If That’s Movin’ Up Then I’m Movin’ Out

Unless you are a fan of low-major basketball programs or FCS football conferences that are struggling to such an extent that they need to join forces in order to preserve having a playoff spot, you probably are not familiar with the Atlantic Sun Conference. Last year, one of its new schools, Bellarmine, got some notoriety for winning its conference tournament but not being allowed to participate in the NCAA tournament because it had not spent enough time in Division I, having been a newly promoted school. The same is the case this year as they are in the midst of their promotion to Division I. However, as obscure as the conference is, three of its teams are leaving the Atlantic Sun to move to Conference USA: Liberty (a well-endowed Christian private university that already plays football on the FBS level as an independent at present), Kennesaw State (a public research university in Georgia), and Jacksonville State University (a public Alabama university).

Why is this happening? It so happens that Conference USA was itself raided pretty heavily, losing six of its current conference teams to other conferences, and so it got desperate to maintain its own status as a mid-major conference and raided the Atlantic Sun, as noted above, as well as two schools from the WAC in New Mexico State (also a FBS independent school) and Sam Houston State University (a state university in Texas). And why is Conference USA losing six schools in University of Alabama at Birmingham, Florida Atlantic University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, University of North Texas, Rice University, and University of Texas at San Antonio? Well, it so happens that these six universities accepted invitations to join the American Athletic Conference.

And why is this happening? It so happens that the American Athletic Conference itself lost three universities in the University of Central Florida, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Houston. And why did it lose these three schools? These three schools, along with Brigham Young University (a private school that plays currently as an FBS independent as well as in basketball with the West Coast Conference), were invited to join the Big 12 Conference, one of the major conferences, but one which itself had lost two universities (the University of Texas and Oklahoma University) to the Southeastern Conference, which is generally recognized, if a bit unwillingly, as the premier football conference in the United States at present. For similar reasons, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles have joined the Big Ten Conference, which is also a premier football and basketball conference, despite the total lack of geographical sense in doing so.

The NCAA does not like seeing teams promote from one level to another, and punishes these schools by denying them lucrative postseason play for multiple years after a school has promoted, even if a team has earned this on the field. St. Thomas, for example, won the Pioneer Conference in FCS but was ineligible for the FCS playoffs because of its promotion from Division II. We have already mentioned the injustice of Bellarmine being denied a spot in the NCAA tournament last year because of its promotion. Similarly, this year James Madison University has been ruled ineligible for any postseason play despite a stellar record that includes wins against Middle Tennessee State and Coastal Carolina and a brief spot at #25 on the rankings. This is no mean feat for a team in its first year of FBS football, playing a full FBS schedule that allowed it to be in turn considered to be an FBS team for all of its opponents.

Why are schools promoted, though, from one division to another? It does not appear to be due to their own selfish and grasping nature as much as it appears to be due to pull factors relating to a continual state of flux within college sports. As super conferences get larger and wealthier, those conferences that are on the losing end of realignment in turn raid the next best teams from conferences just below them, and this triggers chain reactions that reach down well below Division I. When a team like St. Thomas of Minnesota or Bellarmine gets promoted from Division II to Division I, then the conferences that lost such teams themselves have to go raiding to keep enough members to stay viable as a conference. As long as the conferences at the top are seeking to grow, as they did from eight to ten to twelve to fourteen to now sixteen teams, the conferences struggling to keep up with this sort of growth themselves have to find teams to join them in larger conferences, which in turn provides spaces for lower conferences to fill, and still over conferences to fill in turn. The NCAA does not appear particularly interested in stopping the lunacy of superconferences expanding to seek to dominate the revenue sports of football and basketball, and until it does so, one can expect that the moving up and moving out will continue apace as it has for the last thirty years or so.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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