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Publish date: Sep 14, 2011

Division III conferences play their own game of musical chairs

By Gary Brown

The announcement from eight Division III schools recently of a new conference being formed continues several years of conference shuffling in a division that doesn’t often grab headlines for that sort of behavior.


A comprehensive list of conference membership.

Twenty-two of the division’s 42 conferences have either experienced a membership change since 2009 or are facing one next year. And that’s after entirely new conferences were formed in 2006, 2007 and 2008 that shook up the landscape then, too.

With no TV contracts at stake or mega-corporate sponsorship dollars to seek, Division III schools are moving for different reasons.

“It’s increasingly important for institutions to align themselves with schools of similar academic standing, resources and support,” said Chris Martin, current chair of the Division III Management Council and commissioner of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.

Among the more recent changes:

  • Four former members of the Commonwealth Coast Conference left in 2010-11 to join other leagues effective this year: Colby-Sawyer College and New England College to the North Atlantic Conference; Anna Maria College to the Great Northeast Athletic Conference; and Regis College (Massachusetts) to the New England Collegiate Conference.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology left the Empire 8 to join the Liberty League. The Liberty also gets Bard College from the Skyline Conference.
  • Former independents Chapman University, Lancaster Bible College and University of Dallas joined the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the North Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, respectively.

Not all of those moves were for the same reason, of course, but they continue a trend of increasing movement in a division not known for it.

Dick Rasmussen

Dick Rasmussen, commissioner of perhaps the most geographically expansive conference in Division III – the University Athletic Association, which spans from Atlanta to Boston to Chicago to St. Louis – said historically, Division III conferences were allegiant to geography, but more and more over the last 20 years conferences have come together under the umbrella of “institutional association.”

“In some cases, the splitting off from larger conferences has been driven by institutional association or identity – trying to ensure that they are grouped with institutions of similar mission and philosophy, resources and academic standing,” he said.

The most seismic shift of 2011 – the split from the 12-member Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference to form the new eight-member Southern Athletic Association – was a product of logistics more than a break in philosophy.

The SAA begins operating next year with seven schools that are completing stints as members of the SCAC (Birmingham-Southern College, Centre College, Hendrix College, Millsaps College, Oglethorpe University, Rhodes College and the University of the South) and one current provisional DIII member (Berry College) that is on track to reach active status by 2013-14.

Jay Gardiner, the athletics director at Oglethorpe who was named interim commissioner of the new SAA, said the move – driven by presidents – was about mitigating missed class time and reducing travel costs for a league that had grown to stretch from Texas and Colorado to Georgia.

“This is about playing against like-minded schools in a way that minimizes missed class time and focuses on academic success of student-athletes,” Gardiner said. “That’s not to say the remaining SCAC members are not ‘like’ those that are leaving – on the contrary. We’re all liberal arts institutions between 1,000-2,200 students and consider ourselves similar academically. There was no hidden agenda here or bad blood or seeking a competitive advantage – it was simply about geography and what made sense financially.”

Dwayne Hanberry

SCAC Commissioner Dwayne Hanberry said the league had actually been talking about expanding from 12 to 16 and splitting into divisions as a way to mitigate some of the travel and cost concerns, but members couldn’t agree on how or whether to pursue that option more aggressively.

Hanberry emphasized that the SCAC didn’t set out to establish such a challenging geographical footprint when it was established as the College Athletic Conference in 1962, but the academic standards and broad-based sports philosophy that league members demanded forced them into a more expansive growth pattern in a region not overly populated with Division III schools to begin with.

“As Division III has grown over the past 20 years, though, it became more plausible for those eight schools to realize that they could put together a league that made more sense geographically and took away some of the travel burden,” Hanberry said. “I don’t begrudge them that.”

For the remaining members of the SCAC – Austin College, Colorado College, the University of Dallas, Southwestern University (Texas) and Trinity University (Texas) – the task is to rebuild. Hanberry said the group is determined to either meet or exceed the required seven-member minimum for AQ status before the two-year grace period expires. He said the group is committed to finding schools that fit the same academic and broad-based sponsorship criteria that have characterized the SCAC from its inception.

The SCAC-SAA shift isn’t the only change coming up. Others include:

  • The three remaining charter members of the 10-school Great South Conference – Piedmont College, Maryville College (Tennessee) and LaGrange College – are headed to the USA South Athletic Conference next year. Meanwhile, current USA South Athletic Conference member Shenandoah becomes an Old Dominion Athletic Conference school in 2012-13.
  • Capital Athletic Conference members Stevenson University and Hood College will go to the Middle Atlantic Conferences.
  • Centenary College (Louisiana) will join the American Southwest Conference in 2011-12. The school is in the second year of the Division III provisional/reclassifying membership process and is on track to achieve active status by 2014-15. However, McMurry University, a charter member of the ASC, is applying to reclassify to Division II.
  • Midwest Conference charter member Cornell College, after leaving in 1997 to join the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, is returning in 2012-13.

New Liberty League Commissioner Tracy King says the musical chairs aren’t done, either. He’s in an interesting position to observe it, having been commissioner of the Skyline Conference for six years before taking the Liberty League job this summer.

Tracy King

“The conferences that are more diverse appear to be taking the biggest hit,” he said. “When I was with the Skyline, we lost five schools to five different conferences and then added four others. But the Skyline is a diverse mix of public and private and denominational schools. A lot of the schools leaving the more diverse conferences are joining conferences based on institutional and academic profile.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing for the division, because it’s forcing schools and conferences to assess what they want to be.”

Empire 8 Commissioner Chuck Mitrano said Division III’s emphasis on presidential leadership is making a difference in conference alignment, too. The more that the presidents have become engaged in the governance structure and in the process of conference alignment, the more movement there has been, he said.

Chuck Mitrano

“It’s part of our growth and evolution, both as conferences and as a division,” Mitrano said. “Ultimately, institutions have to be comfortable with their affiliations, and that’s not to say that they weren’t comfortable with their former conference. Their presidents may feel, though, that they more closely align with a different set of institutions.”

Oglethorpe’s Gardiner said presidents were certainly behind the formation of the Southern Athletic Association.

“Division III has emphasized presidential leadership, and this certainly has been an example,” he said. “Our presidents have been right there from the very beginning in all aspects of decision-making. They set goals and values, and the bylaws all align with those. This is a presidential-led conference, to be sure. The presidents took into account their entire institution, not just athletics, when it came to making this decision.”