After hosting representatives from the Sun Belt Conference on campus earlier this week, Coastal Carolina University President David DeCenzo offered his strongest comments yet on the school’s interest in joining the league and moving up a level in football to the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
And his latest remarks should only further grow the fervor that has been building within the fan base for the potential move.
“I will tell you what I said to them: I will accept an offer from the Sun Belt if an offer is made,” DeCenzo told The Sun News in an exclusive interview Friday.
So that “if” – whether an official offer for membership actually comes – now remains the final hurdle in a process that has accelerated quickly over at least the last couple of months, beginning with Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson initiating contact and then publicly acknowledging in recent weeks that he had reached out to both Coastal Carolina and Eastern Kentucky about potential expansion of the league, which already boasts 11 full-fledged members stretching through Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.
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DeCenzo said Benson and his Sun Belt team had already visited Eastern Kentucky before they spent Tuesday and Wednesday at Coastal Carolina, and it was his understanding the conference plans to visit one more unidentified school next week. From there, he is hopeful the Sun Belt will let the university know soon if it will indeed be making an offer.
“It was a very good meeting, very positive meeting,” DeCenzo said of the on-campus talks. “I think as we all know it’s completely up to them as to what they do, whether they extend an offer. They’re hoping in a short time period, now I can’t define what a short time period is, but I’m hoping in the next several weeks to have at least some indication as to what ultimately they would do.”
Benson’s communications staff said last week the commissioner would not be making any further comments and reiterated by email Friday night that the conference had nothing else to say at this time.
I will tell you what I said to them: I will accept an offer from the Sun Belt if an offer is made.
CCU President David DeCenzo
The biggest question the Sun Belt representation had for Coastal Carolina during its visit, though, was the school’s willingness and feasibility to expand its football stadium, as all FBS-level programs are required by the NCAA to maintain an average paid attendance of at least 15,000 over a rolling two-year period.
The Chanticleers, who have been charter members of the Big South Conference since 1983 and debuted football in 2003, currently compete in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, or formerly Division I-AA) with an official seating capacity of 9,214 inside Brooks Stadium.
But if given the opportunity to jump to the Sun Belt, DeCenzo told the conference the university is prepared to immediately begin the process of expanding the stadium to approximately 21,000-22,000 seats.
“We know that if we get an offer to go into FBS, obviously our stadium has to be upgraded,” he said Friday.“Initially, we were thinking that we would take a two-phased approach and initially look to add 5,500 seats to get us to that 15,000 level and then another 5,000-6,000 to get it to 21,000-22,000. In discussion with the board yesterday, and I’ve communicated this to the [Sun Belt] chancellors and the commissioner, if we get a bid to go to the Sun Belt we will immediately embark on the full upgrade of the stadium, taking it to the 20,000-plus, whatever the number is.
“The more we talked about it we just felt like trying to do it over a four-year period [in phases] means we’re going to be in [constant] construction. If we get a bid, we’ll begin the full expansion to take it to 21,000, 22,000, whatever works.”
While any stadium expansion plans would be subject to change until an architecture firm is hired to design a formal rendering and the necessary state approvals are obtained, the university shared its preliminary vision with the Sun Belt. DeCenzo said those initial ideas involve completing a seating bowl on the end of the field that connects to Adkins Field House – that would mean adding seats in the corners, which are presently open – as well expanding seating with an extra section at the other end on each side of the field and adding a second level to the seating opposite the press box.
“The infrastructure is already there,” DeCenzo said. “When this stadium was built, the foundation of this current stadium was designed to go to [the low 20,000s]. All the pillars are in. We don’t have to go down and anchor. Everything is there, we can just go up over.”
Furthermore, the president said the university is already prepared financially for such a project and that the expansion would be funded through some mix of the school’s reserve funds and private money. While the cost of such a project would not be known until formal plans are drawn up and a contracting firm is hired, DeCenzo emphasized that funding the potential stadium expansion would not result in increased costs to students.
“We have money that is part of our reserve that we believe will certainly cover it,” he said. “What our chairman has said and reiterated, anything related to the Sun Belt Conference will not result in an increase in tuition nor an increase of the athletic fee to our students. And I think that’s critical for people to understand. We have been very good as an institution in managing our resources. We’ve been excellent at this institution in terms of creating a reserve, and it would be from that reserve that we would [pull].
“Obviously this could create additional sponsor opportunities. I would envision certainly some private money going into it, but we would be able to do this without having to touch the tuition or fees. I want everybody to know this will not touch those at all.”
Every time Coastal Carolina takes on an additional athletics construction project, fans and supporters of the university inevitably ask if Chants football coach and TD Ameritrade chairman Joe Moglia is contributing his own money to the project. DeCenzo addressed that question as well.
“I think if you look at his track record, when he leaves some place he has a tendency to do something, but while he’s here that would not even be a thought that we would entertain,” he said. “So no, Moglia is not paying for any of this.”
Again, though, the most significant variable remaining is the one the school has no control over at this point.
This expansion plan and vision of elevating to the FBS remains contingent on the Sun Belt actually deciding to make an official offer of membership to Coastal Carolina, and only Benson and his group can determine the outcome in that regard.
But DeCenzo feels the school at least made a strong presentation this week.
The Sun Belt sent a group of eight representatives to campus, including Benson, four chancellors from schools in the conference, two athletic directors and a senior woman administrator.
The athletics arm of that group met Tuesday afternoon with Chants athletic director Matt Hogue and his staff for several hours before the full parties from both sides convened at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes for an informal dinner to better get to know each other. On Wednesday morning, the Sun Belt’s eight representatives and a seven-person group from Coastal Carolina – including DeCenzo, chairman of the board of trustees D. Wyatt Henderson, athletics committee chair Gene Spivey, university provost J. Ralph Byington, vice president and chief financial officer Stacie Bowie, Hogue and faculty athletic representative Mark Mitchell – met for two and a half hours before taking a full tour of the university’s facilities.
“[They were] highly complimentary of what we did [with new stadiums] for baseball, softball, the hitting facility, certainly what we are doing in tennis, and their compliments were abounding,” DeCenzo said.
He added that the group was also pleased with the current configuration of The HTC Center, which houses the school’s basketball and volleyball teams.
Coastal Carolina’s other athletic teams already compete at the same Division I level as those in the Sun Belt so the potential change for those programs would not be as significant as the jump in football. There would no doubt be expanded travel competing in a conference with Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Arkansas-Little Rock, Georgia Southern (the closest Sun Belt school to Conway, at a distance of about 225 miles), Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas-Arlington, Texas State and Troy, but Benson has expressed interest in developing East-West divisions with this potential further expansion to somewhat mitigate those travel expenses.
Of those members, Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington do not compete in football while Idaho and New Mexico State are football-only members in the conference.
And in terms of overall fit, Coastal Carolina’s athletics spending compares competitively with the rest of those Sun Belt schools.
According to figures reported by every school for the period of July 2013 through June 2014 to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act database, the Chants claimed a total athletics spending of $20,548,216, which would have ranked fourth in the Sun Belt behind Texas State ($29,030,894), Georgia State ($23,415,660) and South Alabama ($20,607,041). And in regard to football spending only, Coastal Carolina already ranked above four Sun Belt schools at $5,338,582 with Louisiana-Lafayette ($7,746,097) at the top.
“We believe we’re poised well,” DeCenzo reiterated. “Again, I won’t speak for anybody but myself, but I think the reaction that I saw, people appeared to be impressed with Coastal. I think it confirmed certainly a lot of what they were reading about us in terms of the growth of this institution, the popularity of this institution. I think they made some comments about just the vitality of the institution, the entrepreneurial aspect of Coastal Carolina University – just their comments about the building program and how fresh and inviting the campus showed.
“As I said, we as a collective group – that being the members of the board of trustees, the provost, the athletic director, the athletics staff, the faculty athletic representative – I think collectively we all felt like we put our best foot forward and it’s now up to them.”
So either the Sun Belt determines it likes what it sees from Coastal Carolina and wants the Chants on board, or the university goes back to the status quo of building an FCS power and continuing to explore other opportunities to grow beyond the Big South, if any others actually exist at this time.
While acknowledging that the Sun Belt is talking to three schools about potential expansion, DeCenzo said the conference did not indicate to him how many members it would be looking to add.
But if that offer does come and Coastal Carolina quickly accepts, the Chants would have to officially file reclassification paperwork with the NCAA by June 1 stating its intentions to move up to the FBS and thus beginning a minimum two-year transition process. That transition period, which would not start until after this coming season, would leave the football program ineligible for the FCS playoffs in 2016 and ineligible for any bowl games in 2017 while debuting a Sun Belt schedule that year. By 2018, the Chants would then be fully eligible members of both the Sun Belt and the FBS, unless they choose on their own to add a year to that transition process to ensure they are fully positioned for the jump. In the meantime, the rest of the school’s athletic programs could be ready to compete in the Sun Belt as soon as the 2016-17 athletic year.
As he said last week, though, DeCenzo is looking at this potential move beyond just athletics, and from all angles, it’s now clear the university is fully ready to move forward if the opportunity comes.
“Again, not only what this means for athletics in general but what it means for the university, this [would] enhance so many different aspects of Coastal Carolina University, in terms of our applications, of our areas where we recruit,” DeCenzo said. “This, as we look at it and certainly in discussions with a number of people, this could be transformational for the institution.”
The Sun Belt Conference Landscape
Appalachian State (Boone, N.C.)
*Arkansas-Little Rock (Little Rock, Ark.)
Arkansas State (Jonesboro, Ark.)
Georgia Southern (Statesboro, Ga.)
Georgia State (Atlanta, Ga.)
Louisiana-Lafayette (Lafayette, La.)
Louisiana-Monroe (Monroe, La.)
South Alabama (Mobile, Ala.)
*Texas-Arlington (Arlington, Texas)
Texas State (San Marcos, Texas)
Troy (Troy, Ala.)
*Does not sponsor football
Idaho (Moscow, Idaho)
New Mexico State (Las Cruces, N.M.)