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Monday, February 10, 2020

Big South, Big News

The realignment carousel is up for another spin - this time at the FCS level.

North Carolina A&T announced on Friday that they'll be leaving the MEAC, of whom they are a charter member, for the Big South, effective July 1, 2021. The Aggies, have earned at least a share of five of the last six MEAC football titles, a run that included four Celebration Bowl victories. The men's and women's basketball teams have won the conference as recently as 2013 and 2016, respectively. A&T is the second MEAC school to depart for the Big South since 2018, when Hampton University made the move.

A&T's departure from the MEAC wasn't entirely surprising - most recent rumors had spoken of a potential move to FBS - but upon the rumored announcement yesterday, a move to the Big South seemed lateral at best. In NCAA men's basketball tournament parlance, both teams are one bid leagues that have sent their champions to Dayton for the First Four. In football, the Big South sends its champion to the NCAA Division I playoffs, while the MEAC champion plays in the Celebration Bowl for the HBCU championship. It's possible money is a primary motivator - and to be clear, in matters of realignment, it almost always is - but barring that, my immediate thoughts went to what they'd be gaining versus what they'd be giving up.

For the next 18 months, A&T resides in the MEAC, one of two Division I conferences comprised entirely of HBCUs. The MEAC is the junior of the two, having emerged in 1970 primarily from former CIAA members, and became a Division I conference in 1978. The member schools' shared identity has led to conference solidarity even amidst rivalry - Against the SWAC, the other such conference, at least. Dating back to the CIAA, A&T has shared a conference with Howard for nearly a century, and has had stretches with other conference rivals, whether continuous or interrupted, since the 1920s. The move feels like the sort of cultural disconnect I felt when the Terps went to the Big Ten, in which another conference charter member set off on a new path. For the record, that pairing still makes little sense to me, and at least a present, I feel the same way about A&T's move.

A&T cited travel cost savings among its reasons for the move. The MEAC is the most extensive of any FCS conference east of the Rockies, stretching nearly 1,000 miles from FAMU in the south to Delaware State in the north. In contrast, no team will play more than a state away in the Big South, where all members are in the Carolinas and Virginia - save for football-only outliers Monmouth in New Jersey, Kennesaw State in Georgia, and North Alabama. The Aggies will once again share a conference with Hampton, and may find a new conference rival in fellow Triad school High Point or UNC systemmmate UNC Asheville. Still, it's hard at this juncture to see the Aggie faithful getting as excited about games against Gardner-Webb and Campbell as they did about games against Norfolk State and FAMU - especially at halftime. The Aggies will have a chance to return to the NCAA Division I football playoffs, which they last visited in 2016 as an at-large as MEAC runner up. In this, the Big South has been a two bid league each of the past two years, finding its success in the form of football-only members Monmouth and Kennesaw State. The Aggies may also see the Big South as a more effective launchpad to FBS, as it was for Coastal Carolina a few years ago.

The Big South made out great on the deal. In A&T, they get a competitive program with a loyal fanbase that fits neatly into the conference footprint. The conference will drop to just seven football playing members in 2020 as Presbyterian's programs opts for the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League. Returning to eight will give league members seven conference games, and four out of conference slots to fill; A&T has expressly stated a desire to keep playing chief rival NC Central, and they will likely maintain relationships with other former conferencemates and HBCUs.

What will become of the MEAC? The conference will fall to eight football members following A&T's departure, down from 11 just two years ago with the losses of Hampton, A&T, and Savannah State, who returned to the Division II SIAC. What's more, with the Aggie, it's not just that they lost, but the program that they lost - a perennial conference champion and Celebration Bowl champion, and the nation's largest HBCU. The league office has stated a willingness to expand, but options in such are limited either to a rising Division II program, or adding a non-HBCU to the league, as the CIAA and SIAC have done. The MEAC has stated that "member institutions are united to remain a viable and sustainable Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) conference," but realignment has shown that that's always true - clear up until it isn't. The MEAC has weathered departures before, but if member institutions get antsy, the conference could go the way of the Big East. In addition to the Big South, the MEAC shares parts of its footprint with the SoCon and CAA, both also FCS conferences that offer football. Programs could also consider returning to Division II, as Savannah State did recently and Winston Salem State did a decade ago. And should FAMU get jumpy, they could entertain membership in the SWAC - they share a state border and reasonable travel with Alabama State and Alabama A&M, and even the longest stretch to Prairie View is shorter than its current conference trips to Norfolk, DC, and Dover. There's no reason for the MEAC to panic yet but hopefully they're keeping a close eye at conference headquarters because once realignment comes knocking, there's no telling where it will end.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Ten Since 2010 - Live Events

I've been fortunate enough to attend plenty of live events this past decade. Here, in no particular order, are ten notable events I caught live.

16 over 1 - These are in no particular order, but this is my number 1. Being there live for the first and to date only 16 over 1 upset in the men's Division I basketball tournament would have been exciting enough. That 16 just so happening to be my alma mater made it indescribable.
Preakness - I took in the second jewel of the Triple Crown for my bachelor party, born simply of a fortuitous trip to Baltimore during the right weekend.
Honeymoon - Our honeymoon - an Alaskan cruise and cross-country drive - was deceptively sports filled, with trips to Wrigley Field, Camp Randall Stadium, and the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
BasketBinge - On a glorious weekend in 2013, I caught three games in about 24 hours in two states and DC, en route to UMBC's Spirit Groups Alumni Day.
CFB Opening Weekend 2013 - I caught the first game of the season - North Carolina at South Carolina - as well as the inaugural game for Charlotte 49ers football.
2014 DCI Championships - Made the trip up to Indianapolis and caught not only Friday's semifinals in Lucas Oil Stadium, but toured DCI HQ, checked out the Rhythm Discovery Center, and saw Drumline Battle live in action.
Louisville at Clemson - Headed down to the Upstate for a live Clemson game towards the beginning of their rise.
Queen City Battle of the Bands - The final QCBOB in Charlotte before the took their ball to play elsewhere.
College Football Playoff Championship Weekend - While I came and went before the bands got to town, this weekend in the A was highlighted by plenty of CFB Playoff fan activities and a Solid Verbal live show.
Fresh Fest - The trip to the nation's first Black craft beer festival also included a tour of PNC Park and a preseason Steelers game.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Ten since 2010: Posts

I don't feel as though I need to excuse the fact that my Decade In Review post is coming the better part of a month into the new year, but if I did, I'd note that in a space that follows college football heavily, considers the Honda one of the high holy days, and will ultimately keep this season pushing through the Super Bowl, this is just about on time.

Having started in 2008, the 2010s are the first full calendar decade of 80 Minutes of Regulation. I looked back over the decade to pull a few posts of note over the past ten years.

Champion's Honor - when the Honda Battle of the Bands honored the life of Robert Champion.
Winds of Change - as Drum Corps International considered a proposal to add woodwinds
I'm Gonna Miss H.E.R.  - as realignment took West Virginia from the Big East
One Band, One Sound, One Decade Later - reflections on Drumline ten years after its release
Big East (1979-2013) - a eulogy for the Big East Conference
That Which we Call a Corps By Any Other Name... - drum corps *whispers* are marching bands
Earning Their Stripes - Triad Stage's Common Enemy brings the tale of college athletics to the stage
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black - Cam Newton's swag is that of an HBCU marching band
Columbus Day - on the Columbusing of Neck
Coda - The 5th Quarter comes to a close




Sunday, January 12, 2020

Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright

I'll cycle through the obvious ones first: Yes, I'm rooting for the Tigers. Which Tigers? The ones that play in Death Valley.

But with the College Football Playoff National Championship looming, I suppose I should pick a side. And with all due respect to some great friends of mine who hold either degrees or fandoms with the Blue Ridge Bengals...

...Geaux.

Pourquoi? Blame it all on my roots. My family - my paternal grandmother, specifically - is from New Orleans, the Nero family homestead, where some of my extended family still live. It's the extended branch to which I am most connected, and as such I've always felt an affinity for Louisiana, despite not yet having been there. LSU has a tie to its home state like few other flagships enjoy, as most tend to split loyalty with another in-state program. My Louisiana kin are purple and gold clad, and with no actual ties to either team, I'm inclined to oblige.

Interestingly enough, it's those same roots that would give me reason to distance myself from Baton Rouge. With Louisiana - and with it, its system of higher education - still being deeply segregated in the 1940s, my grandma, who got her undergraduate degree across town at Southern, was denied entry to LSU, because racism. She would ultimately join the Second Great Migration and get her master's degree from Wisconsin. LSU's first Black student would set foot on campus in the fall of 1953, a semester after the birth of my grandmother's second child - my father. Still, she would have seen no different prognosis had she been a South Carolinian; Clemson would not integrate until nearly a decade later.

One more thing draws me to LSU: Coach O. The fact that LSU did right by head coach Ed Orgeron has been rewarded so far, and I would love to see if culminate in a championship. Coach O is as Louisiana as it gets, and I was pleased to see him get the call after LSU parted ways with Les Miles.  For this loyalty to be rewarded on Monday night would mean the world to that coach, school, and state.
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