When Philip Hutcheson took over as Lipscomb’s athletic director in 2008, the Atlantic Sun Conference had 11 member schools.
By next July, the league will be down to eight.
Even with the departure of East Tennessee State and Mercer, one of the league’s founding members in 1978, Hutcheson says Lipscomb remains confident in the future of the A-Sun and the commitment of the remaining institutions.
“It is a good conference for us right now,” Hutcheson said on Wednesday, nearly three weeks after ETSU and Mercer announced they are heading to the Southern Conference in July 2014. But I think anybody is silly if they’re not evaluating what is going on around them. So I feel confident that the schools we have are committed to staying together in this conference. I feel good about the level of competition and the opportunity we have to compete within the conference. I think we have some assets in terms of location and fan base at some of the schools that we need to do a better job of taking advantage of. If we do that, my hope is that a couple years from now, we will be a conference others might be attracted to as well. But that is somewhat on us to continue to do the work to make it so.”
Lipscomb will be the third oldest member of the A-Sun. It moved to NCAA Division I from the NAIA in 2003.
Seven of the member schools have joined in the last 10 years. Conversely, over the last decade, seven schools have left for other leagues. ETSU and Mercer will make eight and nine. When Mercer leaves so will the last of the nine charter members.
ETSU and Mercer are both bringing back football, which isn’t one of the A-Sun’s member sports. They fill holes in the Southern Conference, which has had five schools leave since November, including football powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. “The conference does not look forward to having any member institution withdraw,” A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart said when the schools announced their exodus. “But we recognize the dynamic forces of change that have caused such movement, including the role football has played. … While [ETSU and Mercer’s] announcement is not unexpected, it is clear that the conclusion of some relationships often spur the evolution of others, and this will now be the case for the A-Sun.”
Gumbart added that the league, with headquarters in Macon, Ga., already has fielded several inquiries about full and affiliate memberships. Stetson (1985) and Jacksonville (1998) are the elder statesmen of a league that touches five states and includes Florida Gulf Coast, Kennesaw State, Northern Kentucky, University of North Florida and USC Upstate. NKU, the most recent member, joined last year and is in the transitional phase from NCAA Division II.
Hutcheson said Lipscomb has “not looked” at moving to other conferences nor have other leagues sought out the Bisons.
“Obviously when you have schools like ETSU and Mercer, you’d rather have them in your conference than out,” Hutcheson said. “They are really good schools and add a lot athletically. I do feel like the schools that are still in the conference are good schools. I feel like there is a commitment there from the schools that are in the conference to stick together and stick with it. There has been so much change over the past two, three years. So it is natural to expect there is some trickledown effect.”
Hutcheson said the competitiveness of the league has exceeded the expectations he had when he took over in 2008. Last year, Florida Gulf Coast became a national darling by advancing to the Sweet 16 in men's basketball. And the league sent two teams to the NCAA baseball tournament – ETSU and Mercer.
He also says the A-Sun offers the chance to play other schools in attractive locations that would appeal to student-athletes – Nashville, Jacksonville, Orlando, Fort Myers, Fla., and the Atlanta area.
“I think the quality of the competition has been a very pleasant surprise,” he said. “We’re glad to be a part of that.”
Hutcheson’s biggest concern with the A-Sun regards holding on to eight member schools – one above the minimum required to receive automatic bids to NCAA tournaments in all sports.
In 2014, only four conferences will have just eight teams – the Atlantic Sun, Ivy League, Summit League and Western Athletic Conference. Hutcheson also pointed out with a smaller pool, statistically Lipscomb’s chances of success increase.
“There is no imminent danger for any conference that is at eight right now,” Hutcheson said. “But certainly we’re definitely interested in being a part of an Atlantic Sun that’s stable and looking to improve.”
That number could be in jeopardy of decreasing soon though. Kennesaw State is adding football and could be on the search for a new conference. KSU athletic director Vaughn Williams told the Marietta Journal in April he would prefer the Owls to stay in the A-Sun. That could be difficult since the league doesn’t offer scholarship football. According to the paper, KSU would need to notify the A-Sun two years before leaving or fork over a $250,000 exit fee.
In 2012, Belmont paid $200,000 after giving the Atlantic Sun just one year’s notice of its intent to leave for the Ohio Valley Conference, which is based in Brentwood. The OVC, which has 12 member schools, just tightened its security by increasing its exit fee. Leaving with two years’ notice will cost $500,000 along with forfeiting year-end and basketball revenue distributions for two years. Departing with less than two years’ notice, previously a $200,000 fee, will cost $750,000 plus forfeiting distributed money.
Of course conference realignment came up a couple weeks ago at the A-Sun’s annual spring meetings in Daytona Beach, Fla. Taking steps to prevent plundering from other conferences is necessary in order to for A-Sun and other smaller leagues, especially non-FBS conferences, to survive in the ever changing world of college athletics.
“I cannot imagine that at every conference meeting this year it wasn’t a major topic of conversation,” Hutcheson said. “We definitely spent time talking about. Part of it, I think it is important we as a conference try to make all of our schools as competitive and as good and as strong as possible so there is an appeal within the other schools in the conference to still be a part of it. We all have a vested interest in seeing other schools in our conference improve just because the rising tide lifts all boats.”