2015 Football, Game 3: The Citadel vs. Georgia Southern

The Citadel at Georgia Southern, to be played at Allen E. Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Georgia, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 19. The game will not be televised.

The contest will be streamed on ESPN3.com, with Matt Stewart providing play-by-play and Wayne Gandy supplying the analysis.

The game can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station. 

Mike Legg (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze. Jay Harper will report from the sidelines.

It is also possible to listen to the action with a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

Links of interest:

Preview of The Citadel-Georgia Southern from The Post and Courier

– Game notes from The Citadel and Georgia Southern

SoCon weekly release

Sun Belt weekly release

Mike Houston on the SoCon teleconference

Willie Fritz on the Sun Belt teleconference

Mike Houston’s 9/15 press conference (includes comments from Dondray Copeland and Jorian Jordan)

The Mike Houston Show (radio)

When I was thinking about what to write for this week’s preview, what first came to mind wasn’t as much the upcoming contest, but rather Georgia Southern’s move from the SoCon to the Sun Belt and the long-term ramifications for that program and school.

That’s because, from a programmatic perspective, the matchup with the Eagles is arguably the most meaningless game The Citadel has played since the Bulldogs made a trip to face Wyoming in 2002.

I’ll explain what I mean by that later. First, a look at Georgia Southern. I’ve written about the school’s history before, but I think it’s worth revisiting.

Georgia Southern was founded in 1907, and classes began the following year. It was originally known as the First District Agricultural & Mechanical School, but despite an initial focus on agriculture, the school would become a teacher’s college for the majority of its history.

There had been a football team at Georgia Southern as far back as 1924 (at that time the institution was called the Georgia Normal School), but the sport was dropped during World War II. By the early 1980s, the school had increased in size (it would be granted university status in 1990), and there was a groundswell of local and institutional support for reinstating football.

To re-start the program, the school hired longtime Georgia assistant coach Erk Russell, who was already a legend in the Peach State. He was, to say the least, a great hire.

Russell took the football program from club status to I-AA, fashioning an eight-year record of 83-22-1, with three national titles.  Beyond the win-loss record, the coach’s impact and influence on the school was immense.

Ludicrously, Russell is not in the College Football Hall of Fame. He is actually ineligible under current rules.

The shadow of Russell at Georgia Southern did have negative repercussions, inasmuch as he was an impossible act to follow. The redoubtable Paul Johnson was the only one of the head coaches who succeeded him to really measure up to Russell in the eyes of the fan base.

Tangent: speaking of Johnson and other former Georgia Southern head coaches, the most fascinating matchup this week in college football is the one between PJ’s Georgia Tech squad and Notre Dame, which employs Statesboro persona non grata Brian VanGorder as its defensive coordinator. The two men aren’t exactly fast friends, and that’s being polite.

The essential issue that coaches following Erk Russell faced — how do you top what he did? — could also apply, in a general sense, to Georgia Southern and the move to FBS. After a while, some supporters got restless. They had already sampled the pot of gold at the end of the FCS rainbow, and now they wanted to know if the gold at the end of the FBS rainbow was shinier, regardless of the consequences.

It took a while, but eventually the fan base started moving in the “we want FBS” direction. Those not so sure about the idea were eventually brushed aside. A new director of athletics with an “FBS or bust” attitude and mission, Tom Kleinlein, pushed things along. Eventually, Georgia Southern made the move to the Sun Belt.

Now, Georgia Southern is an FBS school. Its first season in the Sun Belt was full of success, as it won the league with an 8-0 conference record. I’m not sure the Sun Belt was anticipating that, or if its administrators were really excited about having the league won by a program that had gone 4-4 in the SoCon the year before.

Despite winning an FBS conference, though, Georgia Southern didn’t get to go to a bowl game, because it was still in transitional status. That didn’t sit well with fans.

Kleinlein asked for a waiver (which was denied by the NCAA). In asking for the waiver, I suspect he went against the wishes of the league office:

Without the waiver, Georgia Southern’s only other option to become bowl eligible this year was to hope fewer than 76 teams reached six wins…

…Last month, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told USA TODAY Sports that even if Georgia Southern became bowl eligible through that route, they would be placed at the bottom of the league’s pecking order out of deference to the longstanding FBS members. Currently, the Sun Belt has four bowl eligible teams for three contracted spots.

Kleinlein is now arguing, however, that Georgia Southern (9-3) should be treated differently because it won the conference championship outright.

“If we were just a bowl eligible team, I get that argument,” he said. “But we’re conference champions, and that is what puts us ahead of everybody else. I didn’t make the argument to the NCAA when we won six games, I didn’t make it when we won seven or eight. I waited until we got at least a share of the conference title before I submitted my deal.”

Benson didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Of course Benson didn’t return Dan Wolken’s telephone call. He was probably on the horn with Kleinlein, asking him to at least wait another year before burning every bridge in the league his school had just joined.

Now, about that “meaningless game” comment I made at the beginning of this missive. Mike Houston was asked about playing Georgia Southern at his weekly press conference:

The Citadel will be the first SoCon team to visit GSU since the Eagles left the SoCon, but don’t expect Georgia Southern to appear regularly on Bulldog schedules — not when games at ACC or SEC foes can bring much more money. This game was scheduled before Houston and athletic director Jim Senter were hired.

“If I’m the ones making the decisions, no,” Houston said when asked if he’d schedule games like this one in the future. “You are playing an FBS program that has more resources and scholarships than we have. And if you are playing those kinds of games, there needs to be financial restitution that matches that … It’s not ideal, especially if you are playing two FBS teams in one year.”

In other words, if Georgia Southern wants to schedule The Citadel again, the military college is going to demand a lot more cash. $175,000 isn’t going to be nearly enough; The Citadel is going to want more than twice that amount of money. Maybe more than three times that amount of money.

In a way, it illustrates a problem Georgia Southern now has as an FBS member when it comes to scheduling home games. Schools that pay FCS schools big bucks for a “guarantee game” can afford to make those payments, because they have large stadiums and huge budgets. That isn’t the case for the folks in Statesboro.

Georgia Southern may have expanded Paulson Stadium, but 25,000 seats is a far cry from the likes of the facilities at Florida State, or South Carolina, or even North Carolina (opponents of The Citadel last year, this year, and next year).

That also affects Georgia Southern’s ability to get home-and-home games (or two-for-one deals) with non-conference FBS foes, especially from major conferences. So far, GS hasn’t scheduled such a series with a P5 school.

Of course, if the Big 10 gets its way, the days of Power 5 conference schools scheduling FCS programs may be coming to an end. Even if that happened, though, it probably still wouldn’t be worth it for schools like The Citadel to play Group of 5 conference schools for less money.

The potential chain reaction that could occur if the entire P5 decided not to schedule FCS programs would likely be complicated (and a subject for another post). I think it is probable that The Citadel would simply not play any FBS schools, with the gridiron landscape possibly changing to such a degree that no FCS schools would.

All that said, the game on Saturday isn’t as unimportant to The Citadel as the 2002 game against Wyoming. For one thing, the program will make at least a little money. That Wyoming game, well

The game against Division I-A Wyoming, which plays in the Mountain West Conference, has been on the Bulldogs’ schedule for years. [Ellis] Johnson talked to Wyoming coach Vic Koenning a year ago about getting out of the game…

…After chartering a flight to Laramie and spending a night there, The Citadel will just about break even on the trip, [Les] Robinson said.”Thank goodness for LSU [another FBS game The Citadel played during the 2002 season],” Robinson said. After securing the LSU game, Robinson offered to negotiate a settlement with Wyoming.”They didn’t want to negotiate,” Robinson said. “We couldn’t offer them $100,000 or anything like that. We couldn’t make it worth their while.”As it is, the Bulldogs will play 12 games without a week off this season. Johnson said his players might not even put on pads this week in practice in an effort to stay fresh.

Also, the Bulldogs will have their fair share of fans at this game. It’s not the worst place in the world to play a game for recruiting purposes, either (Exhibit A being The Citadel’s starting quarterback, Dominique Allen, who grew up about an hour’s drive from Statesboro).

However, ultimately this matchup is unlikely to define the season for The Citadel in any way. It’s a game the Bulldogs would like to win, but it’s not a conference game, a home game, an in-state game, or a game against a high-profile opponent. It provides a limited benefit to the program from a financial standpoint.

To be honest, I’ve always been a bit dubious about Georgia Southern venturing into the land of FBS, though not for reasons of on-field competitiveness. I don’t think any veteran observer of college football was shocked the Eagles dominated the Sun Belt last year. Mildly surprised, maybe, but not shocked.

However, this is a school that, even as it has grown, still has issues to overcome when it comes to big-money athletics. Its alumni base, while growing, is still much smaller than most FBS schools; the market demo is younger than many other areas (so there is less disposable income floating around); and the surrounding region doesn’t have a huge corporate base.

Also, Georgia Southern has to compete with numerous major-conference FBS programs within a 300-mile radius, including Georgia, Georgia Tech, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Florida State, and Auburn.

Hey, I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again. I just happen to think there is a good chance in about ten years, there might be more than a few Georgia Southern fans wondering what the administration was thinking when it decided to chase that other rainbow.

Here is a comparison of The Citadel and Georgia Southern in select statistical categories for the 2014 season. The Citadel’s stats are for SoCon games only (seven contests). Those opponents: Wofford, Chattanooga, Western Carolina, Mercer, Furman, Samford, and VMI.

For Georgia Southern, I included eleven of the Eagles’ twelve games. After some consideration, I decided to remove the statistics from Georgia Southern’s 83-9 victory over Savannah State.

Thus, the statistics below are for the rest of the games the Eagles played last season, which came against the following opponents: North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, South Alabama, Appalachian State, New Mexico State, Idaho, Georgia State, Troy, Texas State, Navy, and ULM.

 

Georgia Southern The Citadel
Offense yards/pass attempt 7.8 6.8
Offense yards/rush attempt 6.81 5.35
Offense yards per play 7.00 5.56
Offense points per game 35.09 24.86
Penalties per game 4.9 5.3
Offense 3rd down conv % 47.1 46.3
Offense 4th down conv % 62.5 60.0
Offense Red Zone TD% 69.2 66.7
Defense yards/pass attempt 6.9 9.1
Defense yards/rush attempt 4.41 5.69
Defense yards allowed/play 5.62 7.02
Defense points allowed/game 24.72 25.86
Defense 3rd down conv % 40.5 41.5
Defense 4th down conv % 40.1 52.9
Defense Red Zone TD% 68.6 60.0
Time of possession 32:53 32:40

Who will start at quarterback for Georgia Southern on Saturday?

As glad as [Georgia Southern head coach Willie] Fritz is to have Ellison back, he’s staying close to the vest when discussing how big of a role Ellison will play this weekend. With a full week of film study and practice still in front of the Eagles, Fritz wasn’t yet ready to say whether Ellison or [Favian] Upshaw take the first snap against The Citadel.

“Those guys are going to be trading reps all week and they’re both going to be playing Saturday,” Fritz said. “We don’t know if we’ll go by quarter, by series, or every two series. As the week goes on, we’ll get that plan in place.”

Ellison was suspended because of an academic issue dating back to the fall semester of last season. Ellison failed to accrue enough credits to satisfy the NCAA standard and was initially handed a four-game suspension.

By taking on additional classes over the spring and summer semesters – and by earning solid grades in those classes – Ellison was able to get his suspension reduced.

“It was a learning experience for me,” Ellison said. “School has to come first. I kind of overlooked that last year.
“Now I’m just glad to play for my school and to be able to go out there on Saturday.”

Ellison is hoping that this run-in with The Citadel is as successful as the last.

In 2013, Ellison was the star of the game as the Eagles pulled out a 28-21 win. Ellison passed for 138 yards, ran for 135 more and scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:59 to play.

Regardless of who starts at QB, Willie Fritz’s offense will look the same. It isn’t the triple option offense of Paul Johnson or Jeff Monken, but it is conceptually not dissimilar.

I’ll let The Birddog, triple option maven and proprietor of the superior Navy athletics blog of the same name, explain how it works:

Run primarily out of pistol formations, Georgia Southern uses more zone blocking as opposed to the inside veer that is the foundation of past GSU offenses. For the quarterback, it’s not too much of a change; he still progresses through his reads like he did before. Zone blocking is different for the offensive line, but it still favors quicker linemen that can get to linebackers quickly. That’s what GSU’s line was already built for under Monken. Besides, it’s not like they had never used zone blocking before. It’s just a different focus. The zone read is hardly a concept unique to Georgia Southern. Everyone runs it at least a little bit. What’s unique about Georgia Southern is more how committed they are to it. They are very much an option offense as opposed to an offense that dabbles in the option once in a while.

You can read a lot more about Georgia Southern’s offense in that post. In fact, you should. Education is the surest way to get ahead in life.

In its eleven games last season against FBS competition, Georgia Southern threw the ball 20.3% of the time. Passing yardage accounted for 22.5% of the Eagles’ total offense.

Contrast that with Georgia Southern’s 2013 season (again omitting a game against Savannah State). That season, the Eagles threw the ball 14.0% of the time, and passing yardage accounted for 21.5% of Georgia Southern’s total offense.

So, despite a new coach and a different “style” of offense, there really wasn’t a big fundamental change in approach.

– Note: 2014 statistical references to follow are for all 12 games Georgia Southern played.

Kevin Ellison rushed for 1108 yards last season, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He completed 55.5% of his passes, with five touchdowns against three interceptions, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt.

Fabian Upshaw completed 70.4% of his throws (19-27), averaging 10.6 yards per attempt, with two TDs and one pick. Upshaw rushed for 385 yards, averaging 9.6 yards per carry.

While both Ellison and Upshaw are capable of making things happen, the biggest playmaker on the Eagles offense is running back Matt Breida, who rushed for 1485 yards last season and 17 TDs. He averaged 8.7 yards per rush attempt, leading the nation in that category.

During his press conference, Mike Houston stated that Breida also led the nation in “explosive plays”, i.e. plays of over 50 yards from scrimmage. He had seven last season.

Breida had his first “explosive play” of this season last week,  a 70-yard TD run against Western Michigan. He finished that game with 176 yards rushing (on only 11 carries) and four touchdowns.

He is joined in the backfield by fellow running back L.A. Ramsby, who rushed for 691 yards and 12 TDs last season. “L.A.” stands for “Little Al”. His father is Big Al.

Wide receiver B.J. Johnson led the Eagles in receptions last season with 23, averaging 13.6 yards per catch. Three of those receptions were for touchdowns.

Houston referred to Georgia Southern as being “huge up front”, and he wasn’t kidding. The Eagles’ starting offensive linemen average 6’4″, 305 lbs.

Left guard Darien Foreman, the lone returning starter on the offensive line, was a preseason first-team All-Sun Belt pick. Right guard Roscoe Byrd is a transfer from UAB.

Georgia Southern runs a 4-3 base defense. Of course, teams often change things up when facing The Citadel’s triple option.

Last year against Navy, the Eagles started out defensively by running a 4-4 look with the safety taking the pitch, then adjusted as the game went on. If you want to see how that functioned, I again refer you to The Birddog (who also breaks down how Navy handled Georgia Southern’s offense in this post): Link

The Eagles have a great deal of size along the defensive line, including the imposing Jay Ellison (no relation to Kevin Ellison), a 6’1″, 310 lb. nose tackle. The Citadel’s offensive line will have its hands full with Ellison, a second-team preseason Sun Belt selection.

Darrius Sapp, listed as Jay Ellison’s backup on this week’s two-deep, started both of Georgia Southern’s first two games at defensive tackle. Sapp weighs 330 lbs.

Starting defensive end Lennie Richardson is 27 years old. Richardson began his collegiate career at Troy before transferring to Georgia Southern. After a year in Statesboro, Richardson enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent 3 1/2 years as a tank gunner before returning to GSU.

Linebackers Deshawntee Gallon and Antwione Williams both have fifteen tackles so far this season for the Eagles. Williams has already graduated from Georgia Southern (the same is true for Lennie Richardson).

Free safety Matt Dobson returned two interceptions for touchdowns last season. Dobson was a second-team preseason all-conference choice.

Placekicker Younghoe Koo is an athlete, as this “trick kick” demonstrates. However, he’s coming off a one-week suspension after a DUI arrest. Alex Hanks handled placekicking duties last week for the Eagles and is listed ahead of Koo on this week’s depth chart.

Georgia Southern punter Matt Flynn is in his first year as the starter. Koo is listed as his backup this week, though the depth chart describes this as an “OR” situation.

Long snapper Jake Banta is another refugee from the currently shuttered UAB program.

Derek Keaton and Montay Crockett were the primary kick returners for Georgia Southern last season, and are back this year. Keaton also returns punts.

Odds and ends:

– Georgia Southern’s “dress roster” includes 90 players from thirteen states. There are 68 natives of Georgia, 11 Floridians, five residents of South Carolina, three Texans, and one player each from Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Jersey, California, and Nevada.

– For the second straight week, The Citadel will play in a contest designated “Military Appreciation” Day (or Night). The game ball will be brought in by the Golden Knights Army Parachute Team. Georgia Southern players will have a Department of Defense decal on the back of their helmets.

An early contender for the title of most-asked question by fans in the stands on Saturday: “Hey, what does DoD mean?”

The Citadel last played Georgia Southern in Statesboro in 2013. It was Military Appreciation Day at Paulson Stadium for that game as well.

– The ESPN3 analyst for this game, Wayne Gandy, was a consensus All-American offensive tackle at Auburn in the early 1990s. Gandy had a 15-year NFL career with four different teams, starting 205 games.

– The sideline reporter for the Georgia Southern radio network is Danny Reed, who Bulldog fans remember from his three years as the “Voice of the Bulldogs”. Reed will become the play-by-play voice this season for the Eagles’ men’s basketball and baseball teams, and will take over gamecalling duties for football in 2016.

I think Reed will become the second person to work as the play-by-play voice for both The Citadel and Georgia Southern. Longtime Charleston radio man Ted Byrne also called games for both schools (and worked College of Charleston games at one point, too).

– Lainie Fritz, sports anchor/reporter for WCBD-TV in Charleston, is the daughter of Georgia Southern head coach Willie Fritz.

– Per the SoCon weekly release, The Citadel has the top two active sack leaders in the conference. Mitchell Jeter has 13.5, most among current SoCon players, while Mark Thomas is second with 11.5 career sacks.

– Mike Houston is undefeated against schools from the state of Georgia in his head coaching career. He is 2-0, with wins over Fort Valley State and Mercer.

– As of this writing, the National Weather Service forecast for Saturday in Statesboro: high of 87 degrees and sunny, with a low that night of 67. Weather should not be a factor during the game.

– Per one source that deals in such matters, Georgia Southern is a 25 1/2 point favorite over The Citadel this week. The over/under is 56.

I think Saturday’s game will be competitive, assuming The Citadel doesn’t go into turnover mode on offense. The Bulldogs may have trouble stopping Georgia Southern’s high-powered attack, but I believe The Citadel can control the ball enough on offense to limit the total number of possessions and frustrate the Eagles.

Earlier in this post, I wrote that this game isn’t that important for The Citadel in the grand scheme of things. However, I fully expect the Bulldog players to give it everything they’ve got — and why not?

If you’re going to play the game, you might as well try to win.

Kirk Herbstreit: the worst thing going on in college football?

Last Saturday, there was a segment on ESPN’s popular College GameDay show centered around FBS-FCS matchups. You can watch it here:

Link

With the exception of Lee Corso, the ESPN crew was highly critical of FBS-FCS games, particularly those occurring late in the season (an SEC specialty).

The segment began with Chris Fowler listing a series of recent SEC opponents from the FCS. Fowler then noted:

Of course, a year ago this week Georgia Southern went to the swamp and did stun Georgia, giving license to all the SEC coaches to talk up the virtues, the worthiness, of today’s opponents.

Fowler delivered this line with a great deal of sarcasm, concentrating so much on his delivery that he forgot Georgia Southern actually beat Florida last year, not Georgia.

ESPN then showed snippets of various SEC coaches discussing their opponents for this week. The clips were clearly selected to make it seem that the coaches were overhyping their FCS foes.

If you were really paying attention, though, there wasn’t that much sandbagging going on. Mark Richt was probably a little over-the-top in extolling Charleston Southern’s “fever” to win, but there was nothing fraudulent about Gus Malzahn saying Samford was a “good I-AA team” (it is), or Nick Saban stating that Western Carolina was “a much improved team” (certainly true), or Will Muschamp noting that Eastern Kentucky was a playoff team in “I-AA, or whatever we’re calling that now” (he was right, as EKU made the FCS playoffs).

Also, Muschamp lost to an FCS school last year. Why wouldn’t he be concerned with a matchup against another team from that division?

Heck, he had been fired earlier in the week. Why would he have bothered overselling the game anyway?

Arguably, though, the most misleading clips were those of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, as he discussed South Alabama, the Gamecocks’ opponent last Saturday. There was no mention by anyone on the set that South Alabama wasn’t actually an FCS school at all (the Jaguars are members of the Sun Belt).

Considering South Carolina’s struggles of late (particularly on defense), Spurrier had good reason to be respectful of his upcoming opponent.

“We’re not trying to belittle [the FCS],” said Fowler, after spending the previous two minutes belittling the FCS. He then criticized the SEC for playing these games. “It’s not good for the sport.”

After a short interlude with Corso, Kirk Herbstreit looked right at the camera and said:

This is the worst thing that goes on in college football.

Yes. He said that. The worst thing that goes on in the sport. FCS vs. FBS matchups. Not any of the myriad off-field issues, not the safety concerns on the field, none of that.

“No due respect to the FCS and what they’re doing,” Herbstreit continued (with an unintentional but perhaps more accurate slip of the tongue), “…there should be a penalty [from the college football playoff committee]…when you play games like this. We need to eliminate these games when it comes to the non-conference [schedules]. They’re not good for the FCS schools, they’re not good for the SEC schools, or any other schools that play ’em. It’s just bad for the game. We have no games this weekend!”

“I hate it!” me-tooed Desmond Howard, who added that when he was in school, his alma mater (Michigan) didn’t play FCS schools. Of course, that changed after Howard left Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines rather famously played an FCS school in 2007.

Lee Corso then pointed out that the games are a financial boon to the FCS schools. Herbstreit’s response: “We’ve got enough money now…if it’s about the money, give ’em the money, just don’t schedule [these games].” Corso began cackling at the notion.

Let’s go through some of these comments:

– “There should be a penalty…when you play games like this.”

A team that schedules quality FBS non-conference opponents is probably going to be looked upon more favorably by the playoff committee than one that plays lesser competition. I’m not even sure that’s an issue.

Exactly how many FBS schools are going to be competing for one of those playoff spots in a given year, however? There are 65 FBS schools in the power five conferences (including Notre Dame in that group). How many of them are going to be serious contenders for one of four spots? What about the other 63 schools that compete at the FBS level? (Well, we probably know the answer to that last question.)

– “They’re not good for the FCS schools.”

This statement made me wonder if Herbstreit has ever talked to someone associated with an FCS school.

Besides the money aspect mentioned by Corso, FCS players almost always love playing these games. They like to measure themselves against top-level competition. They enjoy playing in large stadiums, in a “big time” atmosphere, often on television.

Fans of smaller schools usually like these games too, especially if they aren’t too far away. They are often used for alumni networking and fundraising.

Sometimes, there is an element of tradition associated with these contests. You don’t think alums from Furman or The Citadel enjoy occasional matchups with South Carolina or Clemson? I can assure you that they do.

– “We have no games this weekend!”

Well, I looked at the schedule. I saw plenty of games.

There may not have been a matchup between two ranked SEC teams, but keep in mind that various ESPN networks featured several prominent SEC battles early in the season, while other conferences were in the midst of their non-league schedules. It’s a trade-off.

The truth of the matter is there were a lot of quality games played last weekend. Maybe you had to look a little deeper into the world of college football to find them, but is that such a bad thing?

Also, remember Week 5 of this season? That Saturday, College GameDay wound up at the Missouri-South Carolina game, due to a perceived lack of quality matchups (both the Gamecocks and Tigers already had a loss at the time, with Mizzou having just lost at home to Indiana).

Was that slate of games so poor because of a bunch of FBS-FCS matchups? No. There were only two such games in that week: Army-Yale (a game won in double overtime by the Elis), and Eastern Illinois-Ohio (the Bobcats won 34-19).

Sometimes, the schedule for a given week just isn’t going to be that alluring. That has little to do with FBS-FCS games (which were only around 7% of the complete FBS schedule for the regular season anyway).

Western Carolina head coach Mark Speir watched Herbstreit and company before WCU played Alabama later that day, and he wasn’t happy.

Now, I think Speir was a little heavyhanded in his criticism of Herbstreit. The “silver spoon” reference was not necessary.

However, I fully understand Speir’s frustration, and he had every right to call out the former Ohio State quarterback for his remarks (particularly the “worst thing that goes on in college football” line uttered by Herbstreit, which was simply ludicrous).

I thought it was good of Speir to speak out, and to let people know that he was personally offended by the comments that were made. Too often the point of view from the FCS side of the aisle goes unheard.

After all, Speir has been a coach on the FCS level for most of his career, including a long stint as an assistant at Appalachian State. He was in Michigan Stadium that fateful day when the Mountaineers stunned the Wolverines.

In my opinion, the FCS-FBS matchups are largely good for college football, because college football is about a lot more than the schools in the power five conferences. This is something that appears to be hard for some people to understand.

The concept of what is best for the greater good of college football — well, it seems to be lost in certain quarters. I’ve said this before, but I honestly get the impression some members of the national college football media cabal think there should only be thirty or forty schools that play football, and that the rest should just give up the sport.

I’m not the only person who gets that vibe, judging from these comments by Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman:

Huesman was watching “Gameday” from his hotel room in Greenville, S.C., before the Mocs’ game against Furman, but he said he will not watch the show again.

“Herbstreit has bothered me for a few years now,” Huesman said. “Nothing to him matters except big-time college football. And then Desmond Howard jumped in, too, and that’s when I had had enough. I’ll never watch that show again.

“I thought it was absolutely ridiculous for them to put on a rant like that during the course of a show about college football. I thought it was disrespectful. He just alienated people.

It should be pointed out that the backdrop for Saturday’s ESPN discussion was an FCS game (Yale-Harvard), and that College GameDay visited the fine folks at North Dakota State earlier this season (for the second consecutive year). There are people at the network who clearly appreciate the FCS, along with other divisions of college football. I’m glad for that.

I just wish there were more of them, and that they were on camera.

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: the football/hoops conundrum

Previously:

It is definitely nitty-gritty time now for the SoCon

A look at the varsity sports portfolios of SoCon candidate schools

After Georgia Southern and Appalachian State announced they would be leaving the Southern Conference for the Sun Belt last week, SoCon commissioner John Iamarino held a media teleconference. All in all, he did a good job, sounding reasonably confident about his league’s future. Among other things, he had this to say:

If we assume we’re adding three schools to replace the three we are losing, you don’t get that opportunity often. We could strategically look at what can help us where we need help, and I’ve said I’d like us to get better in basketball.

But we also have to look at football. We are losing two outstanding programs, and football matters in this league and in this part of the country.

This came on the heels of an interview in the Chattanooga Times Free Press in which Iamarino stated:

No matter how much success we’ve had in football, and we’ve had a lot of it, FCS football doesn’t pay off on a national level the way winning games in the NCAA tournament does for you.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more evident that the one common component of the mid-majors who’ve had some of the greatest success in basketball — Gonzaga, Butler, Davidson — is that they don’t play scholarship football. It’s difficult to find a FCS program that’s also successful in basketball.

He isn’t wrong. Part of the reason for that is schools that spend the most money on their men’s basketball programs tend to be the most successful, and schools that field scholarship football teams at the FCS level generally don’t have the resources to commit to both sports (in some cases, they have the resources but not the focus).

Only one school with a full-scholarship FCS program is ranked in the Top 60 in men’s basketball expenditures. Villanova is 31st.

Note: all references to expenses are per the 2011-12 school year, as reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

It is not an accident that four of the eight schools that advanced to the NCAA regional finals in men’s basketball this season also rank in the top 8 in terms of money spent on hoops. Duke ranked first, with almost $16 million in expenses, followed by Louisville. Syracuse was fourth, and Marquette eighth. Kentucky was third; the Wildcats missed the NCAAs this season, but won the national title the previous year.

Another regional finalist, Florida, wasn’t far out of the top 8 (thirteenth). The exception, in a sense, was Wichita State (68th), but basketball is clearly a focal point for the school, as it does not field a football team.

A majority of SoCon schools don’t put that type of emphasis on men’s basketball. Southern Conference institutions averaged about $1.44 million in men’s hoops expenditures (that includes the three departing schools), while spending a total on average of $14,117,677. That means only 10.2% of expenses went towards men’s basketball.

Iamarino mentioned Gonzaga, Butler, and Davidson. Men’s basketball accounted for 28.6% of Gonzaga’s expenses and 26.6% of Butler’s. For Davidson, that number was a more modest 16.3% — but that percentage is the highest in the SoCon.

Davidson may not spend the most money on hoops in the league (in 2011-12 Samford did), but clearly it puts more emphasis on the sport than any other school in the league. In smaller leagues, that may matter almost as much as the actual gross expenses. It certainly goes a long way to explaining Davidson’s success in basketball within the conference itself.

In contrast, men’s basketball expenses for South Carolina ranked 20th nationally ($7.3 million), but only made up 8.39% of its total expenses. The Gamecocks are still searching for their first NCAA tournament victory since 1973.

Before the Southern Conference adds schools, the powers that be are probably going to have to decide whether to begin a transition to a hoops-first league, or continue as a conference that historically values football over basketball. While Davidson is clearly a “basketball school”, as is UNC-Greensboro (since it has no football program), most of the current membership savors fall Saturdays above all else. This is certainly true for The Citadel and Furman, the two schools with the longest continuous membership in the league.

The conference’s dilemma may perhaps be best demonstrated by comparing Furman and Davidson. They are fairly similar private schools, though Furman is larger and has a much bigger budget for varsity athletics.  Furman offers (or will offer) 20 varsity sports. Davidson offers 21 varsity sports. Furman plays scholarship football and treasures it; Davidson fields a team, but doesn’t offer schollies in the sport.

— Furman total athletic expenses: $20,531,292. Davidson total athletic expenses: $10,603,460.
— Furman men’s basketball expenses: $1,679,288. Davidson men’s basketball expenses: $1,727,330.

Davidson spends more money on men’s basketball despite Furman spending twice as much money on its total sports portfolio.

The major difference is football, of course. Furman’s athletic expenses in football for 2011-12 were $5,414,705. Davidson spent only $790,295 on football.

Football may be part of the reason why 45% of Furman’s expenses are for athletic aid (scholarships), while Davidson, with comparable tuition costs, spent 28% of its total expenses on athletic aid.

I put together a spreadsheet that lists various athletic expenses for a cross-section of Division I schools. Most of these schools are not candidates to join the Southern Conference, but I wanted to show (and also get an idea myself) of how schools in general spend money, at least at the non-BCS level.

There are 75 schools listed on the spreadsheet. All are in non-BCS leagues and most of them are east of the Mississippi. I included every SoCon school, and a majority of schools from the Big South, Atlantic Sun, CAA, Patriot League, and Atlantic 10. I also noted the current league affiliation for each school (through the 2012-13 school year).

The spreadsheet can be accessed at the following link:

2012 expenses, varsity athletics — selected schools

A few (okay, more than a few) caveats: I’m not an accountant, but I do know that some of these numbers could be a little…tricky. Different schools may have different ways of counting expenses, etc. Exact comparisons can be dicey, especially when you take a look at the numbers of, say, the Ivy League institutions.

Also, I try to avoid referring to budgets rather than expenses, because there is a difference.

I compiled five expense categories: total expenses, football expenses, men’s basketball expenses, athletic aid, and coaching salaries. It wasn’t hard to do, just a touch monotonous.

Observations about various schools that are in the SoCon, that are candidates for the SoCon, and a few that aren’t:

– Richmond spent $5.56 million on football, more than any Southern Conference school, and more than any FCS school on the list except James Madison ($6.6 million), Delaware ($5.6 million), and Liberty ($8.3 million). Old Dominion also spent more than Richmond, but ODU is transitioning to FBS. Richmond also spent $3.9 million on basketball.

– William & Mary spent $4.5 million on football, fitting comfortably in the middle of a group that includes Furman, Samford, Elon, and The Citadel.

– Athletic aid is a significant part of expenses for all schools, but especially private schools. Of those schools I surveyed, fifteen of the sixteen that had the largest percentage of athletic expenses allocated to athletic aid were private. The one exception: The Citadel.

Of The Citadel’s total expenses, 40.4% were for athletic aid. It is possible that is the highest percentage for a public school in all of Division I.

– Schools that had 20% or more of their expenses go for coaches’ salaries included Davidson, Georgia Southern, Western Carolina, VMI, and North Florida. Among the schools below 12% in that category: Furman, Wofford, Presbyterian, James Madison, and Tennessee Tech.

– Not referenced in the spreadsheet but of interest: UNC-Wilmington has formed a committee to review its varsity sports programs, after its chancellor said the department had been neglected for a decade.

– Unless you consider Belmont and JMU serious candidates, UNCW is the only school regularly or even semi-regularly mentioned as a possible addition to the Southern Conference that spent as much money or more on men’s basketball as did Samford, Davidson, or Furman — despite the fact that several candidate schools (Mercer, Kennesaw State, and East Tennessee State, just to name three) didn’t have football programs in 2011-12.

Of course, Florida Gulf Coast’s spending on men’s hoops would have put it in the bottom half of the SoCon, and that school seems to have done all right. It should also be pointed out that Mercer had a fine team this past season and finished ahead of FGCU in the Atlantic Sun standings. I think the real conclusion to draw is that the Mercers and the ETSUs of the world are going to have to seriously ramp up their fundraising as they add football, especially if they move to a new conference, and that additional money will be spent on other sports besides football.

– When it comes to total expenses, James Madison and Liberty probably wouldn’t have many issues in moving to FBS, as both schools compare favorably to most Sun Belt and MAC schools. Appalachian State is a little behind them, but not totally out of line (though I wonder about travel expenditures). Georgia Southern has a lot of work to do. A lot.

I wrote about GSU when if first considered making the FBS jump, back in 2009 (when it released its initial “Football Reclassification Analysis“). I thought it would be a mistake then, and I’m still a bit dubious today, even with (or perhaps because of) the changing landscape of college athletics.

– Davidson has been mentioned as a candidate for the Atlantic 10. One problem the school would have is that its current men’s hoops budget would be the lowest among all A-10 schools, and there would be a major increase in travel expenses (not unlike last year’s proposed move to the CAA that Davidson declined to make). One A-10 member, Rhode Island, spent $4.6 million on men’s basketball in 2011-12, almost $3 million more than Davidson. Of course, the Rams have a cumulative record over the last two seasons of 15-45.

There were a few expense-related items not contained in the spreadsheet I wanted to briefly mention, for no particular reason other than I thought they were interesting, if not surprising.

– When Duke lost to Lehigh in the 2012 NCAA tournament, it was a case of a men’s basketball team with $15.9 million in expenses losing to a team with $1.4 million in expenses. That may be some kind of record.

– While Texas has the largest varsity athletics budget ($129 million, including over $20 million in coaching salaries alone), it appears that Alabama spent the most on football in 2011-12: $36.9 million. Right behind Alabama in football expenses was Ohio State, with $34 million. Alabama has won three of the last four BCS titles; Ohio State was undefeated last season. I guess they got their money’s worth.

– SEC schools as a group spent $262 million on football in 2011-12. That did not include the expenses for Texas A&M or Missouri.

– Kentucky ranked fifteenth nationally in total athletic expenses. That was only the eighth-highest total for an SEC school.

There is another aspect to the football/basketball emphasis question that has to be considered. It was most recently mentioned by John Iamarino after the Barry Alvarez “we’re not playing FCS schools anymore” brouhaha in February. While being interviewed about that, Iamarino said:

The only reason to have 63 scholarships is to be eligible to play FBS teams and count toward their bowl eligibility. If those games go away, the entire subdivision would have to look at if 63 is the right number. Could we save expenses by reducing the number of scholarships? It would seem to me that’s one thing that would have to be looked at.

This may be the elephant in the room.

First, I believe Iamarino was mistaken when he said that “the only reason” to have 63 scholarships is to count to bowl eligibility for FBS opponents, but that’s not really the issue here. Saving money is the issue.

If the Southern Conference wants to become a hoops-centric league while maintaining viable scholarship football, it may be that the league will push for the division as a whole to lower scholarship limits. My guess is that the new limit would be around 50, a significant reduction but still distinguishable from the Division II maximum of 36.

The money saved from reducing scholarships and related expenses could be used to improve men’s and women’s basketball, or perhaps it could be spread around to enhance athletic programs across the board. However, I suspect the league wouldn’t make the move unless the entire division did the same. I am more than a little unsure about that, though.

There are two main problems with reducing scholarships. One is the risk of devaluing the product. At a certain point, customers (and donors) will conclude that the quality of what is being offered is not worth their time or their money.

The more immediate concern is the reduction in opportunities for potential students. One would hope that the scholarships not used in football would at least be used to fund scholarships in other varsity sports, but there is no guarantee that would happen.

I don’t know if this subject will come up when league officials and school administrators meet on April 10, but I would be mildly surprised if it doesn’t. It could be a factor in how the league approaches adding new schools, even if the potential reduction wouldn’t come to fruition for several years down the road.

In a few weeks’ time, league observers should have a very good idea of the SoCon’s strategy moving forward, both in terms of membership additions and any philosophical change in its outlook on football and basketball.

Or maybe we won’t have any idea at all…

If FBS schools no longer play FCS schools in football, what are the ramifications?

If you follow college football at all, you probably are familiar with last week’s story out of Wisconsin, where Barry Alvarez was quoted as saying that Big 10 schools would not schedule FCS opponents going forward:

“The nonconference schedule in our league is ridiculous,” Alvarez said on WIBA-AM. “It’s not very appealing…

“So we’ve made an agreement that our future games will all be Division I schools. It will not be FCS schools.”

A couple of quick points:

– Obviously, FCS schools are members of Division I. You would think the director of athletics at a D-1 institution would know that.

– Alvarez claimed that the Big 10’s non-conference schedule “is ridiculous”, yet he is the same AD who in recent years scheduled multiple FCS schools from all over the country, including The Citadel, Wofford, Northern Iowa, South Dakota, Austin Peay, and Cal Poly. The Badgers will play Tennessee Tech in 2013.

Alvarez’s comment drew a lot of attention, understandably so, although it is not a lock that the Big 10 will enforce such an edict. Northern Iowa’s AD was blunt:

I would tell you the loss of the Big Ten schools will be devastating, to UNI and to a lot of our peers. Not just because we wouldn’t play Iowa and have the guarantee, if you think this will stop at the Big Ten…I look at things happening in the equity leagues in fives, and so I have to believe this might lead to additional dominoes…It impacts our ability to generate money in football. It closes the ranks, it closes us out a little bit more.

Samford’s AD had a similar reaction:

If the SEC and ACC make the same decision, we’ve all got to sit back and reevaluate how we’re going to replace our money. If you eliminate those guarantee teams, it puts us in a tough situation at a private school where we don’t get any state funding.

Of course, not everyone is upset. Some in the media welcome the move, eager for what they perceive as “better” scheduling (though suggesting New Mexico State would be a significant improvement over a decent FCS squad strikes me as a bit puzzling). Most members of the college football press/blogosphere, however, understand the potential issues associated with such a decision and the nuances at play. Not all of them do, though — or if they do, they simply don’t care.

The best (worst?) example of this attitude is probably Yahoo! Sports columnist Frank Schwab, who couldn’t be more thrilled with the no-FCS proposal. After writing (in a headline) that “hopefully everyone follows [the Big 10’s] suit”, he added:

…hopefully other conferences (and by “other conferences” we mostly mean you, SEC) stop the practice of wasting a precious Saturday afternoon in the fall on FCS opponents. The FCS teams benefit with a large payday, and that’s great for the bean counters at those schools. It’s not good for anyone else.

It stinks for the season-ticket holders that have to pay for a sham of a game. It’s nothing worth watching on television. The FBS team has nothing to gain, because a win is expected but a loss goes down in infamy. And while the FCS team will get enough money to build a new weight room, the most common result is getting pounded by 40 or 50 points, which can’t be that enjoyable for those players.

Some Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents.

I thought Schwab’s overall tone was a bit much, to be honest. I sent him a tweet, trying to be as polite as possible:

You seem to have a very flippant attitude about the FCS.

His reply:

Oh, make no mistake, no “seem” about it

Okay, then…

My first thought when I read Schwab’s piece was that it was clearly the work of someone who does not understand FCS football, or who has no connection to it at all (Schwab is a Wisconsin alum). Saying that FCS players can’t enjoy the experience suggests he has never spoken to any of them about it. Most small-school players relish the challenge of “playing up”. In fact, such games are often a recruiting tool for FCS coaches. It’s not all about the money.

Earlier in this post I listed six FCS schools Wisconsin has played in recent years. Of those matchups, the Badgers had to hang on to beat Northern Iowa by five points, were tied at halftime with The Citadel, and frankly should have lost to Cal Poly (winning in OT after the Mustangs missed three extra points). I’m not really getting the “sham of a game” vibe with those contests. Now if you want to talk about the 2012 Big 10 championship game against Nebraska in those terms, go right ahead.

Schwab singles out the SEC as the worst “offender” when it comes to playing FCS schools. I think it is only fair to point out that Big 10 schools currently have a total of 37 FCS teams on their future schedules, while SEC schools have 32. (I’m sure the SEC will eventually add a few more.)

Oh, and to quickly dispose of one canard (which in fairness to Schwab, he does not suggest): some people occasionally claim that allegedly easy FCS matchups have given the SEC a leg up on winning BCS titles, because they play fewer quality non-conference opponents. You only have to look at the Big 10 to see that isn’t the case.

The SEC has played more FCS schools in the past than has the Big 10. However, despite that, Big 10 schools have actually lost more games to FCS opposition since 2005 than has the SEC. In fact, no BCS league has lost as many such games (six) or had as many different schools lose them (four) in that time period.

Not playing FCS schools won’t hide the Big 10’s real problem, which is illustrated to a degree by this article, written in August of 2012:

Iowa has four nonconference football dates. It has chosen to fill two of them this year with games against teams from the Mid-American Conference

The reason for this: The Hawkeyes wanted two games they would have very good chances to win.

That’s not exactly a revelation. But perhaps you aren’t aware of just how pronounced Iowa’s (and the Big Ten’s) dominance over MAC teams has been.

The columnist wrote that the MAC was “the Big 10’s football piñata”, which in years past it may have been. Unfortunately for the Big 10 (and to the undoubted surprise of the writer), it would lose three games to MAC schools in 2012, and that was just part of a trend — MAC teams have beaten Big 10 squads twelve times since 2008. (MACtion, indeed.)

As for the Hawkeyes and the “two games they would have very good chances to win”…Iowa lost one of them by one point, and won the other by one point.

The truth is the Big 10 just hasn’t been that good in football in recent years, which doesn’t have anything to do with playing FCS opposition. Dropping FCS schools from Big 10 schedules won’t change things, either. SEC schools aren’t winning all those BCS titles because they play FCS teams; they’re winning them because SEC schools have the best players and (in some cases) the best coaches.

So what happens if the Big 10 follows through and has its members drop all FCS opponents? What happens if other leagues do the same thing?

You’ve seen the quotes from ADs at schools that would be affected. Then there is this take from agent/event promoter Jason Belzer:

If other conferences follow the Big Ten’s lead and stop scheduling games against FCS opponents, the institutions that compete at that level will have two options: 1) look to make up the funds elsewhere, or 2) essentially be forced to stop competing at the same level as the larger institutions. Because it is  unrealistic to believe that any institution can begin to make up the difference in loss of football guarantee revenue by playing any number of additional such games in basketball, it is more likely that the second option will occur. With the loss of revenue, the gap between schools in BCS conferences and those who are not will continue to grow ever wider, leading to what may be the eventual breakup of the approximately 340 schools that compete at the NCAA Division I level.

How soon this may occur remains to be seen, but the the additional millions in revenue the new college football playoff will provide BCS conferences, coupled with their decision to eliminate the one source in which smaller schools could obtain a piece of those funds, will almost certainly accelerate the timetable for any such  fracturing.

I think that is a distinct possibility. I also think it may be the ultimate aim of the Big 10.

Not everyone agrees that the outlook is so dire, and at least one observer believes there are other ways for smaller schools to generate revenue:

FCS schools can take steps to enhance revenue streams outside of the on-field competitions with big schools. For example, very few schools FCS schools have media rights deals. Yet there are an increasing number of regional sports networks (RSNs) and national networks that are looking for programming. In fact, NBC Sports Network signed a media rights deal with the FCS Ivy League to “broadcast football, men’s basketball. and lacrosse.” FCS schools can and should continue to pursue these deals to be less dependent on paycheck changes…
…many institutions do not lobby at the federal or state level for their athletic programs or rely the schools’ lobbyists for their athletic programs. As schools like UNI receive more state funding, it is unclear how much of that funding will go to its athletic department. Therefore, FCS can and should make larger commitments to lobby on their athletic programs’ behalf, especially if paycheck games are eliminated.

That comes from a blog by a group (or maybe just one individual) called Block Six Analytics. I’ll be honest. I don’t buy either of those options.

I think many smaller institutions already lobby on varsity sports interests, and at any rate in most cases there would be a ceiling for actual results. To use The Citadel as an example, the school has in recent years begun to play Clemson and South Carolina in football on a more regular basis, as do several other FCS schools in the Palmetto State.

This outcome was basically due to a request by the state legislature to the two larger schools, neither of which had any real problem with it. However, The Citadel can’t play Clemson and/or South Carolina every year, since there are numerous other FCS programs in the state (Furman, Wofford, South Carolina State, Coastal Carolina, Presbyterian, and Charleston Southern).

The first point, that FCS schools should have media rights deals…um, it’s not like they haven’t tried. I’m sure the Southern Conference would like to have a profitable contract with CBS or ESPN or Al-Jazeera, but that’s not likely to happen. Even the mid-major conferences that do have deals (like the CAA has with NBC Sports) usually only get the benefit of exposure. That’s great, but it’s not a big cash situation.

I’m trying to imagine what reaction SoCon commissioner John Iamarino would have if he was told that he should go right out and find a big-money media rights deal for his league. Eye-rolling? Uncontrollable laughter?

Speaking of Iamarino, he had some comments on the FCS vs. FBS situation that were fairly ominous:

The only reason to have 63 scholarships is to be eligible to play FBS teams and count toward their bowl eligibility. If those games go away, the entire subdivision would have to look at if 63 is the right number. Could we save expenses by reducing the number of scholarships? It would seem to me that’s one thing that would have to be looked at.

I disagree with Iamarino that “the only reason” to have 63 scholarships is to play FBS schools (but I digress).

I’m guessing it hasn’t occurred to some of the more FBS-focused among the media that there could be a potential loss of football scholarships if the Big 10’s big idea comes to pass. No one thinks that would be good for the health of the sport. It would also be an sizable number of lost opportunities for potential students.

Iamarino doesn’t give a number, but I could see the FCS maximum dropping to around 50, based on scholarship costs and the lost income from not playing those games. That’s not much more than the D-2 maximum of 36.

This wouldn’t be the first time a Big 10 proposal had the potential to eliminate athletic scholarships at other schools, of course. As far back as 1948 the NCAA, then largely controlled by the Big 10, enacted the Sanity Code, an attempt to get rid of all athletic scholarships. It was a rule seen by many as benefiting the Big 10 at the expense of mostly southern schools.

Famously, the Sanity Code would not last long, and it is a pleasure to note that The Citadel was one of the “Seven Sinners” at the heart of its eventual destruction. I would hate to see the school have to reduce opportunities for prospective students after all these years.

Block Six Analytics did make one good point, which is that the FCS schools do have one other string in their collective bow, namely the NCAA basketball tournament:

One may argue that it is madness to have such a seemingly large organization completely dependent on one deal. However, this deal also means the NCAA will do everything in its power to ensure that there are enough Division I basketball programs to continue “March Madness” (also known as the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship). This requires that schools outside of the BCS have basketball programs that compete at the Division I level. In addition, this dynamic may allow smaller schools to actually ask for an increased amount of subsidies from the NCAA – especially given the elimination of paycheck games.

This may be the biggest obstacle to the Big 10 (and other power leagues) breaking away from the NCAA sooner rather than later. There is a lot of money in that tournament, and the event works in part because the country is enchanted with the “David vs. Goliath” component that is traditionally the major drawing card of the first two rounds. A basketball tournament only open to 65-75 larger schools wouldn’t be nearly as valuable (whether administrators at the BCS schools all understand this point is another issue).

Having said that, I have my doubts the smaller schools could extract a larger pound of flesh for their participation in the event.

A couple of other thoughts:

– If the Big 10 eliminates games against FCS schools, it will be harder for its member institutions to become bowl-eligible. This could be even more of a problem if the league moves to a 10-game conference schedule, which is reportedly under consideration.

If dropping FCS schools from FBS schedules was done across the board, there wouldn’t be enough eligible teams for all the existing bowl spots. Either the rules would have to be changed to allow 5-7 teams to play in bowls, or a bunch of bowl games would have to be cut.

– Frank Schwab wrote that a “Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents”. I believe all but one of the current Sun Belt schools were once FCS (I-AA) programs. It’s not that big a difference from playing these schools versus competing against a quality FCS squad.

In addition, if FBS-FCS matchups go by the wayside, then a bunch of FCS schools will likely move up to FBS — more than are already planning to do so.

It’s possible that Alvarez’s comments to a local radio station are just the rantings of one man. I hope so, but I’m not confident that is the case. I think this is probably going to happen (though perhaps not next year). It will have a limited impact unless leagues like the SEC and ACC do the same thing. Then it will become a problem.

When it comes to maintaining financially stable sports programs, smaller schools already have too many problems.

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!