No one in the Southern Conference office thought for a second the league was immune to plundering as the domino effect of power conference shifting filtered downward. And it wasn’t.
When the new Big East formed and took Xavier and Butler away from the Atlantic 10, the A-10 in turn took Davidson away from the SoCon and George Mason from the Colonial. And when the Colonial needed to fill the void, it reached out to the SoCon’s College of Charleston and Elon.
If that weren’t bad enough, the SoCon also lost its two best football programs, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, both of which will make the jump to the FBS level and join the Sun Belt after this season.
When the carnage was complete, the venerable league was down to seven members. Again, no one in the SoCon office expected to get out unscathed, but no one foresaw losing more than 25 percent of the membership, either. Davidson’s departure in particular was a shocker.
“You always wish you could’ve maybe convinced them there was a better reason to stay,” said SoCon senior associate commissioner Geoff Cabe, who was in Chattanooga on Saturday to watch the Furman-Chattanooga football game. “We were certainly very fond of all those schools. But it’s a time when a lot of things are going on in college athletics, and everybody’s looking for a different kind of footing maybe than what they’ve traditionally been defined by, which is geography and rivalries and those kinds of things.
“I guess history will kind of tell how wise some of these decisions were.”
Rather than make panic-based decisions to restore their numbers, league presidents were secure in the knowledge they still had a lot to offer, and there were two schools, both former SoCon members, who were ready to return.
“We were able to pick and choose the best fits for the conference rather than being in a situation where you just had to take schools to have numbers,” Cabe said. “That’s the situation you don’t want to get in. We thought we had really good options no matter what happened.”
In adding former SoCon members East Tennessee State and VMI along with Atlantic Sun basketball power Mercer, the league recovered about as well as could be expected. ETSU officials long ago realized the mistake they’d made when, it 2003, they dropped football without consulting the SoCon office and presidents and got drummed out of the league. And VMI, which left of its own accord for the Big South, realized it missed the SoCon and its military school counterpart The Citadel.
Mercer’s decision had much to do with the fact it started a football program this season, but its basketball program has become a perennial postseason tournament threat.
What the SoCon is left with is 10 schools that are committed to one another. And the newcomers, which join in July 2014, will quickly assimilate.
East Tennessee State, in particular, seems poised to make a quick re-entry. The school has already committed to bringing back football and is about to break ground on an on-campus stadium. And during the decade it didn’t have to fund football, ETSU improved its other athletic facilities, adding, among other things, state-of-the-art baseball and softball stadiums. Basketball will still play in its outdated dome, but money has been spent to upgrade the facility, and the men’s team will also play three games at nearby Freedom Hall in an experiment that could prove to be a more permanent option.
Mercer’s first-year non-scholarship football program bodes well for the future. The Bears are off to a 5-0 start. A new 10,000-seat stadium has played to 90-percent capacity this season, proving interest is there in football-mad Georgia.
None of this suggests the league won’t miss Appalachian State, Charleston, Davidson or Georgia Southern. But the SoCon rebuilt quickly and effectively. This is no WAC, which got gutted by defections and teeters on the brink of extinction.
“We feel good about our future,” Cabe said. “As the three new schools join our seven core schools, we’ll figure out where we want to go from there. Is there further expansion on the horizon? There are good options on the table if we wanted to go that route.”
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