaps the CAA’s top choice as an expansion target. On June 15 of that year, however, BU made a surprise shift to the Patriot League, blindsiding Yeager and the CAA.

William & Mary director of athletics Terry Driscoll notified his school president, Taylor Reveley, of the startling news and noted that the league would “continue to explore institutions in the north.” Reveley’s response to BU’s move: “Not helpful.”

Three days later, a clearly concerned Yeager sent an email to Driscoll. For anyone who thought league commissioners don’t pay attention to message board/blog rumors, Yeager’s request for information might come as a surprise:

The blogosphere has the Patriot League recruiting W&M to be the 10th member. Supposedly a W&M Board meeting this week to consider. Any help?

That email was sent on June 18, 2012. Eight days later, Yeager sent another email to the CAA presidents/ADs in which he said:

…I would encourage you not to be too swayed by the latest internet or hallway rumor…We are spending more time calming people down and stomping out erroneous reports than responding to real situations.

Uh-huh. Do as I say, not as I do…

As Shadesof48 reveals, there was truth to the rumors about W&M/Patriot League talks. They had been going on for a while before Yeager’s email, and in fact at least some discussion had apparently taken place off-and-on for at least three years beforehand.

However, William & Mary wouldn’t become the 10th member of the Patriot League. That distinction fell to Loyola (MD), which accepted an invitation in August 2012.

Shadesof48 has a lot more information concerning W&M’s interest in the Patriot League. I’m not going to regurgitate it in this space. I would suggest, however, that Boston University’s jump was a jolt to the Tribe administration in two ways.

Not only did the CAA miss out on a school that would have been acceptable to William & Mary, BU’s move also affected W&M’s own position as a Patriot League candidate. With Loyola later joining Boston University in the fold, the Patriot League no longer had a pressing need for another all-sports member.

Now I’m going to move to the meat of the CAA/SoCon information. First, though, I want to point out that Tom Yeager had a very difficult task on his hands.

Yeager has been the only commissioner in the CAA’s entire 28-year history. It’s his league, and he is obviously devoted to it.

With specific regards to adding schools, he has had to deal with some of the same issues as the SoCon’s Iamarino. Those issues include a divide between football and non-football schools, geographic considerations, a public/private balance, and some hard-to-please personalities (we’ll get to Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz later).

It’s not an easy job. In general, though, Yeager has been good at navigating through some difficult waters.

I liked his April 2013 report/essay on “General Membership Perspectives”, which includes an excellent breakdown on basketball RPI. Yeager told his league presidents the truth after a tough year in hoops for the CAA:

I believe that we are scheduling properly to position our teams for at-large consideration. In 2012-13 we simply did not win enough, especially key games.

Yeager’s rundown of the basketball profiles of expansion candidates was good. He followed that up with an explanation of scheduling well worth reading, as it is solid, nuts-and-bolts information.

Having said all that, the CAA maneuvering about to be discussed isn’t pretty. It’s easy to second-guess after the fact, to be sure, but some of what the CAA tried to do would have been first-guessed.

The week after Yeager’s plea to William & Mary for an update, Adam Smith of the Burlington Times-News tweeted this:

Davidson, College of Charleston and App State – yes, App State – formally have been contacted by the CAA.

Davidson and the CofC weren’t surprises, but Appalachian State was. Smith would write an article the following week explaining why:

Appalachian State, if it were to join the CAA, would be expected to abandon its well-known pursuit of climbing from the Football Championship Subdivision to the top tier Football Bowl Subdivision, because the CAA competes on the FCS level.

That was never going to happen, not unless the CAA became an FBS conference. Why did the CAA think it was possible to land Appalachian State?

From a Yeager email sent to the league presidents on June 26, 2012:

Discussions at the commissioners’ meetings last week further confirms that App State is NOT on the potential expansion list of CUSA…As reported by [UNCW] Chancellor [Gary] Miller, the “dream” may take some time to evaporate, so a decision is not imminent.

The “dream”, in this case, was App’s move to the FBS. The problem with the CAA’s analysis was by that time, the powers that be at Appalachian State were committed to going the FBS route, and had a tagalong partner (Georgia Southern) in case the Sun Belt was the only landing spot.

I understand the basic idea behind approaching Appalachian State along with Davidson and College of Charleston as part of a three-school invite; App would offer geographic relief to Davidson/CofC while also satisfying the CAA’s football contingent (notably James Madison and Delaware). It’s just that by June of 2012, Appalachian State was about as realistic an option as North Carolina State.

Incidentally, in his story Adam Smith also stated that “per multiple sources”, Furman and the CAA had not been in contact with each other. That appears to be borne out by the CAA emails, though other “sources” had told ESPN’s Andy Katz that Furman was “on a lengthy list” (with Elon). That doesn’t mean Katz’s information was completely off base; it may be that the CAA’s prospective list was really, really long.

That June 26 email had other items of interest. Of Davidson, Yeager wrote:

As we agreed on the call last Monday [note: I think he is actually referring to the previous Monday, June 18], our plan is to ‘close out Charleston’ which hopefully will create a new dynamic in Davidson’s decision process.

Basically, the CAA decided to bring in CofC in order to force the issue for Davidson. This was not really a new strategy (as I’ve written before, the CAA has tried to put a serious dent in the Southern Conference at least three times since 1996). Ultimately, College of Charleston did join the CAA, the first time a SoCon school had made the direct SoCon-to-CAA switch (the CAA had been rebuffed in previous years by Davidson, Furman, Wofford, The Citadel, VMI, UNC-Greensboro, and yes, CofC).

Yeager also mentioned that “several [school] Presidents were interested in traveling to Charleston to meet with [CofC president George Benson] personally to answer any questions and move the process to conclusion.” This is one of the advantages of being located in Charleston; everyone is more than willing to take a trip to see you, even if an onsite visit isn’t really necessary.

His email on June 26 (it was an info-packed missive) also discussed football-only expansion. Albany and Stony Brook appeared more than ready to accept invites to help create a northern division for the CAA. However, there was a potential glitch.

Patriot League commissioner Carolyn Schlie Femovich had informed Yeager she was “pursuing several CAA schools for football membership”. Those schools were William & Mary, Richmond, Villanova, and New Hampshire. Said Yeager:

I have spoken directly with W&M and Villanova — and indirectly with UR — who all expressed that they are not interested. UNH however, appears very interested in considering the Patriot League…the whole northern expansion plan hangs with UNH.

Obviously, William & Mary had at least some degree of interest, based on the correspondence received by Shadesof48. Actually, a running theme of the emails is that the CAA office never had a very good grasp on what its member schools were considering, or what its expansion candidate schools were mooting as options.

For example, Davidson had evidently been approached by the Atlantic 10 early in 2012, and had been in talks with that league ever since. I’m not sure anyone affiliated with the CAA knew that. If Yeager did in fact know that, it’s not immediately apparent based on subsequent CAA machinations.

One other thing about that June 26 email: in the subject line, Yeager asserted attorney-client privilege. Of course, just asserting the privilege doesn’t mean it automatically applies. I think it’s fair to say that Shadesof48 has conclusively demonstrated it didn’t apply in this case…

On August 7, 2012, Albany and Stony Brook accepted football-only invitations from the CAA, becoming serious candidates (if they weren’t already) for full CAA membership as well. Adding the two schools for football had an additional benefit, as Rhode Island reversed course and elected to remain in the CAA for football (as opposed to moving to the NEC in that sport). That was a possibility Yeager had referenced in the June 26 email. In this case, his strategy paid off.

After a few delays, the CAA finally got a new all-sports member (not counting football) on November 30, 2012, when College of Charleston joined the league.

A major stumbling point back in October for several board members was the notion of creating a Southern division within the CAA — a conference that now stretches nearly 1,000 miles from Charleston to Boston.

“I would be shocked if the Colonial didn’t come up with a Southern division that all of the people that support the College of Charleston will be pleased with,” said College of Charleston athletic director Joe Hull.

It was the assurance of a Southern division within the CAA from the school’s administration that swayed trustee Jeff Schliz, who voted against the proposal back in October, to back the move on Friday.

“The administration, through its contacts within the Colonial Athletic Association, believes that there are a number of schools changing conferences and coming into the CAA,” Schliz said.

Alas, the CAA was unable to convince Appalachian State or Davidson to join CofC in making the move. As of August 2013, the “number of schools changing conferences and coming into the CAA” for all sports stands at one (Elon).

As I’ve said before, the CAA’s long-sought “expanded southern division” remains as elusive as the Kingdom of Prester John.

On January 24, 2013, Georgia Southern AD Tom Kleinlein spoke to a booster club in Savannah. His main purpose at the meeting was to tighten up fan support for GSU’s proposed move to FBS.

Kleinlein told the booster group that the SoCon was considering UNC-Wilmington, Richmond, and Mercer. His intent for stating this was basically to illustrate that the league and GSU were heading in different directions.

I have no idea if Kleinlein’s comments were based on fact. Mercer would eventually join the SoCon, of course, and theoretically Richmond would at least be a feasible football-only candidate. However, I’ve never seen this particular combination of schools mentioned by any other school official, or even from “internet sources”.

The inclusion of UNC-Wilmington was a bit curious because by early 2013, that school had become one of the primary CAA flag-wavers. UNCW owned a special kind of flag, though, one that waved even when there was no wind in the area.

UNCW chancellor Gary Miller became Yeager’s point man among the school presidents. From an email sent by Miller on February 20, 2013:

As the likelihood of the ‘Catholic 7’ from the Big East Conference increases so does the opportunity for the CAA to secure exciting new members. Our previous discussions about membership…demonstrated strong support among our membership for the addition of George Washington University, the University of Richmond and Davidson…I believe it is the feeling of most of us that we would consider reentry for VCU given the right circumstances. Davidson appears to be several years away from a serious consideration of conference realignment. It appears that GW, UR, and VCU will be ‘in play’ to some extent or another in the coming weeks requiring us to give Tom [Yeager] some clear authority to move forward on out behalf. To that end, I am asking you to consider approving the following instructions for [Yeager] in priority order.

I highlighted the part about Davidson being “several years away from serious consideration of conference realignment” because, well, sure. As for Miller’s further comments, he wanted approval for Yeager to approach George Washington with an invite in hand, and also asked if any of the current CAA presidents had a personal relationship with GW’s president. He suggested GW had serious interest in the CAA based on “recent informal discussions” and thought that going after GW first would give the league “better position in reentry discussions” with Richmond and/or Virginia Commonwealth.

Miller also mentioned that Yeager’s information suggested Richmond was “not really in the mix” for a Catholic 7 [now known as the “new” Big East] invite and thus would be “ultimately receptive” to a bid from the CAA.

If Appalachian State getting a CUSA invite was considered a “dream” by Yeager/Miller, what on earth would this proposed George Washington/Richmond/VCU move back to the CAA be? A delusion?

According to Shadesof48, though, at least six CAA members (William & Mary, College of Charleston, Hofstra, Delaware, James Madison, and Northeastern) responded back in support of Miller’s proposal.

Exactly why Miller and/or Yeager thought any of UR/VCU/GW might want to leave the Atlantic 10 to join the CAA is beyond me. The A-10 is the superior hoops league (regardless of recent defections), routinely getting multiple bids to the NCAAs every year, and has a better TV contract. It’s a hoops-centric league for hoops-centric schools.

I can’t imagine how badly the school fan bases (and key boosters) would revolt if Richmond and VCU moved back to the CAA. As for George Washington, maybe its administration had some interest — but on the other hand, GW president Steven Knapp was the chairman of the Atlantic 10 membership expansion committee. I have my doubts the school gave serious consideration to making a switch.

Any hopes the CAA had of pulling off this grandstand play were decisively dashed on March 24, 2013, when George Mason announced it was moving to the Atlantic 10.

The next two weeks proved to be trying ones for Yeager. He had to put together another expansion plan, and he didn’t have a lot of time to do it.

Sometime prior to April 4, 2013, the CAA held a conference call among its members; I am not sure if this call included the schools presidents or just the ADs. During the call, the CAA identified five schools as expansion candidates: Albany, Davidson, Elon, UNC-Greensboro, and Stony Brook. Two other schools, Fairfield and Hampton, initiated discussions with the league indicating an interest in joining.

From an April 4 email from Yeager to the league presidents and ADs:

In the past week, direct conversations have occurred with Davidson, Elon, Fairfield and Stony Brook. Albany is next in the line and will be contacted…Most of the individuals involved will be in Atlanta for the Final Four this weekend, and several follow up conversations have been scheduled to occur over the weekend.

…it is our hope to schedule a conference call for the Presidents for Wednesday, April 10 to discuss and authorize the next steps in the process.

…I have also spent a considerable amount of time answering rumors surrounding whether several current CAA members are also exploring other conference options…I am confident that there is no substance to the rumors which are being created and repeated by speculation outside the institution.

…In the last 10 days, our membership strategy has taken a completely different direction. I believe that we are on target, and while changes for the 2013-14 calendar year are preferable, every day that passes makes that goal more problematic.

It looks like Fairfield basically cold calling the CAA worked, as that school immediately jumped into the expansion derby. UNC-Greensboro appears to have been dropped as a serious candidate, with Hampton also not making the cut.

That conference call scheduled for April 10 didn’t happen, though. I’m sure John Iamarino’s next conversation with Tom Yeager will include a discussion of an April 9 email from Yeager to the CAA honchos that included the following:

Over the weekend, several of  us had conversations with individuals in Atlanta regarding expansion possibilities. Of particular interest is that the Southern Conference (Davidson & Elon) is conducting a meeting tomorrow which may shed additional light on possible scenarios of interest to the CAA. I would like to postpone tomorrow’s call until later in the week when we have had the opportunity to develop additional information stemming from the SoCon meeting.

It looks like Yeager had someone giving him inside information from the SoCon meeting.

The meeting itself received mixed reviews from the participants, though in retrospect it’s hard to take anything Davidson AD Jim Murphy said about it at face value.

On April 11, Miller of UNCW sent a letter to his fellow CAA presidents:

Tom [Yeager] and/or I have visited with the presidents of Elon, Stony Brook and Davidson…The Presidents of Elon and Davidson have discussed CAA membership with their board executive committees…Based on Tom’s report and analysis…I seek your approval to move forward with membership offers to Davidson, Elon and Stony Brook with the understanding that, as in the past, your final approval will be required for each membership agreement…if further discussion is needed, we will be happy to set up a conference call.

While I cannot guarantee we will succeed in securing all three of these institutions as CAA members, given our preliminary conversations and the dynamics of the Southern and America East Conferences, I believe this is the time to move forward.

In an attachment to the email, Yeager noted that “the best expansion outcome would be to expand to 12 teams” (which would mean adding three schools) and that “14 members could be considered by adding Fairfield and Albany to Davidson, Elon and Stony Brook”.

One school president wasn’t willing to go along with the proposed expansion. No, Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz had other ideas, and he expressed them later that same afternoon:

Hofstra University is strongly opposed to the substance and process of the recommendation. As to the process, how would a President vote in favor of extending an offer of membership and later ‘finally’ decide otherwise? At the very least, I believe that collegiality requires that we discuss this dramatic change in our membership via a conference call.

As to substance, the proposal would risk (if Davidson doesn’t accept) substituting two schools which add little to our basketball aspirations to replace George Mason. In addition, as I have said numerous times, adding a school further from [New York City] than Hofstra, but in the same Long Island media and recruitment territory does not make sense to us, especially in light of the fact [that] they are already associated with CAA football.

Rabinowitz has drawn some criticism for these comments following the publication of the emails by Shadesof48. To a certain degree, I can understand his point of view. He was surely correct that the process was rushed and that extending an offer, then making it official only later, was a clumsy way to go about things.

The rest of his comments are really about defending home turf, which is fine as far as it goes. However, Rabinowitz’s decision to torpedo his school’s football program in 2009 is arguably a key reason Hofstra’s status on Long Island (in terms of varsity sports) is in danger of being usurped by Stony Brook in the first place.

His stance only hurt the rest of the league, as Stony Brook would have been a very solid addition for the CAA. It is unclear if the rest of the schools were simply unwilling to cross him, giving Hofstra a de facto “veto” over Stony Brook, or whether two other schools (Northeastern and Drexel being the two most mentioned) joined Hofstra to “block” Stony Brook.

Rabinowitz did get at least one thing right, though, in not assuming Davidson was going to finally join the CAA.

After an initial report from CBSSports.com broke the news that Davidson was leaving the SoCon for the Atlantic 10, the school finally confirmed the move on May 8, 2013. The CAA’s long courtship of Davidson had ended, and there would be no marriage between the two.

On April 15, Towson AD Mike Waddell emailed his fellow ADs in the CAA:

If…Davidson is going to the Atlantic 10, then I propose that we…consider Furman for membership for the CAA.

I feel that getting to 12 total schools via adding two southern, and one northern school is imperative for balance in the league and for long term stability. Furman has strong academics, a great overall athletics department, is easy for travel via their airport and they bring the #36 TV market with them as well.

As a group of individually Elon and Furman, along with Albany would be solid additions. We need to act now and be real about the schools that we are considering as well as the institutions [that] may be considering us. We cannot afford to be left at the [altar] any more.

This is the first (and to date only) known reference to Furman made by anyone affiliated with the CAA. While I don’t think Furman would have seriously considered the CAA before (and almost certainly wouldn’t now) barring a complete SoCon implosion, it’s hard to argue with Waddell’s line of reasoning.

The reference to getting to 12 schools was not just a throwaway line, either. Three days later, William & Mary AD Terry Driscoll told his Board of Visitors that “the CAA is hoping to add three schools, to bring the total to twelve.”

Waddell wouldn’t be around for any more CAA expansion talks, though, as he left Towson on May 20.

On May 23, Albany announced that it was staying put in the America East for the immediate future. School officials were reportedly concerned with the failure of Stony Brook to get an all-sports CAA invite. Albany’s decision meant that of the top four candidates on the CAA wish list, #1, #2, and #4 were (at least temporarily) off the table. The league finally got some good news that same day, however, when Elon left the SoCon for the CAA.

Elon president Leo Lambert denied a Burlington Times-News report that his school had been opposed to VMI and East Tennessee State joining the Southern Conference, but that denial had been preceded by an unusually strong message by SoCon commissioner Iamarino. To many observers, this suggested there may have been a considerable amount of truth in the newspaper’s assertion; fairly or not, Elon has been slapped with a “does not play nice with others” reputation.

At any rate, Elon was no longer Iamarino’s problem, and vice versa. With Lambert now in the same league with Hofstra’s Rabinowitz, Tom Yeager’s cat-herding skills will be seriously tested. In one of the email attachments, Yeager referred to Elon (and Stony Brook) as “upwardly mobile”.

VMI and ETSU officially got the SoCon nod on May 30, along with Mercer. There is no evidence supporting rumors that the CAA had made a late run at the Macon school.

Not part of the CAA emails, but just to briefly mention…

The commissioner of the Patriot League essentially confirmed in May 2013 what had been previously rumored in various corners of the internet, namely that the conference is now focused on football-only members. While Villanova is probably the school most mentioned in this regard, other possibilities may include fellow CAA football schools Richmond, New Hampshire, William & Mary, and Delaware (with the latter two currently all-sports CAA members).

There have also been unconfirmed reports that the Patriot League could have interest in certain SoCon schools as football-only members. To be honest I find that a bit hard to believe.

What strikes me as a more realistic possibility is for the SoCon and Patriot League to form a scheduling alliance of sorts, particularly if the Ivy League schools were to quit playing Patriot League teams that are transitioning to scholarship football. I could see matchups like Furman-Holy Cross (an overload of purple) or Lehigh-The Citadel (the Kevin Higgins Bowl).

I’ll wrap this up (phew!) with a few notes:

— Not mentioned at all in any of the CAA correspondence: Coastal Carolina. I found this mildly surprising. It seems CCU didn’t even approach the CAA for potential membership (unlike Hampton and Fairfield).

— Perhaps the key advocate in College of Charleston’s decision to move to the CAA was its president, George Benson, who announced in early August that he would be stepping down as the school’s leader in June of 2014.

— The CAA is presumably still looking to add two members. Albany and Fairfield? Try to convince Hofstra to let Stony Brook into the league for all sports? I’m not sure there is a realistic southern school out there right now (at least, not one with a football program).

— I’m sure everyone is ready for the spring of 2014, and the “will JMU go to FBS?” daily updates. JMU was strictly in observational mode for the entirety of the CAA correspondence uncovered by Shadesof48, perhaps a sign that its administration understands how FOIA works.

— You can bet that schools and conferences around the country will be more careful in the future when discussing sensitive league information via email.

— It is possible that the SoCon is now more stable than the CAA, despite losing five schools — two of them to the CAA.

— While the SoCon is not expected to actively seek to expand, if the right situation is created I fully expect an additional move (or more) to be made. That could happen sooner rather than later.

This stuff fascinates me (as you can probably tell). Again, I can’t emphasize enough the excellent job Shadesof48 did.

Now I’m ready for football season. Actually, I’ve been ready for football season…

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

Update, March 26: It is definitely nitty-gritty time now

 

Links of interest, with the SoCon meetings (January 29-30) in full swing, and expansion on the agenda:

Jeff Hartsell writes about expansion

John Frierson writes about expansion

ETSU’s student government association supports bringing back football

Georgia Southern AD Tom Kleinlein fires up the troops about a move to FBS

Sun Belt opts for patience

That article about the Sun Belt was tweeted out by, among others, Georgia Southern AD Tom Kleinlein, who stirred up a fair amount of realignment dust at a booster luncheon in Savannah. Kleinlein reportedly said that the SoCon was considering an expansion that involved Mercer, UNC-Wilmington, and Richmond.

He apparently wasn’t on board with that, which is fine. He doesn’t have to be.

This is something that I think needs to be emphasized. It seems reasonable to assume that Appalachian State and Georgia Southern aren’t going to be in the SoCon much longer. If that is the case, there is no reason to expand with any consideration for those two schools’ wishes.

From Frierson’s article:

[Southern Conference commissioner John] Iamarino said the SoCon doesn’t have to wait for another member to leave before acting.

“I do think we need to say, “OK, if X, Y and Z moves are in our best interest, long term, then I think we need to look at them regardless of the situation with App State and Georgia Southern,” he said.

The problem with this is Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are still voting members until they announce they are leaving, and can thus influence any voting for new membership. Since that is the case, I don’t think it is in the best interests of the other schools to come to a decision on the league’s long-term future if those two institutions are a factor in the process.

I’m not being critical of App and GSU here. I’m just saying the schools that will be staying in the conference need to decide what they want the league to be going forward. That means the oft-mentioned “public/private split” may no longer be necessary, or even desired, by a majority of the remaining league members.

It is possible the SoCon could reinvent itself as a league for smaller schools, a la the Patriot League. In fact, from the perspective of The Citadel, I believe that would be the best outcome. I am aware that it would not be the best outcome for all the schools in the league.

Besides the public/private issue,  other considerations may be geography and an institution’s sports portfolio. As an example of the latter, it is possible Davidson (just to name one current SoCon member) may be more interested in a school’s hoops acumen than its location or academic mission.

Let’s fire up the speculatometer to full blast…

— First, this Mercer/Wilmington/Richmond thing. Mercer makes perfect sense, but what about the other two schools?

My theories on UR/UNCW, which are as valuable as any other internet theories (zero value):

1) Richmond would be an affiliate member for football. I cannot imagine UR leaving the A-10 in its other sports to go back to the SoCon. That would be a very hard sell to its supporters. Barring a complete implosion in the A-10 (and possibly the CAA), I can’t see Richmond hoops/baseball/etc. in the SoCon.

Richmond currently plays football in the CAA and I can understand how moving that sport to the SoCon might have some appeal…maybe. The other side of that issue would be the willingness of SoCon schools to let Richmond compete in the league for football only. I am skeptical about that, but it’s not completely out of the question.

2) UNCW is supposed to be rock-solid with the CAA, with its administration on the bandwagon in every way (per UNCW beat writer Brian Mull), especially now that it has a “travel partner” in the College of Charleston.

I’m puzzled as to why the SoCon would have initiated a conversation with UNCW now, though. Could it be the other way around? There may be a little more going on with this one than one might think. Having said that, I don’t believe it will happen.

East Tennessee State is apparently going to resuscitate its football program, and may have a chance to start things off with a well-known head coach if it so chooses. So, is it an automatic selection for the SoCon?

I’m not sure. Assuming that Appalachian State and Georgia Southern leave, the league would presumably want to add two football-playing schools. Perhaps ETSU could be one of those two schools. There are a couple of issues to consider.

1) As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible that some of the old guard SoCon institutions would like the league to focus on bringing in smaller, more selective schools.

2) I think East Tennessee State may have to get in line behind VMI, a school with a much longer tradition within the conference, and the likely preference of most of the small-school bloc (Furman, The Citadel, Wofford, perhaps Elon, maybe Davidson).

There is also the possibility, however remote, that Mercer might be interested in eventually offering scholarships in football. Right now, of course, the Bears haven’t even played a game. Mercer’s gridiron program starts up this fall.

However, Mercer’s facilities will include a 40,000 square-foot field house and a stadium that will seat 10,000 (with 4,500 season tickets having already been sold, months before the opening game). That’s quite a setup for a school that isn’t playing scholarship football. Hmm.

I’ve written about some of this before, but just to update things…

Other schools that have (or will have) football teams and have been mentioned as SoCon candidates in certain corners of the internet:

– Kennesaw State: Reportedly had “preliminary conversations” with the SoCon (and the OVC) in 2011. However, it still hasn’t received the go-ahead to start its football program from Georgia’s Board of Regents. It seems to me that Kennesaw State is a less likely option than may have been thought a few months ago.

I’m going to repeat myself here, but I don’t think Davidson would have elected to remain in the league (instead of joining the CAA) if it thought there was a chance the SoCon was going to add a large commuter school with A) no football program and B) a basketball team that has only five wins over the last 1 1/2 seasons.

– William & Mary: Like Richmond, a former SoCon school. Also like Richmond, unlikely to return to the league, at least as an all-sports member. William & Mary probably would be more interested in the Patriot League if the CAA runs aground, but that league isn’t necessarily an ideal fit for the folks in Williamsburg either. Worth watching.

– South Carolina State: SCSU is bandied about occasionally on various message boards as a possibility. It’s not happening for a host of reasons, not the least of which are the school’s severe institutional problems. Also, I don’t think SCSU would be interested. I could be wrong about that, but it doesn’t really matter.

– Coastal Carolina: Well, admitting Coastal Carolina into the league could potentially result in the SoCon losing several of its longest-tenured members. Because of this, I don’t believe CCU is an option.

It doesn’t do The Citadel, Furman, or Wofford any good to add another instate institution with significant differences in terms of mission and resources. I don’t think the schools on the western side of the league are interested in another Palmetto State school, either.

– Liberty, Jacksonville State: They want to be FBS. They aren’t giving up that dream so easily (especially Liberty).

– Your friendly neighborhood Division II school: No.

– Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian: A pair of Big South schools that would be in the mix if everything fell apart for the SoCon. I don’t think SoConageddon is on the horizon, however.

– Jacksonville: JU would be an interesting candidate if it played scholarship football.

– Tennessee Tech: I don’t think so, but it could be a potential compromise candidate between various factions. Of course, I don’t know if Tennessee Tech would have any interest (it’s currently in the OVC).

Speaking of the OVC, a school that doesn’t play football that has been mentioned in some quarters is Belmont. The Nashville school would be appealing to several league members, from a location aspect for some (UTC, Samford) to an institutional perspective for others (Davidson would probably invite Belmont to the prom).

The problem is twofold, though:

1) Travel costs for Belmont would be very high. It would be a geographic outlier in the SoCon.

2) The OVC is a much better basketball league right now than is the SoCon. Belmont is first and foremost a basketball school (and a very good one).

Other non-football schools that I’ve seen discussed: North Florida (which may be adding football), USC-Upstate, Winthrop, and High Point. I don’t think any of them are realistic possibilities at this time.

I’m like everyone else. I don’t know how things are going to shake out. I suspect you could say the same for John Iamarino and all of his constituents. I just hope that the league does not make a hasty decision. It can still afford to wait. It just has to be ready to act at a moment’s notice. Preparation is good, but the league can still be patient.

Will the conference realignment train make a stop at the SoCon station?

It was inevitable that the never-ending saga of conference realignment would eventually impact the Southern Conference. To recap, some recent (and related) developments in the world of college athletics have included the following:

— As part of a CAA implosion, Virginia Commonwealth is joining the football-free Atlantic 10 (which will have 14 teams for basketball after adding VCU and Butler to replace Temple and Charlotte). Old Dominion, which has had a football program for about three hours, is making a big move to Conference USA. Georgia State, with even less football history than ODU, is joining the Sun Belt.

George Mason is staying in the CAA for the moment, although that may be because there isn’t room in the A-10 for GMU…not yet, anyway.

— Georgia State isn’t alone as a new member of the Sun Belt, as that league is also adding Texas State, but Florida International and North Texas are moving out (to C-USA). Denver is another Sun Belt school on the move, as it is heading to the WAC in a month, assuming the WAC will still exist in a month.

— Denver doesn’t have football. South Alabama once didn’t have a football program either, but now it does, and it will stay in the Sun Belt for all sports. The Jaguars begin league play in football this season.

— Arkansas-Little Rock would be the only non-football school in the Sun Belt, as things stand now. That is expected to change this week with the addition of UT-Arlington, which will give the Sun Belt 12 overall members, with 10 of them playing football.

— Another football newbie, UT-San Antonio, has already managed to join multiple FBS conferences (jilting the WAC for C-USA). UTSA thus has already joined more leagues (two) than it has played football seasons (one), a historic accomplishment.

— Appalachian State wants to move up to FBS land. To do so, Appy has to be invited to join an FBS conference, which has been problematic. The folks in Boone would love to hook up with C-USA, but the feeling may not be mutual. Not only did C-USA invite ODU instead of Appy, it is also bringing in Charlotte (UNCC to you old-timers out there). Let’s review some basic gridiron facts about Appalachian State, Old Dominion, and Charlotte:

– 0 (number of football victories by Charlotte in its history)
– 68 (number of football victories by ODU in its history)
– 67 (number of football victories by Appalachian State since the beginning of the 2006 season)

Ouch. That sound you hear is Appalachian State fans collectively grinding their teeth. (Incidentally, the Mountaineers have 555 wins over the program’s entire history.)

The lesson, as always: markets matter.

— Middle Tennessee State did everything it could to wangle an invitation to C-USA, but like Appalachian State, MTSU didn’t get the call. Again, markets matter. Murfreesboro and Boone lost out to Norfolk and Charlotte.

— Georgia Southern is going to try to raise a bunch of money so that it can move to the land of milk and honey, too. It’s supposed to be an eight-year fundraising campaign, which in today’s climate may be too long a period of time. Eight weeks would be better.

Georgia Southern’s late-to-the-party approach is probably due to the fact it has taken a while for the powers-that-be in Statesboro to warm up to the idea of being an FBS school, much to the annoyance of a vocal section of its fan base. It has been almost three years since GSU released a self-study (entitled “Football Classification Analysis”) that revealed just how difficult a move up to FBS could be for Georgia Southern. I wrote an extensive (warning: VERY extensive) post about the report when it first came out: Link

— Also on the “we want FBS” list: Liberty, a school that has had big-time gridiron aspirations for decades (as a Sports Illustrated story from 1989 illustrates). Liberty is ready to go; just give it 48 hours.

— Delaware is one of several schools being mentioned in what would become an expanded (and expansive) MAC. This article states that moving to the FBS “has been discussed favorably among members of the UD board of trustees and other high-ranking officials.” Whether that discussion has been about football only (and placing its other sports in another league) is open to question.

Meanwhile, no current all-sports MAC schools are being linked to another league, which comes as a surprise to at least one writer.

— James Madison, another CAA football-playing school trying to figure out its future, has also been linked to the MAC — but wait, there’s more. JMU reportedly has also drawn interest from the WAC. That would be the WAC which is a year away from being a two-school (New Mexico State and Idaho) football league, as things stand now.

Presumably the WAC is trying to put together western and eastern divisions to keep the conference alive, or maybe try to swing a Sun Belt-WAC merger of some sort. Good luck with that.

The MAC is adding Massachusetts for football but losing Temple, so it will be at 13 teams and may want to add another one — or three. Appalachian State is a possibility for this league too. Oddly, Appy may not be a factor in the Sun Belt sweepstakes, at least not yet, which will disappoint this columnist.

Honestly, I’m not sure why the MAC would feel the need to expand, but then I thought the SEC was fine at 12 schools. In today’s climate, if your conference has “only” 12 members, then it clearly needs to add even more schools and get to at least 14 if not 16 members, because otherwise the world will end (per the Mayans and/or Mike Slive).

The SoCon is holding its spring meetings at the end of May/beginning of June. According to Chattanooga AD Rick Hart, conference expansion will be the main (if not exclusive) topic of discussion. League commissioner John Iamarino stated that he had a short list of schools to target if that became necessary. Will it become necessary?

That depends on what Appalachian State and Georgia Southern do, of course, and it will also depend on what other conferences do. The league to watch is probably the CAA, but the confusing trail of realignment for SoCon schools will also pass through the MAC, Sun Belt, Big South, Atlantic Sun, and possibly the OVC. (No, I’m not buying the WAC — at least, not yet.)

The CAA’s problem is basically twofold (see this excellent overview). It has to decide whether it should continue being a player in the world of FCS, and it has to decide what its geographic focus will be. How it makes those decisions will go a long way in determining how much the SoCon could be affected.

Brian Mull of the Wilmingon (NC) Star-News wrote a solid piece from UNC-Wilmington’s perspective. UNCW is a non-football school at the southern end of the CAA. UNCW needs travel partners, and schools like the College of Charleston and Davidson would be ideal on that front. Mull also discusses other schools in the league as well, like UNC-Greensboro and (to prop up the football side of the CAA) Furman, Elon, and Appalachian State. UNC-Asheville of the Big South gets a mention.

He isn’t the first person to connect Davidson and the CofC to the CAA. As soon as ODU announced it was jumping ship, my twitter feed started humming with tweets from the likes of Jeff Goodman and Andy Katz, among others, all with the same “CAA must go after Davidson/CofC” message.

Just how interested would those two schools really be, though? I have my doubts.

The argument that the two would benefit from a move to a multi-bid hoops league falls flat, in my opinion, because the departures of VCU and ODU lessen the “value” of CAA hoops to the point where the conference is no longer a solid bet to get multiple bids on a semi-regular basis. Heck, even this past season CAA regular-season champ Drexel didn’t get an at-large bid to the NCAAs.

Combine the loss of VCU and ODU with the realization that league hoops stalwart George Mason and FBS contenders JMU and Delaware are all far from certain to stay in the CAA, and the move would be mostly lateral from an on-court perspective.

Another reason for Davidson and the CofC to move on could be the CAA’s new TV contract with NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), which on the surface appears to easily surpass the SoCon’s PBS arrangement. However, with the recent defections of ODU and VCU (not to mention Georgia State), that NBCSN/CAA contract will likely be renegotiated. It is hard to determine just how much exposure schools like Davidson and the College of Charleston would get with that deal.

Is it worth the increased travel costs, loss of traditional rivalries, and/or the general effect on the schools’ total sports portfolio? As far as other sports are concerned, for example, I’m thinking about CofC baseball, which would definitely be hurt by a move to the CAA.

That isn’t to say there wouldn’t be positives for a school like the College of Charleston. For one thing, this isn’t your mother’s CofC. It now has about 10,000 undergraduate students, or roughly 1,000 students for every available parking space downtown. It’s a midsize state school looking to attract good students, including those valuable out-of-state students with their out-of-state tuition payments. Moving to a league with a more northern geographic scope might be seen as beneficial, as part of an overall strategy of recruiting students from the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.

I think Davidson would be a much tougher sell. It’s a small school that isn’t going to get bigger. It’s been in the Southern Conference since 1936, with the exception of a brief three-year fling with the Big South more than two decades ago. That Davidson/Big South dalliance could be described as one of those affairs that scares people from ever straying again. I’m not sure Davidson is ready to trade in bus trips to Furman for airplane flights to Northeastern.

When trying to analyze future league membership, the potential loss by the SoCon of Appalachian State and/or Georgia Southern should be viewed differently than if Davidson/CofC/UNCG were to leave. If Appy and GSU depart the conference, a football replacement (or two) would be needed, which would not be the case if one or more of the non-football schools left the league.

The last two schools to be admitted to the SoCon were each smaller schools (Elon and Samford, both private universities), and I suspect that trend will continue.

I don’t see Coastal Carolina having much, if any, chance of joining the Southern Conference. CCU in the SoCon is a non-starter for Furman, The Citadel, and Wofford (and probably Davidson and Samford as well). Adding Coastal Carolina to the conference is of no benefit to those schools.

I thought Coastal Carolina might have a decent shot at getting a CAA invite, but there seems to be some resistance to CCU from that league as well. The leading football-school candidate for the CAA appears to be Stony Brook.

At this point, Coastal Carolina might have a better chance of moving out of the Big South and into another league by going the FBS route. That would be a costly move, but maybe CCU could ask its new football coach for a loan. After all, he has the money.

Here are some football-playing schools that might be good SoCon fits:

– VMI: yes, a back to the future move. Would VMI accept? Probably. Leaving the SoCon was not the best decision ever made by its administration. It would help if VMI had a travel partner of sorts, though…

– William&Mary: another back to the future candidate, and a Virginia school to pair with VMI. If the CAA completely collapses, William&Mary will become a school needing a new (and appropriate) home. Truth be told, at least part of its fan base would prefer the Patriot League, and I can understand that. If the Patriot League doesn’t expand, though, and the CAA can’t get its act together, I could see the Tribe back in the SoCon.

– Richmond: not happening. Richmond basketball is in the A-10 and UR isn’t giving that up anytime soon. Richmond as a football-only member of the SoCon? Possible, I suppose, but I doubt it (and wouldn’t support it, either).

– Mercer: hired former Furman coach Bobby Lamb to start a football program; however, it’s going to be non-scholarship. If it were scholarship, Mercer would be a very strong candidate.

– Presbyterian: PC would be a decent candidate if there weren’t already three football-playing schools in the league from South Carolina. Thus, it’s not likely to be invited, although Presbyterian would certainly be more palatable to Furman/The Citadel/Wofford than would Coastal Carolina.

– Jacksonville: I wrote about JU when I previewed The Citadel’s season opener last year. JU has potential, but it’s another non-scholarship football program.

– Gardner-Webb: It would rank behind most of the other schools I mentioned as far as likely SoCon contenders are concerned.

Incidentally, I am on board with smaller schools being the focus of the Southern Conference when/if it looks for new membership. I’m biased, so I want what is best for The Citadel. What is best for The Citadel, in my opinion, is to compete in a Division I all-sports conference with “like” schools.

Of course, there really aren’t any schools like The Citadel (save maybe VMI), but ideally the other schools would be similar in terms of enrollment size, academic standards, budgets for varsity athletics, etc. If you have a couple of days and want to read more about my ideas on “peer institutions” and what The Citadel should be doing going forward, I wrote a manifesto a month or so ago that Leo Tolstoy would have considered a tad lengthy.

What do I think will happen? I think Davidson and the College of Charleston will stay in the SoCon. I suspect Appalachian State will move to FBS within twelve months. Georgia Southern may stay at the FCS level for a while longer, unless the two schools are a “package deal” for an FBS league (likely the Sun Belt). VMI will wind up back in the SoCon.

I could be wrong about all of that, of course. There are no guarantees.

It’s all speculative at this point, though. Anybody can say anything, especially on the internet. On Saturday night a couple of tweets showed up on my timeline indicating that Clemson was going to move to the Big XII — “from all indications the board of trustees will approve”. I had never heard of the original tweeter, but the information (or misinformation) spread like wildfire. More than 36 hours after the initial tweets, no other source had confirmed the story. This is fairly typical.

At least that rumor was about Clemson. I’m starting to get tired of the Florida State-Big XII angle. Hey, if anyone wants to start a fun rumor, try this one:

FSU and Clemson are staying in the ACC, because they know that Notre Dame is joining the ACC as part of a joint entry with a mystery school. While eating lunch at a Bojangle’s in suburban Greensboro, an ACC official accidentally dropped an artist’s rendering of the new 16-team league. A quick-thinking cashier took a picture of it. I’ve acquired a photo of this mock-up. Consider this a TSA exclusive. It’s a “done deal”.

Happy conference realignment, everybody!

Conference Realignment — Back to the Future?

Admittedly, there have already been a few billion words wasted on the subject of conference realignment, but I’ll throw in a few comments about the subject as well…

There is some discussion about a merger of sorts between Conference USA and the Mountain West.  This would create a confederation of (at least) 22 teams, which sounds ridiculous.  It would not be unprecedented, however.

The Southern Conference formed in 1921, with 14 original members.  Those schools: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Washington & Lee.  Six schools joined shortly thereafter:  LSU, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tulane, and Vanderbilt.  By 1931, Duke, Sewanee, and VMI had become members.

That’s right.  One major conference, 23 member schools.  It was an unwieldy amalgamation, and destined for a breakup.  It wouldn’t be the last time a league split into pieces because it got too big.

Tangent:  It really wasn’t the first time, either.  The SoCon itself was a product of a split, as those 14 original schools were breaking away from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which by 1921 had 30 members.

In December of 1932, 13 of the SoCon schools left to form the Southeastern Conference:  Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Sewanee, and Tulane.  The final three schools listed would eventually leave the SEC, with Sewanee departing in 1940 after eight years in the league; the Tigers had played 37 conference football games and lost all 37 of them.

Now the SEC has 12 schools (with Arkansas and South Carolina added in the early 1990s) and is poised to add a 13th, Texas A&M.  Conference commissioner Mike Slive has stated that the league can stay at 13 members for the time being, and why not — it was a 13-school league for the first eight years of its history.

There has been a lot of talk about BCS “superconferences” with 16 schools.  It wasn’t that long ago that there was a Division I league with 16 members — the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which expanded from 10 to 16 schools in 1996.  This proved to be a mistake, as several of the “old guard” WAC schools did not like the new setup.  After three years, the 16-school league was a memory, as eight members left to form the Mountain West.

Eleven of the schools that were in the sixteen-member WAC are now in either the Mountain West or C-USA.  I wonder what they think about possibly becoming part of a 22-school association…

Another one of the “WAC 16”, TCU, was set to become the Big East’s 17th member next year (10 for football, all for hoops).  Now that league will be losing at least two of its schools, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

There are a lot of reasons why the Big East is in trouble, but trying to satisfy the agendas of so many different institutions is surely one of them.  That’s one reason I was surprised when Brett McMurphy of CBSSports.com reported that the Big East had considered adding Navy and possibly Air Force to its roster (as football-only members) prior to the sudden departures of Pitt and Syracuse.

Random thoughts:

— If a school isn’t sure which conference it should join, maybe it can join two at once, like Iowa, which was a member of both the Big 10 and the Big 8 from 1907 to 1911.

— If your conference ceases to exist, like the Southwest Conference, that might be sad.  It could be worse, though.  Phillips University, which was a member of the SWC for one year (1920), closed up shop in 1998, two years after the league in which it was once briefly a member met its demise.

— It’s sometimes instructive (and occasionally amusing) to look back at what schools were once members of various leagues.  I’ve already mentioned original SEC member Sewanee.  The Big 10 once included the University of Chicago (and that school is still a member of the conference’s academic consortium, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation).

Southwestern University was a charter member of the SWC.  Washington University (MO) was an original member of the Big 8, which also featured for a time Drake and Grinnell College.  The league now known as the Pac-12 once had both Idaho and Montana as members.

— Then there are schools like West Virginia, a BCS school (for the moment, anyway) that until 1968 was a member of the Southern Conference.  Virginia Tech was a SoCon stalwart for four decades, leaving in 1965.

Rutgers has gone from being one of the “middle three” with Lafayette and Lehigh, and a historic rivalry with Princeton, to big-time athletics in the Big East; now it is searching for a way to ensure it continues to hold its place in that sphere as its conference appears on the verge of collapse.  Another Big East school, South Florida, did not hold its first classes until 1960 and did not field a football team until 1997 (history records that the Bulls’ first loss on the gridiron came at the hands of The Citadel, at Johnson Hagood Stadium).

The University of Arizona started playing football in 1899, before Arizona was even a state.  Arizona (the school) and Arizona State were members of the Border Conference, which included Hardin-Simmons and West Texas A&M, and then left that league to join the WAC (long before the 16-member WAC) before becoming members of the renamed Pac-10.

The history of conference realignment is that leagues have been transient by nature, as the fortunes on and off the field of the various schools have ebbed and flowed.  In 1899 no one would have dreamed that the state of Arizona would have a population boom thanks (in part) to air conditioning, so that by the end of the century that state’s universities would be much larger than anyone would have anticipated one hundred years before.  There are a lot of stories like the Arizona schools and South Florida, and a few on the other side as well (like poor Phillips).

In other words, trying to anticipate how things will shake out can be dicey at best. Even as I type this, my twitter feed has exploded with the news that the Pac-12 (which was once the Pac-10, and before that the Pac-8, and before that the AAWU, and before that the PCC) has decided not to expand, for now.

We’ll see how long that lasts.