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Making Conference Call Could Be Complicated For Elon
Elon University has no choice but to assess what conference should be its home.
If the Southern Conference ground shakes, there needs to be an escape plan.
The Colonial Athletic Association needs to replenish its roster of schools. So that’s why mention of Elon has entered the realignment fray.
That doesn’t mean it will happen. It certainly doesn’t mean it should happen.
It just goes to show that in this era of “where-do-we-go next?” that even Elon can fall on radars. This doesn’t have to be about Texas A&M and Florida State and Notre Dame.
It seeps into all levels.
Elon’s roots aren’t all the deep in the Southern Conference. In the past dozen or so years, the school went from Division II to the Big South Conference to the Southern Conference.
The Fighting Christians became the Phoenix. And during a segment of this period, there were times when the school’s teams weren’t eligible for championships or individual league accolades.
Sometimes those are the prices paid for movement.
The Colonial Athletic Association’s primary footprint extends up the East Coast. It encompasses some of Elon’s most fertile recruiting grounds for assembling the student body.
That might be the appeal, though in compiling the university’s athletics rosters there’s often a look toward the South moreso than the Northeast.
Previously, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have evaluated the benefits of moving out of the Southern Conference to a higher level in football. That could mean departures for those schools.
If others leave for whatever reasons, it would be wise that Elon positions itself in a way that doesn’t leave the Phoenix left to turn out the lights on the Southern Conference.
That’s not to say the conference won’t come through this unscathed and be stronger because of it. That’s the positive outlook and that’s a popular one, too.
But universally popular outcomes haven’t been the norm in this expansion-driven era of college athletics.
Nor has common sense always prevailed.
To be sure, inquiries have come from outsiders to Elon coaches about the university’s status now that the Phoenix might be a target. That makes these coaches similar to colleagues at schools across the region because in many cases if a school hasn’t been a part of a realignment in recent years, it at least has been involved in some sort of discussion or speculation.
But this isn’t about coaches making pitches for one conference or another. This lands at the presidential level, where Elon’s Leo Lambert has issued a gag order on his subordinates regarding the conference topic.
So it’s reasonable to believe that if the public response is so quiet, there’s something going on behind the scenes. Just how loud the conversation has become is one of the questions that remains so pertinent.
Within the Southern Conference, Elon is most similar to Davidson and Furman and Wofford and Samford, which is the conference’s newest member.
So a dissociation with Georgia Southern and Western Carolina and Chattanooga and Appalachian State and College of Charleston wouldn’t be a deviation of major concern when solely assessing the makeup of the schools.
But if that means aligning with CAA members Delaware and Drexel and George Mason and James Madison and Hofstra and Northeastern and Towson and UNC Wilmington, what’s to be gained?
And for football, such a shake-up could leave the Phoenix going to New Hampshire and Maine for league encounters.
Suddenly that trip to Birmingham, Ala., to face Samford looks mighty convenient.
While UNC Greensboro sits just a few miles down the road, the connections between the schools are limited at best. They share the same conference and the same area code.
So they’re linked by proximity only. UNCG doesn’t have football and its agenda would appear largely different from that at Elon.
A parting between Elon and UNCG wouldn’t cause a major upheaval other than larger travel expenses.
(Come to think of it, Elon still wouldn’t be on the verge of changing conferences at the rate that UNCG fires coaches, but that’s an issue for another day.)
Dissecting this sport by sport, it’s difficult to pinpoint what this could mean for the Phoenix.
For football, CAA competition would rival that of the Southern Conference.
For Elon’s highly successful baseball program, a venture to a conference with schools above the Mason-Dixon Line probably won’t yield many positives.
For golf teams, potentially going to conference events in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast is a good way to lose your warm-climate label as a recruiting perk.
Women’s lacrosse is coming on board at Elon and a men’s lacrosse program could hit the agenda, too. Lacrosse is popular in chunks of the CAA’s evolving footprint.
Yet the scope of a realignment stretches far beyond the plight of single programs.
Conference affiliation becomes part of a university’s reputation and how it’s perceived.
In that regard, the Southern Conference has been good to Elon. Should the opportunity arise, the question that must be addressed is there something better?
By Bob Sutton, Times-News