George Mason's decision to remain in the Colonial Athletic Association provides a boost to the league, which now awaits word from VCU and Old Dominion about their plans.
Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor called CAA commissioner Tom Yeager late Friday morning to tell him that the Patriots would not jump to the Atlantic 10 Conference. Instead, one of the CAA's charter members and signature men's basketball programs will stay put for the foreseeable future.
"Is this a big step? Yeah," Yeager said Friday afternoon from the conference offices in Richmond. "We saw editorial cartoons and 'Rest in Peace' and doomsday scenarios circulating around here. For the time being, this is a big step forward and lets us get back to work."
Indeed, the CAA's very existence came into question in recent weeks, as George Mason, VCU and Old Dominion, three of the league's anchor programs, considered other conference options. The departure of all three might have crippled the league and forced other schools to seek new homes.
VCU has yet to announce whether it will join the Atlantic 10, while Old Dominion weighs the possibility of jumping to Conference USA. ODU's decision is tied to ambitions for its football program and windows of opportunity to join a Football Bowl Subdivision league that also will provide a home for most of its other sports.
VCU and George Mason do not field football programs, and their decisions were and are tied to giving their men's basketball programs the best competition and avenues toward the NCAA tournament, balanced against the benefits of remaining where they are.
"I can appreciate, and always have, the need that universities have to explore options," Yeager said. "VCU and ODU have every right to go through the same process and analysis. We hope that they come to a conclusion soon. We've all been incredibly energized by what we've been able to accomplish in recent years, and this has been a big distraction to doing things like launching our digital networks and everything else."
O'Connor told the Washington Post that, "We felt it was in our best interests to stay," citing the CAA's history and geographic strength.
"They did a very thorough analysis, pros and cons," Yeager said. "When they finished, it was really a simple thing. They concluded that all things considered, the CAA was the best place for them to be as a university, and they looked forward to continue the upward growth trends we've had in the league."
Yeager, the only commissioner the CAA has ever had, said that he has been in contact with officials at VCU and ODU.
VCU's Board of Visitors held meetings Friday, and university president Michael Rao said a conference decision can be expected "in the next couple of weeks." Rao said the topic was discussed in the closed session.
ODU's executive committee of its Board of Visitors will meet Monday.
Earlier this week, a source said not to expect a decision from ODU's meeting Monday, since school officials are still gathering information, and the board is just beginning to be brought up to speed.
Yeager said that he received no blood oath loyalty or "Til Death Do Us Part" assurances from O'Connor, nor did he expect one. He acknowledged that everyone could replay this scenario 12 months from now.
"In this industry right now, I don't know that anybody can give anybody (assurances), nor should there be reason to expect that things won't change," he said. "The sense that I got is: short of a winning lottery ticket, this is where we want to be."
Much of the CAA's present membership anxiety has been driven by shuffling from above. After losing Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12 Conference, the Big East lured Temple away from the Atlantic 10.
The A-10, which also will lose Charlotte and its start-up football program to Conference USA, in turn lured Butler from the Horizon League and was interested in VCU and Mason because of their locations and recent basketball success.
The present round of conference realignment may not be complete, as the Big East and others deal with the fallout of change within football's Bowl Championship Series structure.
Whatever VCU and Old Dominion decide, Yeager said that George Mason's decision to stay provides some stability within a league that had grown very nervous in recent weeks.
"Part of the decisions have been that, you don't know what the future holds," Yeager said. "But you do have a pretty good idea of what the present is. And that's important."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times