Wood Selig has a plan for conference realignment, and the Old Dominion athletic director isn’t shy about sharing it.
If Selig has his way, leaders from schools in the Sun Belt, Conference USA and American Athletic Conference will meet with an outside consultant and hammer out a restructuring that realigns the three leagues by region. That’s a scenario James Madison officials would no doubt applaud, as the out-of-whack geography of the FBS conferences has played a role in the Dukes previous decisions to remain FCS.
“You have to ask yourself why do three Group of 5 conferences have three almost identical footprints,” Selig said in an interview with the Daily News-Record. “You don’t see that among the Power 5.”
It’s a long shot, particularly to get the AAC involved, unless the exit of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 leads to multiple departures out of the American. In any event, this is a case where two out of three wouldn’t be bad. The biggest hurdle to getting the Sun Belt and CUSA to work together is politics at the state level.
Selig has been in charge of the ODU athletic department for 12 years and has seen the Monarchs football program move from FCS startup into the CAA and then to the FBS and Conference USA. He knows all too well the trials and tribulations of the conference shuffle.
When the Monarchs joined Conference USA they thought they were joining a league that featured programs steeped in football tradition such as Houston and SMU and included a natural rival in East Carolina. Those teams all quickly bolted for the American. Instead ODU is mired in a conference that stretches from Norfolk to El Paso, Texas while fans try to muster excitement for opponents such as Texas-San Antonio and Florida International.
Ever since there have been calls for the Sun Belt and CUSA to restructure geographically. Afterall, both leagues — as well as the American — stretch from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to deep in the heart of Texas. Placing schools in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas together in one conference while the East Coast-based programs got together in another seems, to many, only logical.
Back in 2013, when ODU joined, Conference USA was seen as the more prestigious league. It raided the Sun Belt, who in turn pulled up programs from the FCS level. But by 2020 roles were reversed. Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, Appalachian State and others had enough success on the gridiron to give the Sun Belt a certain level of respect.
In truth, and in the long haul, the Sun Belt and Conference USA are on the same level. They simply are two Group of 5 leagues that sit just a notch below the American and don’t attract much in the way of television money, not compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars factoring into the decisions of Texas and Oklahoma.
Selig isn’t alone in his desires. JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne has talked openly for the past year about how great it would be to see the Dukes play more regional rivals in conference. As a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, the James Madison AD didn’t specifically lobby for a Sun Belt-Conference USA alliance, but it’s never been difficult to draw a line connecting that possibility and a road to the FBS for the Dukes.
Regrouping the two leagues was also a desire of former Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson. He told the Daily News-Record on Friday a geographic restructuring was his goal during his last 18 months in office before retiring in 2019. But he eventually realized it wouldn’t happen before he left the job.
“From a state standpoint, while there was some level of support there were others that opposed it vehemently, and I’m not going to get into who supported and who opposed it,” Benson said. “Had that materialized it would have been logical that JMU and ODU were in the same conference, but it never materialized.”
Benson didn’t have to specify the opposition. Bigwigs at Louisiana Tech, a CUSA member, have never hid the fact they would consider it slumming to join Sun Belt members Louisiana and Louisiana-Monroe. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous that idea seems to anybody who doesn’t live near the Bayou.
UAB has traditionally seen itself as a step above fellow Alabama institution Troy. Charlotte has resisted joining forces with Appalachian State and there are a bunch of schools in Texas with complicated relationships and big egos.
It’s possible the schools have to set all that aside; Benson suggested stances are softening in some places. Massive change is coming to college sports, in the forms of conference realignment, the new name, image and likeness legislation and the potential expansion of the College Football Playoff. And COVID-19 has left some schools, ODU included, unable to afford the extensive travel required in these leagues.
If enough schools get on board with reshaping the conferences to limit travel and spark regional rivalries, there’s no reason to think JMU, should it show interest in joining the party, would meet resistance at the state level.
JMU sources suggested that the political backbiting that has stalled progress in states such as Louisiana doesn’t exist on the same level in Virginia. On some level, ODU would be the one school in the Commonwealth with reason to fight to keep itself a perceived notch above James Madison, but Selig said that if a consultant comes on board he’d want to see models that included JMU and Liberty in a potential East Coast conference.
Selig is in an interesting position. He and other ODU employees seem careful not to oversell the potential of JMU football. The Monarchs and Dukes recruit the same athletes, after all. But existing in an FBS conference with JMU would help solve a lot of the financial issues his department has faced.
He can dream of bringing AAC members East Carolina and Temple to the table, but a league that includes the likes of JMU, Marshall, Charlotte and Appalachian State is much more attainable at this point.
That’s if politicians in far away states don’t put a stop to serious negotiations before they even begin.