SoCon stabilizes with new members

Through the years, the Southern Conference at various times has included Alabama and Auburn, Georgia and Georgia Tech, Clemson and South Carolina.

In other words, most of what is now the SEC and ACC.

The 92-year-old league staged its latest transformation Thursday, adding new member Mercer and welcoming back former members VMI and East Tennessee State.

“It’s a very good day for the Southern Conference,” said commissioner John Iamarino, whose league had lost five members, including College of Charleston, in recent months.

With the three new schools on board in 2014-15, the SoCon will have 10 members. That’s down from 12, but Iamarino said these 10 are committed to the league.

“We don’t have that cloud hanging over our head of institutions weighing options to leave,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity ahead for us.”

League presidents voted Thursday at the SoCon meetings in Hilton Head to invite ETSU, Mercer and VMI to join as of July 1, 2014. ETSU and Mercer, both starting up football programs, will leave the Atlantic Sun; VMI comes back from the Big South.

ETSU and Mercer formally accepted the invitations Thursday; VMI will today.

Wofford athletic director Richard Johnson said the announcement shows that the SoCon will survive the recent turmoil.

“You go back in the history of our league, every time there’s been a transition, someone has said the league is falling apart,” he said. “And every time, the league has been able to morph into a different entity, and sometimes a stronger entity.

“Every team comes in and leaves its mark, and these three will be no exception.”

The SoCon’s latest transition began when Georgia Southern and App State, with nine FCS national titles between them, left to pursue their FBS ambitions in the Sun Belt. College of Charleston and Elon are headed to the Colonial Athletic Association and basketball power Davidson to the Atlantic 10, as those leagues replenish their ranks after being raided by leagues higher up the food chain.

SoCon officials said their goal was to replace those schools without expanding its traditional Southern-states footprint.

“We’re not chasing dollars, we’re not chasing markets,” said Wofford’s Johnson. “We’re chasing what’s best for our student-athletes, and going back to why conferences exist, where athletes are an extra-curricular activity and we can minimize missed class time.”

Citadel athletic director Larry Leckonby said the new league “is really solidified with 10 members who all want to be in the SoCon. They want to be in a geographic conference where we can bus our teams everywhere and give fans a chance to watch all the games if they choose to.

“Most leagues in today’s world have certainly gone beyond regional footprints for other reasons.”

The new members:

• ETSU, a SoCon member from 1978-2005, is re-starting football and plans to begin play in 2015; the Bucs could start SoCon football as soon as 2016. ETSU’s baseball team is coached by former Citadel standout Tony Skole; his team is playing in the NCAA regionals at Vanderbilt this weekend. ETSU’s basketball team was once a SoCon power, winning six tournament titles from 1989-2004.

• Virginia Military Institute was a SoCon member from 1924-2003 and made the Big South basketball title game in 2007, 2009 and 2012 under coach Digger Baucom. The football team is coached by former USC coach Sparky Woods.

• Mercer, in Macon, Ga., brings strong baseball and basketball programs, having won the Atlantic Sun regular season title this year in both. Coach Bob Hoffman’s basketball team beat Tennessee in the NIT, and the baseball team is playing in the NCAA regionals at Mississippi State. The Bears’ fledgling football program is led by former Furman coach Bobby Lamb, and begins play this season. Mercer should be ready for a SoCon slate in 2014, Iamarino said.