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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Where Does the Southern Conference Go Now?

Well, some might say "good riddance" to the latest defectors from the Southern Conference. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are now leaving for the joys of Tuesday night football, sparing all of us the "joy" of taking our life into our own hands as we drive through Statesboro.

It's a huge blow for the SoCon, along with the loss of the College of Charleston to the Colonial Athletic Association. ASU and GSU have nine national championships between them, and College of Charleston has represented the league exceptionally in basketball and baseball. It really hurts the profile of the conference on a national level.

Now, the question is this:  What can the SoCon do to get that profile back on top, both as a I-AA (sorry...FCS) football power and as a "mid-major" in other sports?

The obvious response is to add teams. But who should they add?

Everyone knows the standard criteria that every conference should consider when adding member schools:  Academic compatibility, athletic commitment, facilities, and geography (media markets, recruiting regions, and--at least in FCS--proximity).

But two other criteria need to be considered:  Endowment and graduate programs.

Endowment doesn't indicate the amount of $$$ that schools will have to spend on athletics. But it is an indicator of the alumni commitment and the ability of the school to raise money. This means potential for paying to hire/retain coaches, build better facilities, and add or improve sports.

Grad programs may seem to be the oddball in the discussion (Furman has few, Wofford still has none). Make no mistake, these programs are the new cash cow in higher education. Again, they don't mean that athletic departments will directly benefit. But it does mean that the institution has revenue streams that will allow them to designate money towards athletics.

With all these in mind, who are the candidates and who should the Southern Conference wine and dine?

1.  Mercer University

-Est. Endowment:   213 million

-Est. Enrollment:  4500 undergraduate, 3800 graduate

This is An Affair to Remember for a revamped Southern Conference. The Bears should be the #1 candidate for the Southern Conference, as they open their first season of football in 2013.

It's a geographic fit, picking a Georgia school to replace a Georgia school. They have multiple campuses, including graduate programs and a medical school in Atlanta. They have an established basketball program and begin football under Bobby Lamb. As a former SoCon Player of the Year and head coach at Furman, Lamb is familiar with all the expectations of the conference.

There is no question about Mercer's academic history or reputation, and there doesn't appear to be any sign of downgrading. With a growing alumni base, a share of the Greater Atlanta market and tremendous potential, Mercer is easily the cream of this crop...and Lamb's trips back to Greenville should be, well, intriguing.

2.  Gardner-Webb University

-Est. Endowment:  48 million

-Est. Enrollment:  2700 undergraduate, 1600 graduate

The Bulldogs' growth in the last 20 years is nothing less than impressive. A look around the campus reveals brand new facilities all around, including relatively new, extremely attractive football and basketball facilities. The alumni base is growing, particularly as the University continues to add graduate programs. It is absolutely a natural geographic fit, 40 miles west of Charlotte and less than two hours' drive for Furman, Wofford, Western Carolina, and Davidson.

The problem is that Gardner-Webb's athletic history, fundraising possibilities, and media market offer absolutely nothing. Directions to the school are, "Go to the cow pasture, and take a left!" There is very little nearby to entice fans, and the school does not have a great athletic tradition on which to build.

Gardner-Webb may end up in the SoCon some day, but it should be as a result of expansion after more viable candidates are pursued.

3.  Presbyterian College


I'll just let you read the numbers from this link. (Okay, so it's Wikipedia...even there, they don't look like a good candidate).

4.  Coastal Carolina

-Est. Endowment:  23.5 million

-Est. Enrollment:  8360

Here's the good:  Coastal Carolina has a demonstrated commitment to athletics. Even as a new football program, they've been to the FCS playoffs several times and boast several NFL players. They've also been to the NCAA tournament in basketball and baseball (probably their strongest sport). It would give the SoCon a strong presence along the coast to replace College of Charleston. Their facilities are terrific, and they show a solid commitment to getting better. Their baseball program would be a welcome addition to an already strong conference. (College baseball may not be big business everywhere, but it is in South Carolina).

Here's the bad:  Coastal's academic reputation is not the best, and several school presidents seem opposed to their inclusion. Their endowment isn't great, nor is their pool upon which to draw donors, since the school is relatively new. However, with additional graduate programs and a growing alumni base, that may be destined to change.

Coastal may not be making any of the top 10 lists in US News, other than the one for party schools. But it's certainly no worse academically than Georgia Southern or other potential candidate East Tennessee State, and their profile is steadily improving. SoCon school presidents might have to swallow their pride (snobbery?) in order to get this up-and-coming program into the fold.

5. William and Mary

-Est. Endowment: 644 million

-Est. Enrollment: 6171 undergraduates, 2087 graduates

This makes sense on so many levels that they are almost as good a fit as Mercer. The only negative is that travel to Eastern Virginia is a headache, but the return may be worth the investment.

W and M is a former member of the Southern Conference. They offer access to recruiting in the Central/Tidewater/Northern Virginia area, not to mention those media markets. Their endowment and alumni base is solid, and they have a strong commitment to athletics (especially football). Not to mention they boast Mike Tomlin as an alum.

Yes, it's a long ride to Williamsburg. But if schools could make the trip in the 60s, then it shouldn't be a problem now. And you can take a side trip to Busch Gardens while you're at it.

6. East Tennessee State

-Est. Endowment:  97 million

-Est. Enrollment: 10,259 undergraduate, 2589 graduate

Well, Johnson City Community College may want to come back to the SoCon!

That's not an inaccurate assessment of ETSU from its previous stint in the league, but that may all be changing. The addition of numerous graduate programs, including a medical school, has elevated the school's academic profile. It's not Harvard, but it's no longer Harvard on the Hill, either.

The Bucs have a long-standing basketball tradition, and they are returning to the football field as well. Fortunately for all involved, they won't be playing in the Mini-Dome, a facility that resembles a design from an exercise yard at a state penitentiary. (In fact, I'm pretty sure the playing surface wasn't even that good). A new stadium and a new program give the Bucs some appeal.

I'm still not sold on ETSU. The Tri-cities area is beautiful and growing, but the Vols still rule the roost. It's not fertile ground for recruiting or media, and their loyalty is not stellar (they already left the conference once). Its academic reputation will be a question mark for some SoCon schools. But once again, it's not any worse than Georgia Southern.

So what are the top picks for the SoCon, from one independent blogger's perspective?

Top-Shelf:  Mercer, William and Mary

Good Buy on Special:  Coastal Carolina, ETSU

Happy Hour Only:  Gardner-Webb

Cheap Stuff You Bought in College:  PC

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