By Ron Morris
WHEN THE GREENVILLE When the Southern Conference baseball tournament concludes Sunday with the championship game at Flour Field, the league will remove the banners of each member school that ring the facade behind home plate.
It will be the last official act of the Southern Conference that we have come to know and love the past few decades. In another year, five SoCon members will be gone to other conferences and perhaps replaced by another five.
There is little doubting that the upheaval in the Southern Conference is the residual effect of the money grab called re-alignment among the NCAA’s five super conferences.
“In five or 10 years, there will probably be other commissioners and other administrators, but I do think people are going to say, ‘What exactly were we thinking about where geography is no longer the driver for conference memberships and rivalries are thrown out the window?’ ” said John Iamarino, in his eighth year as Southern Conference commissioner.
While conference shuffling has eliminated rivalries such as Missouri-Kansas at the highest level, it also has left long-time rivals Furman and Appalachian State no longer on each other’s schedule. College of Charleston and Davidson, one of the best mid-major rivalries in the country in men’s basketball, no longer will exist.
That is because College of Charleston is leaving this year for the Colonial Athletic Conference. So, too, is Elon in 2014. Davidson is taking off for the Atlantic 10 in 2014, and Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are bolting for the Sun Belt in 2014.
What once was a proud and stable conference now is a shell of its former self, no longer able to boast of being the best of the mid-major leagues in many sports.
All the movement within the BCS-level conferences has everything to do with money. Those conferences need the mega-million dollar TV contracts to continue to feed the beast – which in nearly every case is football.
In order to compete at that level, one family member must keep up with another in what appears to be an ever-escalating arms race.
At the FCS level, Iamarino believes there is one overriding factor that compels one school after another to jump conferences: fear.
“That fear is that we may be subject to an affiliation that isn’t what we want if other people leave,” Iamarino said.
Elon, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern all departed so they could compete in football at the FBS level, meaning they position themselves to generate more money for their athletics departments. College of Charleston and Davidson departed for men’s basketball, although both schools mentioned they want to better “brand” their institution in a different part of the country.
The latter reason sticks in Iamarino’s craw.
“They want to brand the university or college as a school that recruits (students) in the northeast,” Iamarino said. “I understand that, and that’s well and good.
“But I think that’s sad that so much of this branding that presidents talk about is being done on the backs of student-athletes. Presidents are not climbing on an airplane at 6 in the morning to get back home, or stuck in an airport when they miss a flight trying to play a volleyball match in the northeast where it’s snowing.”
Now, instead of bus trips for conference games at The Citadel, Furman, Wofford, Davidson and UNC-Greensboro, College of Charleston will travel by airplane to such outposts as Philadelphia (Drexel), New York City (Hofstra) and Boston (Northeastern).
Instead of continuing a long-standing tradition of playing a home-and-home set against The Citadel in all sports, College of Charleston will meet its cross-town rival once a year in all sports.
“That’s disappointing, disappointing because it’s such a natural rivalry,” said Larry Leckonby, The Citadel’s athletics director. “Playing home and home with them would make a lot of sense. But they’ll be off traveling all over the country.”
So, the Southern Conference must accept that some of its most stable members are off to join the world of multi-million dollar coach’s contracts, playing games at any time of day or night as TV dictates and generally selling its collective soul for the almighty dollar.
That does not mean the Southern Conference will sell out as well. Its athletics directors and presidents will meet this week in Hilton Head primarily to discuss the prospect of bringing in new members. Mercer, VMI and East Tennessee State appear to be viable options with Presbyterian and Coastal Carolina as possibilities.
Iamarino is adamant that prospective members must meet certain criteria.
First, the academic profile of the school is important to the conference. Second, the schools must be located within the current geographic boundaries of the conference. Third, the schools must be competitive in athletics.
It is the way it used to work in college athletics.