Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
That bible verse came to mind after hearing Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Commissioner Dennis Thomas’ comments concerning the future of his conference during an interview with BLOCK Sports on June 16.
“Contrary to popular belief in some circles, the MEAC’s demise has been greatly exaggerated,” he said.
At that time, four programs — Florida A&M, Hampton, North Carolina A&T and Savannah State — had already left the MEAC over a two-year span.
One week later, Bethune-Cookman would announce that it would join cross-state rival Florida A&M in joining the Southwestern Athletic Conference in 2021, becoming the fifth institution to leave the conference.
“Greatly exaggerated,” Dr. Thomas?
A third of your conference will no longer be around in 2021, while conference charter member Delaware State has also been rumored to leave the MEAC for the Northeast Conference. Those institutions have won a combined 29 of the last 36 conference football championships, dating back to 1984.
Two of those programs — Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T — were the only MEAC teams ranked in the top 10 of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) home attendance leaders in 2019. The sports that support divisions (volleyball, tennis) will have to realign because the Southern Division will be down to two teams.
This type of uncertainty in college sports isn’t necessarily new to collegiate sports, or HBCU sports in particular.
Six schools — Delaware State, Howard, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Morgan State, North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central — left the CIAA to start the MEAC in 1970. In 2013, the Big East, which had thirteen members, split into two conferences. The latter will be referred to later in this editorial.
Now, I cannot comprehend how this instability can be considered an exaggeration. Either Thomas is entirely obtuse for what is going on, or he knows something that apparently, we as HBCU sports fans and even the leadership of the conference’s member institutions don’t.
“All of our presidents and chancellors are concerned,” Thomas explained.
These university leaders wouldn’t be concerned if everything were OK.
Still, Thomas later stated that the MEAC has “implemented a strategy in terms of how we move forward as a conference. Part of that strategy is to ensure that we have a core group of institutions to ensure that we will not lose our (NCAA) Division I status. From maintaining our Division I status, we can do that with seven members that meet the NCAA requirements.”
“Some people forget — given this microwave mentality in our society,” said Thomas, “we were founded with seven members from Dover, Delaware to Orangeburg, South Carolina,” referring to the league’s creation in 1970.
Thomas is correct. According to NCAA rules, the MEAC only needs seven members that play men’s and women’s basketball and have played the required minimum number of sports (six men’s sports & six women’s sports) together for eight consecutive years to maintain its Division I status.
With a footprint that is almost exactly like it was in its inception, the MEAC has eight remaining full members, including six institutions that sponsor FCS-level football, and will retain its NCAA automatic qualification in nine sponsored sports.
Translation, yes, the MEAC can sponsor football with less than ten teams, like the Big South (7), Ivy League (8), Northeast Conference (9), Patriot League (7) and Southern Conference (9) did in 2019.
As for that strategy moving forward, Howard University President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, the MEAC Council of Chief Executive Officers Chairperson, informed the media during a press conference Friday that the MEAC, along with the assistance of a consulting firm, will initiate a process for conference expansion, looking to complete Phase 1 of this process by mid-July. This search process will not be limited to HBCUs alone.
But, as Thomas has expressed recently, expansion is not a swift undertaking. “You can’t wave a magic wand, and people just come in. That’s not the way it works in Division I intercollegiate athletics. And that’s not going to happen with the MEAC,” said Thomas.
Again, the commissioner is correct. A search committee, which consists of the chancellors and presidents of MEAC member institutions, will need time to investigate and vet potential candidates.
Division II programs interested in moving to the Division I/FCS level will need a transitional period of no less than three years. They would also have to pay the NCAA’s $1.6 million membership fee, increase athletic scholarship funding for all its sponsored sports, and increase annual travel costs.
So, what are other potential expansion options for the MEAC?
Well, here’s an unconventional idea. How about combining the MEAC with another conference to form a multisport conference? Sounds crazy?
The Atlantic Sun Conference (ASUN) is looking to collaborate with another league to do precisely that. ASUN Conference Commissioner Ted Gumbart announced on Jan. 22 that their league membership has committed to a full exploration of multiple expansion opportunities.
In one of the future scenarios, the current ASUN members will partner with expansion members, theoretically with the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association, to form a new Division I multisport conference.
The ASUN would expand to 18-20 members. That expanded conference would then split, with these two conferences having a partnership and one of those conferences consisting of programs that primarily play football. These two “sister conferences” could then compete among themselves in Olympic sports (basketball, softball, baseball, volleyball, ETC.).
Has this been done before? The short answer to that is “yes.”
The Mountain West Conference was formed by eight institutions that withdrew from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). The most recent case, executed under the current NCAA conference membership rules, was the Big East and “The Catholic Seven.”
In 2010, the Big East had 16 members. Seven of which, later dubbed “The Catholic Seven” (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova), only played basketball. Eight played all sports, including football (Cincinnati, Connecticut, Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, West Virginia). Notre Dame played all sports except that it remained independent in football.
In December 2012, “The Catholic Seven” chose to split from the football playing schools to focus on basketball. Syracuse, Louisville, and Pittsburgh joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, Rutgers became a member of the Big Ten, and West Virginia joined the Big XII.
In contrast, the remaining football-playing members of the old Big East and several other schools formed the American Athletic Conference.
To make this a possibility for the MEAC, it would have to find a partner conference, preferably one that shares a geographical imprint. An ideal candidate would be the Patriot League, which also has seven members that sponsor football.
Yes, combining with another conference, especially one whose members are primarily predominantly white institutions (PWIs), which will have potential opponents that MEAC fans may not be familiar with, will take some time to get used to.
This option, however, will have institutions in five of the top 25 media markets in the United States, with New York (1), Philadelphia (4), Washington, DC (6), Boston (9) and Raliegh-Durham (25). It would be huge, as it pertains to increased marketing and sponsorship possibilities along with improved multimedia rights.
OK, so what if the MEAC does not want to add new members? As I stated earlier, they could stay pat with the institutions that they currently have, barring a departure by Delaware State. If another MEAC football program decides to go elsewhere, the NCAA will give the MEAC a two-year grace period to maintain its Division I status.
But what if the MEAC can not find a suitable member outside of the conference? There is a chance they could add a football team from within the conference.
There has been discussion for years that Maryland-Eastern Shore could restore their illustrious football program. In 2006, UMES alumni formed a group called “Hawks for Football,” which engaged in a fundraising effort to reinstate intercollegiate football in Princess Anne. In 2013, then-President Juliette B. Bell accepted recommendations not to restore the sport because “the university is not currently in position, with either human or fiscal resources, to reinstate football at this time.”
Recently, I was informed by a member of “Hawks for Football” that the efforts to bring back the sport is still ongoing. The question is “when?”.
As a long-time fan, I agree with Thomas when he says, “there’s no better conference” than the MEAC. I would hate to see it collapse. Maybe, just maybe, all this premature conversation about the downfall of the MEAC IS greatly exaggerated. Perhaps he and Dr. Frederick’s plan for expansion just might work. But what if it doesn’t? How much longer can the MEAC rely on its prideful past?