- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

In other sports news this week, Virginia Military Institute left the Southern Conference for the Big South, and Elon left the Big South for the Southern Conference.

And you thought the Atlantic Coast Conference was cutthroat.

Actually, the aforementioned shuffle caused barely a ripple in Charlotte, where the Big South (Birmingham Southern, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, High Point, Liberty, Radford, UNC Asheville and Winthrop are the other lodge brothers) is based. Nobody filed any lawsuits. Nobody called anybody any names. It was just another shaking-out for a conference that has seen eight members come and go in its two decades of existence, including — how quickly we forget — Towson State and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

“We have an exit fee,” assistant commissioner Drew Dickerson says, “but it’s nothing like what Miami and Virginia Tech are paying to leave the Big East. It’s not in the millions.”

Nor would anyone expect it to be. Not in a conference that doled out $53,000 to each school in revenue sharing last year. Heck, in the ACC, $53,000 wouldn’t even cover Gary Williams’ dry cleaning bills.

George Mason competed in the Big South in softball for a while in the ‘90s, and Howard did likewise in women’s soccer. So it goes in this amorphous conference. Because it sponsors 18 sports — and not all of its members field a team in every sport — it has to “borrow” other programs to keep its numbers up and retain its automatic NCAA bids. Among its associate members these days are Holy Cross (women’s golf) and Texas A&M-Corpus; Christi (softball). Talk about global reach.

Anyway, you can understand why Dickerson and his colleagues are amused by the goings on between the ACC and Big East. After all, the only constant in their life is change. Liberty in, Davidson out, High Point in, UMBC out, VMI in, Elon out — what’s the big deal?

“I was entertained [by the Miami/Virginia Tech soap opera] because I’m from Gaithersburg and almost went to Maryland,” Dickerson says. “My assistant graduated from N.C. State. My wife is a North Carolina alum. I have a lot of ACC ties. But this is almost business as usual in college athletics. The lawsuit might be a little extreme, but there’s always a major membership shift every few years. The reason people were surprised, I guess, is that the ACC hadn’t expanded in [more than] 10 years.”

The Big South is excited about having VMI in its ranks. The conference began play in football last fall, and the addition of the Keydets — coupled with Coastal Carolina’s taking up of the sport — gives it five teams, only one less than it needs for a guaranteed berth in the I-AA playoffs.

“They have a terrific athletic tradition,” Dickerson says of VMI, “better than any of our other schools.”

He’s referring to the football team winning five conference titles in the ‘50s and ‘60s — and to the basketball team reaching the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons during the ‘70s. The Big South, remember, has no football tradition (yet), and its basketball champ (Winthrop in ‘01, UNC Asheville this year) has been relegated to the play-in game in two of the last three NCAA tournaments. At this point, any trophy, no matter rusty or dusty, looks good.

But VMI wanted to handle the move “with dignity,” as Dickerson puts it — and the Big South was all for that. (ACC take note.) The Keydets had belonged to the Southern Conference for 79 years and “didn’t want to burn any bridges.” So they gave proper notice, enabling the conference to find a suitable replacement in Elon, and then went on their merry way. They’ll even be able to continue their football rivalry with The Citadel, since their schedule next fall calls for only four conference games.

“It wasn’t meant to be a trade [Elon for VMI], but that’s kind of how it worked out,” Dickerson says. “I don’t look at their taking Elon as a retaliatory thing. They needed another football member, and Elon was interested. Besides, Elon didn’t win our championship last year, Gardner-Webb [an associate member] did.”

In most respects, the Big South doesn’t even seem to inhabit the same planet as the ACC and the Big East. But Dickerson wonders if the abduction of Miami and Virginia Tech might have a “trickle-down effect” that will be felt even in his conference. One of the schools the Big East is looking at to fill the void, according to the scuttlebutt, is Central Florida of the Atlantic Sun, and “we consider ourselves on a par with the Atlantic Sun,” he says.

So the Big East takes Central Florida, and then the Atlantic Sun — having already raided the Big South of Campbell University — goes after, say, UNC Asheville. College athletics is truly a mad, mad, mad, mad world, is it not?

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