Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

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In Basketball, Football, William & Mary on March 27, 2013 at 1:14 pm

This week, George Mason University announced its plans to leave the CAA in July. William and Mary needs to plan.

Terry Driscoll’s office is probably like any other office. I’m sure the College of William and Mary’s athletic director has a large desk and some chairs for visitors. He probably has a nice view of the College’s campus, and dozens of photos chronicling his 12-year tenure as William and Mary’s AD. While I’m sure Driscoll likes his office just the way it is, he needs to make an addition. On the wall, directly in front of his desk chair, the athletic director needs to hang a framed print of a quote from Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. It should be large, it should be stark, and it should be put into action.

At some point, we need to move on. We need to start doing some things. That day is fast approaching, if it’s not here already. Our prom dress has been on for over [a] year, and we’ve been standing there, with a corsage, waiting.[1]

George Mason University announced this week that it would join the Atlantic 10 Conference for all sports beginning July 1, 2013, severing its ties to the conference that the Patriots helped found in 1979. The move was unsurprising, but that didn’t lessen any of the sting felt by the fans and administrations of the Colonial Athletic Association’s remaining schools

For the low price of $14.99, you can be the proud owner of this portrait of Terry Driscoll.

For the low price of $14.99, you can be the proud owner of this portrait of Terry Driscoll.

In less than two years, the CAA has lost its three most successful basketball programs through the departures of GMU and Virginia Commonwealth to the A-10, and Old Dominion’s exit for Conference-USA.[2] The College of Charleston is set to join the conference this fall, but adding the Cougars doesn’t fix all of the CAA’s problems. The league is depleted and needs to restock if it’s going to survive as a mid-major conference. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as adding schools.

The CAA is going through an identity crisis. What used to be a Virginia-centric conference has become a hodgepodge of Northern schools, mid-Atlantic schools and Southern schools with varying academic profiles and athletic focuses. That breadth might work for the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the CAA isn’t the ACC. The conference has to make a choice: go north (and ignore what’s south of the Mason-Dixon line), stay southern (and snub the old American East schools), or split the difference and try to cobble together enough schools to institute northern and southern divisions.

Any of those three options averts immediate disaster for the CAA. But the different directions have different consequences for William and Mary — and they’re not all positive. A northern push, with additions like Albany and Stony Brook, would leave the College on the Southern frontier of a largely New England conference. But a southern strategy has its own pitfalls. Adding schools like Coastal Carolina and Liberty boost the CAA’s football profile, but they don’t match up well with William and Mary’s academic mission, and, other than Davidson, they do nothing for CAA basketball. The divisional option is the most attractive for both the conference and the College, but Driscoll shouldn’t bank on CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager landing an Albany or a Stony Brook or a Davidson. The College needs to keep all of its options open — including ditching the CAA.

So what are the College’s options? Let’s start with what’s unfeasible: jumping to FBS. Not going to happen. The College doesn’t have the resources, stadium or fan base — let alone an invitation to an FBS conference — to manage a move to the FBS level. Also not likely: Ivy League membership. Now, if the Ivy League offered William and Mary membership, it would be obscenely stupid not to accept the invitation. The Ivy League isn’t just an athletic conference — it’s an institution. Membership in that club catapults a university into the highest echelons of American universities.[3] The College would finally get the national recognition it has so desperately desired (and NoVA kids wouldn’t feel so bad about not getting in to Yale). But that’s also the problem. The Ivy League isn’t your average athletic conference. The Ivies don’t have to chase television dollars or media markets like the Big Ten, Southeastern Conference or Big 12. Athletics are secondary.[4] And because of that, the league doesn’t have to worry about realignment or expansion. Sorry, Ivy status is just a dream.

That leaves William and Mary with three viable options: 1) stay in the CAA and hope for the best; 2) rejoin the Southern Conference; 3) join the Patriot League. Staying put keeps the College with familiar company in James Madison and Delaware and provides high-quality football. But without VCU, GMU or ODU, the CAA is a weak basketball conference, and is probably a one-bid league. There’s also no guarantee that JMU and/or UD stay in the conference for the long haul, either. The SoCon provides greater stability, but is a lateral move in most other regards. The likely departures of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern seriously weaken the league’s football product — which has been the College’s signature program for years — and beyond Davidson, the league’s basketball isn’t much better than the CAA’s. The Patriot League lines up more closely with William and Mary’s academic profile, but its limit on football scholarships could harm the Tribe on Saturdays.

The CAA is going to change, and Terry Driscoll & Co. need to be prepared for that change. Will William and Mary end up in a stronger position, or will it be left holding the corsage?


[1] The (Santa Rosa, Ca.) Press Democrat, 12/08/2001.

[2] Georgia State bolted as well, but they weren’t exactly an athletics juggernaut. A school that went 11-23 in CAA football should do great at the FBS level.

[3] Even Cornell.

[4] How gauche of you to suggest otherwise.

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