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Athletics: Athletic directors weigh in on need for a more regional scheduling mindset " merger or no

Kevin Foote, The Acadiana Advocate, June 6, 2020

There are many avenues to explore when considering the ideals of geographical conference alignments and common sense scheduling.

Most of them require some level of cooperation between schools that aren’t natural allies and the willingness to overcome pettiness.

Some of those obstacles have never made sense to Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb.

“That’s what I feel like sometimes we get into this thing I call ‘academic arrogance,’ where we think, ‘my school is better than your school,’ so we’re not going to play on the football school and we’re not going to play baseball,” Cobb said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Believe it or not, Cobb thinks those guilty of that mentality should look to professional wrestling for a lesson.

“Everybody knew it was fake, but the reality is, they created rivalries and they monetized those rivalries,” Cobb said.

With athletic budgets significantly slashed across the nation because of the coronavirus shutdown, resisting the temptation to allow pettiness to blot out sound logic is more important than ever.

Cobb was able to achieve that for his program recently when Georgia State signed contracts to play Georgia Tech in football and men’s basketball in the near future, beginning with hoops this fall.

The two programs had never met in football, despite being in the same city.

Crazy.

“If we can do that, there’s no reason why other schools can’t figure out how to play each other,” Cobb said.

Such a matchup makes a lot more sense than UL-Monroe hosting Cal Poly this fall or Georgia Southern traveling to Boise State or Louisiana Tech flying to UNLV.

It’s about spending money wisely and creating rivalries.

“That’s (rivalries) what fans of both schools are craving,” Cobb said. “They want to have 24/7 conversations with their neighbors about their football team, baseball team, soccer team, whatever. At the end of the day, we’re all hoping for big home gates and the way you get a big home gate is to play your rivals. That’s an easy economic model. Somebody who ignores that, it’s not a very wise decision.

“Beyond the fact that the rivalry makes things interesting, it makes people want to get off their couch and watch the game in person. It creates energy. I’d play Lafayette at home half my season if I could in basketball.”

Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir is a big believer in regional rivalries as the solution as well.

“Regional rivalries are the only way to solve those issues,” he said on a radio interview with 95.3 FM in Jonesboro, Ark., last month. “It doesn’t allow for fiscal efficiency, it doesn’t allow for kids to be in the classroom and it doesn’t allow for us to provide better student services because they’re not here to provide the services for them.

“I’ll maintain, I believe it, no one can change my mind, if we as practitioners or we as people in higher education truly care about our academic mission, truly care about fiscal efficiencies, truly care about the student services we provide, we would reanalyze our geographical realignment.”

Others disagree.

Recently, Louisiana Tech athletic director Tommy McClelland blasted the thought of any discussion of a Conference USA/Sun Belt merger for geographical reasons.

“Let me be very frank and very direct,” McClelland said at a news conference with north Louisiana media last week. “There is no conversation at Conference USA, nor is there any interest. I don’t know how direct I could be with that. I think if I were in Lafayette’s position, I’d be trying to figure out a way to move up to a level like Conference USA, so congratulations on that conversation.

“The idea that it’s going to have this enormous amount of savings, there may be some, but it’s not a windfall of money as you look through that.”

But the issue goes beyond an actual league merger.

UL and Louisiana Tech have only played twice over the past 15 years in football and the Bulldogs haven’t played ULM in the last 20 years.

Yet UL traveled to Ohio last year, while Tech went to Bowling Green.

“Whether anybody’s in the same league or not, that’ll work itself out in time, but we’re not very shrewd business people if we ignore probably the easiest and simplest answer to really kind of help us out with reducing costs across the nation,” Cobb said.

McClelland isn’t the only athletic director not ready to engage deeply on league merger talks.

“When you get down to the conference model, the Sun Belt and Conference USA right now from a revenue standpoint are basically a wash,” Cobb said. “The difference is right now with football revenue, Conference USA is sharing football revenue with 14 and we’re only sharing football revenue with 10. It doesn’t take a seventh-grade math teacher to figure out which one is more advantageous in terms of how much revenue you’re going to bring home with you.”

In other words, even if an actual merger never happens, there’s still plenty of room for common-sense changes to be made.

“Instead of getting caught up in buzzwords like 'consolidation' or 'consortium' or whatever, I’m more focused on trying to find like-minded institutions that share the same approach, so we can work together constructively,” Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko said. “To me, it’s all about working together if we can, so we can all become beneficiaries.”

For New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia, it’s probably sounds easy to say that when you’re in a conference. His Aggies were in the Sun Belt as late as 2017, but were booted out along with Idaho before the 2018 season. These days, the Aggies are independent in football and in the WAC in other sports.

“Being in a conference means something,” Moccia said. “You can play for a conference championship. You follow the teams in the league. I think it means a lot to play for something. Other than UNM and UTEP, we don’t necessarily have a rivalry. Like when we play Louisiana in football, it’s a good game but it doesn’t mean anything in the conference standings.”

Naturally he would love some of the proposed merger plans that include New Mexico State as a travel partner with UTEP. Much like McClelland, UTEP would likely dismiss that thought, but at least the Miners and the Aggies play non-conference games in all the sports each year.

It only makes sense. Unfortunately, too many schools around the country refuse to take that step.

“First of all, it saves you money,” Moccia said. “Second of all, when we play UNM (New Mexico) and UTEP, those are my two biggest gates of the year. Louisiana can be 8-2 and having a great season, but it’s just not the same.”

But also on the Aggies’ football schedule this fall is a road trip to UMass. That’s 2,292 miles between the schools.

The biggest home crowd at UMass last year was 12,234 against UConn for homecoming.

“I just don’t get why there’s not more talk about realigning things geographically,” Moccia said. “I just don’t understand it.

“If it isn’t now, when is it? You see schools discontinuing sports, you see schools taking pay cuts. Is conference realignment the third rail that just can’t be touched? You see all of these drastic measures being taken with budgets, yet nobody’s willing to look at this.”

Moccia said newcomers like his program wouldn't expect an equal share of the revenue right away. Potential ways to ease into it could be getting 25% or so after four years and then move up incrementally over time.

Another concept Moccia thinks should be discussed more is the Group of Five conferences adding a commissioner or at least someone to serve as a primary advocate for the five leagues’ best interest.

“The Power Five conferences just seem so organized,” he said. “They seem very collective on what they want to do, but the Group of Five conferences just seem more splintered. We don’t have that one person to galvanize the Group of Five.

“I do think it would put the Group of Five in a better negotiating position if they were aligned. It’s hard to be aligned without one true leader. Maybe Group of Five commissioner is too strong. I don’t know what the term would be, but someone who could speak to the interests of the Group of Five and be at the table, instead of the little guys being fractured.”