Sun Belt Conference Athletics: Moving Forward and Expanding with Karl Benson
The Sun Belt held a press conference on Feb. 16 announcing Karl Benson as its new commissioner, replacing the retiring Wright Waters.
Before Benson was introduced, the man doing the introduction, Dr. Jack Hawkins of Troy University, made it a point to showcase the Sun Belt's achievements.
One of 11 FBS conferences having only added football in 2001, Sun Belt teams have won 50 percent of their bowl games since 2005, better than five other FBS conferences.
The Sun Belt is the sixth best conference in baseball, 90 percent of Sun Belt teams have earned a multi-year academic progress rate of 925 or higher, and the stable foot print in the Southern United States has helped save traveling costs and developed strong natural rivalries.
As Karl Benson gave his opening statement, he pointed out the rapid growth and potential of the conference with the growth of the Sun Belt's student population, fan support, and alumni support over the past five years.
The subject of expansion was the main focus for the question and answer segment, and Benson started off by stating that the Sun Belt will look at schools in their current footprint and that adding at least a 12th member would be good for the league.
Benson also made sure to mention Arkansas-Little Rock by name as they are the only member without a football program (South Alabama will join the Sun Belt in football in 2013 after being an FCS independent last year and again next season).
I believe this was to debunk any possible rumors of Little Rock being expelled from the conference in favor of another football school and to show that they have the same amount of say as the other schools in the conference.
Benson stated that a committee will be formed to look at both current membership and future membership with targets being in both the FBS and FCS.
However, the first matter of business will be to convince current members to stay. Benson pointed out how the fact that Sun Belt schools are being listed as potential targets for expansion shows how the conference has moved up the non-AQ hierarchy and that the conference can continue to move up as more media and revenue opportunities open up for the Sun Belt.
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While most of the members appear to be content with staying put, a few schools have still had their name appear in the expansion rumor mill.
North Texas seems to be on Benson's priority list, as he appears to have been head over heels in love with the school since his early days as WAC commissioner.
In an interview he did for North Texas, Benson has been keeping an eye on the Mean Green since 1999:
"It goes all the way back to 1999, which was the first time that I was on the North Texas campus. I was on the campus a year ago at this time, trying to convince North Texas to come to the WAC. I've seen the new stadium, I've seen the unbelievable growth of the university.
"To look at the University of North Texas today and to see the 30,000-plus students, the new stadium, the commitment that starts at the top with President Rawlins, the fact that there has been continuity with Rick Villarreal, and the fact that it is 35 miles from Dallas and Ft. Worth, those are all components that make it attractive.
"As I said before, North Texas has been attractive to the WAC for the last 10 years and is currently on the radar for Conference USA. It is one of the premiere programs in the Sun Belt and I'm looking forward to finally being able to work with Rick and President Rawlins and the outstanding group of coaches that are there.
"Everyone always talks about 'Who is the next Boise State' and I can honestly say 'why not North Texas?'"
Having graduated from Boise State and being the WAC commissioner for 18 years has allowed Benson the chance to witness the growth and success of the Broncos first hand, and he obviously sees enough similarities with North Texas for them to be a potential up-and-coming power.
North Texas was targeted numerous times by Benson in the WAC, and the Denton, Texas, school had rejected him on every occasion. Now he has his chance to work with the Mean Green, but first he has to convince them to not leave for the newly formed conference.
Who would you rather have stay in the Sun Belt?
Another school that has popped up in connection with the new merger is Florida International. The Miami school is the 15th largest university in the country and only started its program in 2002.
It quickly went from being only known for its brawl with the Hurricanes to back-to-back bowl games and it is a program on the rise.
Their attendance growth has caused the school to expand the stadium for this coming season, as the north side of the stadium will become enclosed, with suites being built as well.
The growing support of the program, combined with its size and location, makes FIU an appealing candidate for expansion, and convincing them to stay should be another priority for Karl Benson.
In an interview held during the Sun Belt tournament game between South Alabama and Troy, Benson had stated that several schools are being considered in case they lose some members and that they would like to expand to form two divisions to further help reduce traveling (and to create more attention to the conference in the form of televised championship games).
Schools that have been popping up as possible Sun Belt targets have been: Louisiana Tech, Appalachian State (North Carolina), UNC-Charlotte, Texas State, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, Lamar (Texas), Georgia Southern, and Georgia State.
Georgia Southern looks good on paper: in the Atlanta-Savannah area, very close vicinity to the Eastern schools, strong fan base, and a very successful athletics program.
However, a feasibility report done by the school showed that while they would be able to make the leap from FCS to FBS successfully on an athletic level, the financial risks would be high and the alumni/boosters aren't backing the idea with nearly as much enthusiasm as the student body.
Expect them to take the same route as Montana and remain FCS for a little while longer.
Wil the Sun Belt produce "the next Boise State?"
However, according to Russel Wright of Collegiate Consulting, Georgia State is primed and ready for a move, as they have the finances and the location (Atlanta) to make the leap.
“The quality of competition doesn't matter at all. The market drives it more than the on-the-field product.”
The school has an enrollment of 30,000 plus, similar to North Texas and FIU, and $16 million of the $22 million the school receives in revenues come from the students, according to the report.
Appalachian State have decided to pursue upgrading to FBS, based on similar positive reviews in their feasibility report and are already a nationally recognized brand due to the upset over 5th ranked Michigan en route to a third straight national title in 2007. However, they are also on the radar of the MWC/C-USA conference.
Charlotte is an intriguing candidate as they have a very successful basketball and baseball program. They will begin playing football in 2013, a sport they haven't supported since 1948. Charlotte also has a past history with the Sun Belt (members from 1976-1991) and C-USA (1995-2005).
Expect to hear this school get considered by the Sun Belt, the new merged conference, and possibly even the Big East. Being located in the 17th largest city in the country is also a bit of a perk.
Lamar is an FCS school based in Beaumont, Texas, and has been rather aggressive in trying to move up to FBS. Benson has stated that he would like to expand further into Texas to give North Texas a traveling partner.
Should Texas State, San Antonio, and Arlington decide to stay in the WAC, Lamar could be considered as the next Texas school in the Sun Belt.
Louisiana Tech seems to have been in contact with the MWC/C-USA but have otherwise adopted a wait-and-see approach to realignment. Where they go is anyone's guess.
"Today is the beginning of the message that the Sun Belt Conference is going to be a player on the college landscape...the Sun Belt is now 10-plus years old (in football) and has established itself, It no longer needs to be considered the lowest rung."
Benson has big plans for the Sun Belt and he has the experience to make those plans bear fruit. However, the WAC's fast fall was under his watch, and the sudden departure from the conference has raised a few questions and eyebrows.
Things won't be the same for the Sun Belt once Benson get rolling, but will he be able point the conference in a positive direction and keep them going?
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