HARRISONBURG — James Madison has lost another rival, and its basketball conference has again become weaker.
George Mason announced Monday that it will bolt the Colonial Athletic Association for the Atlantic 10, effective July 1. JMU, which has not indicated that re-alignment is in its future, is now one of just three founding members of the CAA to remain in the league.
For the past year, Mason has been a popular name tied to the A-10, and when the new Big East raided the conference — most recently grabbing Xavier and Butler — it seemed only a matter of time before the basketball-centric league restocked.
Mason’s departure is just the latest blow to the CAA, which lost basketball power Virginia Commonwealth to the A-10 last year, and will lose Old Dominion and Georgia State this summer to Conference USA and the Sun Belt, respectively, in moves driven by Division I-A football aspirations.
That leaves the league with just nine basketball members next season, when the College of Charleston joins from the Southern Conference.
CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said it’s possible for the Colonial to stay at nine schools, and that he won’t add someone just for the sake of expansion. Not that he isn’t looking.
“I don’t comment at all on expansion reports, but nonetheless, we’ve been very active over the last year, including a phone call last evening,” Yeager said Monday on a CAA teleconference.
The Colonial is undoubtedly less attractive after the departure of Virginia’s largest school — one that reached the league’s first-ever Final Four and has annually been among the CAA leaders in attendance.
The near-immediate move will cost Mason $1.65 million in revenues from this year through 2017, plus an additional $1 million exit fee assessed by the CAA. Under CAA bylaws, Mason’s seven spring sports are now ineligible to compete for league championships.
Clearly, the Fairfax school is banking on making more money in the Atlantic 10, a much more powerful basketball conference.
Tom O’Connor, Mason’s athletic director since 1994, called Yeager at around 6 p.m. Sunday to inform him of the move.
“That was a difficult phone call to make last night,” said O’Connor, who considers himself a friend to the longtime commissioner.
But it was a call — and decision — O’Connor felt he had to make.
CAA basketball is severely weakened from its peak in 2011, when three schools reached the NCAA Tournament, including at-large selection VCU, which reached the Final Four. In the past two seasons, the Colonial has not earned an at-large selection to the tournament. JMU, its conference tournament champion this year, was relegated to a play-in game because it was one of the four lowest-ranked automatic qualifiers in the nation.
Meanwhile, five Atlantic 10 teams (Butler, LaSalle, Saint Louis, Temple and VCU) reached the NCAA Tournament this year, matching a conference record. All five teams won at least one tournament game, with LaSalle making it to this week’s Sweet 16 after surviving a play-in round.
The A-10 ranked seventh out of 31 conferences in RPI this year. The CAA ranked 24th.
“The landscape has changed in collegiate athletics,” O’Connor said. “What’s exciting about this move is that it brings us back to two rivals that were in the CAA with us — VCU and Richmond.”
O’Connor also mentioned the appeal of a new rivalry with a fellow D.C.-area school, George Washington.
Angel Cabrera, videoed into George Mason’s press conference from Scottsdale, Ariz., became Mason’s president last July, months after the school was linked to a move it never made.
Asked Monday why the university decided to do it now, Cabrera said he could not speak to previous decisions but knew this was the right time for Mason, given the shifting landscape of college athletics.
“It will reconnect us with old rivals and help us create new and exciting rivalries,” Cabrera said. “It will help us have a presence and continue to build the Mason brand in regions and markets that are important to us.”
The Atlantic 10 has a strong presence in the Northeast, especially Philadelphia.
Cabrera said his projections are that Mason will make up for the $2.65 million lost in revenue and exit fee “in as little as five years.”
George Mason was a founding member of the CAA, which was born in 1985. Now, only three remain: JMU, North Carolina-Wilmington and William & Mary. JMU and W&M are the only two schools left from Virginia. JMU and Wilmington are the only two remaining schools to have won a CAA basketball title.
While it might seem the league won’t be as strong as it was as recently as two years ago, when it ranked 10th in RPI, Yeager is not throwing in the towel just yet.
“We’re going to stay viable,” he said. “I work for a great group of institutions that are highly respected and very attractive to students, committed to giving student-athletes the best experience they can. That’s not going to change.”
James Madison athletic director Jeff Bourne did not return a message seeking comment Monday, but Yeager said the Dukes are “committed” to keeping the CAA strong.
“They’re just excited to be rolling up their sleeves and going to work and keep going,” Yeager said. “They’ve got their head down and working hard. They’re every bit as committed to [overcoming] the challenge that we have as a conference, and we’re going to get to work.”