View from the Sidelines: Should I stay or should I go now?

If I go there will be trouble 
An if I stay it will be double

Friday morning, about 9:45, the College of Charleston’s Board of Trustees will take a full vote on whether the school should transfer its athletic allegiance from the Southern Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association.

If you think this move is just about who we play in men’s basketball next season, think again. The move, if the Board votes in favor, would not only usher in fundamental changes for our athletic programs, but also has the potential to change how the College is viewed on the national stage.

The decision does have serious ramifications for our athletic department, especially men’s basketball. It will mean playing in a stronger conference, and in one that is not normally dogged by the “one-bid league” syndrome. But it also increases the College’s national visibility, taking the Cougars out of the Greenville and Statesboro, Ga., television markets and into Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

From a basketball perspective, the argument to stay or go boils down to one point: For three of the past six years, the Colonial has sent multiple teams to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, including three in 2011. What that means is that a regular-season champion from the CAA has a decent shot to go dancing and represent its university on a national stage.

The Southern Conference has never – not once – sent more than one team. What does the College of Charleston have to show for its six regular-season SoCon titles since 1999 (the last time the Cougars won their conference tournament and secured the league’s lone NCAA bid)? A handful of NIT banners and some nifty trophies tucked away on the third floor of TD Arena.

Another factor is television. Last season, the Southern Conference combined to play four nationally televised games, including the league championship. The CAA had 50.

A move to the CAA would also get the College away from the specter of the Southern Conference’s plummeting reputation and uncertain future. Last season, the SoCon had one men’s basketball program ranked in the top 120 in the final RPI, a ranking tool the NCA uses to help select at-large teams to the NCAA Tournament. The CAA has three. The SoCon only had three teams even ranked in the top 200. The CAA had seven. In fact, the Colonial has finished ahead of the SoCon in conference RPI in every season since 1999, and it hasn’t been close. The CAA’s average conference position over that span is 13th; The SoCon’s is 19.2.

Add to that Davidson’s likely departure – persistent rumors say that the Wildcats have not one but two offers to leave the SoCon for stronger leagues – and Georgia Southern clambering for I-A (FBS) football, and the league’s prospects look gloomy.

The move would present new issues for the College, of course, and it would not help all teams equally. The travel would be much greater, and even though athletic director Joe Hull points out that the men’s basketball team can get to Hofstra, in Hempstead, N.Y., by plane faster than they can get to UNC Greensboro, he must admit that for teams like soccer, volleyball and baseball, this move will mean some long road trips. (This would possibly be mitigated if the CAA plans to split into two geographic divisions, as some suggest. UNC Wilmington, the College and possibly Davidson would be the cornerstones of a “CAA South” that could make travel much easier on everyone.)

Our baseball team would almost certainly feel the most negative impact from the move. While the SoCon is waning in basketball power, it has become one of the premier small-conference baseball leagues, with the Cougars leading the way. But, would stepping down a level impede the College’s shot at an at-large NCAA bid in baseball? I don’t think so. Again, travel would be an issue, and the lowered RPI would affect tournament seedings, but baseball coach Monte Lee has built an incredibly strong mid-major program out at Patriots Point; I believe he would go on to dominate the Colonial, even if he isn’t in favor of the move.

While there are some very strong reasons for the move athletically, the biggest potential impact of the College moving to the Colonial could come not at TD Arena, or on Patriots Point, but in the Office of Admissions.

When the College moved from the old Trans-America Athletic Conference to the SoCon in 1999, it was a perennial safety school, or the best place to go if you wanted your parents to pay for a four-year vacation at the beach. Our little southern conference with our other little southern schools fit that perfectly. Don’t stretch yourself too much. Don’t get too far away from home. Make sure that everyone you’re going to play is familiar. But thanks to the work of Judge Alex Sanders, Lee Higdon and George Benson, the College is a vastly different place than it was 13 years ago.

When U.S. News and World Reports put out its recent rankings of colleges and universities, Charleston ranked as the fourth-best public regional university in the south, and the 11th best in the region, overall. But the administration isn’t satisfied with that; they want to transform the College into a national university. It’s a lofty and long-range goal, but based on the success of the past 20 years, it is possible.

The College of Charleston is no longer a sleepy little safety school for kids fleeing from Greenville. It’s now the first choice of students in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and (for better or for worse) New Jersey. Moving the school into those markets just makes sense.

I wanted to write this from my own perspective, in my own words – when word filtered around that I was working on this, I was informed of at least two different people who could “put me in touch with people” who had something to say on the matter – because I didn’t want to regurgitate anyone else’s well-rehearsed party line. But sitting in a contentious, occasionally aggressive committee meeting on the subject two weeks ago, I heard one of the trustees say something that has stuck with me:

“The potential for our students to be affiliated with these schools can be extremely beneficial.”

That came from Frank Gadsden, a College of Charleston graduate who is currently a banker in Clover, S.C. And he summed up this move perfectly.

If we want to grow, if we want to expand, if we want to be what we have the potential to be, it’s time to step up.

If you feel that we are OK where and how we are, if you don’t feel like testing yourself, if you don’t like the danger inherent in new opportunity, then this move isn’t for you. Just be willing to admit to yourself the reason why.

 *The views in this article represent the opinion of the author, and not those of CisternYard News.

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