Southern Conference now happy with league stability
Jul 24, 2014 | 257 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — It’s been a restless few years for Southern Conference Commissioner John Iamarino. These days, the longtime league leader can finally get some sleep.

The SoCon has lost five members over the last two years as a result of conference realignment, including Football Championship Subdivision titlists Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.

But with the additions of East Tennessee, Mercer and VMI for this academic year, Iamarino believes the era of rampant change is done.

Iamarino said Wednesday the stability will allow the league to concentrate “on some progressive things as opposed to kind of trying to defend the flank and react to comments and rumors that are out there.

“You never know in this business, but I do believe these 10 (schools) are committed to each other and to the league.”

As evidence, Iamarino said presidents of league schools voted unanimously to increase the exit fee they’d pay upon moving with at least a year’s notice to $1 million from $300,000. The fee for moving inside of a year was upped to $1.25 million.

“That’s a good sign that they were willing to tax themselves if somebody was thinking about leaving,” he said.

Along with a stable membership comes a perception the league won’t be as strong without the Mountaineers and Eagles, who had won or shared 18 conference championships the previous 23 seasons.

Neither, though, were among the three schools (Furman, Chattanooga, Samford) who shared the crown last year.

“Probably people who follow FCS football will think we’ll be down for a while, but I don’t believe it’ll be as long as they think,” Iamarino said.

The commissioner is confident the conference would have multiple bids to the FCS’ 24-team playoffs this year.

“We’re not a one-bid league,” Iamarino said.

Wofford coach Mike Ayers said the rest of the league, knowing Appalachian State and Georgia Southern were moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, saw an opportunity to chase a top spot and it ramped up their programs.

The Terriers had gone to the FCS playoffs five times in six seasons between 2007 and 2012 and are looking to get back there after a year away.

“I can’t say we believe we’re in the drivers’ seat,” he said. “There are too many good teams coming back.”

Chattanooga was the preseason pick by league coaches and media to win this year’s crown with Furman and Sanford right behind.

Mercer and VMI, the two newcomers competing this fall, tied for last in the coaches’ vote and were seventh and eighth in media selections.

Mercer coach Bobby Lamb enjoyed regular SoCon success for nearly three decades as a player, assistant and head coach at Furman and understands what it will take bring the Bears to that level.

The program, playing just its second season of football, has the backing of the community (Lamb said Mercer averaged 9,500 fans a game) and school administration. The coach said they will increase scholarships to 50 next year before reaching the FCS limit of 63 in 2016.

Mercer restores the league’s footprint in Georgia after Georgia Southern left for the Sun Belt Conference.

Lamb’s also glad his school found a football home in a stable setting.

“I think all the moving parts have stopped for a while,” he said. “I think these institutions are committed to the Southern Conference. Obviously, you hear rumors all the time, but I really think it’s going to be here for a while.”

VMI had left the Southern Conference for the Big South after the 2002 season, in part because the military college struggled to compete in the powerhouse FCS league.

This time around, Keydets coach Sparky Woods believes the program is on sounder footing to compete.

“I guess the only question we have is about the head coach, so we’ll see,” Woods, the former South Carolina head coach, said with a smile.