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MEAC Expansion Could Bring 2 Divisions, Title Game
Fourteen schools. Two divisions. One conference.
That’s the direction the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference has set for itself in announcing last week that the league has lifted a moratorium on expansion.
The MEAC, which includes Norfolk State and Hampton, could soon be adding North Carolina Central and Savannah State. Both institutions have submitted applications to join the league, currently comprised of 11 schools, nine of which play football. Winston-Salem State, which also plays football, is working toward inclusion in the MEAC in 2011.
The larger league would likely break down into two divisions.
“That would allow us to at least have the flexibility for divisional play,” conference commissioner Dennis Thomas said. “Divisional play will give us the flexibility to save on travel costs and missed class time for our athletes. Those are among the reasons to do this.”
The creation of two divisions also would seemingly invite the possibility of a championship football game - an event that could come at a price: the I-AA playoffs.
That portion of the expansion idea isn’t popular with Norfolk State football coach Pete Adrian. He said the overwhelming majority of recruits are looking for the chance to play in a national playoff.
“The I-AA playoffs have a lot more exposure,” he said. “I don’t think going to a championship game will pay off.”
Hampton athletic director Lonza Hardy, meanwhile, welcomes expansion and is open to exploring both postseason options.
“There’s been some mention of returning to something like the Heritage Bowl,” he said. “That would give our athletes a chance to compete after a championship game. I would not be prejudiced to that or continuing in the FCS playoffs. I like the idea of just giving our athletes an opportunity to compete in the postseason.”
The now-defunct Heritage Bowl pitted the top team from the MEAC against the top team from the Southwest Athletic Conference. Hampton won the final Heritage Bowl in 1999.
Under the current structure, the winner of the MEAC regular season receives an automatic bid to the I-AA playoffs. By contrast, the 10-team SWAC does not participate in the playoffs, opting instead for a title game between the winner of the Eastern and Western divisions.
Last fall, 25,873 fans went to Birmingham’s Legion Field to see Grambling win its 22nd straight conference title. Scheduling conflicts preclude the SWAC from playing in a title game and also competing for the national championship. The first round of the I-AA playoffs is the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The SWAC championship game is in early December.
Thomas said no decisions have been made about whether the MEAC would have a championship game, though he admitted that if league officials went that route, it’s unlikely the league could fit both a title game and the I-AA playoffs into the schedule.
“You could, but it would have to be under an extremely restricted schedule,” he said.
The MEAC has not received an at-large bid to the I-AA playoffs since 2003 and has not enjoyed great success in the event. The MEAC is 8-21 in the I-AA playoffs, but the league’s last victory was by Florida A&M in 1999.
Adrian, however, is looking forward to 2010, when the I-AA playoffs are expanding from 16 to 20 teams.
NSU athletic director Marty Miller says he’s not sure if a MEAC championship game would be a good idea if it meant losing the chance to be in the playoffs.
“I’m trying to think of the advantages of both situations, and both have their pros and cons,” he said. “I just want to do whatever is best for the conference as a whole.”
Adrian and Miller favor expansion because of the benefits it would provide to scheduling. Breaking into divisions would allow NSU to schedule more nonconference games, and travel costs will be reduced. NSU, which currently plays a football game at Florida A&M or at Bethune-Cookman every year, would travel to Florida every two years in an expanded MEAC with divisions.
Thomas declined to issue a timetable for expansion, though Savannah State vice president for administration Claud Flythe said last week that the university would be willing to become an immediate member if asked to join.
Savannah State applied for membership to the MEAC in May 2005 and was expected to be voted in the following year. But a week before the final vote, the school received NCAA sanctions from football recruiting violations. Its probation ends in May.
North Carolina Central, previously of the CIAA, moved from Division II to Division I in the fall of 2007. The university applied to the MEAC in December 2006.
Thomas would not comment on either program, though he said he has not received applications from other schools.
MEAC expansion could bring 2 divisions, football title game
By Vicki Friedman, The Virginian-Pilot