Guest Column: Kennesaw State and Conference Realignment

The following piece has been contributed to the Owl Howl by Kennesaw State alum Michael Foster. Foster was formerly the editor of the KSU Sentinel and now covers Forsyth County for the Forsyth County News

Disclaimer: Conference realignment talk can cause dizziness, eye strain and headaches. 

Let’s get some bare bones stuff out of the way first. Kennesaw State’s athletic teams have competed in the NCAA’s Division I since 2009 as a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, but because the A-Sun does not sponsor football, its members have three options for fielding football teams.

  • Compete in D-I scholarship football as an associate member of a football-playing conference.
  • Compete in D-I non-scholarship football in the Pioneer Football League, a football-only conference specifically made for teams in that situation (cheaper option).
  • Leave the Atlantic Sun Conference and become full-member of football-playing conference.

KSU went with Option A when it joined forces with the Big South Conference in 2013. The Big South has 11 members, but only six of those members field football teams. Five of those—Coastal Carolina, Liberty, Charleston Southern. Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian—play football in the Big South. Campbell, a Big South member (and former A-Sun member), fields a non-scholarship team in the PFL.

So, for the Big South to stay above the requirement of having six football-playing members to qualify teams for automatic seeds in postseason play, it has allowed KSU into the conference as the seventh member. Monmouth, located in New Jersey, joined the Big South as an associate member in 2014, essentially replacing the Virginia Military Institute, which left for the Southern Conference. Monmouth was a member of the Northeast Conference, but had its football program booted out after joining the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (non-football) in all other sports in 2013.

As of 2015, the Big South membership in football is as follows, with associate members italicized:

  • Coastal Carolina (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)
  • Liberty (Lynchburg, Va.)
  • Charleston Southern (Charleston, S.C.)
  • Presbyterian (Clinton, S.C.)
  • Gardner-Webb (Boiling Springs, N.C.)
  • Monmouth (West Long Branch, N.J.)
  • Kennesaw State (Kennesaw, Ga.)

Big South schools High Point, Longwood, Radford, UNC Asheville, and Winthrop do not have college football programs.

The Big South’s football league could be in danger of becoming a pulp. In fact, it’s very possible. There’s three red flags to consider.

  1. On July 23 (Thursday), The Myrtle Beach Sun News confirmed reports that Coastal’s athletic director has been in discussions with the Sun Belt, the FBS conference that recently added Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.
  2. An April 15 report in the USA Today confirmed that Liberty will offer full cost of attendance to all of its athletes, starting this year.
  3. The Big South put out a release on June 10 outlining a “strategic plan” for the conference as it moves forward. In bold were primary areas of focus, which included “basketball success, media exposure, academic centrality, student-athlete experience and messaging/branding.”

Let’s break these points down. To move to the FBS, Coastal Carolina would need to add anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 more seats to have room to meet the FBS requirement of an average home attendance of 15,000 per game. Nevertheless, the Sun Belt sees Coastal as an ideal fit.

Liberty already meets the attendance requirement, but more glaring is the fact its move to offer full cost of attendance to all athletes puts it way past many FBS schools that are not required to but will give consideration to offering full cost for football and basketball players, only (revenue sports). As of now, only the Power 5 schools (teams in ACC, B1G, Big XII, SEC or Pac-12) mandate cost of attendance for revenue athletes.

Finally, the Big South made it pretty apparent that football is not on its priority list. For a southern-based conference, a conference-wide mandate of cost of attendance for basketball players would only make it harder for programs to offer the same for football players, or for members without football teams to consider starting one to keep membership high enough.

Maybe the Big South is preparing for its football league to crumble? If so, many different chain reactions would occur. Let’s play apocalypse here and say Coastal and Liberty leave in the near future—leaving the conference with five members (two associate).

The Big South would have to consider the following:

  • Talk conference member Campbell into offering scholarship football, effectively joining its already existing team with the conference.
  • Talk to Winthrop, which has mulled over starting a football team much like KSU did for years.
  • Hope any other current member can start a program.
  • Hope any other PFL member in close proximity will offer scholarships and join as associate member.

Now we’re about to get into a numbers game. Here’s a list of the public schools in the Big South that do not sponsor football and where their reported revenue ranks out of 230 public D-I schools:

  • Radford, $13.1 million (168 out of 230)
  • Winthrop, $12.5 million (175 out of 230)
  • Longwood, $9.7 million (210 out of 230)
  • UNC Asheville, $6.3 million (224 out of 230)

Obviously, starting a program from scratch costs a ton of money. For perspective, KSU’s reported revenue in 2010 was just north of $10 million. KSU had the benefit of existing infrastructure with the stadium already built, not to mention a high enrollment. When building a program with student fees, enrollment can make all of the difference. If an athletic fee is $200, for example, that’s $6 million in revenue when charged to 30,000 students. That’s just $1 million at a school with 5,000 students.

Winthrop, Longwood and UNC Asheville all have a reported enrollment of under 5,000; Radford is up there at around 10,000. Having infrastructure is preferred, but it should be noted that many FCS football programs do compete in stadiums that are much more similar to high school venues than North Dakota State’s, Montana’s, or, for the sake of the conversation, Liberty’s, Coastal’s or KSU’s.

The cheapest fix would be Campbell because it already has the infrastructure. When it comes to the other private school, High Point, it should be noted that private schools usually can find heaps of donations and chunks of money faster when they ask for it from alumni.

The three other PFL members that are attractive are Davidson (located in North Carolina and an Atlantic 10 member in all other sports), and A-Sun schools Jacksonville and Stetson. Jacksonville actually was put on probation by the PFL this year for offering “academic scholarships” in heavy favor of football players, while Stetson is a large, prestigious private university with access to a stadium and plenty of money.

But what if none of these contingent strategies work out?

 Bye bye, Big South.

The alternative scenario would be something like this:

  • Coastal joins Sun Belt; Liberty joins Conference USA or AAC. Both schools are now FBS.
  • Monmouth, an associate member, joins the Patriot League as an associate member.
  • Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian and Charleston Southern plead with the Southern Conference to let them in. It makes perfect geographical sense, yet the Southern Conference and its member schools are known for being very picky.
  • Kennesaw…

Yeah, so what would Kennesaw State do?

As an associate member, you have the freedom, like Monmouth, to quickly look for another associate membership and not have to worry about moving all of your bags to a new conference.

To project where KSU would go would require understanding of what athletic director Vaughn Williams, school president Danial Papp and head coach Brian Bohannon envision for the program. The three have collectively made a hard, verbal pledge to become one of the premier FCS programs in the country. As Bohannon once put it, he wants KSU to become the North Dakota State of the south.

This was said, of course, when they first joined the league. Let’s say they were 90-percent sure then. Let’s say, if the hypothetical scenario at hand happens, they switch to 70-30, or 60-40.

There’s two FCS conferences that have great football history and would be a great fit for KSU. In fact, they’re two of the three that were on KSU’s radar when they eventually picked the Big South in 2013.

The Southern Conference (9 current members)

Again – whenever you talk to a Southern Conference person their response will be, “We don’t need you.” The member schools are very particular about who comes in and out, though there had to be a lot of shifting a few seasons ago.

The SoCon includes Chattanooga, The Citadel, East Tennessee State (starting 2016 after a year as an Independent), Furman, Mercer, Samford, Virginia Military Institute, Western Carolina, and Wofford. The only school in the SoCon that doesn’t play football is UNC Greensboro.

They could add any mix of KSU, Presbyterian, Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern to ramp the league back up to 10 to 13 teams. This makes too much sense, and yet, apparently, no sense at all. The biggest reason is they don’t like the idea of associate members, which would mean anyone who joins would need to join as a full-member and leave their mothership behind.

KSU could get its rivalry with Mercer back, and there’s already one brewing between the Owls and Chattanooga thanks to some basketball games of late.

Now let’s move onto the next one…

The Ohio Valley Conference  (9 current members)

This would put KSU in a league with teams from Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. For the OVC, it would give it two big markets—Nashville, where Tennessee State is based, and Atlanta.

Jacksonville State, a perennial power in the FCS, is also about an hour and a half from KSU, just on the other side of the Georgia-Alabama border down I-20.

The OVC might be down to eight members soon because Eastern Kentucky is, actually, the school along with Coastal that the Sun Belt is interested in, according to reports. EKU has, like Liberty, made it very clear it would like to move to the FBS.

But, what if KSU decided to change course. What if KSU decided to move to the FBS?

Well, it looks like it would be dang possible. The biggest reason KSU’s head men in charge like the FCS route is the possibility of being very competitive early and often, and the fact that Georgia State jumped from an FCS Independent to the CAA to the Sun Belt in a three-year span and ended up becoming arguably the worst FBS team in the country surely has made locals hesitant about Sun Belt talk, anyway.

The truth is, KSU has an actual campus and more athletic infrastructure than Georgia State does, though the Panthers are already reaping the benefits of FBS payouts and are growing the program into a healthier state—give it time.

If you go back and look at the USA Today’s finance report, you’ll see Coastal at 113 out of 230. Coastal had a revenue stream of $23 million in 2014. They added a teal field, known as “surf turf,” and have a stadium that’s one renovation away from being FBS ready.

KSU sits at 133 out of 230, with a reported revenue of $17.5 million. That’s a nice jump from 2013, when it reported $12.5 million.

If you look between 114 and 132 (the space between FBS ready Coastal and FCS newcomer KSU), there’s actually eight FBS programs—South Alabama (Sun Belt), Toledo (MAC), Louisiana (Sun Belt), Arkansas State (Sun Belt), Appalachian State (Sun Belt), Louisiana Tech (C-USA), Georgia Southern (Sun Belt) and Idaho (Sun Belt).

Between 134 and 230, there’s only one FBS program—Louisiana-Monroe, which ranks 182 with a revenue of $12.1 million.

Basically, in a year’s time, KSU went from being in a bracket not capable of fielding an FBS team to a bracket chalk full of them. Georgia Southern, for example, had a greater revenue than KSU but still fell short of $19 million.

At this rate, KSU will climb past Sun Belt teams in revenue. It definitely looks healthy enough to join the FBS if it wanted to—maybe even in the Sun Belt.

Another conference that is full of FBS newcomers over the past several seasons is Conference USA, though its membership is about as big as it gets with 14 teams. The American Athletic Conference has 12 members and has teams from Connecticut, to Ohio, to Texas, to Florida.

To join a Group of 5 conference (FBS, but non-Power 5, so not required to offer cost of attendance), KSU would need to do exactly what Coastal has to do—finish its stadium’s Phase II.

The easiest way to do this is to pool together a few super-generous donations. East Tennessee State, for example, is going to build a stadium from scratch after former Atlanta Falcons coach and ETSU grad Mike Smith and Steve Spurrier, as well as Phillip Fulmer, put their names on the endorsement list to garner attention and financial backing from wealthy alums.

With KSU being a school that started in 1963 and is just now getting clout as a comprehensive University, the question is—who’s going to give gifts to our athletic department?

That’s precisely why KSU’s football stadium is called Fifth Third Bank Stadium and isn’t named after any one person, like more historic venues. You should, however, see the revenue number continue to increase in the “contributions” category as deposits required for season tickets hit the books.

This all sounds really familiar…

 If you’re thinking that, you’re not crazy. That’s because the Atlantic Sun has dealt with similar issues with mass exodus as the Big South has; KSU’s parent conference is struggling, too.

Since 2010, Campbell, Belmont, East Tennessee State, Mercer, and Northern Kentucky left the A-Sun for more stable conferences (Yeah, you’re probably thinking…didn’t these teams get mentioned earlier?).

Northern Kentucky was actually given an exemption from the A-Sun last year to become eligible a year early so that the conference could have eight teams eligible for postseason play. Then, this May, NKU turned around and left for the Horizon League, which is totally fair considering it’s essentially Southern Ohio and that’s Horizon League territory.

So the A-Sun had shrunk down to seven members before the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which was the only Independent in D-I basketball last year, essentially invited itself in and threw a parade down Newark.

The A-Sun has essentially became a transfer conference for D-II schools wanting easy, safe access to D-I. Once they get comfy they take off. I wouldn’t blame KSU for doing the same thing considering it has started to outgrow the league. Let’s take a look at the numbers again!

2015-16 Atlantic Sun Conference members based on 2014 revenue rankings

  • Kennesaw State ($17.5 million, 133)
  • Florida Gulf Coast (14.4 million, 154)
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology ($13 million, 167)
  • North Florida ($10.4 million, 205)
  • USC Upstate ($7.1 million, 222)

Jacksonville, Stetson and Lipscomb are private and do not report revenue.

KSU is the only A-Sun school to offer full scholarship football. Jacksonville and Stetson are in the PFL route and Florida Gulf Coast and North Florida have toyed with the idea, but without a ton of momentum. North Florida has a facility on campus that could be easily converted, while FGCU would need to build a stadium.

The A-Sun is never going to sponsor football and, honestly, KSU has outgrown it.

I’m not sure how you can look at the above information and not think moving as a full-member into a new conference isn’t Plan A, with a move to the FBS as a little nugget to consider.

We’ll see if any tones change. Big South media day is Wednesday at the College Football Hall of Fame.

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