Hallelujah, JMU no longer just Monitoring the Situation!
This afternoon, JMU Sports released the following:
Statement from President Alger and Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne on GMU Departure
JMU President Jonathan Alger and Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne comment on the departure of George Mason University to the Atlantic 10 Conference beginning July 1, 2013
In speaking for the institution and many of our fans, we are extremely disappointed in this decision, as GMU, a founding member of the CAA, represents the key characteristics by which we judge our own conference affiliation.
This news comes at a time when instability and movement within conference membership continues across the country. The immediate strategy by the conference involves the CAA continuing to look at potential new members, a process that began earlier this year with the addition of the College of Charleston.
From our internal athletics perspective, we are actively engaged in a strategic planning process as a component of the University’s Madison Future Commission. In pursuing this plan, we are working with Carr Sports Consulting to assist us in establishing a comprehensive strategic plan that addresses all of our programs and long-term actions. While this process is set to conclude this summer, our planning is fluid and will help position and prepare us for important long-term decisions that are in the best interest of our student-athletes, coaches and the institution.
We look forward to working with our many constituents, both on campus, and around the country, in developing and sharing a strategic plan which positions our institution for long-term success.
Jonathan Alger Jeff Bourne
President Director of Athletics
What it Means – Objectively
There are many angles from which to view this statement but here is what we know for sure with our emphasis added in parens:
1) JMU is no longer in lockstep with the CAA on decisions about the future. (Great news)
2) The Administration has issued a very public statement acknowledging the utter distress in which the CAA finds itself. (This may be the best news of all as this is the most important thing we’ve been asking of regardless of the final decision)
3) At no point were the words “monitoring the situation” or “committed to the CAA” used. (Thanks be to all that is holy!)
4) The message was signed by President Jon Alger and AD Jeff Bourne. It was NOT signed by VP-Finance Charlie King. (no explanation needed and Alger deserves huge credit for getting involved when needed)
What it Means – Subjectively (our take)
It’s entirely possible that today’s statement is the most important piece of information regarding JMU Athletics to be made in many years and possibly for many more.
Let’s start by addressing the contingent of JMU fans, many of our generation or older, who have been supporters of staying in the CAA and/or FCS. The CAA is DEAD. Not just down, not just going through tough times. DEAD. Seriously, don’t ask about the potential for adding new members and reviving the league. What do you want out of your conference? UR, VCU, ODU, and GMU are all gone. Painfully, they’ll all be enjoying a renewed enthusiasm for their rivalries in the A10, a basketball-centric, non-football conference. Their is no one left, and all the Woffords and Elons and Libertys of the world only drag the league further away from a collection of “peer institutions” many of you supported sticking by. And it’s not just about the CAA, especially when it comes to FCS football. App St. and Georgia Southern, two other FCS powers, are expected to announce tomorrow that they are moving up and joining the Sun Belt Conference. As we’ve been screaming into the ether for awhile now, as the BCS superconferences expand and the mid-major FBS conferences do in turn, the obvious endgame is that this second tier, even if it’s technically 1-A or FBS, is becoming the former 1-AA again and the dregs that remain in what is currently FCS are rapidly sliding back to D2 status. It doesn’t matter what the names are, that’s what is happening. The bottom line remains that all conferences that have some members who play, and thus vote and take into account financially, some sports (football), that other members do not play, are doomed to failure. This is true from the highest level of college sports in the Big East, to 1-AA mid-majors like the CAA, right on down to NAIA Division 2 conferences in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve been beating this drum for two years now and all the half-assed members like College of Charleston or Albany aren’t going to change that. This isn’t about FBS or FCS football. Rob and I can get on board with options that contain both, but it is about not continuing with a sinking ship and at least choosing your own path.
Ok now, on with reading between the lines of today’s message. First, it seems to imply JMU is open to the possibility of leaving before the study was originally due for completion this summer if the choice is forced or the right opportunity presents itself.
Second, Carr Sports Consulting has done numerous studies of this nature for other universities and seems to have a relationship with many of the conferences JMU might or might not have the opportunity to join. This could mean it’s been hired by JMU as more a de facto search firm or matchmaker. But it could also be that JMU’s admin, who has, until now, been fairly consistent in their love of FCS football, simply wanted a little CYA to fall back on when the FBS-or-bust lunatics go crazy. In either case, and Rob may be more qualified than I am to answer this, it seems safe to assume JMU hired the consultants to provide cover and support for a particular decision, not to await the results and then do exactly what a 3rd party says to do. This may be getting a bit far afield with the speculation, but it also seems safe to assume that three of the stickier constituencies with which JMU’s admin will have to deal with are 1) non-revenue sports and their backers, 2) faculty, and 3) ye olde Virginny legislature. In all three cases, being able to fall back on a 3rd party study provides cover if what needs to be done involves elements that are distasteful or downright unseemly to one or more of those factions.
On that note, while it pains us to say (especially given our support for Field Hockey in particular), non-revenue sports simply do not have a place at the decision-making table at this time. Those sports belong wherever football and basketball enable them to go. Most if not all of the options outlined below will likely involve a step backwards in terms of national relevance and level of competition for at least some of those sports, but again, the CAA is dead. In any case involving a move up to FBS football, JMU will likely have to add another women’s sport or remove another men’s sport in order to comply with Title IX. These decisions will be unpopular, painful, and necessary. (See how that report provides cover)
Rob and I have no inside information and are certainly not experts. We know nothing of tea leaves. We just spend as much time discussing, researching, and stressing over college sports JMU’s level as anyone and we try to keep an open, rational mind about these things. With the exception of our top choice, the following are not in any order of what we most want or most think is realistic, they are simply conceivable outcomes discussed in turn.
MAC in all sports, hopefully with Delaware – We have both reached the conclusion that this is the best option and we would fully embrace the #MACtion! Yes, JMU would be expanding the geographic footprint of the MAC, but it would still have a footprint, not a giant, hemorrhagic, elephant-paw print that most of the other options in massively reshaped conferences are developing. The MAC has a long history of stability and currently has only one single-sport member in UMass. Most of the schools are public and similarly sized to JMU. Many of them are located in Harrisonburg-type markets where we would not be constantly condescended to at every tv-rights negotiation, bowl alignment meeting, or decisions on where to hold conference tourneys.
A10 all sports but football, football elsewhere (likely FCS CAA) – Seems unlikely as the A10 is market-hunting and has VA locked down now with UR, VCU, and GMU (plus GW). Davidson (Charlotte for the clueless), Northeastern (Boston) both seem more likely for markets and they don’t have the risk of wanting to leave for football. Whether or not JMU would want to leave for greener football pastures, Bridgeforth has to scare the shit out of hoops-centric conferences that have been burned before.
Sun Belt Full Membership – Again seems less likely now that the SBC has added four today. We don’t love it geographically (and neither does an admin that accurately notes JMU’s student-profile is from Harrisonburg north) and we really don’t like it academically.
Sun Belt Football Only – Not completely crazy if you really want to hang in the CAA or the A10 opportunity presents itself, but still not ideal.
CUSA – Like the A10, they’ve been market-hunting and seem less than stable, but JMU would likely have support from ODU and would definitely have some regional rivalries (ODU, Charlotte, etc.). But it seems like a collection of schools hoping in vain it’s just a stepping-stone, not a committed group of like-minded institutions, and for this reason we’d give the edge to the MAC.
New Big East/America 12 – Whatever it’s name, this is the closest thing to a big conference that seems remotely possible. But it’s still highly unlikely if schools like Cincy or UConn have anything to say about it as they wouldn’t want to add another perceived lightweight from FCS. Although we’d support this no questions asked, it does have the same instability mentioned in the CUSA section.
Other – Staying in the CAA or merging it with the SoCon remains is always an unpalatable option. W&M may decide to downgear on athletics and push for the academic stronghold of the Patriot League, but that seems unlikely for the Dukes. We used to think the possibility of a new East Coast Conference existed, but the ship has just sailed too quickly without movement for this to be realistic at this point.
In any case, today’s communication was a welcome breath of fresh air and a sign that JMU’s decision-makers are engaging and hopefully getting ready to lead a positive transition to the next phase of intercollegiate athletics at what we all believe is a sleeping giant!