During a conference call Thursday that lasted about 20 minutes, the Southern Conference made major progress toward adding new members to replace the departing College of Charleston, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
Commissioner John Iamarino was upbeat during a post-meeting phone interview. He said the presidents and chancellors selected three schools for campus visits.
According to sources familiar with the SoCon's membership search, those three schools are Virginia Military Institute, Mercer and East Tennessee State.
VMI (1924-2003) and ETSU (1978-2005) are former full members of the SoCon, and VMI remains an associate member in wrestling. The Keydets already play football, while ETSU is restarting its program -- dropping the sport was why it had to leave the league -- and Mercer is bringing football back after a 70-year break.
Mercer, which will play in the nonscholarship Pioneer League this fall, is coached by former Furman player and coach Bobby Lamb.
No invitations will be issued during the visits, Iamarino said. The visits, which will last half a day, will take place before the SoCon's annual spring meetings at the end of the month in Hilton Head, S.C.
"It's part of the process to consider whether or not to take the next step, which would be to issue a formal invitation," the commissioner said of the visits.
If all three visits go well, Iamarino said the SoCon could extend invitations to all three, which could bring the league back up to 12 schools.
"The potential for that is there, yes," Iamarino said. "That's a possible outcome. ... When you decide to go visit a campus, that indicates there's some genuine interest on both parts."
Iamarino and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga interim chancellor Dr. Grady Bogue said it felt good to be taking a significant step in the process after a lot of meetings that featured more talk than action.
"I'm not sure we've always known what we wanted," Bogue said. "We've gone through iterations during the process, but today it looked like we were all traveling together."
Bogue was very complimentary of the job Iamarino did in getting the remaining SoCon nine to Thursday's big step.
"It takes a lot of artistry to do what he's doing, and I'm admiring of him," Bogue said. "He's led us in these conversations to the point that today we were all lined up and ready to go."
Iamarino wants the new members to be announced by the end of June, so that those schools can give a year's notice to their current conferences before joining the SoCon in time for the 2014-15 academic year. Mercer and ETSU are in the Atlantic Sun, and VMI is a member of the Big South.
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