Signaling a “historic announcement” and inviting fans and supporters to join inside The HTC Center, Coastal Carolina University President David DeCenzo formally accepted an invitation for the school to join the Sun Belt Conference during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Coastal Carolina’s talks with the conference progressed quickly in the last several months and dominated discussion and chatter within the school’s fan base this summer, and by the time DeCenzo and Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson made the formal announcement just past 1 p.m., the news had become the worst kept secret in town.
But no less significant.
A charter member of the Big South Conference since 1983, the Chanticleers make a significant leap from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to joining one of 10 conferences in the upper-tiered Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Instead of competing for a spot in the FCS playoffs, the Chants will soon be competing to play in bowl games.
And they leave a conference with regional footing in the Carolinas and Virginia for one that stretches from North Carolina (Appalachian State) through Georgia (Georgia Southern, Georgia State), Alabama (South Alabama, Troy), Arkansas (Arkansas-Little Rock, Arkansas State), Louisiana (Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe) and Texas (Texas-Arlington, Texas State). The Chants become the 12th full member of the league and 12th football member as Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington don’t play football while Idaho and New Mexico State are football-only members of the Sun Belt.
Asked where this moment ranks during his tenure as university president, DeCenzo said “It’s got to be up toward the top.”
“I see what this can do for this university in branding the university and moving us forward,” he told The Sun News in advance of the news conference. “I don’t think the immediate impact is going to be felt overnight, but I’ve said to a couple of people, ‘I hope before I die you see Coastal Carolina University playing a New Year’s Day bowl game,’ and when that happens people are going to look back at today and say ‘Oh my goodness, this is where it started.’ And I think we’ll get there.”
Benson called DeCenzo on Sunday night to tell him the conference’s chancellors and presidents had voted to approve adding Coastal Carolina – needing supporting votes from nine of the 11 university leaders – and the news started trickling out from every crevice locally and nationally Monday afternoon and evening.
“This was probably the most nervous that I’ve been in a long time, but to get the call from the commissioner and him saying, on behalf of the 11 chancellors, presidents of the Sun Belt they were extending an invitation to Coastal Carolina University, it was almost surreal,” DeCenzo said. “It’s something we’ve been working for. Certainly the past couple of weeks have been very intense in the due diligence, but like I said, it was their schedule. I know there was a lot of speculation as to when they would potentially vote, but as they say, it’s not over until it’s over. So when I got the call it was just a phenomenal feeling.”
In a statement included in the official news release Tuesday, Benson called it a “great day for the Sun Belt Conference.”
“The Sun Belt is a growing conference with a bright future and Coastal Carolina makes a perfect fit as they too have seen a tremendous amount of growth and have all the tools necessary to move forward at the highest level of collegiate athletics,” he said.
Nothing changes for the Chants this year. The football team, ranked No. 5 in the FCS national polls, will continue with its quest for an FCS national championship, and the school’s other athletic programs will continue competing as members of the Big South for one more season.
Effective July 1, 2016, all programs except for football will then become full-fledged members of the Sun Belt while the football program must complete the NCAA’s mandated two-year transition period before being fully eligible for bowl games in 2018. The Chants can begin playing a Sun Belt schedule in 2017 and can compete for a conference championship even though they won’t be eligible for the postseason until the following year.
As for football scheduling in 2016, it’s still to be determined how the move will affect Coastal Carolina in that area.
“I don’t know what the reaction of the Big South is going to be. I would hope that in the transition year, next year, we’re able to keep our football schedule somewhat intact, but I don’t know all the particulars of that,” DeCenzo said. “This year will be no different. We’re an FCS school this year, we will be playing all of our sports in the Big South.”
The Chants’ other sports already compete at the same Division I level as the Sun Belt so the transition will not be as dramatic – aside from expanded travel – but the league’s strength of competition will provide a boost to many of the school’s programs in areas like RPI rating and recruiting opportunities.
“No disrespect to Big South schools, but it’s been well publicized when we get into conference play, our RPI goes down. That’s going to stop,” DeCenzo said. “Just take a sport like baseball – we are going to be competitive immediately in baseball. We’re a good addition to their baseball program. Football obviously, we’ve got to catch up with where the schools are, but I think we’ll quickly be competitive.
“Needless to say the recruiting will change. Basketball, for example, is going to start recruiting very shortly. Knowing we’re going into the Sun Belt, that’s probably going to change the kind of athlete they’re looking for. Obviously it’s going to change the football recruiting.”
The Chants will add 22 scholarships in football as FCS programs are capped at 63 scholarships while FBS programs compete at 85. DeCenzo said it was his understanding the program would add 11 scholarships next year and the other 11 in 2017.
As for leaving the Big South, DeCenzo called the move “bittersweet.”
“I just think this really is a historic day. Bittersweet,” he said. “We were a founding member of the Big South and we outgrew it. And I’ve had some good friends in the Big South. On one hand you get a chance to make new friends with new colleagues at these universities and on the other hand you hope you keep your friendships alive with people you’ve worked closely with, certainly in my tenure, the last eight years as president. It’s a great move for us.”
DeCenzo called the Big South on Monday afternoon to inform the conference that Coastal Carolina would be leaving to join the Sun Belt. He said the university’s exit fee to leave the Big South is $100,000 while the buy-in fee to join the Sun Belt is $2 million.
That doesn’t have to be paid up front, though, he said.
“What’s nice, as I understand it, we do not have to pay to buy in. What they have done as a conference with new schools, when you start earning your shares you can take a portion of your share each year and pay your buy-in fee off,” he said.
The Chants will have enough expenses as is with the transition as DeCenzo reiterated the university will begin the process immediately of expanding Brooks Stadium from 9,214 seats to more than 20,000, completing the lower bowl on the end of the field that connects to Adkins Field House and adding a second level on the side closest to S.C. Highway 544.
The NCAA requires FBS programs to maintain an average attendance of at least 15,000 over a rolling two-year cycle.
DeCenzo has stated that any costs associated with the move to the Sun Belt will not necessitate added costs or fees to students, though.
“As soon as the official press conference is done I will have my CFO begin the paperwork to start the process [of stadium expansion],” DeCenzo said. “Obviously I need to bring to the board of trustees the estimated cost, how we’re going to ultimately pay for it. At this point I don’t know if I’ll call a special meeting of the board of trustees to address that or whether we’ll handle it at the October meeting.”
In previous comments Benson made to the Advocate newspaper in Louisiana earlier this summer, he indicated the appeal of adding a 12th member was to allow the conference to likely set up East/West divisions to help with travel. Coastal Carolina and Eastern Kentucky were being considered as options that would give Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., a natural geographical travel partner.
There were also reports that New Mexico State could be considered for full membership to get the league to 12 schools.
Ultimately, Coastal Carolina got the vote.
“The Sun Belt Conference has grown in strength today with the addition of Coastal Carolina University to its already thriving membership,” Sun Belt President and Texas State University President Denise M. Trauth said in a statement. “CCU is a well-rounded public institution that is reaching new heights with its remarkable growth. On behalf of the Sun Belt Conference Presidents and Chancellors, we welcome the addition of Coastal Carolina to the Sun Belt Conference.”
From Coastal Carolina’s perspective, DeCenzo said he has received overwhelmingly positive support in and around the university for the move throughout the process.
“Everything that has been said to me has been unbelievably positive,” he said. “People [have mentioned they are] looking forward to finally coming to a game. They think the level of competition is going to be such they’re going to want it. I’ve had a couple of the other coaches who have said, ‘I hope this happens because this is going to help continue putting us on a national level.’ ... But I have heard nothing but positive comments, even from faculty and staff who have said, ‘This is a good move for Coastal.’”
The Chants had been trying for a number of years to elevate beyond the Big South, but they were rebuffed by other FCS level conferences such as the Southern Conference in the past. The Sun Belt, though, has found success in recent years by plucking upper-tiered FCS programs like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State and followed that model again in this case.
The Sun Belt, with headquarters in New Orleans, La., was established in 1976 and began sponsoring football in 2001. It now has ties to seven bowl games.
With the Chants emerging as perennial FCS contenders under head coach Joe Moglia the last couple years, the men’s basketball program coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, the men’s soccer program leading the NCAA in wins since 2010 and a perennial fixture in the NCAA tournament and the baseball program long a fixture on the national scene, it’s not surprising that Coastal Carolina caught the interest of the Sun Belt.
What is a bit surprising is how quickly it all came together in the last several months.
Former Coastal Carolina athletic director Hunter Yurachek, now in the same position at Houston, had preliminary talks with Benson and the Sun Belt several years ago, but there was nothing residual from that past discussion to forecast this move until the league initiated contact again several months ago.
Even DeCenzo had to admit that he couldn’t have seen this coming six months ago.
“No, absolutely not. Again, it was not something that we were actively pursuing,” he said. “As I said, three years ago when I believe the [Sun Belt] commissioner reached out to Hunter Yurachek and Hunter came to me and I said, ‘Politely say no’ because we weren’t anywhere near ready. Three years later when the idea got floated, I think we’re in a much different position. Recognizing this was probably three months, three and a half, maybe four months total since that first phone call came in, it was quick, it was a lot of intense work, but clearly worth it.”
Check back for more reaction and comments after the news conference.
Ryan Young: 843-626-0318, @RyanYoungTSN
The Sun Belt Conference
Here’s a look at the newly expanded reach of the Sun Belt Conference with the addition of Coastal Carolina.
Little Rock, Ark.
San Marcos, Texas
*Does not sponsor football
New Mexico State**
Las Cruces, N.M.
**Associate football-only members