Benson Leaves the Sun Belt in Better Shape – From the Bird’s Nest
Karl Benson got scooped...on his own story.
The Sun Belt Commissioner planned to announce Thursday that he would step down as the league's leader when his contract expires next year.
But, Tim Buckley of theadvertiser.com beat him to the punch with a story Wednesday afternoon, prompting the Commissioner to send out an email with the press release. Benson will have a conference call Thursday afternoon to answer questions.
I knew things would be different in 2012 when Benson was named to succeed Wright Waters as the league's head man. In fact, the change came with his first statement.
"I'm Karl Benson. My cell phone number is ......"
With that, Benson sent a message that he would be accessible. And he has been.
But Benson became the Commissioner during some troubled times. Conference realignment was running amok. The Sun Belt had lost North Texas and the two Florida schools. Middle Tennessee was right behind. And, right about the time Benson had it figured out how to get to 12 football playing schools in order to have a championship game, he got blindsided by Western Kentucky.
Troubled times, to be sure.
But, Benson persevered.
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State were added. Ditto Texas State and a second non-football school, UTA. And, to get to 12 football schools, Benson and the league CEO's agreed to add New Mexico State and Idaho as football only schools in order to fulfill the requirements for a league championship game. And, that was when Western Kentucky decided to bolt.
The Sun Belt had eleven football playing schools. Overall there were 13. Not good numbers.
There were several schools that had an interest in joining the league and moving up to the FBS. And New Mexico State wanted to be considered for full membership. Eventually the membership decided on Coastal Carolina. And, the NCAA's mandate of needing twelve schools to have a title game went away, thanks to the Big 12 which was down to ten members.
That meant a tough decision. But the right decision was made. Idaho and New Mexico State were jettisoned from the league.
And, while Benson and the Sun Belt didn't have a perfect league, they had a relatively compact one. Two schools in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas meant travel partners for some Olympic sports, particularly men's and women's basketball. Travel would be easier and more cost effective. There would be fewer flights and more bus trips. And, while the current total membership is relatively new, the new alignment is working.
Benson had been punched in the gut by members who decided to leave. But he and the membership punched back and came up with something everyone could live with.
But that was far from his only accomplishment.
The Sun Belt will have its inaugural title game this December. And, the game will be televised on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC. The game will feature the champions from the newly created divisions for football.
He renegotiated the television contact with ESPN and increased the revenue distribution to the membership by 2,000%.
He was instrumental in the addition of three bowl games (Camellia, Cure, Arizona) with ties to the league, giving them five bowl tie-ins. Unlike some other leagues, the bowl tie-ins make geographical sense, allowing fans to be able to attend those games. There is a good chance a newly-approved bowl game in Myrtle Beach will allow the Sun Belt to end its agreement with Arizona, tightening the geography even more.
He moved the Sun Belt basketball tournament out of Hot Springs and into New Orleans. And, indoor track and field, women's soccer and baseball either have moved or will move to neutral sites.
And, he projected a new level of transparency within the league. When officials made egregious errors, discipline ensued. And, for the first time, the league was public in announcing the discipline. Accountability is a good thing. Public accountability is even better.
That's a lot to get done in six years.
And, for fans locally, one of his biggest accomplishments has been the national recognition of the Ragin' Cajuns athletic branding as "Louisiana." Nationally, the school was repeatedly told by major media outlets they would not be recognized as such until the league recognized them that way. Finally, objections to the branding were dropped and Benson went to work on ESPN, the NCAA and the Associated Press. For some, old habits die hard, but the school is now generally recognized with the brand "Louisiana" for athletics. This, after the schools name was officially changed to the University of Louisiana in 1984 (only to be struck down by an LSU dominated legislature) and the name change to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette nearly 20 years ago.
Benson's announcement is really no surprise. He will turn 67 in December. His home is in Denver. His wife Sarah is there. He confided in me many months ago he would not seek a contract extension. And, Arkansas State Athletic Director Terry Mohajir inadvertently let the cat out of the proverbial bag during a radio interview some time back.
I asked him at Sun Belt Media Days what he would like to see accomplished before he stepped down. He said simply, basketball needs to be fixed. To that end, the Sun Belt will do some unique, late season conference scheduling beginning next season. And, a scheduling agreement with Conference USA and the Horizon League should help non conference scheduling as well.
That may not fix basketball, but it's a start.
Benson said in his statement he is not necessarily retiring. He said he will not actively seek work but if work seeks him he will consider it as long as he doesn't have to leave Denver. It should be noted Benson's home in the Rockies is about five blocks from the University of Denver, a former Sun Belt member.
Where the Sun Belt turns now is anyone's guess. Later this fall the search will begin and should be completed a few months before Benson's contract is up. Whoever is chosen will have plenty of work to do, but that person will inherit a much more stable situation than what greeted Benson when he took over.
Personally, I'm happy for Karl. He's fought the good fight and deserves to have the opportunity to live the rest of his days in an area he loves and with the woman he loves. I will miss him. I'll miss our chats, the times we've spent together and I"ll even miss our disagreements.
But I'll still have his friendship. And, I'm grateful for that.