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Athletics: Expansion remain hot topic in Sun Belt circles

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 9, 2014

When athletic directors and administrators of Sun Belt Conference schools gather about a week-and-a-half from now in Destin, Fla., for the league’s annual spring meetings, possible expansion is likely to be one subject of conversation.

It typically is whenever the conference’s decision-makers meet, and especially around this time of year.

"Obviously conference expansion … will be discussed," UL athletic director Scott Farmer said this week.

Farmer declined to disclose specifics of what sort of talk is anticipated.

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said during the league’s conference basketball tournament last March in New Orleans that the league was "going through the process of evaluating and doing our due diligence."

The Sun Belt is widely known to have shown interest in James Madison, currently an FCS program that some consider a strong candidate for making the jump to higher-level FBS membership.

The Dukes, however, made it publicly known last month that they will not pursue or accept an invitation from a FBS conference that does not meet their criteria for "academic profile and fit, university culture, student and student-athlete welfare, financial impact and sustainability, competitive balance, and geographic footprint."

All indications are that James Madison does not consider the Sun Belt worthy of its presence.

And that leaves the Sun Belt in something of a pickle.

Current FCS-member Liberty University wants to jump to the FBS, and the school founded by deceased televangelist Jerry Falwell continued to lobby for a Sun Belt invite even after the league considered it but ultimately against offering it membership last spring.

But the Flames didn’t have the votes needed then – 75 percent in favor is required – and it is believed Liberty doesn’t have the necessary votes now, either.

That makes it unlikely, as things currently stand, that Liberty will be put up for a membership vote the Sun Belt later this month.

The league tends not to vote if it’s not enough support for a positive outcome already is in place.

Whether there’s a vote on any program or not this month remains to be seen.

What Sun Belt leaders seem quite likely to debate when they meet in Destin, though, is if they want to extend an all-sports invite sooner or later.

The Sun Belt loses Western Kentucky to Conference USA after this school year, leaving it one school shy of having 12 football-playing members for 2014 and beyond.

Reasons to add a 12th football-playing member include the ability to achieve geographic balance with the creation of two divisions within the conference, and opening up the possibility for the Sun Belt to stage a revenue-generating football title game.

If the leaders of Sun Belt schools decide they do want to replace all-sports-playing WKU right away, it’s possible they could extend a bid to incoming football-only member New Mexico State.

It appeared earlier this year that the Sun Belt had opted against inviting New Mexico State for all sports.

But the SBC’s failure to land James Madison combined with disinterest from a 75-percent majority in Liberty may cause some within the league to push for reconsideration of the Aggies.

Even inviting NMSU, though, would still leave the Sun Belt one football-playing member shy of 12 – and some consider it difficult to identify a qualified program willing to join for football only.

If the Sun Belt decides it can afford to hold off even longer on replacing WKU, however, it could simply do what it did in 2013: opt against expansion for the time being, and wait until potential candidates are better-prepared with finances and facilities to make the move up from FCS.

In order to have a 12th program ready to play football starting in 2015, however, an invite – if it’s going to a current FCS program – must be extended by June 1 so that all NCAA requirements for FBS membership are met.