College of Charleston took a first step toward possibly leaving the Southern Conference for the Colonial Athletic Association on Tuesday, a move that could come within two months, according to the school’s president.
The athletics committee of the school’s Board of Trustees discussed the potential move during a morning meeting, with school president George Benson on hand.
“There really is no timeline” for a decision, Benson said after the meeting. “We want to make sure we think it through and have consulted all the proper constituents, and make sure everyone has had an opportunity to give us input and advice from both sides.
“It could be within the next month or two months.”
Committee chairman Dwight Johnson and athletic director Joe Hull insisted there’s been no “formal invitation” from the CAA, which is seeking to replace three departing members.
But it’s clear that College of Charleston and fellow SoCon member Davidson are top targets for the CAA, which now has nine members in a footprint stretching from UNC Wilmington to Northeastern University in Boston.
And it’s also clear that College of Charleston is seriously considering the move. The athletics committee will make a recommendation to the full Board of Trustees, which next meets on Aug. 3, Hull said.
“I’d be surprised if we were making a decision by then,” Hull said.
Hull said he’s already discussed the potential move with Cougar coaches and with members of the Cougar Club, the school’s athletic booster group.
“I would say it was real positive,” Hull said of feedback from the Cougar Club. “I’m not sure everybody who wanted to say something spoke up. It was generally positive, but I think those people would also be pleased if we stay where we are.”
The response from coaches varies by sport, he said. In basketball, the CAA ranked 14th in men’s basketball RPI last year, compared with 23rd for the SoCon. But in baseball, the SoCon came in at seventh compared with 18th for the CAA, and sent three teams to the NCAA tournament, including the Cougars, compared with one from the CAA.
“Each of our 21 sports stands on its own,” Hull said. “In baseball, the SoCon is stronger, so baseball might have a different perspective than other sports. But I think it’s fair to say that in general, the Colonial is perceived nationally as a little stronger conference.”
Hull cited the uncertain future of the SoCon, which College of Charleston joined in 1998, and increased TV exposure in the CAA as two factors supporting a move.
SoCon members Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are both seeking a move up to an FBS (Division I-A) league, with App State generally regarded as being closer to making the switch.
“Certainly, that’s one of many questions,” Hull said.
The CAA recently signed a five-year deal with NBC Sports Network, which includes broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet regional networks and through NBCSports.com. The SoCon’s current exposure is limited to webcasts on ESPN3.com after the league dropped its deal with public television stations.
“The level of TV exposure in men’s basketball the Colonial gets is dramatically more exposure than the SoCon does,” Hull said. “So there are issues on the positive side and other side for us to look at.”
Among the chief concerns, Hull said, are travel time and costs in the CAA. Seven of the nine members in the CAA are farther away than Samford, at 463 miles the Cougars’ longest road trip in the SoCon. One C of C source said travel budgets could double or triple in the CAA.
“One of the concerns is the obvious cost of going to more distant places,” Hull said. “And the bigger issue is how much time this will take from student-athletes sitting on a bus or an airplane or in an airport trying to get to games.”
Another concern is the $600,000 that College of Charleston would owe the SoCon if it left with less than two years’ notice (the number drops to $300,000 with more than two years’ notice).
“That’s no small amount of money,” Hull said. “But that’s part and parcel with any team that leaves one conference for another.”
The CAA is losing its highest-profile basketball program in Virginia Commonwealth, which made a run to the Final Four in 2011 and is now in the Atlantic 10. Also leaving are Old Dominion (Conference USA) and Georgia State (Sun Belt).
CAA commissioner Tom Yeager has said he plans to announce new members by the end of summer. The CAA also is seeking football-playing members and reportedly is interested in New York schools Albany and Stony Brook, among others.
Benson said it’s a big decision for College of Charleston, which has risen from the NAIA ranks to NCAA Division I as members of the defunct Trans America Athletic Conference and now the SoCon.
“It’s very important,” he said. “Athletics is a big part of any university in this day and age, and the teams you compete against, the rivalries you build up, are important. One of the ways a university gets the attention of the public is through the sports pages, through athletics, and we take it very seriously.”