Editor’s Note: On December 5, 2023, Chicago State joined the Northeast Conference as a full member.

In April 2021, we posted an article titled What Will the Future Hold for Chicago State After the WAC? and we appear to be getting closer to an answer. In the two and a half years since that article, there have been some developments surrounding Chicago State so this should be considered a follow-up to piece. This article will focus only on the possibility of Chicago State joining the Northeast Conference.

What’s Changed with Chicago State?

The current president of Chicago State is Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, who has held the position since July 1, 2018. Chicago State has noted enrollment levels have eclipsed pre-pandemic levels as of the Fall 2023 semester, which can be attributed to Scott’s vision to bring back students to finish their degrees. CSU hired a new athletic director as well. Monique Carroll took over on September 1, 2022 and, given some recent developments, it’s clear she has made a positive impact in her brief tenure.

On July 1, 2022, Chicago State officially left the Western Athletic Conference and became a Division 1 independent although the move was known months in advance. As of this posting, Chicago State is the only Division 1 independent program but they do have associate memberships with conferences in some of their sports. Chicago State’s men’s and women’s golf programs along with men’s soccer compete as an associate member of the Ohio Valley Conference. The associate membership changes were announced in March 2023 and became effective with the 2023-24 academic year. The men’s and women’s tennis programs compete in the Horizon League, which started with the 2022-23 academic year.

There was potentially big news in September 2023 when Chicago State announced it would add FCS football if it reached its fundraising goal of $4 million. The school also announced the addition of a women’s triathlon program, which will start with the 2024-25 academic year. The remainder of Chicago State’s athletic programs – men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s track & field, and women’s volleyball – compete as Division 1 independents. The table below shows CSU’s athletic teams and the current conference membership.

SportMen’s ConferenceWomen’s ConferenceNotes
BasketballD1 IndependentD1 Independent
Cross CountryD1 IndependentD1 Independent
GolfOhio ValleyOhio Valley
SoccerOhio ValleyD1 Independent
TennisHorizon LeagueHorizon League
Track & Field
(Indoor & Outdoor)
D1 IndependentD1 Independent
TriathlonNot SponsoredD1 IndependentNew Sport as of 2024-25
VolleyballNot SponsoredD1 Independent

What’s Changed with the Northeast Conference?

It might seem strange to see Chicago State and the NEC in the same sentence but both parties have a mutual need and Chicago State is interested according to a report from CollegeAD. The idea is similar to the one discussed in April 2021 with Chicago State as a potential addition to the MEAC. Chicago State would like to find a conference it can call home and the NEC is in need of current Division 1 programs.

The NEC recently lost Merrimack and Sacred Heart as full members beginning in 2024-25 as they will join the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). With those two schools leaving, the NEC will have only 7 members in the 2024-25 academic year with Central Connecticut State, Fairleigh Dickinson, Le Moyne, Long Island, Saint Francis (PA), Stonehill, and Wagner. Two of those schools – Le Moyne and Stonehill – are still in the four-year reclassification process from Division 2 to Division 1. Stonehill will be fully eligible in 2026-27 and Le Moye will be fully eligible in 2027-28.

Before the most recent defections of Merrimack and Sacred Heart, the NEC also saw the departure of Robert Morris to the Horizon League (left after 2019-20), Bryant to the America East Conference (left after 2021-22), Mount St. Mary’s to the MAAC (left after 2021-22), and Saint Francis (NY), which decided to drop athletics altogether after the 2022-23 academic year. The NEC has turned into a revolving door for membership of late and it makes sense for them to consider current Division 1 programs as a bridge to avoid losing automatic qualifying bids to NCAA Championships if more schools leave.

The Pros and Cons

This will read like a broken record from the April 2021 article because it’s essentially the same list of cons. The obvious issue is the geography, which would potentially mean a lot of travel for Chicago State. Here’s a map showing the NEC membership if Chicago State joined. The Cougars are the green dot, football-only Duquesne is the orange dot, and the NEC members as of 2024-25 are in blue.

Yeah... that's less than ideal for Chicago State. This also doesn't include the other affiliate members in sports such as golf and soccer. Including those members would mean trips to Delaware, North Carolina, and Washington D.C. are possible unless the NEC attempts some sort of neutral location workaround. Part of traveling is the mode of transportation and distance for the teams. Will there be a lot of long bus trips? Will neutral locations (particularly for cross country, golf, and track & field) be part of the plan for the NEC? Ostensibly, these are still student-athletes and it's fair to wonder how athletic and academic performance will be impacted by the extensive travel they potentially face.

From the NEC perspective, having a foothold in Chicago, albeit a small one, is a benefit. They will have the chance to reach a new audience more easily that they previously didn't have much access to. For Chicago State, having a chance to put its brand into new markets is appealing in its own right; however, the recruiting impact is not clear. There may be a niche recruiting base they can tap into that likes the idea of traveling to the Northeast on a constant basis.

The addition of women's triathlon represents the school's 14th sport, which is the minimum required for continued membership in Division 1. The NEC currently sponsors all the sports that Chicago State offers with the exception of women's triathlon. If Chicago State adds football, that would give them 15 and there may be additional sports added if it makes sense for the school and conference. There's also an application fee to join the NEC, which is probably up to around $250,000 based on a decade-old conference policy manual.

Final Thoughts

The possibility of Chicago State joining the NEC is a mix of good and bad. There are benefits to both sides teaming up but there's the clear downside of the extensive travel Chicago State could have. It will be more difficult to quantify how much impact the travel will have on athletic and academic performances. The travel may not appeal to potential recruits but having access to NCAA Championships via the NEC is something they can't sell recruits on for their Division 1 independent sports.

In the April 2021 article, we said:

"Unfortunately for Chicago State, they do not offer football (and it is not recommended they start offering it due to the large costs involved and the current athletic budget struggle Chicago State already has)."

- SportsEnthusiasts' April 2021 article titled "What Will the Future Hold for Chicago State After the WAC?"

Our stance on football has softened because it's clear the current Chicago State administration is in a better place. They're more committed to Division 1 athletics now than they appeared to be in 2021. On top of that, if they add football and join the NEC, it would be a conference that limits football to 45 scholarships (the FCS is limited to a maximum of 63 scholarships). It will be imperative for Chicago State to implement football properly to ensure they aren't struggling right away.

There isn't an ideal scenario for Chicago State. It may take 5 to 10 years in the NEC or another geographically unfriendly conference for them to find a better fit. If the current administration, as well as any possibly future administrations, are willing to accept that and be forthright with the student-athletes, then it might be worth the risk. With all the uncertainty caused by realignment, a school has to make the best decision for them based on the information they have at the time.

Photo courtesy of Tarleton State Athletics

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