College sports realignment can be cruel in the best of times and in the worst times it can lead to a conference disbanding altogether like it did to the Southwest Conference in the 1990s or the current challenges faced by the
Pac-12 2Pac. Realignment can be most brutal to the lower levels of Division 1 and the Big South Conference has seemingly been an endless revolving door for realignment. We are going to take a closer look at the Big South’s history and what options they have to attract new members – particularly in football.
Big South History
The Big South Conference was created in 1983 with schools from the Southeastern United States. The original seven members were Armstrong State (Savannah, Georgia), Augusta (Augusta, Georgia), Campbell (Blues Creek, North Carolina), Charleston Southern (North Charleston, South Carolina), Coastal Carolina (Conway, South Carolina), Radford (Radford, Virginia), and Winthrop (Rock Hill, South Carolina). The conference quickly added an eighth member in 1984 with UNC Asheville.
Since 1984, the Big South has seen 19 full members either join, leave, or both. Of the original seven schools, only Charleston Southern, Radford, and Winthrop are still members (UNC Asheville is still a member as well). Armstrong State dropped athletics after the 2016-17 academic year when they were members of the Division 2 Peach Belt conference. Augusta University is now a member of the Peach Belt. Campbell had two stints in the Big South from 1983 to 1994 and 2011 through 2023. The Camels are now a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. Coastal Carolina was a strong school for the Big South but left after the 2015-16 academic year to join the Sun Belt in the FBS.
The Big South has a history of members fraught with a similar theme as Coastal Carolina: greener pastures always seem to exist. Towson played three years in the Big South from 1992-93 through 1994-95 before leaving to join the North Atlantic Conference, which has since been renamed to the America East. Towson currently plays in the CAA. Elon moved up from Division 2 and stayed four seasons (1999-2000 through 2002-03) before joining the Southern Conference in 2003-04 and now plays in the CAA. Hampton did something similar as the Pirates joined the Big South for four seasons from 2018-19 through 2021-22 and are also members of the CAA.
Two of the most recent departures spent two seasons or fewer in the Big South. North Carolina A&T spent one year in the Big South (football stayed two years) before jumping to the CAA in record time. Meanwhile, Bryant joined the Big South in football beginning with the 2022-23 academic year and will leave after two seasons to join the CAA in 2024-25. The aforementioned Coastal Carolina is only rivaled by Liberty University in terms of ambition. The Flames were a member of the Big South from 1991-92 through 2017-18 and have since moved to Conference USA after five years as a member of the ASUN and FBS Independence.
In fairness, the Big South is far from the only conference with programs that have higher aspirations but constant turnover can keep potential members away and the Big South has struggled with that in football.
Big South Football Struggles
Since 2010, the Big South had only two seasons with more than 7 football members. The first was in 2018 when they had eight. That total includes North Alabama, which was transitioning from Division 2. The second was in 2021 when they had nine members but that quickly dropped to six in 2022. For 2023, the Big South was down to only four football members – Bryant, Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, and Robert Morris but Bryant and Robert Morris are football-only affiliates. The situation is dire to the point that the Big South is teaming up with the Ohio Valley Conference to create a football alliance to ensure the four schools have access to an AQ bid to the FCS Playoffs.
That brings us to an important question: is the Big South even serious about football? On one hand, the answer appears to be maybe as they’re buying time with a four-year scheduling alliance with the OVC. On the other hand, they have 9 full members, and only two of those have a football team with Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb (this does not count Presbyterian, which plays in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League). They also have one football affiliate in Robert Morris with Bryant on its way to the CAA.
Also playing a part in the Big South’s football membership struggles is the ASUN Conference’s decision to sponsor football. This move led Kennesaw State and North Alabama to depart and join the ASUN beginning with the 2022-23 academic year. The ASUN adding football and the CAA’s constant poaching have seen the Big South football numbers drop rather quickly leaving little time to research and invite new schools.
The Big South has a new commissioner effective with the current 2023-24 academic year, which may be a reason for the lack of moves. After all, a new commissioner may have a different vision for the conference. Speaking of which, the new commissioner is Sherika Montgomery from the Missouri Valley Conference, a conference that does not sponsor football so maybe the sport isn’t part of that vision.
Two Factors Working Against the Big South
There are two big factors working against the Big South Conference: geography and time. Let’s start with geography by showing a map of the Big South membership beginning with the 2024-25 academic year. Full members without football (including Presbyterian) are shown in blue, the two full members with football are in green, and the lone football affiliate – Robert Morris – is shown in orange.
There's a lot of geographic overlap between the Big South and three other FCS conferences. The CAA, MEAC, and Southern Conference (SoCon) all share the same area but have vastly different institution profiles or football prestige. Both the CAA and SoCon are regarded as better football conferences than the Big South while the MEAC is comprised of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Even the Pioneer Football League has two teams in it from the same area with Davidson and Presbyterian but there's a reason those schools opted for non-scholarship football.
If we look beyond the Division 1 level, then the Big South has plenty of potential targets to choose from in Division 2 but that's where time works against them. The transition time from Division 2 to Division 1 is four years meaning any team that joins the Big South in 2024-25 will not be a fully eligible D1 school until the 2028-29 academic year. Furthermore, the Big South has to compete with other FCS conferences like the United Athletic Conference (the ASUN and WAC football-only conference), OVC, or SoCon for potential new members.
Remember, the Big South-OVC Football Association agreement lasts through the 2026-27 academic year meaning there's a one-year gap where the Big South wouldn't have access to an automatic qualifying (AQ) bid in football if they brought in new schools for 2024-25. That could be remedied by extending the agreement another year but the Big South needs 3 teams to reach the magic number of 6 for an AQ bid. Any delay with a team making the jump would require another agreement extension. The OVC will have less of an incentive to continue the agreement as they will have 6 eligible members in 2024-25 with Lindenwood not eligible for the AQ bid until the 2026-27 academic year.
With the background and context out of the way, let's look at some options for the Big South.
Move the 3 Football Teams to the Ohio Valley Conference
Rebuilding the Big South football membership is a big ask for anyone but the easiest option is to let Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, and Robert Morris join the Ohio Valley as football affiliates. Finding three schools to join the Big South in the FCS is highly unlikely. Going the D2 route means you have to research and vet at least a dozen schools to find three schools willing to make the jump. There's no guarantee those three will actually move to D1 even if they're open to the idea. Plus, the Big South may have to look at additional candidates to exceed the minimum number of 6 in case other teams find greener pastures.
Considering the Big South recently hired a new commissioner from a non-football conference, the option to focus away from football makes sense. Big South basketball isn't great but they're not far from being the median conference according to Jeff Sagarin's 2022-23 ratings, which pegged the Big South at 22nd out of 33. Baseball is also an opportunity for the conference. Back when Coastal Carolina was still a member of the conference, they won the 2016 NCAA Division 1 title. Since then, Campbell has dominated the conference in baseball with five straight tournament appearances and some good outings in the regional round. With Campbell off to the CAA, it's time for a new program to carry the torch for baseball in the Big South.
Division 2 Options
For the Division 2 targets, there are plenty of possible options but we've narrowed it down to six realistic options from two different conferences. We'll look at teams specifically from the Gulf South Conference and South Atlantic Conference in more detail below but this is far from an exhaustive list of possibilities.
Current Gulf South Members
There are three teams that stand out as possible future D1 teams that the Big South could go after: the North Greenville Crusaders, Valdosta State Blazers, and the West Florida Argonauts. The latter two schools have had tremendous success recently in football at the Division 2 level with each program winning a national championship in the previous five years. North Greenville presents a different set of positive aspects that might interest the Big South.
North Greenville (Tigerville, South Carolina) is a football-only member of the Gulf South with the rest of its athletics in the Conference Carolinas (the CC will sponsor football beginning in 2025-26). North Greenville isn't a great football program with only two D2 playoff appearances since 2010 when they reached the quarterfinals both times in 2011 and 2016. The basketball team isn't great either with only one playoff appearance in the last decade (2014-15). Where the Crusaders shine is the location of the school near the North Carolina border and on the baseball diamond. North Greenville hasn't had a losing season since 2015 with six tournament appearances and won the 2022 NCAA D2 Baseball title.
Valdosta State (Valdosta, Georgia) won the 2004, 2007, 2012, and 2018 D2 National Championships and made the D2 Playoffs 16 times in 22 seasons since 2000 (not including 2020). The Blazers have solid baseball and basketball teams as well with baseball reaching the tournament four times since 2017 and basketball doing so five times since 2017. West Florida (Pensacola, Florida) is a relatively new football program playing its first season in 2016 but has been as successful with four playoff appearances in six seasons (not including 2020). In those four appearances, they've made the National Championship twice (lost in 2017 and won in 2019) and reached the semifinals on a separate occasion (2022). Basketball isn't as strong with only one D2 tournament appearance over the last decade but baseball has made eight tournament appearances including winning the D2 title in 2011.
Below is a map of the Big South if North Greenville, Valdosta State, and West Florida joined with those schools shown in red.
As we look at the map, we go back to some of the previous struggles facing the Big South and geography is a reason here for Valdosta State and West Florida. First, these teams are a bit outside the footprint of what already exists for the Big South. Secondly, these two schools seem like a better fit for the ASUN/UAC, which was a rumor floating around earlier in 2023. Finally, West Georgia's departure from the Gulf South to join the ASUN/UAC beginning in 2024-25 makes the Big South a less likely option.
Valdosta State will need to sponsor at least three more sports to reach the minimum of 16 varsity sports programs. West Florida will need one additional sport. Meanwhile, both schools will need to spend additional money on scholarships, improved facilities (not necessarily stadiums), hiring more coaches, administrators, and support staff to reach the Division 1 minimums. North Greenville won't have to add additional sports but it will need to increase expenditures to be competitive at the D1 level.
So why might this move work? North Greenville already has the minimum number of sports required and the geography is a much better fit. In addition, the Big South is a foothold into Division 1 and might be a stepping stone to Valdosta State's preferred destination of the Southern Conference. On top of that, if any school has FBS dreams, the Big South has a proven track record of leading to that destination (Coastal Carolina, Kennesaw State, Liberty) but the most recent rule may put a damper on any D2 school's FBS hopes. Of the three schools, West Florida seems more likely to jump to Division 1 but that is pure speculation and it should be noted the ASUN/UAC seems more likely than the Big South.
Current South Atlantic Members
The South Atlantic is the other D2 conference from which the Big South might be able to find new members. Three schools - Catawba, Lenoir-Rhyne, and Wingate - are a closer geographic fit compared to the Gulf South teams. Below is a map showing the current Big South members as well as the three SAC schools in red.
Catawba doesn't have a great football program but they do have solid baseball and basketball programs at the D2 level if the Big South wants to bring in additional numbers for those sports on top of football. Lenoir-Rhyne does have a good football program with six D2 playoff appearances since 2012 including a runner-up finish in the 2013 season (lost the title to Northwest Missouri State). The baseball team hasn't had as much success as the football team or the men's basketball team.
Wingate has seen a lot of recent success starting with football as they've made the playoffs four times in the last five seasons, men's basketball made 11 playoff appearances between 1999 and 2017, and baseball won the 2021 D2 NCAA title. Below is a map showing the three schools from the South Atlantic Conference in red along with the current Big South members.
Why won't these schools move? There's nothing to suggest that these schools are thinking about moving up to Division 1, much less in the process of doing so. However, there are some positives in these schools' favor. We already talked about geography, which would be compact with a move to D1. Looking at the expenses for each school, Lenoir-Rhyne and Wingate would both be in the upper half of the Big South and that's at the current expense level. Catawba would be near the bottom but still higher than current Big South member UNC Asheville.
All three schools already have well over the minimum of 16 sports required as a Division 1 member. There would still need to be additional expenditures that are typical of a move up the ladder (more scholarships, more coaches, more administrative and support staff, etc.). Of the two scenarios presented thus far, the South Atlantic seems more likely but remains a long shot.
There's one final group to discuss and that is new or restarted programs. These three schools come from within the Big South Conference but are offered up for various reasons. The three current Big South members we will discuss are High Point, Radford, and Winthrop. We also considered the University of North Georgia in this category but given they're a Divison 2 school and have previously shot down the idea of football, they were not ultimately included (never say never with realignment though).
High Point has been on a spending spree recently with billions of dollars committed over the last decade and a half to various projects. Football once was considered "inevitable" for High Point as far back as 2010 and recent efforts will see a multi-use stadium renovated, which could house football. Combine those with record enrollment numbers and it wouldn't be farfetched to see High Point bring back football. The university needs to address the accreditation warning it received earlier in 2023 before embarking on the addition of a potentially resource-heavy football program.
Radford was chosen because it has one of the highest enrollment numbers among the Big South members but they have seen those figures fall in the last five years. There have been discussions surrounding the possibility of football at the university in the past with one estimate around $15-$20 million to get it started. Radford leaders have publicly declared football is not on the way but with enrollment dropping, that thinking may change.
Finally, we have Winthrop, which is a school discussed in a previous post. A lot of the same pros and cons still apply but the university is facing an enrollment drop over the last decade along with additional institutional challenges. Would football solve the enrollment issue? It might help but it's not a simple decision or a silver bullet as outlined in the university's football feasibility study from 2016. The men's basketball program has seen tremendous success in the Big South and it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a similar result if a football program was established.
Summary and Thoughts
When looking more closely at the Big South's football membership problem, it's clear what's working against the conference. There are tons of different schools in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast that have football programs... but how many of those are realistic? There are few schools to pick from at the FCS ranks and not many more if they are looking at current Division 2 programs.
The cost to add football is high and is even higher for a conference like the Big South, which has scholarships. The conversation is different if they're adding non-scholarship football, which can help defray the costs of running the program significantly (although that's not always the best solution for enrollment struggles) but the Big South doesn't fit that bill.
Moving up from Division 2 is another avenue but it requires a school to want to move up to Division 1 and for the school to be ready for all the additional expenses of being D1. The one reason why that may work in favor of the Big South is the constant fear of - and increasingly likely - the possibility that there's a shift in Division 1 athletics. We already see the huge gulf between the Power
5 4 conferences and the Group of 5 FBS conferences in terms of TV revenue (aka resources). Schools may feel the need to try and move up to get a bigger slice of the pie even if it's only marginally more than what they currently make in D2.
There are plenty of options for the Big South, whether it's convincing current schools to add football or D2 programs to move up. Letting the current football teams formally join the OVC is another option but not the only one. Creating a new football-only agreement with the MEAC is a possibility and some have even suggested the Southern Conference invite Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb. The eventual answer may not even include any of the teams or scenarios discussed above.
This research and list was put together to understand why the Big South is in its current position. It's clear that realignment has not been kind to the Big South over the last decade. The first step is for the Big South to decide whether it wants to pursue football or focus on its other sports. From there, it can decide how to proceed but it won't be easy even if the decision is to move away from football.
Photo courtesy of Gardner-Webb Athletics