Collegiate conferences are constantly looking for corporate sponsors to enhance their financial spreadsheets. In light of recent developments, the Southern Conference might look into teaming with Timex Group USA, which produces watches advertised to “take a licking and keep on ticking.” For those predicting the Southern Conference’s demise following announcements by five member institutions in the past several months that they would be leaving the league for so-called greener pastures, they might read the history of the nation’s fifth-oldest NCAA Division I league to understand its ability to endure and evolve.
The SoCon has survived numerous exoduses by multiple schools since its inception in 1921, including two that spawned a pair of the NCAA’s elite conferences. The first mass exit came 81 years ago, when 13 of the conference’s 23 schools (Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida included) departed to form the Southeastern Conference. Twenty years later, seven members (North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, South Carolina and N.C. State among them) left to start the Atlantic Coast Conference. In the ’60s and ’70s, six more schools (West Virginia, Virginia Tech, East Carolina and Richmond included) exited before the league settled in for more than three decades of relatively stable membership.
Out with the old: College of Charleston, Georgia Southern, Elon, Appalachian State and Davidson.
The latest upheaval started late last fall with the College of Charleston announcing its move to the Colonial Athletic Association effective for the 2013-14 year. This spring, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern announced their jump to the Sun Belt Conference to join several schools from Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas beginning in 2014-15. Davidson, looking for a “more prestigious basketball environment,” accepted an invitation in April from the Atlantic 10. Finally, Elon, citing its heavy concentration of alumni and students from the mid-Atlantic, announced in May its move to the CAA.
Heading into 2014-15, SoCon members will be current schools (logos displayed in top banner) Western Carolina, Chattanooga, UNC-Greensboro, Furman, Samford, The Citadel and Wofford, who will be joined by three institutions that accepted membership invitations in late May – East Tennessee State, Mercer and Virginia Military Institute. All of the new members eventually will participate in football.
VMI, a conference member from 1924 to 2003, returns after nine years in the Big South Conference and will compete for all SoCon championships in 2014-15. East Tennessee State also returns after spending the past seven years in the Atlantic Sun Conference. ETSU, a member of the SoCon from 1978 to 2005, will restart its football program in 2015 and is expected to play a conference schedule the following year. Its other 16 sports will compete for conference championships in 2014-15. Mercer, a private school with an enrollment of 8,300, has been a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference since 1978 and its men’s basketball and baseball teams advanced to postseason play in the past year. Based in Macon, Ga., the school will resurrect its football program this fall after a 72-year hiatus and will play in the non-scholarship Pioneer League for one season before beginning SoCon play in 2014. The Bears will field 18 men’s and women’s teams.
John Iamarino, Southern Conference commissioner, says the league moved quickly from a defensive position earlier in the year to an offensive position, with interest in membership from 12 to 18 schools and the eventual addition of the three new members. “Our membership is excited about rekindling old rivalries and establishing new ones. More importantly, we’ve been able to grow without extending our geographic footprint to an extreme extent,” Iamarino said. “Our core group of seven schools is committed to staying together and making the SoCon viable and more attractive financially, geographically and academically for current and future membership while creating more opportunities for our student-athletes and continuing our diversity and commitment to athletics integrity.”
Many fans of those seven schools and the media that covers their athletics programs are skeptical about the SoCon continuing to rank as a top Football Championship Subdivision conference and its potential to remain among the NCAA’s top basketball and baseball leagues. Athletics directors Randy Eaton at Western Carolina and Richard Johnson at Wofford say they understand those concerns, but both foresee only a temporary loss of prestige for those sports.
The departure of perennial top 10 football programs Georgia Southern and Appalachian State obviously will create a void, but other programs should step up quickly, Eaton said. “Wofford is already there,” he said. “The Citadel and Samford are coming off good seasons. Furman has been there and, along with Chattanooga, is on the rise again. Hopefully, we are not that far away from helping to fill the void, and Mercer appears to have the right idea and East Tennessee has a new and stronger commitment to football and a new stadium.”
Davidson’s exit will mean a drop in the SoCon’s basketball status, he said, but Mercer beat Tennessee in the National Invitational Tournament last season, East Tennessee State has a strong basketball tradition and VMI has been competitive recently. “And Wofford won back-to-back conference championships in 2010 and 2011,” he said. “Baseball is losing four strong programs, but Samford won it all in 2012, we won the regular season this year, The Citadel is strong again and Mercer won the Atlantic Sun this past season.”
Despite the changes, the SoCon remains true to its original mission, said Johnson. “The major reason we have conferences is so student-athletes can compete in the same geographic region against schools with similar objectives and athletics philosophies and where families and friends can follow and enjoy their collegiate experience. It’s great to have most of your road trips within a one-way three-to-four-hour framework. It’s not in the welfare of student-athletes, families, friends and the school’s supporters to spend the better part of two days traveling to and from games,” Johnson said. “Some of our sports initially might go through a rebuilding process in terms of national numbers, but give the conference a couple years and we’ll have a chance to be as strong as ever and a solid mid-major conference. I feel very good about the makeup of the conference and where we are headed.”
Will the SoCon expansion continue? Probably, said Eaton. “But we are going to hit the pause button and see what happens with the middle level of the Football Bowl Subdivision, which seems to be in constant flux, and see what happens with some of the other schools that expressed interest in our conference. There were 12 to 18 schools initially interested, and many will still be there when the dust settles. We’ll take a long look over the next couple years,” he said.
The bottom line is that the Southern Conference, like a certain brand of watches, may have taken a licking, but it once again will keep on ticking. “From Western Carolina’s perspective, this a great opportunity to fill a void, seize the moment and embrace the new Southern Conference,” Eaton said.