Tell me what comes to mind when I mention the Atlantic 10: Xavier’s run to the Elite Eight. St. Joe’s near miss at an undefeated season in ’04. John Chaney. John Calipari and his 1996 Massachusetts Minutemen going all the way to the Final Four.
I’ll reckon you didn’t answer FBS football.
The time is ripe for the Atlantic 10 to lay a foundation for a Division I-A football league. Teams like Temple, SUNY-Buffalo, and East Carolina would love a new Eastern Division I conference. UNC-Charlotte and Massachusetts have legitimate Division I aspirations.
How can a 14-team Division I conference where only three schools are considering I-A football sponsor the sport at that level? A little bit of compromise—and one monster plan.
The Atlantic 10 currently has three schools that are/will (eventually) sponsor FBS football: UNC-Charlotte, Temple, and UMass.
NC-Charlotte is likely starting up a football program, preferably at the FBS level. The board of directors will vote on officially adding a football program in September, which would likely start play in the 2013 season without conference affiliation. Charlotte will likely also break ground on a shiny new football stadium as part of the project.
The Owls are the only A-10 team to currently sponsor Division I football. They play at Lincoln Financial field, home of the NFL’s Eagles, a stadium that seats 60,000. Though the Temple football program has fallen on hard times, they did average 30k attendance in 2007-08. Temple currently plays football in the MAC.
The Minutemen are the least likely of the three schools to sponsor D-I football. They would need to make major upgrades to Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium to meet FBS attendance minimums.
There are other options for UMass. Massachusetts might also rent from the Patriots or build an entirely new stadium. UMass is currently awaiting the results of a task force on the feasibility of a Division I-A football program.
UMass, Temple, and UNC-Charlotte are the conference’s best and brightest. The Atlantic 10 can’t afford to lose these schools to the MAC or Sun Belt because they aspire to play football at the highest level. An Atlantic 10 football league is attainable despite the A-10’s large size.
The A-10 can start taking baby steps towards bringing Division I football to the conference simply by adding a football school now. But for the Atlantic 10 to really get the ball rolling on sponsoring FBS football, it has to wait for the Big East to split and expand.
If and when the Big East splits, the remaining Big East members (DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown, Saint John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, Villanova) will need a new member (or three) to fill up the vacant spots in their new conference.
The most likely scenario is for the Big East Catholic schools to cherry-pick the Atlantic 10 for Saint Louis, Xavier, and Dayton. We’ll assume the A-10 has lost three schools to the Big East, and that the "Public" Big East has poached UCF and Memphis from C-USA.
While losing Xavier, Dayton, and Saint Louis hurts the A-10 in the short term, long term it allows for the growth of a football league.
The A-10 would do well to follow one of the oldest plans in the book: the Gavitt Plan. The Gavitt Plan started out as a future plan of operation for the Big East by founder Dan Gavitt. It calls for the conference to expand to 16 and run an "umbrella league," or to house two conferences under one roof.
Our Umbrella League will contain 16 schools: eight of which play FBS football, and eight who don’t.
If the A-10 follows the Gavitt Plan, they would have five spots to fill. Five is also the number of teams the Atlantic 10 needs to support Division I football.
Using its leverage as a superior basketball league, the A-10 should cherry-pick the CAA for three schools.
This is the easiest pick of the bunch. The Blue Hens have several notable accomplishments in Division I-AA, including 2007’s second-place finish in the FCS Playoffs and a 57-61 record against FBS competition.
Most importantly, they’ve had seven straight seasons with attendance north of the 20,000 mark in a stadium that seats only 22k. Plans are in the works to expand the on-campus stadium to 35,000. As an added bonus, the University of Delaware is located snugly inside the Philadelphia metro area.
The newest football program in the Atlanta area comes from this institution. Georgia State plays at the insanely huge Georgia Dome (70,000) in one of the South’s premier recruiting areas (they won’t get much coverage because of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and the Falcons, though). Georgia State has made a great hire in coach Bill Curry and plans to start football in 2012.
James Madison has been one of the CAA’s premier football programs, going to the FCS playoffs in '06 and '07 and winning it all in '04. They currently have plans to expand their stadium to 25k. JMU would bring the Atlantic 10 another premier university in Virginia.
This gives the Atlantic 10 six football schools, the minimum number of institutions for sponsoring football. All members of this group could easily be ready to play FBS football by 2015.
The next step for the Atlantic 10 is to get a head start on the upgrading process. The four FCS schools could then join Temple and UNC-Charlotte in a brand new FBS conference.
First, however, the conference would need to win over three more schools.
The Mountaineers of Appalachian State, known best for 2008’s pummeling of Michigan, field one of the best FBS programs around. They already have the stadium for FBS (20k capacity) and are coming off three straight FCS national championships.
The Mountaineers would be an associate member for football purposes only so the new conference can remain 6/5 compliant and have an eight-game conference schedule.
The Mid-Atlantic at this time is a bad place to play football. You’re way out of your geographical footprint, no matter where you end up. East Carolina would happily join a more geographically sensible conference where they won’t have to trek to Texas every year.
ECU brings a rabid football fanbase and a football tradition that includes several top 25 finishes in the early '90s. C-USA will lose a lot of luster for East Carolina if Memphis leaves for the Big East.
SUNY-Buffalo’s football program has fallen upon hard times since it upgraded to DI-A in 1999. However, those attendance statistics aren’t as bad as the numbers lead you to believe. 15-20k is about average for a university so close to an NFL franchise.
The University has a large alumni base and a 30k on-campus stadium. All the tools are there for Division I football. SUNY Buffalo just needs wins and regional competition to strengthen its D-I football program.
Here's look at my finished product.
Atlantic 10 Football Members: Massachusetts, Temple, UNC-Charlotte, Delaware, Georgia State, James Madison, East Carolina, SUNY-Buffalo
Atlantic 10 Basketball Members: Richmond, Saint Bonaventure, Fordham, Duquesne, La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, George Washington, Rhode Island
With the addition of SUNY-Buffalo, Appalachian State, and East Carolina, the Atlantic 10 would be ready to break ground on a brand new football conference. The Atlantic 10 would also have a 16-team basketball league: large, but organized and stable.
It will be a bright day for the A-10 and college football fans alike.