The collegiate athletics version of musical chairs is again under way as schools move from conference to conference and from the Football Championship Subdivision to the top-tier bowl subdivision.
As he has for the past couple of years, Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino is watching the moves, or discussed moves, very closely. The subject of membership and realignment has been a major topic at all SoCon meetings the past few years, and they will be again on May 31 when the league's presidents and athletic directors get together in Asheville, N.C.
"Basically the lion's share of the agenda that day will be talking about membership issues and criteria and all kinds of things related to conference membership," Iamarino said. "Yes, we're monitoring what's going on; yes, we're talking to people, both within and outside the league, on a daily basis."
Nebraska going to the Big Ten or Syracuse going to the Atlantic Coast Conference had no effect on the SoCon. But with the SoCon's two preeminent football schools, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, pursuing a move to an FBS conference or discussing a possible move in the next 5-10 years, every school in the 12-member league would be affected.
Appalachian State announced last August that it intended to leave the SoCon for an FBS conference, but any school wishing to move up first has to receive and accept an invitation from an FBS league. Despite a tremendous amount of movement among conferences anchored in the South such as the Sun Belt and Conference USA, the Mountaineers haven't gone anywhere.
Conference USA announced last week that it was adding five schools, giving it 13 members. In a letter posted on ASU's website Tuesday, athletic director Charlie Cobb wrote that conference realignment "is not a sprint and remains very fluid. Additional realignment is inevitable and I can assure you that as the carousel continues to spin, we will continue our efforts to explore and pursue options."
According to reports, Liberty University chancellor and president Jerry Falwell Jr. announced during Saturday's commencement that the university is looking to move up to the FBS. Don't expect a similar announcement from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga chancellor Roger Brown any time soon.
"I think it's a really daunting picture for UTC and for most mid-tier public universities," Brown said. "It's quite near prohibitive."
Iamarino said he doesn't know when all this movement is going to end or what impact it ultimately will have on the SoCon. He also said he doesn't know if the extensive shifting is good for collegiate athletics, the student-athletes or the universities involved.
"The other thing people have to ask themselves is, what's the long-term status? Maybe nobody's worried about the long term anymore, but you're putting together institutions that really have very little commonality," he said. "It seems like they're being drawn together because either they're both in a big market or they both want to go somewhere. But without the regional aspect, without the rivalry aspect, it makes you wonder whether the long-term status of some of these conference is going to hold."
So are many of these schools that are spending millions to move up chasing a pot of gold that might not be there?
"I think there's a lot of truth to that," he said. "I've said all along that I think two emotions are driving all of this, and they are greed and fear."
Most Division I athletic departments don't make money, he said. And with conferences getting bigger and more spread out -- the new-look Conference USA includes Marshall (Huntington, W.Va.), Florida International (Miami) and UTEP (El Paso, Texas) -- travel costs will certainly rise.
"I don't know that there's ever a good time to say we're going to be pouring all this money into athletics and be traveling on airplanes across the country to play volleyball and softball," he said. "But it's certainly not a good time to be doing it now when the economy has really negatively impacted higher education and so many states are struggling with budgets and cutting left and right."
Iamarino may not like or understand the hunger by so many schools to move up as high and quickly as they can -- Brown and UTC athletic director Rick Hart are similarly perplexed -- but he said the SoCon will be ready to deal with the consequences when the time comes.