CAA debate heats up at C of C

It was pretty clear where College of Charleston athletic director Joe Hull and athletics committee chairman Dwight Johnson stood Friday afternoon on the issue of leaving the Southern Conference to join the Colonial Athletic Association.

What wasn’t so clear, however, was how much support they had from other members of the college’s board of trustees.

The College of Charleston athletics committee met for 2½ hours Friday to discuss the school’s possible move from the Southern Conference to the CAA. After some lively debate between board members, the committee announced it will make a presentation to the school’s full board next month.

The next meeting of the board of trustees is scheduled for Oct. 19. However, an emergency meeting could be called sooner.

While Johnson, a member of the school’s board of trustees and the chairman of the board’s athletics committee, said the committee won’t make a recommendation either way about joining the CAA, his comments during the meeting came down clearly on the side of switching conferences.

The CAA has not made a formal invitation to the College of Charleston about joining the league.

Johnson made a compelling argument that a move to the CAA would enhance the school’s national reputation and attract not only elite athletes to the Lowcountry, but also elite students from across the country.

“We’re looking to attract the best of the best,” Johnson said.

Hull was equally enthusiastic about the possibility of joining the CAA, saying the move would help attract higher quality athletes.

At one point, Hull said prospective recruits viewed the school’s membership in the SoCon as a “negative” in all sports, with the exception of baseball.

Hull also said the SoCon was “invisible” on the national college basketball stage because the league only had four televised games. The CAA is scheduled to have 50 nationally televised basketball games this season.

But board member Jeff Schliz, who took part in the meeting via conference call, wasn’t convinced. He said he was against the Cougars joining the CAA. Schliz questioned Hull and Johnson about the athletic department’s budget and revenue projections in a report that was issued to its members.

“I just don’t think the figures we’re looking at are accurate,” Schliz said. “The figures we’re using are projections from revenue we think we’re going to generate by making this move. I’m not sure that’s good business.”

Schliz also questioned the wisdom of moving into a more challenging basketball league. The Cougars haven’t won a SoCon men’s basketball championship or played in the NCAA Tournament since 1999.

“Why are we leaving a conference we haven’t won in 12 years to go to a tougher league?” Schliz asked.

Last year, the CAA ranked 14th in men’s basketball RPI, compared with 23rd for the SoCon.

“We’re used to winning around here,” said board member Jimmy Hightower.

Not surprisingly, SoCon commissioner John Iamarino was less than pleased with some of the comments that came out of the meeting.

“I guess it’s kind of what Major League Baseball players go through in an arbitration meeting. The agent talks up the player and the ball club talks down the player,” Iamario said. “They are comments you don’t enjoy hearing, but we are still hoping and working to keep College of Charleston as a member. We think that’s in the best interest of the Southern Conference and the institution.

“We can’t control what people say. The comments that were made, some of them I certainly don’t agree with. But everyone has the right to say what they want to say.”

Hull said despite what he said during the meeting, the decision will be made by the board.

“What I tried to do was answer the questions that were asked of me,” Hull said. “If one of my answers sounded favorably and one sounded disfavorable it was because of the question that was asked. I’m not trying to take a position either way prior to the board’s decision. I’m not going to share my personal feelings on the issue.”

The CAA lost three members recently, including its highest profile basketball program in Virginia Commonwealth, which advanced to the 2011 Final Four. VCU left for the Atlantic-10, while Old Dominion (Conference USA) and Georgia State (Sun Belt) bolted for other leagues. It’s a trend that doesn’t appear to be slowing down. More than 40 schools have changed conferences in the last two years and Johnson said that many of the current conferences could vanish in the next 18 months. Current SoCon members Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have publicly expressed their interest in moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“You’ll start seeing mega-conferences pretty soon and it’s all about the $24 billion worth of football money,” Johnson said. “We don’t have football, so we’ve got to find our niche. Once we find our niche, we’re going to give ’em all their worth.”

Johnson said the possible demise of the SoCon and lure of CAA were the main factors in the school’s interest.

“I am worried about the future of the Southern Conference, but so is the Southern Conference,” Johnson said. “You’ve got schools that want to leave for a bigger share of that football money. It is more the lure of what the CAA offers than what might happen with the SoCon.”

If the school decides to join the CAA, Johnson said it could happen as soon as July. That would mean the school would owe the SoCon an exit fee of $600,000 for leaving the league with less than two years’ notice.

Johnson said he hopes the CAA will expand to 12 teams and have two divisions — Northern and Southern. The CAA has reportedly shown interest in adding Elon and Davidson, both current members of the SoCon.

The league currently has nine members from Wilmington, N.C. to Boston.