SoConversation: Realignment edition

SoConversation: Realignment edition

April 15th, 2013 by John Frierson in Local Regional News

Welcome to the SoConversation, featuring The Citadel beat writer Jeff Hartsell of the Charleston Post and Courier, Elon beat writer Adam Smith of the Burlington Times-News and UTC beat writer John Frierson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

This special edition of the SoConversation isn't about the games themselves, but the league and its present and future. In the wake of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern finally announcing that they were leaving for the Sun Belt, and the College of Charleston's announcement in December that it was going to the Colonial Athletic Association, there is much to discuss.

What should the SoCon do now that it's soon to be a nine-team league? How many schools should it add and what are the characteristics of those schools?

ADAM: The exits of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, while no doubt undesirable, were inevitable. Their moves up had been taking shape for years - publically, out in the open - and so everybody associated with the SoCon saw this coming.

It was about a year ago that commissioner John Iamarino said he had compiled a list of possible replacement options, should the league experience departures. Now it's time to go shopping with that list.

This could shake out so many different ways.

Even though Iamarino has said the league perhaps could grow to 14 schools, 12 seems to be the preferred membership size. And in getting back there, adding at least two football-playing schools would appear to be a must.

Or do you choose to de-emphasize football?

App State and Georgia Southern, owners of a combined nine national titles in the FCS, were the SoCon's most recognizable name brands in the sport. Bringing back former members East Tennessee State (which is restarting football) or VMI, or bringing in Mercer or Kennesaw State (both startup football programs), would do essentially nothing in restocking what the league is losing from a football perspective.

When the SoCon added Samford in 2008, Coastal Carolina had been under consideration. But Coastal Carolina's academic profile was a drawback, especially in the collective mind of the league's private schools (Davidson, Furman, Wofford, Elon).

The Colonial Athletic Association again is in flux. Luring away William & Mary as a full-time member or Richmond as a football-only member would be tremendous gets, given the alternatives.

JEFF: At minimum, the league needs to replace the two football teams it lost and the three basketball squads. That can be done fairly quickly, I believe, and with some solid candidates available. IMO, commish John Iamarino should not waste too much time trying to replace App State and GSU in football; you can't. Instead, view this as an opportunity to upgrade the sorry state of SoCon hoops, where GSU and App can be replaced (College of Charleston's spot might be tougher to fill).

I'd start with Mercer. The Bears, not Florida Gulf Coast, won the A-Sun regular season. Mercer is good in baseball, too (ask Georgia Tech). And the SoCon can afford to give Bobby Lamb time to get his new football program up to speed, if Mercer is committed to scholarship football.

Who else? ETSU and VMI would be eager to come back, I think, but ETSU is another start-up program and VMI might as well be. I'd call Richmond, William & Mary and UNC Wilmington of the Colonial. Might be a long shot, but you never know until you try. Fall-back schools? Coastal Carolina, Gardner-Webb, High Point, I guess.

JOHN: The SoCon has been preparing for this day for quite some time, so you'd think the league would be able to act fairly quickly. To get back to nine football teams, and a balanced (four home, four away) eight-game league schedule, the SoCon has to add two schools that play football.

From what I'm hearing, VMI has quite a bit of support. The Keydets have won a total of seven games over the past three seasons, so the SoCon wouldn't exactly be bringing in a football power. But it's at least an established program, which many of the other schools rumored to be candidates (Mercer, East Tennessee State, Kennesaw State) are not.

Geographically, VMI's campus in Lexington, Va., is in the neighborhood of the SoCon (it's about as far from Chattanooga as Elon or The Citadel), so it makes some sense there. In men's basketball, VMI has been around a .500 team the past two seasons, so I don't know that it adds to league there, either.

Also, VMI has just three women's sports that the SoCon competes in: soccer, cross country, track and field. VMI was in the SoCon from 1924-2003, so it has some roots, though not a lot of buzz.

Mercer seems like a fairly easy choice. It won the Atlantic Sun in men's basketball, it's baseball program is solid and it's starting a football program that I don't think will be non-scholarship for very long. Also, it's in Georgia, and I think the league has to have a team in the very center of its footprint.

A case might be made for Kennesaw State, which is also starting football, but that looks like a school that could move up fairly quickly, similar to Georgia State. And why add a school that will only be around a few years.

As for ETSU, whom UTC fans would love to have back in the league, I've heard there's not a ton of support for the Bucs' inclusion. I find that a bit surprising.

If I'm a SoCon AD or president, I'm pushing to add more than two or three schools. I'd want to build some depth and strength so that when the next school (looking at you, Davidson) bolts, you've got the numbers to withstand the loss. But are there enough quality schools out there that meet the SoCon's athletic, academic and geographic requirements?

Has the team you cover looked around at other leagues? If not, should it?

JEFF: As far as I know, The Citadel has not had any feelers from the ACC or the SEC. The Bulldogs are right where they need to be, barring the complete collapse of the SoCon. I'll be interested to read Adam and John's answers to this one.

JOHN: UTC interim AD Laura Herron got a call from the Sun Belt a few months ago. She was asked if UTC (which presently has an interim chancellor and AD) might be looking to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision anytime soon.

Her answer was no, not at this time. The Mocs aren't in a financial position to make that leap, nor have they been tearing up the SoCon in football or men's basketball of late.

There's a segment of the fan base, which may be growing, that wants UTC to explore a move to the Ohio Valley Conference. That also seems unlikely, though I could see UTC going to the OVC before I could see it going FBS.

ADAM: Reports surfaced last summer that Elon was on the CAA's list of expansion candidates at the time. While App State, College of Charleston and Davidson were formally contacted by the CAA - which means CAA commissioner Tom Yeager telling Iamarino of his talks with the schools - Elon apparently never reached that stage of the process.

Or maybe Elon did. School president Leo Lambert issued something of a gag order on the subject of the CAA last summer, so finding an understanding of what's in play and what's not has been difficult.

Last fall, the CAA was a topic on the agenda for an Elon board of trustees meeting. A prominent Elon employee, who is quite trustworthy, told me then that was nothing with which to be concerned.

Clearly, these are unstable times in college sports. So, as for the second part of the question here, taking a broad look at things and considering league options have become necessary matters of due diligence for schools.

What's the impact of Georgia Southern and App State leaving? Is it catastrophic that the league's top football powers are gone? Is this a basketball league now, and if so should the schools that are added reflect that?

JOHN: To me, the only way in which GSU and ASU leaving is catastrophic is at the football box office. I know when those teams played at UTC, attendance was typically way better than when any other SoCon team came to town. Replacing all those ticket sales will be a challenge.

As for the rivalries and history, all it will take is a few tight games, and maybe a controversial finish, with the incoming schools for new rivalries to be created. And on the positive side for the remaining football schools, the path to the SoCon title just got a heck of a lot easier.

The SoCon clearly needs to get better, top to bottom, in men's basketball, but we're in the middle of football country and this will likely always be a football-first league.

ADAM: It's catastrophic in terms of the history, tradition, winning cultures and even the fan bases that are leaving. Saturdays up in Boone, where they've had seven crowds of 30,000 or more in recent years, are a special event. The six FCS championship flags that overlook one end zone down in Statesboro, Ga., make for a meaningful visual. When Elon beat Georgia Southern in three straight seasons (2007, 2008, 2009) that was a big deal.

Again, to me, this becomes all about what schools the SoCon wants to or is able to bring in. The additions will form the league's new direction, whatever that may be.

When the CAA began courting College of Charleston and Davidson last year, there was a general consensus from some in the SoCon that Mercer would be an attractive replacement option. One senior official at a SoCon school always raves about Hawkins Arena, where Mercer plays basketball.

So Mercer, which starts playing football this fall, would be a basketball-based addition, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina, for example, has made multiple appearances in the FCS playoffs recently. The Chanticleers would be a ready-to-roll choice for football.

JEFF: It's not catastrophic. Even with GSU and App and their nine FCS titles, the SoCon had already ceded its claim as the best FCS conference in the nation.

With the FCS playoffs expanding to 24 teams, the SoCon should remain a 2-bid league, with the occasional third bid. With GSU and App, maybe the SoCon is a three-bid league, with the occasional fourth.

Now if Davidson left for the A-10, that might be catastrophic.

As important as getting the right teams in the league is, do you think getting some kind of television deal is nearly as critical? It just being on ESPN3.com putting the SoCon further behind other mid-major leagues, to the point that the SoCon's stature and appeal is affected?

JEFF: No question, on-line coverage only does not cut it. And with new cable sports networks needing programming, I can't quite figure why the SoCon has had such a hard time landing a deal.

Much of the Colonial's deal with NBC Sports Group is for regional cable and on-line streaming, but for fans and athletes, it's important to be able to switch on the TV and watch games. When differentiating between mid-major leagues, "We're on TV and you're not" carries a lot of weight.

JOHN: The SoCon is right to be looking to the Internet, that's the future of TV (just look at how viewing shows on Netflix has exploded). But the problem with showing games only on ESPN3.com is that you lose the casual viewer that's flipping channels and stumbles upon a SoCon game. The people watching on ESPN3.com, you already have them - they're committed viewers - but it's hard to attract a new audience with Web games.

Commissioner John Iamarino talked with some ESPN folks during the Final Four and is looking to get more games on TV. To be among the elite mid-major conferences, the SoCon needs more air time beyond the men's basketball tournament title game. Will that keep schools from leaving the league down the road? Probably not, but having comparable TV time to the CAA and other leagues sure wouldn't hurt.

ADAM: Yes, yes, yes and yes.

College of Charleston AD Joe Hull's memorable line from the fall, that SoCon basketball is "invisible" on television, resonates here.

There's nothing wrong with firing up the laptop and watching a game on ESPN3. But the SoCon needs more, if only from a perception standpoint - though the extra money and exposure generated by a TV deal most certainly wouldn't hurt, either.

Every day in our newspaper we run a section called "Air Fare," listing the sports stuff that you can watch or listen to. Invariably with the ESPN3 games, somebody calls or emails to complain that they can't find that channel on their TV. Classic example: "Does Time Warner Cable carry that or do you have to have Direct TV?" And sometimes, answering "do you have access to the Internet?" creates more confusion.

If you've got a question, e-mail the writers at jhartsell@postandcourier.com, asmith@thetimesnews.com or jfrierson@timesfreepress.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @adam_smithTN and @Mocsbeat.