NORFOLK — Standing in the patio reception area at S.B. Ballard Stadium, Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig called it “a game changer.” Though the Monarchs’ move to Conference USA affects the entire athletic department, the game changed the most and the reason for Thursday’s announcement is football.
The Monarchs’ precocious start-up football program, coupled with the school’s growth, location and remarkable support both internal and external, resulted in a whirlwind courtship and a move up and out of its longtime home in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“When I was hired two years ago as athletic director,” Selig said, “it was conveyed to me that one of my primary roles was to protect and guide our overall intercollegiate athletic program within the ever-changing landscape of college athletics.
“While I had no idea at the time that change might occur so quickly, the volatility of the past few months, within a number of conferences, served to illustrate that the optimal time was now to position ODU and our athletic programs for the future.”
ODU will join Conference USA on July 1, 2013, and its three-year-old football program will reclassify to the Football Bowl Subdivision from its current status in the Football Championship Subdivision. The Monarchs will compete at the FCS level this season, have a two-year transition period to FBS and then become eligible for bowls and conference championships in 2015.
“Timing in life is everything,” said football coach Bobby Wilder. “This opportunity came to us. This wasn’t something that we went openly looking for. But I feel like the time is right.”
The Monarchs become the 14th member of a league that stretches from West Virginia, south to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma. C-USA will have two seven-team divisions, split mostly along geographic lines. Notably, ODU will have regional competitive partners in East Carolina and Charlotte, which is starting its own football program.
“The more we learned about Old Dominion, the more we loved it,” C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said. “Obviously, they have a great tradition, but when you look at the growth of their football program and the growth of the university, that’s a school we want to be affiliated with, because I think in 10 years they’re going to be doing amazing things.”
Old Dominion’s jump to Conference USA resulted quickly, even by the standards of recent conference realignment.
Banowsky said that ODU didn’t cross C-USA’s radar until four-to-five weeks ago. Executive associate commissioner Judy MacLeod visited ODU about a month ago, touring facilities and speaking to officials. She gave a glowing report to Banowsky, who visited a week later and was similarly impressed.
That elevated ODU ahead of schools, Banowsky said, that had been on C-USA’s list for months and even years.
“They were extremely attractive,” Banowsky said. “They have a remarkable story to tell, and the growth of the football program has been phenomenal. They’re in a good geographic place, since we were committed to building our eastern base. They’ve done some great things, and when you look at the level of support for athletics, we think they’re a great fit.”
Several factors facilitated and accelerated ODU’s move. The football program is 27-8 in three years, including a second-place finish in the CAA last season and an FCS playoff berth. ODU officials worried that the NCAA might place a moratorium on programs moving up to the FBS level, which has been the Monarchs’ long-term aim since resuscitating football in 2007.
As ODU officials and coaches explored a possible move, they were stunned by pledges totaling $3 million in less than two weeks, if they were to jump to FBS and to change leagues.
“That made a very loud and clear statement to our administration and the Board of Visitors that the people in Hampton Roads, like Old Dominion, are supporting this,” Wilder said. “That’s a big factor.”
Selig estimated that ODU would need an additional $2.5-3 million annually to move to Conference USA. School officials were adamant about not raising student fees and believe that they can raise the money through private and corporate donations, modest ticket increases and money distributed from their new conference. C-USA schools receive approximately $2 million per year from their TV contracts with Fox, CBS Sports and ESPN, Banowsky said.
Selig said that ODU is likely to add at least one women’s sport, in order to help offset the extra scholarships allowed for FBS level football (63 for FCS, 85 for FBS) and to comply with Title IX.
ODU’s departure is the second major blow to the CAA this week, coming on the heels of VCU’s immediate departure for the Atlantic 10, effective this summer. The Monarchs are the third program to bolt the conference this year, after Georgia State and VCU.
“Expansion and reorganization activities will take on a little extra vigor over the next couple of weeks,” CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. “I can guarantee you that our commitment to our student-athletes and fans will be enhanced.”
Yeager praised the open lines of communication between his office, ODU and Conference USA throughout the process. But he stopped short of endorsing a change to conference bylaws that prohibit lame-duck members from competing for titles and earning the league’s NCAA automatic bid. Such a change requires a 2/3 majority of remaining members, and ODU and Georgia State do not have a vote.
Twelve years ago, Richmond, East Carolina and American were prohibited from competing in the 2001 CAA tournaments after announcing that they were moving to other leagues: Richmond to the A-10, East Carolina to Conference USA, and American to the Patriot League.
Asked about the notion of punishing athletes for the decisions of administrators, Yeager said,“The decision (to leave) was made with full knowledge of what the consequences were and they went ahead and made the decision.”
ODU coaches and officials praised the move, believing that it will provide greater exposure on a broader scale, academically and athletically.
Football faces the greatest competitive challenge, as the Monarchs must now recruit and land FBS-level talent against the likes of Virginia Tech and Virginia, as well as every other FBS program in the region.
“I made a statement to both President Broderick and to Wood Selig that I’m very confident that football will hold up their end of the bargain in this move,” Wilder said. “I say that as humbly as I can, with all due respect to every member of Conference USA.
“I feel like the CAA is the best I-AA football conference in the country. We were successful at that level, and I feel like we can join Conference USA and I feel like we can compete right away in this conference.”Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times