Mark Wiedmer: John Iamarino says SoCon has 'good options'

Mark Wiedmer: John Iamarino says SoCon has 'good options'

March 27th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Southern Conference Commissioner John Iamarino.

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Southern Conference

Imagine football giants Ohio State and Michigan leaving the Big Ten Conference on the same day.

Or fellow gridiron Goliaths Alabama and Florida withdrawing from the Southeastern Conference.

Or basketball beasts Syracuse and Louisville exiting the Big East. (Oops!)

On a slightly less high-profile level, that's the precise perception the departures of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are likely to have on an outsider's view of the Southern Conference, assuming that both the Mountaineers and Eagles do the expected today and follow the College of Charleston out the SoCon's door.

Certain to point to the nine combined FCS football titles won by GSU (6) and ASU, all those nattering nabobs of negativism will say the league is falling apart, soon to become as irrelevant as 8-track tapes and leaded gasoline.

Just don't expect SoCon commissioner John Iamarino to go crying to Dr. Phil any time soon.

"We have good options," the commish said during last week's NCAA tournament at Rupp Arena as he watched Davidson drop a heartbreaker at the buzzer to Marquette.

"If Appalachian State and Georgia Southern do leave, we have a number of quality institutions who have inquired about our league. We'll be fine."

In fact, Iamarino envisions a league that will be better than fine, one built to embrace basketball at least as much as football.

"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," he said.

"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."

To prove his point, you have to go back to Western Kentucky in 2002 to find a school from a mid-major conference that won both the FCS national championship and reached the NCAA tournament in the same school year.

That doesn't mean Iamarino wants to turn the SoCon into a Division III, nonscholarship league in football. Far from it. He merely wants the best of both worlds.

He wants the SoCon to become competitive enough on a national level in basketball that it might one day receive an at-large berth to either the men's or women's tournament, rather than merely the automatic bid that goes to the conference tournament champ.

"I think the Chattanooga women -- if they hadn't won the [league] tournament -- probably came as close to earning an at-large bid as any school in my eight years," he said.

"That's one of the reasons why we hired [former Wake Forest and South Carolina men's coach] Dave Odom as a consultant. We want to know how we can upgrade our basketball on a national level."

His logic is bullet-proof. While FCS football is a financial drain on almost every school that fields a team, ratings for the opening weekend of the men's NCAA tourney were their highest in 15 years.

Given a strong enough product, men's basketball not only can stand on its own financially but can make money for an entire athletic department.

Though Iamarino wisely has shied away from naming possible replacements for Appy and Georgia Southern, it's no secret that with East Tennessee, Kennesaw and Mercer all about to begin playing football, the Southern Conference would seem a perfect landing spot for that trio.

Yet even as he envisions the SoCon becoming a multi-bid basketball conference, there is a grassroots move afoot within the Scenic City for UTC to explore a move to the Ohio Valley Conference, where it might become a football powerhouse and develop closer geographical rivalries in hoops -- Tennessee Tech, Belmont, Austin Peay, Tennessee State, for instance -- especially if ETSU also gravitated to the OVC.

Not that Iamarino has any intention of letting that happen.

"As I've already conveyed to Chancellor [Steve] Angle, Chattanooga is very important to us," he said. "When Chattanooga is winning in football and basketball, we're a stronger league."

Especially if Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are both moving on.