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The Wacky MEAC and Conference Realignment

Football programs coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (or HBCU's for short) have a large, rich history that has made I-AA/FCS football an awesome sport to cover over the years.  They bring not only great athletes and football games to the subdivision, but also bring (though I hate using this word) halftime pageantry to football games that can be sorely lacking elsewhere in FCS.

But there's also a bit of soul-searching going on in the world of HBCU's as well.

The two HBCU conferences in FCS football, the MEAC and SWAC, have decided on different approaches to life in Division I football - one which chooses to host a championship game, the other which chooses to compete in the FCS playoffs with schools like Villanova, Holy Cross and Montana. Now, a radical proposal promises to further separate the worlds of the playoff-playing teams and the rest of the HBCU community - and may even cause a conference to pull apart. (more)


Now, I know a bit from whence I speak.  Aside from being a national columnist on FCS football, I've attended MEAC games in the past.  I've even dragged my family away from Disney in order to head to Daytona Beach to see Bethune Cookman play North Carolina A&T.  (There I saw the finest halftime band I've ever seen - the Marching Wildcats, who simply filled the somewhat old stadium with glorious sound.)

Great bands and good football teams, though, don't balance budgets.  HBCU's have always been asked to "do more with less [money]", and despite a small increase in funding from the Obama administration, the challenges of running an HBCU are larger than ever.  States don't fund them in anywhere near the same proportion as they do their land grant, state flagship institutions.  The federal government helps somewhat, but nowhere near enough to pay for the number of folks who would like college educations.  Since thirty percent of all degrees earned by African-Americans come from HBCUs, this matters.

Despite the fact that all these public and private schools remain resource-poor with a mission to educate huge numbers of students, football has remained a crucial part of these schools.  It's impossible to think of Grambling State and Southern separate from SWAC football, who both play eveyr year in the nationally-televised Bayou Classic in the Louisiana Superdome.  Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman university are defined so greatly from their yearly showdown in the Florida Classic that giving up that football tradition is unthinkable.

These classic games not only define these schools as institutions, they also allow them to make lots of money in other "Classic Games" as well - sometimes balancing the budget for the rest of the athletics department as a result.

That reliance on big football games can be a blessing - but it also can be a curse, as the temptation to balance the athletics budget on bigger and bigger "bowl games" grows ever greater.

*****

When the first I-AA playoffs came to be in 1978, both the MEAC and SWAC were a part of the postseason.  But the SWAC's first move away from the FCS playoffs came in 2000, when the conference expanded to ten members and the commissioner of the conference and the presidents of the SWAC schools chose to break up into divisions and compel both divisional winners to play in a championship game.

Why did the SWAC choose to turn away from the playoffs?  The former commissioner, Rudy Washington, made it very clear where their priorities lay:

"The decision was based strictly on economics," he says. "In the SWAC, there's great fan support, so we decided to turn that into dollars with a SWAC championship game. When you look at the history of the [I-AA] playoffs, it speaks volumes. Our schools haven't fared well and you don't make any money, not even in the championship game.

"I have yet to come across any sensible rationale for us going to the I-AA playoffs. Some schools go to the playoffs and actually lose money. There's nothing wrong with playing for a national championship. But it all comes down to answering one question: Do you want to play for prestige, or do you want to play for the money?"

Evidently, "playing for the money" is what the SWAC presidents desired, so that's what they got.  True, a SWAC team could qualify for the FCS playoffs as an at-large candidate - as long as they don't have Thanksgiving weekend commitments with games (Grambling, Southern, Alabama State) and they're not the divisional champions that are contractually obligated to play in the SWAC championship game.  Though a handful of second-placed teams have come close to qualifying for an at-large bid, the reality is that no SWAC team has qualified or participated since the decision to go to a championship game format.

Has the championship game achieved its aim - to generate money?  Not really.  This article in Black College Sports Examiner, intimates that the SWAC championship game has "underperformed". 

This may have led this year to the SWAC to ditch their championship game and approach the MEAC to create a bowl game between their two champions.  Called the "Legacy Bowl", it's a throwback idea.  In the 1990s, another bowl called the Heritage Bowl pitted the SWAC champion against the MEAC "champion" after the conclusion of the season.  The trouble was that the MEAC champion had an autobid into the FCS playoffs - and rather than play a bowl game for the mythical "Black College National Championship", the MEAC champs always chose to play in the FCS playoffs.

In any event, the Heritage Bowl started off strong - even with the MEAC's second-placed team - but ultimately folded in 1999 due to declining attendance and interest.  It still struggled despite the presence of Grambling State and Southern, the two SWAC teams with the biggest fan bases, in eight of the nine games.

In 2010, however, the SWAC brought something they didn't have originally: an ESPN TV deal reportedly worth $3 million dollars.  They think that a SWAC champion, a MEAC champion, and ESPN will spell money to help all HBCUs.  And the MEAC - with a new commissioner who has long advocated a rerun of the Heritage Bowl - listened.

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The proposed Legacy Bowl - while still not formally announced - has rocked the MEAC.

One president, Florida A&M's James Ammons, rapidly made it clear that he would not support a Legacy Bowl since it was "not a good decision for FAMU".  Shortly thereafter, a member of South Carolina State's board of trustees chimed in and said it would be a "reversal of the right direction we are taking this program".  A third report quoting Norfolk State athletic director Marty Miller was more nuanced:  "I've looked at it from both sides.  The positives are that our student-athletes would get to play in a bowl game, hopefully on a big stage, and that's something I think all athletes want to experience. We could also make some money. But I know playing for a national championship is important for some people, too."

And while Bethune Cookman has been mum so far about the Legacy Bowl, a recent report about the ramping up of their schedule with FBS opponents seems to show that the Wildcats value the playoffs more than a HBCU bowl game: "There are three good reasons to play major BCS schools," B-CU Athletic Director Lynn Thompson said. "The revenue it generates is the most important priority. But it also provides us exposure for recruiting and helps our strength of schedule. The year we got an at-large bid to the (FCS) playoffs (2003) we played Florida International and won."

Could the Legacy Bowl dissolve the MEAC?  It's a fair question.  While the conference could probably survive with new members North Carolina Central and Savannah State, if both Florida schools thought it would better represent their football programs to join either the Southern Conference, say, or OVC, it's hard to imagine the conference without these schools.  Add in a defection of South Carolina State - one that was opined about by the Orangeburg Times & Democrat - and the MEAC would clearly become a shell of what it once was.  Delaware State, too, as recently as a few years ago, was reportedly thinking about joining a different conference - and this conversation may have revived those efforts as well.

Yet it's not a cut-and-dried affair.   If this is what HBCUs need to do to make money, shouldn't they be free to do so?  After all, they need the money to fulfill their educational missions.  And it's not like the FCS playoffs have minted money for MEAC schools either, though South Carolina State got a lot of exposure with their first-round game against Appalachian State last year.  Broadcast on ESPN, that game gave them at least as much national exposure than any Legacy bowl would have - perhaps even more so, considering Appalachian State's popularity as Michigan-killers.

There are some folks that are looking for another way, as well.  Roy M. Eavins III, the CEO of the Black College Sports Network, recently issued a call for unity in an effort to bring everyone back together and not fight this battle in the court of public opinion.  Interestingly, he proposed both a "Legacy Bowl" with both second-placed teams in the MEAC and SWAC, and implored that both the MEAC and SWAC send their champions to the FCS playoffs "in order to remain competitive nationally".

In my mind, it's hard to look at the Legacy Bowl as this great idea to generate more money.  If the Heritage Bowl and SWAC Championship game hasn't revived flagging interest in the SWAC, why should re-baking the idea of the Heritage Bowl work this time?  If the teams of the MEAC and SWAC want their members to become more competitive nationally, they should expand the opportunities of their members to play postseason games, and in FCS that means playing in the FCS playoffs.

Certainly the best solution is for the SWAC and MEAC champs to play in the playoffs, and their highest-seeded runners-up play in the Legacy Bowl?  That way, four HBCUs play postseason football and get national coverage.

*****

What if the MEAC breaks apart over the Legacy Bowl?  Are there any schools that could consider the Patriot League as a safe haven?  While most don't seem to fit the mold of the Patriot League, one notable exception stands out.

Howard University, a private research institution, is based in Washington, DC and boasts a very strong law school.  Its mission is to provide academic opportunities for African-American students, but academically it is strong overall, making them an interesting possibility.

Geographically, there would be interesting rivalries in football (Georgetown, whose campus is minutes away) and other sports (with Navy and American).  As the Patriot League is less far-flung than the MEAC, Howard could save significantly on travel costs.  (Best of all, the Patriot League would have two sets of Bison in its midst, with Howard joining Bucknell as grazing buddies.)

I've been to Greene Stadium, their football home.  It's a decent stadium in the center of campus.  Homecoming, the weekend I visited, was jam-packed with fans as the Bison took on North Carolina A&T.  I'm not sure if the game was a sellout, but it was awful close.  The game, complete with the incredible bands, was a real fun experience.

But leaving the MEAC would mean that the Bison would be turning their backs on their decades-old rivalries with Hampton and Norfolk State, and (to a lesser extent) Morgan State and Delaware State.  It's a legacy that's not easily left behind, unless something extraordinary happens.  Homecoming with Georgetown just won't fill that stadium the way North Carolina A&T would.

In the end, it seems highly unlikely that Howard would join up with the Patriot League unless one or more of these schools left the MEAC or abandoned football.  Still, it's not completely outlandish to think about Howard could be a Patriot League member, either.  And with the harsh rhetoric coming out of the halls of the MEAC, it's worth mulling over in case that conference were to blow apart over a bowl game.

Comments

Douglas said…
I can't see Howard joining Patriot League without full football scholarships... Then we could have a band battle between the '97 ( or whatever they have these days) and Howard's band... I've always wondered how those HBC Classic games survive in these days anyway...
Anonymous said…
Agree with the CEO you mentioned in your article who said play the bowl game between the two runners-up and send the champions to the playoffs. I think that's the best way to do it. Have your cake and eat it, too!

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