Wednesday, April 23, 2014 · 3:40 a.m.

The wait is over: Conference realignment knocks on UTC, SoCon door

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Chattanooga athletic director Rick Hart is charged with navigating UTC across a shifting landscape in collegiate athletics and dramatic changes forged by conference realignment. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

Following a contemplative pause, Chattanooga athletic director Rick Hart plainly conceded, “It was inevitable that it was going to impact all levels of Division I and it wasn’t going to stop.”

Indeed, conference realignment is an avalanche. It won’t settle until even foothills are covered. 

What started at the top has worked its way into UTC’s tidy world. Over the past two years, sweeping changes have left some of America’s most powerful conferences feeling, well, powerless. The Big East has been decimated. The Big 12, at times, has been on life support. 

For much of the time, mid-major conferences, including Chattanooga’s Southern Conference, watched on knowing they were predestined to be toppled. Eventually, those high mid-majors assaulted by BCS leagues would Band-Aid their wounds with lower mid-majors. 

And here we are.

Over the past three days, the Atlantic Ten and Conference USA have joined the Sun Belt in shaking down the once-proud Colonial Athletic Association. The A-10 poached Virginia Commonwealth, C-USA snagged Old Dominion and the Sun Belt, back in April, opened its arms to Georgia State.

Now, the SoCon is on alert. 

As is Chattanooga.

“We have to talk about the ‘what-if scenario,’ but all that varies and you can drive yourself crazy,” Hart said Thursday, hours after ODU officially latched onto C-USA. “There are only so many scenarios you can run and only so much you can take from them.”

To break down UTC’s options, which, to a certain extent, go hand in hand with that of the SoCon, one must fully grasp the level of distrust permeating collegiate athletics. On Thursday, during a teleconference addressing ODU’s departure, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager called realignment “the despicable part of our job.” 

That might have been an understatement. 

In the realignment game, everyone from university presidents to athletic directors to the coaches gleefully say they’re a team player for the greater good. Behind the doors, awash in budget reports and projected financial windfalls, everyone is looking out for No. 1. 

So where, exactly, does the SoCon, and, more specifically, UTC, fall in all of this?

On the surface, four possibilities exist. 

*The SoCon is raided by suitors (i.e., C-USA, Sun Belt, CAA) eyeing football powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern (both have FBS aspirations) and basketball mainstays Davidson and Charleston, leaving the league with eight teams and no identity. The SoCon fills holes with less-than-attractive replacements or crumbles as remaining schools dart for more stable conferences.

*The SoCon takes a hit with only part of the above scenario playing out and regroups by pursuing, say, East Tennessee State, Kennesaw State, Mercer or some combination of interested schools. The league ultimately remains viable.

*The SoCon proactively sets its sights on expanding. Most have expected the CAA to potentially target the SoCon in realignment, but given the CAA’s recent massacre, that theory could be flipped on its head. If one more CAA team leaves (see how below), those left behind will be plugged in a shallow grave. UNC Wilmington? James Madison? Towson? These are schools that might be looking for shelter instead of a home. Moreover, if App. State, Georgia Southern, Davidson and Charleston all commit to remaining in the SoCon, the league could be awfully attractive to any southern mid-major looking for a rock-solid league affiliation. 

*No FBS conference comes calling for big-time-football minded App. State and GSU, and neither Davidson nor Charleston is seen as a good fit for a basketball-centric league. The SoCon remains unchanged. The deck goes un-shuffled. 

Also, understand that an out-of-nowhere scenario could arise. Given what we’ve seen since Nebraska parted ways with the Big 12 in June 2010 and realignment spun off its axis, no one would be surprised. 

The SoCon’s annual league meeting is set for May 29-June 1 in Asheville, N.C. According to Hart, realignment will be topics No. 1, 2 and 3. Should the league up its exit fee (currently $600,000 for less than two years’ notice, $300,000 for more than two years’ notice)? What schools are fully committed? How do the private and public schools view the league’s future?

Additional questions will likely arise, considering the 10 days between now and the beginning of the SoCon meetings are an eternity in this circus.

Until then, a close eye will be kept on the CAA. Another Colonial school could very well jump ship. George Mason could reverse course and decide to renege on its commitment to stay in the CAA. (Don’t think that’s possible? You’re not paying attention.) William & Mary could throw its hands up and move to the comfortably fitting Patriot League. One of the northern schools, Northeastern or Hofstra, could pull the trigger on a change.

If any of the above occurs, the CAA will be left with eight basketball schools (two of which, Towson and UNC Wilmington, are currently ineligible for the 2012-13 postseason due to poor APR performances) and potentially seven FCS football programs. The league will either go hunting or be hunted.

Making any definitive predictions, as Hart repeatedly admitted Thursday, is futile. There are more moving parts than a Swiss watch.

Looking at his own athletic department, Hart preached that no option is being eliminated.

“We don’t have any immediate plans to change affiliation, but if the landscape continues to shift or as it continues to shift, it’s my responsibility to work with (UTC chancellor Roger Brown) so that we have options and are well positioned to adapt,” Hart said. “It’s kind of unique because you’re proactive, but you’re also preparing to be reactive.”

In other words, the mountain is rumbling.

Grab your shovel. 

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