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Why did N.C. A&T leave the MEAC?

Potential for NCAA playoffs, travel expenses and previous moves by HBCUs played a part

There have been lots of questions about North Carolina A&T State University’s decision to leave the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), one of four predominantly black athletic conferences in America, for the Big South Conference after the 2020-21 season. Here are some answers.

Who is North Carolina A&T leaving behind?

With North Carolina A&T’s departure, the MEAC will have 10 members: six charter members in Delaware State, Howard University, South Carolina State, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Morgan State and North Carolina Central, plus Coppin State, Norfolk State, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman. The league was formed in 1970 with seven historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Part of their mission was to move from the NCAA’s Division II (most of the schools had been in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association) to Division I. The MEAC officially became Division I in 1980 and qualified for an automatic berth in the NCAA basketball tournaments.

In football, the league competes at the FCS level. Its all-time high membership has been 12 as recently as 2017.

What is the Big South Conference?

Of the 11 full-time members of the Big South as of the 2019-20 academic year, four (Campbell, Charleston Southern, Radford and Winthrop) were founding members in 1983; a fifth, University of North Carolina-Asheville, joined in 1984. It began competing in football in 2002 and, today, has nine teams in the sport, three of which are members in football only. Like the MEAC, the Big South is FCS in football.

How does A&T compare to Big South schools in size?

Radford has the largest current undergraduate enrollment of Big South full-time schools, at about 8,000. None of the others has as many as 7,000, and Presbyterian, which played its last football season in the league in 2019, has just over 1,000. N.C. A&T’s enrollment is approximately 12,000. Florida A&M has more than 8,000 students and three other MEAC schools top 6,000. A&T has the largest enrollment of any HBCU in the country.

Six current Big South members are private schools, five of them with religious affiliations. North Carolina A&T is public. In the MEAC, only Howard and Bethune-Cookman are private colleges.

How many sports does each conference sponsor?

The MEAC competes on the NCAA level in seven men’s programs and seven women’s programs. The Big South competes in nine for men and 10 for women. North Carolina A&T has eight men’s sports and nine women’s sports. The school and its new conference have indoor and outdoor track seasons for men and women. A&T has no men’s or women’s soccer programs, nor a women’s lacrosse program. Seven Big South schools compete in those sports. With their new conference not competing in bowling, A&T’s bowling program will remain in the MEAC.

Will the traditional rivalry games continue for A&T?

Hampton continued its series against in-state HBCU Virginia Union last season and will play them again this season, and they will face Howard at home in 2020 after playing them at Chicago’s Soldier Field last year. After that, the traditional HBCU rivalries for Hampton and North Carolina A&T, which officially joins in 2021, will be up in the air. The Big South teams play seven conference games in 2021, so games against in-state N.C. Central, and big traditional rivals South Carolina State and Florida A&M will be difficult to fit in.

Losing the chance to play in an atmosphere like the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta can’t be overlooked. It might be less likely, with a Big South schedule, that A&T would play in one of the HBCU classics games in an NFL stadium. But it’s not impossible to keep the ties alive. Tennessee State, in a non-HBCU conference for more than three decades, has hosted the John Merritt Classic (named for its legendary coach) at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium since 1999, facing an HBCU all but one of those years.

Will North Carolina A&T miss out on the HBCU culture?

“A&T hurt the culture with that move,” Aggies running back and Bears star Tarik Cohen tweeted when he heard the news and alumni in the pro ranks and elsewhere largely agreed. Again, A&T was a charter member of the MEAC, has long-standing rivalries among other HBCUs, has the string of Celebration Bowl wins and more than holds its own with the marching band and other elements of the atmosphere of black college life. All of that won’t necessarily translate with their Big South brethren, and the culture clash will be noticeable, in the stands, at tailgates and elsewhere. The ties with other black schools, including the ones in their own state, won’t necessarily be severed, but they will be stretched.

A photo display of the famous lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, inside the DuSable Museum of African American History Aug. 26, 2015, in Chicago.

Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Is A&T taking a step up, step down or a lateral move?

Measuring the relative conferences’ strength is an inexact science, but whatever measure is used ends up affecting postseason invitations, seedings and scheduling. It’s worth noting that in football and basketball, both leagues routinely schedule “money games” against Power 5 conference programs or, at least, larger schools on their level, loading their records with lucrative but often-lopsided losses.

With that in mind, RealTimeRPI.com site ranked all 13 FCS conferences for the 2019 season, and concluded the Big South was seventh and the MEAC 10th. (The Southwestern Athletic Conference was 13th.) In men’s basketball this season, among 32 Division I conferences, the Big South is 27th, and the MEAC is 32nd and last. Both conference’s champions played in play-in games in last year’s NCAA tournament.

How does the travel differ between the leagues?

Earl Hilton, North Carolina A&T’s athletic director, told the Triad Business Journal that he estimated a savings of about $500,000 in travel expenses — about a third less than the school’s travel costs to compete in the MEAC, which has three members in Maryland, two in Florida and one each in Washington and Delaware.

Hilton said being in the new conference will allow for easy bus travel, which wasn’t always possible for MEAC play. The Aggies’ five MEAC South Division rivals include Bethune-Cookman (Daytona Beach, Florida) and Florida A&M (Tallahassee, Florida).

The northernmost MEAC school, Delaware State, is 404 miles from Greensboro, where N.C. A&T is located. The southernmost is Bethune-Cookman, in Daytona, Florida, 550 miles away. On the other hand, the longest trip south among the full-time Big South members is Charleston Southern, 267 miles. North would be Hampton, 247 miles. North Alabama is 570 miles west, but it is a football-only member. Meanwhile, High Point and A&T are separated by a mere 19 miles.

How has Hampton fared in the Big South?

In its first year in its new home last year, Hampton’s men’s and women’s track teams swept the 2019 Big South indoor and outdoor championships. (Coincidentally, its soon-to-be Big South rival, North Carolina A&T, qualified 13 athletes for the NCAA outdoor championships last season.)

In their first season of conference play in football, they finished 5-7, 1-5 in the conference. As of Feb. 10, the men’s basketball team was 11-13 (6-5), and the women 12-10 (8-5). In their first seasons in the league last year, the men went 18-17 overall (reaching the CollegeInsiders.com tournament semifinal) and 9-7 in conference, and the women were 16-14 and 12-6, and guard Ashley Bates was named Big South Player of the Year.

How have the MEAC and Big South fared in postseason football and men’s basketball?

In 2016, North Carolina A&T chose a berth in the FCS playoffs over the place it had earned in the second Celebration Bowl, and lost in the first round to Richmond. In the 1999 FCS playoffs, both NC A&T and Florida A&M won their first-round games. FAMU actually advanced to the semifinal game. The Big South has had an automatic bid into the playoffs since 2012, and has had two teams invited four times since then, including last season.

In basketball, of the eight wins by a 15th seed over a No. 2 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, MEAC schools have produced three (Coppin State in 1997, Hampton in 2001, Norfolk State in 2012). Since 2013, however, the MEAC champion has played in the First Four as a 16th seed five times, including the last three.

The Big South has won a first-round NCAA tournament game once, in 2007, when 11th-seeded Winthrop upset No. 6-seed Notre Dame. Their champion has played in the First Four twice since 2013, including last season.

How has Tennessee State fared without other HBCUs?

Tennessee State preceded Hampton and N.C. A&T by more than 30 years when it left decades ago as an HBCU independent to join the then-38-year-old Ohio Valley Conference in 1986. Its most successful seasons in the major-revenue sports came in 1998 and ’99 in football, when it won consecutive conference titles (it also was an at-large team in the 2013 FCS playoffs and reached the second round); 1993 and ’94 in men’s basketball, with back-to-back conference tournament wins and trips to the NCAA tournament; and 1994 and ’95 in women’s basketball, with two straight conference tournament titles and NCAA tournament bids.

Tennessee State senior receiver Chris Rowland (right) in a September 2019 game against Jackson State.

Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian

The program that put the school on the map in the 1950s and ’60s – the women’s track program, dubbed the Tigerbelles, that produced Wilma Rudolph and numerous other Olympic medalists – has won nine OVC championships since joining.

What has the MEAC membership been in recent years?

Early in the last decade, two HBCUs tried to move up from Division II to join the MEAC but never became full members. Winston-Salem State had joined provisionally in 2007, but by 2010 had not met the Division I qualifications and returned to Division II and the CIAA, where it competes today. In 2009, Savannah State moved up from Division II along with the returning N.C. Central. But last year, as Hampton departed to the Big South, Savannah State dropped back to Division II and its former home in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (where they won its division in their first season back).

What has the Big South’s membership been like?

The makeup of the conference has been altered frequently since 2012, when it had 11 full-time members. It added South Carolina-Upstate along with Hampton in 2018. At the same time, longtime member Liberty departed for the FBS in football and the Atlantic Sun in all other sports. In 2016, Coastal Carolina left to go FBS in football and compete in the Sun Belt Conference; a year earlier, Kennesaw State joined for football only. In 2014, Virginia Military exited and football-only Monmouth arrived. Longwood joined in 2012. Next season, former Division II North Alabama begins competition as a football-only member.

What prominent NFL and NBA players have Big South schools produced?

Justin Bethel, who has been twice named a first-team all-NFL special teamer and who played last season for the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, played at Presbyterian and was drafted by the Cardinals in the sixth round in 2012. Active players from former Big South members include cornerbacks Josh Norman (Coastal Carolina) and Walt Aiken (Liberty).

In the NBA, former Campbell guard Chris Clemons is a rookie for the Houston Rockets. Clemons led the nation in scoring at 30.1 points per game last season and finished his career third in all-time Division I career points at 3,225. Seth Curry, now with the Dallas Mavericks, began his college career at Liberty when it was in the Big South, before transferring to Duke.

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.