What started as a trickle has become a full-fledged flood.
Elon University announced Thursday that it was leaving the Southern Conference for the Colonial Athletic Association, becoming the fifth SoCon school to say it was going elsewhere since December.
The SoCon had been a 12-member conference since 2008, when Samford joined the league. It's now down to seven that are sticking around, including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The other members still in the league are Furman, The Citadel, Wofford, UNC Greensboro, Samford and Western Carolina.
SoCon commissioner John Iamarino said in a statement released Thursday afternoon that Elon had developed a different vision for the league, which has historically been one with a broad range of members.
"In recent years, it became increasingly evident that Elon's negative view of the diversity in the Southern Conference was not shared by the majority of the membership," Iamarino said. "Our core group remains firmly committed to each other and to the academic and athletic success of the Southern Conference. We are preparing specific initiatives to achieve that success."
In a phone interview with the Times Free Press, Iamarino said he has spoken with athletic directors or presidents from the remaining SoCon schools -- he talked Wednesday night to new UTC athletic director David Blackburn -- since Elon informed him that it was leaving.
"I do believe that we've got a firewall that's been established with the other seven," he said. "I think we have an opportunity here to rebrand ourselves, to embrace the diversity that the league has and to continue holding to geographic integrity -- not having to get on airplanes for league games.
"I honestly think we have a shot at becoming more stable than we've been in quite a while."
Iamarino and representatives from the remaining seven schools, including UTC senior associate AD Laura Herron, made a site visit to East Tennessee State on Thursday. The Virginia Military Institute site visit took place on May 8 -- coincidentally, the same day Davidson announced it was joining the Atlantic 10 Conference.
ETSU, Mercer and VMI are candidates to join the league and will be voted on during next week's SoCon spring meetings in Hilton Head, S.C. Should all three be voted in, that would give the SoCon 10 schools, including nine with football programs.
UTC interim chancellor Grady Bogue said he expects the SoCon to return to 10 schools next week, "and 10 is a good number, for now." Bogue said he hopes the other remaining members won't try to act too quickly and risk voting in a school that ultimately won't be the right fit.
"We don't want anyone in the league that doesn't want to be in the league, so we wish Elon well," he said. "We want members that want to be here."
Elon, like the four other departing schools, will have to pay a $600,000 exit fee before leaving the SoCon. That $3 million total will go into a reserve fund, Iamarino said.
When the SoCon presidents and chancellors meet in Hilton Head, only the seven schools that will be staying will vote on new members. Earlier this month, when they met via conference call and voted to make VMI, ETSU and Mercer the expansion finalists, Elon and Davidson participated while in talks with other conferences.
Bogue said he wasn't aware of any other SoCon schools actively looking at other leagues. He also said there was a good possibility that the SoCon will next week discuss raising its maximum exit fee to more than $600,000. Last June, the CAA, after several schools departed, raised its exit fee to $1 million.
Nine is a critical number for football-playing members, because it allows each team to play eight league games (four home, four away). VMI already plays football, Mercer will play its first season in decades this fall in the non-scholarship Pioneer League and ETSU has announced its intention to bring back football after dropping the sport in 2003.
Mercer could be ready to play in the SoCon in 2014, along with VMI, after Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Elon leave. ETSU, which hasn't hired a coach yet and must build new facilities, won't be ready before the 2015 season.
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MocsBeat.
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...
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