Decision time for Cougars

Sports -- College of Charleston athletic director Joe Hull spoke at the press conference where Bobby Cremins (foreground) announced he would not be returning as head coach of the men's basketball team -- at TD Arena on Monday March 19, 2012. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)

With officials at the Southern Conference and College of Charleston not talking, the news that the Cougars have been invited to join the Colonial Athletic Association had to come from Statesboro, Ga., of all places.

When Georgia Southern athletic director Sam Baker let slip to the hometown paper that the CAA had issued invitations to SoCon members College of Charleston and Davidson, the news surprised few.

After all, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager had already warned his SoCon counterpart, John Iamarino, that his league would come calling on SoCon schools in an effort to replace departing members Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and Georgia State.

But Baker’s comment, and Yeager’s prediction last week that the CAA would introduce new members for 2013-14 by the end of summer (Sept. 21, in case you are wondering), confirmed that wheels are turning on George Street, where College of Charleston officials face a big decision.

Do the Cougars stick with the SoCon, the league it joined in 1998 after rising from the NAIA to NCAA Division I? Or do they jump to the Colonial, a league that until recently had been viewed as a clear step up from the SoCon in the flagship sport of basketball?

Rumors on Monday had College of Charleston announcing a decision as early as this week. But that seems unlikely, given that the school’s Board of Trustees is not set to meet again until Aug. 2 (their last meeting was June 11). According to a school official, the Board of Trustees has yet to discuss a potential move to the CAA.

Off-the-record conversations with sources in the SoCon and at College of Charleston on Monday indicated that there’s a real chance the Cougars could go. Some College of Charleston officials think that the nine remaining members of the Colonial are a good fit academically, and that the CAA footprint (stretching from North Carolina through Virginia to Philadelphia, Boston and New York) can be a fertile recruiting ground, particularly in basketball.

Further, some think membership in the Colonial might better position College of Charleston for whatever comes next in the shifting landscape of NCAA athletics, particularly in regard to basketball. Fear of getting left behind has driven much of the recent realignment in college sports.

On the flip side, CAA basketball isn’t what it used to be. And moving from the relatively compact SoCon to the far-flung Colonial will require a major commitment in travel dollars from College of Charleston.

Since 2000, the Colonial has received four at-large bids to the NCAA basketball tournament, which is four more than the SoCon has ever received, at least in the modern era. Last season, the CAA ranked 14th in conference RPI compared with the SoCon’s 23rd.

But with the loss of VCU, which made a run to the Final Four in 2011 and finished No. 34 in the RPI last season, and Old Dominion (No. 103) and Georgia State (No. 137), the Colonial seems to be sliding back toward the SoCon in mid-major status. On top of that, two CAA schools (Towson and UNC Wilmington) have been declared ineligible for the NCAA tournament next year due to poor Academic Performance Rate scores, leaving just seven teams eliglble for the CAA tournament next season.

Of course, the relative strengths of the SoCon and Colonial vary by sport. In baseball, for example, College of Charleston would take a hit by leaving the SoCon (ranked 7th in RPI last year) for the Colonial (18th). The SoCon landed three teams in the NCAA baseball regionals last year (including the Cougars), the Colonial just one (UNC Wilmington).

But some things that won’t change are the mileage numbers on the map. In the SoCon, the Cougars’ longest road trip is some 440 miles to Samford in Birmingham, Ala. In the Colonial, seven of the nine remaining schools are farther away, topped by Northeastern University in Boston (940 miles).

Cougar teams would almost certainly have to fly to some league contests in the Colonial, while the SoCon is strictly a bus league. And travel budgets for sports such as baseball and soccer could more than double in the CAA.

On top of that, the school would have to fork over $600,000 to the SoCon if it left with less than two years’ notice, although the Colonial might be prepared to help out with such fees. The penalty is $300,000 with more than two years’ notice.

A move to the Colonial would apparently not cost the Cougars a chance to compete for SoCon championships next year. The SoCon does not have in its by-laws a rule that prohibits exiting teams from competing for league championships, as the CAA does. In the past, teams such as Marshall and East Tennessee State have left without any such bans.

It’s a lot for College of Charleston athletic director Joe Hull, who just hired men’s and women’s basketball coaches, to think about. Maybe he’ll ask Sam Baker for advice.