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What lies ahead for remaining Big South members?
By all accounts, 2012 was the most successful season in the 11-year history of the Big South’s foray into football. Stony Brook garnered the conference’s first at-large berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Both the Seawolves and Coastal Carolina won postseason games, doubling the league’s previous total of one playoff victory in the previous 10 years.
Yet amid the usual feeling of optimism that pervades among football media days, there was a sense of unease about the future of the conference.
Thursday’s Big South gathering was one contingent smaller than last July, as Stony Brook has departed to the Colonial Athletic Association as an associate member.
Liberty University made its intentions to move to the Football Bowl Subdivision known in May 2011, and it’s common knowledge that the Flames will jump at the first invitation it receives from an FBS conference. Coastal Carolina has shown unrequited interest in the Southern Conference. VMI’s 11th season in the Big South will be its last as it head back to its old Southern Conference stomping grounds in 2014.
Even with Monmouth joining in ‘14 as an associate member, the Big South’s standing as a football conference is shaky at best.
“There is concern, there’s no question,” Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said. “Overall, from a membership standpoint, we feel good about the conference. But football is a vulnerability right now. We have to address it. We are. We’ve been in active discussions with our presidents and our ADs and looking at a variety of options.”
Of the remaining football members, Presbyterian College, Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern are the most vulnerable. Charleston Southern, for instance, has drawn no interest from even smaller conferences as realignment has evolved over the last few years. Nor is CSU in a position of power. It has long struggled to keep up financially with the other football programs in the Big South, much less entice interest from other leagues.
According to U.S. Department of Education data, Liberty’s football budget in 2011-12 was $8.42 million. Charleston Southern’s entire athletics department budget was $8.85 million.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say, ‘Hey, where are we heading in the next two or three years?’” first-year CSU coach Jamey Chadwell said. “You know Liberty’s made the statement. They want to go somewhere. You’ve got to assume Coastal’s thinking the same thing, just because of what they have in facilities.
“I look at it at from a recruiting standpoint. What are other coaches saying about our league? So I think it’s always in the back of your mind. After VMI leaves, who’s coming in? We’ve got Monmouth, but what happens if Liberty leaves? Who’s the next guy in line?”
That next member may be a school like Monmouth, which left the Northeast Conference earlier this month to join the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association. The associate member model has worked well for the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference in which only four full-time members – Delaware, James Madison, Towson and William & Mary – play football. (Elon will move to the CAA as a full-time member in 2014.)
“In fact, I think there are some advantages to the Colonial model,” Kallander said. “It’s not a bad model to look at. That’s certainly one of the things we’re thinking about.”
The problem for the Big South is that there aren’t many potential associate members left from which to choose. There is a potential in-house option in Campbell, which is a Big South all-sports member and plays non-scholarship football in the Pioneer League. Jacksonville University, another Pioneer member, recently announced plans to expand its stadium to 5,500 seats. But as Chadwell pointed out, now that the Pioneer champion has earned an automatic bid to the 24-team FCS playoff field, the incentive for Pioneer members to ramp up to a full-scholarship level may be lessened.
Kennesaw State will begin play as an FCS program in 2015, and KSU athletics director Vaughn Williams told reporters in Georgia that the school – an Atlantic Sun all-sports member – is pursuing an associate football membership in an FCS conference.
“Hopefully, what we’ll be able to do is look outside the traditional box,” Gardner-Webb athletics director Chuck Burch said. “It used to be full conference membership. It might be a school that had similar needs like Monmouth did. Maybe you find schools that have that same need.”
The Big South could dip to five football members for two years and retain its automatic bid, thanks to NCAA by-laws. But that’s not a chance that the remaining conference members want to take.
“There’s not a lot of answers out there,” Presbyterian coach Harold Nichols said. “And I don’t think the movement’s done, either. So it’s very unstable. … There’s strength in numbers. That’s my biggest concern. I think Kyle’s had a plan in place, and we’ve got a strategy moving forward to make sure the football membership is where it needs to be in both quality and numbers.”
By Chris Lang, News Advance