Since the news spread fast and wide last week of the Sun Belt Conference’s interest in evaluating Coastal Carolina as a potential future member, the possibility of a league change and of the Chanticleers maybe making the jump to the FBS level has prevailed as the headlining topic for supporters of the university.
The related thread on popular message board CoastalFans.com has nearly 6,000 views and more than 600 responses, actually dating back to late May when preliminary rumblings emerged, and even Coastal Carolina President David DeCenzo said he’s had people send him screen shots of online commentary on the subject.
On Friday morning, meanwhile, it was DeCenzo’s turn to formally weigh in, and sitting around a table in his office to discuss the matter publicly for the first time, he paused to choose his words carefully.
“We’re at the point of a good exploration of fit between the conference and the university,” he said after some extended consideration.
Asked directly if Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson and his team have set plans to visit campus as soon as this coming week, both DeCenzo and Chants athletic director Matt Hogue offered degrees of confirmation without specifics.
“I’m not going to deny that they may be coming,” DeCenzo said.
“I can confirm that they are going to plan a visit and that’s probably all I can comment on at this point,” Hogue said in a separate interview.
Both confirmed there has been no formal offer made from the Sun Belt and Hogue cautioned that no assumptions should be made either at this point in the process.
But nonetheless, the buzz and curiosity continues to reverberate through the fan base, the university and beyond.
How serious are the discussions with the Sun Belt, which has its footprint in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas with Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., a recent addition last year and Idaho and New Mexico State also in the fold as football-only members? And how ready is Coastal Carolina to make the leap from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as I-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) with all that entails, from stadium expansion to increased attendance standards?
After selecting his initial words cautiously, DeCenzo did his best to answer those questions to the degree he was comfortable, lending perspective and insight on the process and where it stands.
All the while reinforcing what has become clear in the last week and a half – that while there’s no guarantee an offer will come, Coastal Carolina is indeed very much considering the potential for a decision that could change the entire landscape of Chanticleer athletics.
“You’ve got to look at all the pieces, but you’ve got to look at what it would mean for the university,” DeCenzo said. “Certainly if an offer were to come in, we’re going to look at it very seriously.”
While discussions of such significance are usually kept quiet between the parties involved – as best as possible, at least – it was actually Benson, the Sun Belt commissioner, who made the talks public by telling a reporter from the Daily Advertiser in Louisiana that he had reached out to Eastern Kentucky and Coastal Carolina in regards to potential expansion of the conference.
Benson has been mum since, though, and a Sun Belt assistant director of communications responded to an interview request this week by saying the commissioner would have no further comment.
But it’s not hard to discern the logic behind the talks – for either side.
An original charter member of the Big South since 1983, Coastal Carolina has been open about exploring what opportunities might exist with other conferences. The league has experienced turnover in its football membership in recent years and with fellow perennial contender Liberty very public in its own desire to move up to the FBS, the Chants naturally have uncertainty about the long-term makeup of the conference.
But unlike Liberty, Coastal Carolina had never publicly stated a desire to move all the way up to the FBS level and it’s not clear to what extent such a jump had ever been considered prior to this recent contact from the Sun Belt.
Hunter Yurachek, Hogue’s predecessor as athletic director who is now in the same position at Houston, had actually had a preliminary conversation with Benson and the Sun Belt during his time in Conway as the school evaluated the changing conference landscape and its various options, but the dialogue was not extensive at that time.
“I think there were feelers that were done informally and actually go back to ... previous athletic directors,” DeCenzo acknowledged. “But I can say with absolute certainty there had never been anything reached out to my office or me personally in years past.”
What is clear, though, is these current discussions are significant enough for Coastal Carolina to now seriously study what a potential move would mean if an official offer is extended.
“I think it would be safe to say that certainly there has been deeper discussion on both [sides] the last 60 days of exploring a feasibility,” DeCenzo said.
He said this is not a move the university could have really considered a few years ago, but with the school ever growing in size and facilities and the Coastal Carolina football program coming off three straight playoff appearances and a final No. 5 ranking in the national FCS polls last year, the circumstances are decidedly different now.
“You go back three years, we were not where we are today. That’s more than a cliche,” DeCenzo said. “So when we were looking at conference options, our focus at that point was not, ‘We need to immediately jump into FBS.’ Our focus was, once again, what is in the best interest of the institution, what will continue to allow us to grow the institution in terms of student body, student quality, all of these pieces that fit into a decision like this. Clearly, [the Sun Belt reaching out] has made us feel good and it’s another external organization that has said, ‘Something good is going on at this university and they may have something to offer to us as we may have something to offer them.’”
The Sun Belt expanded recently by adding Georgia Southern and Appalachian State – both previously FCS schools and members of the Southern Conference – and football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State all last season. In his recent comments to the Daily Advertiser, Benson noted that further expansion was not just a football consideration, but a move that could allow the Sun Belt to set up East and West divisions with natural travel partners to mitigate the expense for schools supporting a full stable of men’s and women’s sports in a conference stretching from North Carolina to Texas.
That’s where Coastal Carolina fits into the discussion at this point as Appalachian State has no obvious travel partner as the lone Sun Belt member from the Carolinas.
The appeal to the Chants, meanwhile, is perhaps more obvious.
The university presently pays the Big South approximately $27,000 per year in conference dues and that figure is set to increase to around $33,000 for the 2017 fiscal year and an estimated $40,000 for the 2018 fiscal year, according to information provided by the school’s athletic department. In return, the conference gave its members disbursements of less than $90,000 last year, from NCAA basketball and other revenues.
According to a report last December by the Business of College Sports website, meanwhile, the Sun Belt received at least $12 million from its share of bowl game and College Football Playoff revenues and distributed that money equally (after travel subsidies) throughout the conference. A story in the Savannah Morning News last summer featuring Georgia Southern’s move to the Sun Belt reported that in addition to an exit fee to leave the Southern Conference, the university paid a $1 million entry fee to its new conference, but Eagles athletic director Tom Kleinlein projected then that the school would make about $500,000 from the league during its 2014-15 transition year and $1-2 million as a full member in 2015-16.
Beyond the financials, there is also simply a stature in being part of the FBS landscape.
With that said, though, for all the mounting attention and the swirl of intrigue and discussion among fans and supporters, DeCenzo and Hogue tempered their own comments with a reminder that there are no guarantees there will even be an offer upon which to decide.
“I totally understand the excitement and the exuberance, but I think I would be very quick to remind everybody and be very cautious that excitement and exuberance is not really what drives these things,” Hogue said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves on anything at this point. Like I said before, it’s very exciting that you have someone that’s reached out to you. You start going through the process, doing your due diligence to understand it, trade information to learn as much as you can, but I think in these situations you never can jump to any conclusions.
“Certainly there’s been no official plan or invitation or anything like that. But I understand that people get excited about it and there’s a lot of speculation. For us, we can’t really live in speculation; we have to live in where we are and take it step by step.”
Ready for the FBS?
Coastal Carolina football coach Joe Moglia addressed the Sun Belt speculation earlier this week from his own vantage point, reiterating several times that it was a decision to be made at the president’s level and not a matter he need spend much time on while focusing his attention on the start of preseason camp Monday.
“This is not just about football. We’ve got 17 sports. What’s in the best interest of our entire athletic program? What’s in the best interest of Coastal Carolina? That’s how the decision is supposed to get made,” Moglia said. “So in terms of the specificity of those conversations, I don’t know where those stand. I have not asked about that, I’ve not discussed that per se.”
Football is certainly not the only consideration, but it’s a big one because of what a move to the FBS would require of Coastal Carolina.
The Chants’ other sports programs already compete at the same Division I level as schools in the Sun Belt or other like conferences. The move from FCS to FBS for a football program, though, is complex.
“I’ve heard from some alumni, I’ve heard from some people who are interested in the university trying to get a gauge,” Hogue said. “And really what I’ve tried to do is just be more informative of here’s what is a part of the process, here’s what we have to look at. I think when you get into this situation, there’s a lot of myth. Everything kind of gets mixed up. ...
“There’s still some impressions out there that you’ve got to have a 30,000-seat stadium, which were the old rules many, many years ago. So it’s that type of stuff you just try to clarify.”
Hogue said the NCAA requires FBS teams to maintain an average attendance of at least 15,000 per game over a rolling two-year period. That means Coastal Carolina would have to first expand Brooks Stadium, which officially seats 9,214 people, and then find a way to boost attendance, which has been a continuous struggle as is for the program – albeit with signs of progress while drawing two record crowds of more than 10,000 fans last fall.
One thought is that a better schedule of opponents would help lure out those who have to this point decided not to buy into FCS football despite the Chants’ skyrocketing success the last three years, but such projections are hard to quantify.
“Whenever I’m asked about only the football piece, I said I think this is a business decision so it’s a matter of what’s going on in the market,” Moglia said on that point. “So if we’ve got standing room only and a waiting line for tickets, it clearly tells us we’re probably supposed to start expansion. Now, while we’ve done a good job of getting reasonable crowds, we don’t have standing room only and we don’t have waiting lines for tickets. So from a business perspective, I think you’d want to see that type of demand, but that’s only football. And football, while it certainly matters, is only a piece of the overall landscape that Dr. DeCenzo’s got to look at.”
That’s only part of the football equation, too. FBS programs dole out a maximum of 85 scholarships while FCS programs are capped at 63, and whenever a school adds scholarships to a men’s program it must factor in Title IX considerations while keeping the ledger equal on the women’s side. That balancing act can get tricky ... and expensive.
But the financial elements have not been seen as a deterrent thus far for Coastal Carolina as the school’s leadership evaluates the pros and cons of a potential Sun Belt offer.
“We have seen nothing that said it can’t work,” DeCenzo said.
FBS-level schools must reach a standard of providing 200 total scholarships or $4 million in total aid, Hogue said. Coastal Carolina already meets that total aid requirement and would eclipse 200 scholarships by simply adding onto football.
Overall, Coastal Carolina actually compares well with the Sun Belt’s current membership in regard to athletics spending.
According to information collected by the most recent Equity in Athletics Data Analysis report, which covers the period of July 2013 through June 2014, only three full-fledged Sun Belt members spent more annually on athletics than the $20,548,216 Coastal Carolina reported for that year. Texas State spent the most on its sports programs at $29,030,894, Georgia State spent $23,415,660 and South Alabama spent $20,607,041.
On football spending alone, the Chanticleers – at $5,338,582 for that 2013-14 year – ranked higher than four Sun Belt members while Louisiana-Lafayette spent the most at $7,746,097.
In terms of overall money spent on recruiting for all sports, Coastal Carolina ($499,580) trailed only South Alabama ($573,207), according to the EADA report. And in total money spent on salaries for head coaches of all sports, the Chants ($1,456,651) trailed only four Sun Belt schools with Arkansas-Little Rock ($2,005,542) at the top.
While some schools that make the leap from FCS to FBS hire a consulting firm to evaluate the financial implications and help inform a final decision, Coastal Carolina has not done that, but Hogue said the university feels it is doing its due diligence.
“We’ve never hired a company or gone forward with any official consulting plan,” he said. “Yeah, based on these conversations, we’ve looked at what things would entail so I think we have a good idea of the requirements you have to meet, what would have to be addressed, and I think we feel like our readiness is pretty sound. But there hasn’t been any official feasibility [study] or any money spent toward that.
“Again, it’s all if something did come down the pike. I don’t know that when you go into these things, you can ever be perfectly ready for anything. The nature of how these things develop, certainly we would be remiss if we hadn’t at least sat down [and looked at it] after being contacted. You obviously have to start looking at all of those things and trying to iron it out. Are we at a point where there’s a plan? No, but we’re at least putting together the research and the sort of thing I think you have to do. Just like we always said, we would explore any [opportunity that comes our way]. That’s part of it.”
The future and the present
While saying that he doesn’t know what the end result of these discussions will be, DeCenzo added that the interest in general has provided a strong statement on the university and where it is heading in the future.
And regardless of what comes from it, the process is a positive for the school.
“It’s an indication of what we’ve been building, again, university-wide,” he said. “And I’ll just use an example of when the presidents of the Big South look at schools, you’re not just looking at the athletic opportunities that a school brings, but you’re looking at how they fit within the academic profile. So to have somebody reaching out to us saying, ‘We recognize the growth in your academics, we recognize the excellence of what you’re doing with the building of the university, certainly the athletic accomplishments,’ sure, it’s a good feeling – make no mistake about it. As we’ve said, we are maturing as an institution, and when you get people who want to look at you and in essence say, ‘Everything that’s happening there is on a good trajectory,’ that’s a compliment to every person on this campus.”
Construction is an ever-present part of life on campus these days, and DeCenzo thinks the university still has room to grow. He said he is comfortable with 2 to 2.5-percent annual growth in enrollment – which sat at 9,364 last fall – with 12,500 as a suitable goal.
“I’ve heard the rumors that Coastal could potentially be the second-largest institution in the state,” he said. “We’re fourth right now. I guess College of Charleston and Clemson have somewhat capped off some of their enrollment numbers, but it’s not something [where] our goal is to be No. 2 in the state and just take anybody and everybody. You may be talking 30 years from now before something like that happens, but we’re going to live the strategic plan of [working toward] 12,500.”
That vision of continued growth for the university is one big reason why any potential conference change is ultimately more than a football decision.
The Sun Belt’s footing in states like Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas opens up new recruiting areas not just for Coastal Carolina’s athletics programs, but for the school in general. Those are not areas where the university draws many students from at this time, and for whatever costs would be incurred by making the jump to the FBS and expanding travel for all athletic teams, the value in expanding the university’s pull to new areas is a gain unto itself.
“I’m not going to make a decision solely based on a conference and athletics,” DeCenzo said to that end. “I will only make a decision based on the good and the betterment of the institution as a whole.”
So those are the considerations for Coastal Carolina.
A move to the Sun Belt would be a move away from the familiarity of the only conference the school has known for the last three-plus decades. It would be a game changer for a Chants football program on the rise and just recently breaking into the upper tier of the FCS. It would be boost for the other teams, like coach Gary Gilmore’s baseball program, which sees its national RPI rating dwindle down the stretch each season once conference play begins. It would be a significant financial commitment. It could also be a significant financial boon.
There are still many questions that can’t be answered at this time, including those about how the fan base would respond and whether an expanded Brooks Stadium could draw 15,000 fans a game.
But the biggest question, of course, remains whether the Sun Belt ultimately decides it wants Coastal Carolina in the first place.
There is a thorough reclassification process schools moving up to the FBS must go through and a minimum two-year transition period during which the program is not eligible for postseason play, but before the Chants can decide if they are ready for all of that, they have to have an offer first.
So for now, the waiting game continues – with plenty of people inside and outside of the university all wondering where it will eventually lead.
“I’d like to know sooner than later,” DeCenzo said. “I don’t have a time frame on that, but anytime you have something going on like this, my primary interest is to ensure that it never becomes a distraction to the institution. I don’t want to see it detract from [us] getting ready to kickoff another athletic year, kickoff an academic year. You just don’t want a potential conference change to be such that it is the dominant discussion and we lose sight of [other matters].
“The sooner you can say, ‘OK, this is a move,’ or ‘You know what, this is not what we’re doing,’ it’s [for] the better.”
How would CCU fit in the Sun Belt Conference?
The Sun Belt Conference has contacted Coastal Carolina to explore the potential of adding the Chanticleers to the league. While no official offer has been extended, both sides are doing their due diligence. For everyone else, meanwhile, here’s a look at how CCU compares in terms of size and athletics spending to the current Sun Belt members.
The biggest change if a move was made would be for the Chants’ football program, which would jump from the FCS level (formerly known as Division I-AA) to the FBS (I-A). The rest of the school’s athletics programs already compete at the same Division I level.
The data below is provided by The Equity in Athletics Data Analysis reports, collected from each school for the athletic year of July 2013 through June 2014 – the most recent available figures. Note, Idaho and New Mexico State are only football members in the Sun Belt while Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington are members in all sports except football.
Total Athletics Expenses
Recruiting Expenses (All Sports)
Head Coaches Salaries (All Sports)
Little Rock, AR
**New Mexico State
Las Cruces, NM
San Marcos, TX
*School does not sponsor football
**School is only a Sun Belt member in football
***Enrollment figure taken from most recent EADA report; CCU claimed an undergraduate enrollment of 9,364 for the fall of 2014.