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Furman won't follow rivals out of SoCon
There was a time in the Southern Conference when the “Big Three” was a simple reference to its three football superpowers.
Furman, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have combined for 34 conference championships in football, while the SoCon’s other six football members have combined for 10.
Now, Furman is coming off its second losing season in three years and its “Big Three” rivals are leaving the conference.
Long-rumored moves to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) became official today when Appalachian State and Georgia Southern accepted invitations to join the Sun Belt Conference. They will officially join on July 1, 2014.
“Today’s announcements by the Sun Belt Conference are no surprise to us,” Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino said in a statement released by the SoCon. “To their credit, the principal administrators at Appalachian State and Georgia Southern and the Sun Belt commissioner have continually kept our office apprised of developments throughout the process.”
Both teams will be ineligible for the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs this fall. While 2013 schedules won’t change and their games will count in the conference standings, neither will be eligible to earn the conference title.
It also means the end of series that have produced some memorable moments in Furman’s football history.
The Furman-Georgia Southern rivalry was born before the Eagles joined the Southern Conference in 1991. The teams faced off twice in the FCS (Division I-AA) national championship, with the Eagles winning 44-42 in 1985 and the Paladins winning 17-12 in 1988.
Furman’s 2001 squad reached the national title game after doing something that had never been done by any team – winning a playoff game at Georgia Southern.
Despite losing its last nine games at Appalachian State, Furman is the only football team in the Southern Conference with a winning record against the Mountaineers.
One of those losses at Boone, N.C., came down to one play now known as the “Miracle on the Mountain.” In 2002, Appalachian State won 16-15 after intercepting a two-point conversion pass and returning for a two-point score with seven seconds left.
“We’ve enjoyed the rivalry with both … and we’ll miss them. They’ve been great members of our conference,” said Furman athletic director Gary Clark.
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State take with them nine combined national championships in football. Clark recognizes a need for the SoCon to remain viable in football.
“It’s important for Furman as it is for the conference that we have enough football teams that we have a competitive conference,” Clark said. “It’s a critical mass that we’re interested in. I would certainly think that as we move forward, we’d be looking into adding a couple of football-playing schools.”
In the ever-changing world of conference affiliation, Clark said the Paladins are committed to SoCon. Furman and The Citadel are the two longest-running members of the league, as each joined in 1936.
“We’ve not really had any discussions about alternatives,” said Clark. “We are confident that the Southern Conference is going to remain a strong conference and one that makes sense for us.”
Richard Johnson, Wofford athletic director, said the Terriers have the same sentiment.
“We’re thrilled with FCS-level football and don’t have any designs on being anywhere else,” said Johnson. “The Southern Conference is a strong, viable league that’s had membership transitions of the years.”
Since joining the Southern Conference in 1997, Wofford is the only team outside of the “Big Three” to win a conference football title. The Terriers have claimed four since their first in 2003.
The Mountaineers and Eagles will be eligible to compete for the Sun Belt football championship in 2014, but will not be bowl eligible until 2015, when the schools become full members of the conference.
Georgia Southern’s move to FBS was helped by 65 percent of its students agreeing to pay an extra $75 per semester beginning this fall. The Eagles’ Paulson Stadium will expand by 6,300 seats to push its official capacity to 24,300.
Both schools will pay the Southern Conference $600,000 in exit fees.
The moves come months after College of Charleston, which doesn’t play football, announced it would leave the SoCon for the Colonial Athletic Association.
The SoCon now must focus on replacing the departed teams. In a conference call this afternoon, Iamarino declined to identify any potential new members but said the league would not consider Division II schools that are looking to move up.
“The presidents and chancellors have looked at (adding teams) as a three-legged stool,” said Iamarino. “One is the academic profile. We want institutions that are not going to be an APR (academic progress rate) difficulty, that are going to graduate their students.
“The second one is athletic competition. Clearly we’re losing two outstanding football programs. It will be very, very hard if not impossible to replace them with like quality at the FCS level.
“The third leg of the stool is geography. Our folks have made it quite clear that they would like to keep the geographic footprint manageable. … We don’t want to have to put teams on airplanes for regular-season contests.”
Iamarino also pointed out that baseball is an important sport for the SoCon.
“Charleston, App State and Georgia Southern have all been to the NCAAs in recent years, and we were No. 7 in the baseball RPI last year,” said Iamarino. “We don’t want to sacrifice that sport.”
Written by Scott Keeler, Greenville News