Mercer departure could cause changes for A-Sun

sports@macon.comJune 3, 2013 

Now that Mercer has found a new home for its athletics program, announcing last week that it is moving to the Southern Conference, you would expect the A-Sun to do the same thing,

The A-Sun Conference office has been housed in Macon since 1993 when it was moved here from Athens when Bill Bibb became the conference commissioner.

Bibb, a former athletics director and basketball coach at Mercer, had a home in Macon, and geographically, with the makeup of the A-Sun then, it was about as centrally located as the conference could get. At the time, the conference had teams as far south as Miami (Florida International), as far west as Shreveport (Centenary) and east to the College of Charleston.

With Mercer leaving the A-Sun, it is doubtful the presidents of the remaining schools in the conference would want the conference office in a city where they don’t have a member school. A move to a new location would be the fourth in the history of the 35-year old A-Sun.

The first conference office was in Birmingham, with the late Cliff Wettig serving as part-time commissioner. When Bob Vanatta became the conference’s first full-time commissioner, he moved the office to Shreveport, where it remained for four years before he resigned to become the AD at Louisiana Tech. The late Lou McCullough, a former AD at Iowa State, followed Vanatta, moving the conference office to Athens.

While I think the move by Mercer is in the best long-term interest of the university, these could be precarious times for the A-Sun. With the departures of Mercer and East Tennessee State, there is no assurance that the remaining members in the conference are not exploring other conference affiliations. Kennesaw State will begin playing scholarship football in 2015, and it could be on the radar for either the Southern or the Big South conferences, especially since the Owls are in the media-rich Atlanta market.

Other teams on the northern tier of the A-Sun are Northern Kentucky, still in transition from Division II to Division I status, Lipscomb in Nashville, Tenn., and USC Upstate in Spartanburg, S.C. USC Upstate would appear to be a perfect match for the Big South, except that it doesn’t play football. But that may not be a factor as there are five current members of that conference that don’t sponsor the sport.

I am not sure what options Lipscomb and Northern Kentucky would have. Neither has football but still could be possibilities for the Ohio Valley if that conference wants to expand. Belmont, a former A-Sun member, is one of two current OVC schools that doesn’t play football with, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville being the other. Morehead State has the sport, but, like Campbell, plays in the Pioneer Football League. Lipscomb reportedly has interest in the Missouri Valley.

With VMI leaving the Big South to join Mercer and East Tennessee in the Southern Conference, the Big South will be down to just five scholarship football programs after the 2013 season. Stony Brook was an associate member last season but departed to become an associate member of the Colonial Athletic Association in football this coming fall. The five Big South football schools in 2014 will be Presbyterian, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, Gardner-Webb and Liberty. To be eligible for NCAA postseason FCS play, a conference must have a minimum of six programs.

I could see the Big South approaching A-Sun members Jacksonville and Stetson. Both play non-scholarship football, but, like Mercer, could move to the scholarship variety, and if that were to happen not only could they be Big South candidates, but the Southern Conference might have an interest, as well, if it wants to go beyond the 10 in place for the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast would seem to be fits for the Big South, but neither currently play football, although that could change. North Florida reportedly is considering adding it and seeking membership in the Southern Conference.

Keeping A-Sun in business might be a challenge, but I do feel current commissioner Ted Gumbart and his staff are up to the task. The conference, no doubt, will look for schools to replace Mercer and East Tennessee State, and there are options out there. This is all speculation, of course, and hopefully the A-Sun will remain viable, no matter where it is located. But I don’t think the last domino has fallen yet in conference realignment.

Bobby Pope is the executive director of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Contact him at bobbypope428@gmail.com

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