Southern Conference bigwigs got together in Charlotte this week to ponder the future of the venerable old league. That future has been placed in some doubt by the impending departures of FCS football powers App State and Georgia Southern and College of Charleston, with its solid mid-major basketball and baseball programs.
No formal decisions were made, and reviews seemed to be mixed as to how much progress was made. Commissioner John Iamarino told me that no “binding votes” were held, which I take to mean that some “non-binding” votes were held — straw votes on potential new members, I would presume.
Iamario also acknowledged a divide between the league’s public schools (Chattanooga, UNC Greensboro, Western Carolina) and private schools (Davidson, Furman, Wofford, etc.) among the “core nine” that remain. As a small, military school, The Citadel is a public school with some private-school qualities, putting its priorities somewhere in between, in my view.
“Challenge” is the word Iamarino used to describe the divide.
“Public/private, football/non-football and geographic issues,” he said. “It’s a combination of all those things we are trying to piece together.”
Iamarino said previously that there are enough schools interested in joining the SoCon to “fill another league.” My sense is that by this summer, the SoCon will add three of those schools. In order to do that, some room for compromise will have to be found between the publics and privates. And of course, there’s no guarantee that one of the “core nine” (read: Davidson) won’t be tempted to join another league.
Candidate schools have been widely speculated on. Citadel football coach Kevin Higgins supports a counter-raid on the CAA, proposing the SoCon go after (football-only) Richmond and/or William & Mary. I’d throw in (non-football) UNC Wilmington as well, but all of those are long shots in my view.
Three other schools — Mercer, East Tennessee State and Kennesaw State — seem to be eager candidates and are starting up football programs, Mercer this year and the other two in 2015. Adding all or any of these three would not come close to replacing App State or GSU in football, but in my view, that doesn’t matter. The league is not going to replace nine FCS titles anyway.
Mercer — a quality private school in Macon, Ga., of some 8,000 students with solid basketball and baseball programs — is a no-brainer. If the Bears can’t or aren’t committed to scholarship football in the near-term — ex-Furman coach Bobby Lamb is the Bears’ coach — they can slide right into CofC’s spot. Word out of Charlotte is that Mercer has a ways to go in gaining support, which surprises me. But that could change.
VMI, which left the SoCon years ago because it could not compete in football, apparently has more support in the league. VMI still can’t compete in football, though basketball and baseball are marginally better and SoCon ready. As an ex-member and a public school with the same private-school qualities as The Citadel, it seems as if VMI is a compromise school that the SoCon’s publics and privates can agree on.
A third new member is tougher to find. If the SoCon’s private schools get Mercer, and the privates and publics can agree on VMI, compromise would leave a public school for the third candidate. ETSU and Kennesaw State don’t have the academic profile of Mercer and would need a few years to get football up to speed, but both need a home for football, which is not sponsored by the Atlantic Sun. If Kennesaw State, a school of some 24,000 students in the Atlanta area, is to join a new league by 2016, it needs an invitation by the end of the year to avoid paying the A-Sun a $250,000 exit fee.
William & Mary would fit well here, a public school with a solid academic reputation. Can the Tribe be pried from the Colonial? I have no clue, but it doesn’t seem likely. Coastal Carolina of the Big South is another possibility here, with established football, basketball and baseball programs, but an academic profile more on par with ETSU and Kennesaw State than Mercer. It’s hard to see The Citadel, Furman and Wofford going along with Coastal Carolina.
There’s also the chance that a surprise basketball-only school will emerge as a surprise candidate (Belmont, of Nashville and the Ohio Valley Conference).
Ideal scenario — the SoCon gets Richmond and William & Mary, replacing App and GSU in football, and puts in Mercer for CofC in basketball and baseball, with the possibility of future FCS football from Mercer.
More likely — Mercer, VMI and the best public school the SoCon can come up with (ETSU, Kennesaw State, Coastal Carolina, etc.) join the league this summer.
The next formal step: Spring meetings May 29-30 in Hilton Head.