Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday's Sun Belt story

How the Sun Belt will look on July 1, 2013 (illustration by Joseph Huntley)
The graphic in the Sunday print edition of this story has Boone Shear, Corey Robinson and Emil Jones above the map. You can read it on HERE.


It’s mid-June, and Karl Benson can finally relax.

Benson, the Sun Belt’s commissioner since March 15, left a conference (Western Athletic) that is a shell of its former self thanks to college football realignment and came to one where there was uncertainty. Recently, the conference got to 12 member institutions and halted expansion efforts for the time being.

Benson had been going nonstop while the Sun Belt lost two schools, but added three more. The Sun Belt has 12 schools – 10 football-playing institutions – and is now geographically divided into two divisions.

The West has Arkansas-Little Rock, Arkansas State, UT-Arlington, Texas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe. The East features Troy, South Alabama, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, Georgia State and Florida Atlantic.

“That has allowed me to pause and catch my breath,” Benson said. “This has stopped the merry-go-round a little bit. That’s good. Now, to focus on three or four other important issues.”

Gone are North Texas and Florida International to Conference USA. New FBS football programs Georgia State and Texas State have joined, as well as UT-Arlington, a non-football program which moved from the Southland Conference.

Benson and Dr. Jack Hawkins Jr., who is Troy University’s chancellor and is the Sun Belt Conference Executive Committee President, both believe the Sun Belt is in better shape now than before realignment hit.
UT-Arlington has invested more than $80 million in athletics, with plans for $17 million more in expansions.
UTA puts the Sun Belt back in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. Texas State’s campus in San Marcos is is 32 miles from Austin and 50 from San Antonio.

Georgia State gives the Sun Belt an Atlanta presence. All three new schools join the conference officially on July 1, 2013, when UNT and FIU depart.

“We anticipated change,” Hawkins said. “We didn’t get washed away by change. The Sun Belt Conference today, in my estimation, is stronger. We’re stronger academically and athletically.

“It’s a conference going like this (Hawkins points upward). I’m not sure all conferences are going like this. I think we’ve passed two, and may be on the verge of passing a third, without mentioning names.”

Winds of change
Hawkins, who is entering his fourth year in his position with the Sun Belt, said he and other conference members had always been paying attention to the changing landscape, but really had to take action late last year and early this year when the Big East was losing and adding teams left and right.

That conference poached four teams from Conference USA, and the sentiment was that C-USA would add teams from the Sun Belt to fill the void.

But the Sun Belt had a bigger issue to solve with the departure of commissioner Wright Waters, who announced his retirement last October, effective this July. That was pushed up in March, not long after Benson was named his successor.

“We had been sensitive to (realignment) and we anticipated it, then Wright said he was going to retire,” Hawkins said. “I encouraged all the stakeholders (Sun Belt presidents) to be active. There’s nothing that we’ll do that’s more important to the future to this conference than appoint Wright’s successor.”

There was also no one that they could have picked with more experience dealing with conference realignment than Benson, who had served as the WAC’s commissioner since 1994. Benson helped secure long-term bowl deals and ESPN contracts with the WAC. He was also a victim of the conference’s success, as schools like Boise State eventually moved conferences.

The position for Sun Belt Conference commissioner had plenty of applicants, but Hawkins knew right away that Benson was the perfect fit.

“He was so knowledgeable and he had a game plan,” Hawkins said. “When he walked through the door, he was anticipating those dominos and he whipped out a game plan. We knew then that he was our guy.”
Benson knew the dominos were falling, and the WAC’s geography wasn’t beneficial enough to keep adding schools while current WAC members were jumping to the Mountain West Conference.

“I’ll have to admit that a year ago at this time and even six months ago, I don’t think that I would have ever considered the Sun Belt as a landing spot,” Benson said. “When I talked to (the Sun Belt) in January, by that time, some of the changes were being anticipated with the Mountain West and ConferenceUSA.

“While I knew that the Sun Belt might be impacted by some type of Mountain West/Conference USA arrangement, I knew if the WAC was impacted, there weren’t a lot of (expansion) options available to the WAC.”

So Benson left a conference where it seemed nobody wanted to be a part of, especially for football, and went to a conference which wasn’t settling for second-best, a point Hawkins made clear.

“We wanted to avoid that life support system,” Hawkins said. “We didn’t want to be in a desperate situation. What we also wanted to avoid was being a threshold conference. We didn’t want to be a threshold conference for any institution that was just looking for a step up. If an institution didn’t bring something to the table, we weren’t going to look at them.”

Hawkins didn’t mention other schools’ names, but he didn’t have to. The WAC, next year, has only two football-playing schools in New Mexico State and Idaho. That’s two schools victimized by location, small media markets and a low quality of athletics. The Sun Belt could have taken them to make 12 football schools, but didn’t.

Sun Belt Conference officials studied getting to 12 or 14 football-playing schools, but elected not to go that route. With 10 football schools, that also means no championship game, which Benson said now wasn’t even on the to-be-discussed list.

“What we weren’t willing to compromise was the geographic footprint,” Hawkins said. “It could have been enticing if we kept our eyes on that prize and not the geography.”

What now?
With expansion efforts halted for now, Benson listed several other key areas.

** Renegotiation for television contracts with ESPN.

** Repositioning and rebranding that goes along with a new strategic plan for the conference.

** The future of the Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament, which has been in Hot Springs, Ark., since 2009 and is contracted there through 2014. “We haven’t had that conversation but that’ll be one of the initial discussions that we have,” Benson said. “Hot Springs has been a great partner. I think we always have to explore other venues and other sites within the Sun Belt footprint.”

** Adding a third bowl. The Sun Belt is locked in with the New Orleans and Bowl, but with a 10-team league, a third bowl is needed. “One other priority and important piece of the future of Sun Belt would be our future bowl arrangements,” Benson said. “Now that it appears we’re going to be a 10-team league, we need at least one more guaranteed bowl spot and perhaps a fourth.”

** Benson said football conference schedules are soon to be set for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, where schools would play eight conference games and skip one team. “There’s a chance we could get to nine games as early as 2014 but my guess would be 2015,” Benson said.

** Formats for conference tournaments for sports like baseball, softball and volleyball, as new members are added, and a location. “There appears to be interest in neutral sites for all of our championships, but we’ve got to have the right site, the right business model and the right location for it,” Benson said.

The landscape now gives the Sun Belt a chance to be more competitive with other conferences its size. It will never be the SEC, and it knows that, but other conferences dealing with realignment are also adding new
FBS football programs, such as Conference USA with Charlotte, Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio.
The Sun Belt is always competing with C-USA, the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West in the perception battle.

“As I looked at the landscape, whatever gap may have been between the Sun Belt and those others may have deteriorated and the competitive gap was narrow,” Benson said. “I looked at the Sun Belt as a conference with a chance to move up the pecking order.

“In looking at it now as we come out of the Conference USA changes, there’s not a lot of difference between the Sun Belt and Conference USA. I’m looking at the Sun Belt as a tremendous opportunity to move up in the pecking order.”

Benson said the next step is to get the teams more competitive, especially in men’s basketball and football.
The conference had four bowl-eligible teams last season, but Benson is thinking bigger.

“We need to bring back the credibility of men’s basketball and that means multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament and once we get teams, that means winning games in the NCAA Tournaments,” Benson said. “That needs to be a priority.

“In light of where the football landscape is, is there any reason a Sun Belt football program can’t contend for a high profile postseason opportunity similar to Boise State or Hawaii or TCU or Utah?” Benson said. “Why not a Sun Belt team playing in the Sugar Bowl? Why not a Sun Belt team playing in the Orange Bowl?”

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