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Sun Belt Was Right to Halt Expansion – From the Bird’s Nest

Commissioner Karl Benson

The Sun Belt Conference recently announced they were adding the University of Texas-Arlington to their membership, effective July 1, 2013.

Then, they made another announcement.

“No further expansion is planned at this time.”

If Karl Benson had been in the room, I’d have hugged him.

Ever since conference realignment started its latest phase, there’s been a lot of speculation as to what the Sun Belt could, and should, do.

When he was named Sun Belt Commissioner in March, Benson said he wanted to see the Sun Belt go to twelve football playing schools.  At the time, it appeared Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference were going to merge.  They probably were going to go to 20 schools and Benson figured there would be some schools looking for a home and the Sun Belt just might be that home.

Benson has since said he had an eye on Texas-San Antonio and Louisiana Tech, to go along with Texas State and Georgia State.  And, anticipating the loss of FIU and North Texas, the SBC would then have twelve schools for football.  Charlotte, who was still a few years away from FBS football, would be a great fourteenth school (remember, UALR is part of the Sun Belt).  Charlotte could explore moving up to FBS at its own leisure.

But, the merger collapsed and CUSA decided to expand to fourteen.  UTSA, Tech and Charlotte got invites to that league.

The Sun Belt added Georgia State and Texas State, as expected.

The day Texas State accepted their invitation, Benson appeared in an exclusive interview on “Bird’s Eye View.”  In that conversation, he said he was “tempering” the thought of twelve football playing schools for the time being.

But that didn’t stop the fans of other would-be members from flooding message boards touting their school as the next Sun Belt addition.  Fans of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern were especially vocal.

By the time TSU accepted their invitation, the rumors were strong Texas-Arlington would be next.  The move absolutely made sense.  With the Sun Belt having eleven members, one of them non-football, adding a second non-football school to get the total membership to twelve made total sense.  Now the league could use the travel partner concept.  Headed to Texas State?  You’ll also head to UTA.  Arkansas State/UALR, Louisiana/ULM, WKU/Middle Tennessee, Troy/South Alabama and Georgia State/FAU as travel partners made perfect sense.  Now the league could split into divisions for volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball and, if they so chose, baseball.  That would reduce travel costs.  That would reduce missed class time.

The message to the membership that day was clear:  Football may drive the bus, but we have to think of the passengers as well.

The league announced they would form a committee to look at the feasibility of a twelve-team football league.  They would be charged with looking at the pros and cons of a championship game.  And, that committee would report back to the membership.

That move pleased everyone who was in Sandestin, FL for the Sun Belt spring meetings.  It isn’t often you get the CEO’s, Atlhletic Directors and coaches to agree on something.  But, the decision to stop expansion at 10/12 was lauded by everyone.

One of the biggest issues facing the decision makers was perception.

The Sun Belt, since its inception as a football conference in 2001, was considered the weakest link in the FBS football chain.  The reality is, the Sun Belt in recent years has finished ahead of the Mid-American Conference more than once.  But the perception was still there.

Now, the membership was faced with adding three teams moving up from the FCS ranks in South Alabama (announced before all the dominoes fell), Texas State and Georgia State.  That meant the Sun Belt was going to take another perception hit.  Expanding even further would mean the league would have to add two more FBS hopefuls, which would weaken the perception of the league even further, or add the only two FBS schools available in New Mexico State and Idaho, neither of which fits the Sun Belt geographic footprint.  The coaches were vocal in their wish that no more FCS schools be added.

There would be many who would suggest the addition of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern would benefit the league as two of the nation’s most respected FCS programs.  But the reality is, they’re FCS programs.  And, while they might jump into the league and immediately be competitive, the perception of adding FIVE FCS move-ups would have been a perception hit the league just wasn’t ready to take.  And, travel to  Boone, NC would be a nightmare for anyone having to fly their non-football teams in, which was everyone in the western division.  Statesboro, GA wouldn’t be much better.

By holding firm at ten for football and twelve for other sports, the league stays geographically compact, especially in the west.  The travel partner concept keeps travel costs down.  With more inter-division play, there’s less class time missed. And, even if more realignment dominoes fall and the Sun Belt is once again affected, they’re still in good shape, needing just eight members to be viable as a football league.

For those who are hell bent on a twelve team football league, well, maybe it will still happen.  The CEO’s will move on that carefully.  And, they made decide that, for this league, there are more pros than cons, in which case we’ll be talking about this again.  If that happens, perhaps it’s time to look to Las Cruces.  You’ll never sell me on Moscow.

But in the meantime, the league acted in the best interests of not only football, but  other passengers on the bus as well.

And THAT is refreshing.

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