A-Sun ready to turn to the page

mlough@macon.comJune 29, 2014 

NCAA Georgetown Florida Gulf Coast Basketball

Florida Gulf Coast’s run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament in 2013 helped raise the profile of the A-Sun.


The Southern Conference boat suddenly was taking on water. In short order, five programs -- most of major impact in a variety of sports -- were leaving.

Soon enough, Mercer and East Tennessee State were headed for the A-Sun exit and to the Southern Conference.

Kennesaw State announced the start of football, a sport not sponsored by the A-Sun, inspiring some talk that Owls might soon also be A-Sun alumni.

The A-Sun wasn’t on its deathbed, but folks talked that way.

A funny thing happened before a priest was called to administer last rites. The A-Sun got stronger, a process that started around the time of the deathbed talk.

Florida Gulf Coast won the 2013 A-Sun men’s basketball tournament, knocking off tournament host Mercer. Within a few weeks, the national college basketball world knew about the Eagles and more about the A-Sun. Meanwhile, Mercer recovered from losing at home in the conference tournament and went 1-1 in the NIT, beating Tennessee and getting attention as the team that won the regular season title over Florida Gulf Coast.

The Eagles went 2-1 in the NCAA tournament, Dunk City was born, and the conference was on the map. Days before the official announcement that Mercer was moving, the Bears’ baseball team got an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

The clock ticked on the A-Sun as it prepared for vacancies, one created by a founding member of the conference in Mercer. Then 10 months later, the school’s men’s basketball team did the A-Sun a huge solid as it knocked off Duke in the NCAA tournament, 30 minutes from the Blue Devils’ campus, and delivered a postgame celebration that might have surpassed the win itself.

Weeks later, four A-Sun men’s golf teams went to the NCAA regionals with Kennesaw State advancing to the NCAA championship. And then the Owls’ baseball team won the Tallahassee Regional in the NCAA tournament and advanced to a Super Regional.

As it turns out, A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart was not necessarily at the helm of the Titanic.

“You say, ‘OK, we’ve had better academic success, better athletic success and more financial stability and future gains because of the wins in basketball, that we’re in the strongest position we’ve ever been.’ ” he said. “Academically, we’re succeeding at a higher rate than ever. Athletically, we’re succeeding at a higher rate than ever.

“As far as our financial base to execute whatever we determine are the right steps for our future, we’re in a better place than ever.”

Nobody envied Gumbart nor Southern Conference boss John Iamarino in 2013. Stability has become the exception as colleges all over -- big and small, successful and not, old and young -- seem to be in play. Mercer and ETSU were among them.

So while there’s no selling of furniture at the A-Sun’s office on Vineville Avenue, it’s not like Gumbart can relax, although things certainly are better than a year ago.

He lists the aforementioned accomplishments, as well as the strong softball season during which USC Upstate was ranked much of the time and three teams won a game in the NCAA softball tournament.

And he notes how many conferences can claim those accomplishments, each round of success eliminating conferences from bragging.

“You sift it down again,” he said. “You’re left with two conferences: The SEC and the A-Sun.”

Then he ticked off assorted academic accomplishments of conference members and specific teams, as well as passing assorted NCAA academic standards.

Gumbart is typically non-committal about expansion. The NCAA requires six eligible teams for automatic bids in postseason tournaments, except for seven in basketball. The A-Sun moves forward with eight programs in Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, Northern Kentucky, North Florida, Stetson and USC Upstate.

Having eight programs means more financial benefits for each, and the A-Sun will get a nice check from the NCAA for several years, courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer in the past two NCAA tournaments.

Gumbart wants to stay at eight for a while -- even that’s already tentative with speculation that Northern Kentucky will bolt for the Ohio Valley Conference soon after completing the transition from Division II -- and firm up plans and commitments.

“If there is an institution that we agree we’re interested in and they agree they’re interested in us, it wouldn’t be a short-term engagement. ‘Look, we want to carry forward with a long-term commitment,’ ” he said. “Again, we’re in the strongest position we’ve ever been.”

A-Sun lineup

Florida Gulf Coast


Kennesaw State


Northern Kentucky

North Florida


USC Upstate

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