When Karl Benson arrived at the SBC, the Realignment Wars were going full throttle, and Mr. Peanut had an idea or two. For starters, how about a 33-team mega-merger involving the SBC, CUSA, WAC and the MWC?
The Sun Belt proposed a massive four-conference merger, tried to persuade four current Conference USA members to switch leagues, put a 48-hour deadline on two other prospective schools to join the Sun Belt and even listed 21 schools (including Belmont University) as potential targets in Sun Belt expansion.
All these plans unfolded before Benson eventually added Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington to the Sun Belt membership for 2013.
Benson – who took over as Sun Belt commissioner on March 15 after an 18-year stint leading the Western Athletic Conference – has no regrets for aggressively exploring every option for his newest employer.
“I think it was a positive that we were proactive. We had an order (of expansion options) that I wanted to take,” said Benson in an extensive phone interview with The Daily News Journal last week.
“We were trying to force the issue. We were trying to stay a step ahead of Conference USA
Fair 'nuff - you gotta do what you gotta do. But how do we get there from here?
In May, it was announced that current Sun Belt members North Texas and Florida International would move to Conference USA in July 2013, joining fellow new members Charlotte, Texas-San Antonio, Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion.
MTSU, a Sun Belt member since 2001, was also a serious candidate to join C-USA, as revealed in emails sent and received by university president Sidney McPhee and athletic director Chris Massaro in March, April and May – which were obtained in a records request by The DNJ for a previous report on C-USA expansion.
But some of those 142 emails also provided insight into the Sun Belt’s plans to counter C-USA expansion and membership raids over the last few months. Benson also added context to the multi-tiered plan inacted upon his hiring.
On April 1, Benson emailed a powerpoint presentation to Sun Belt presidents/chancellors and athletic directors, laying out the league’s various realignment options.
One slide listed 21 schools to be considered as “possible additions/replacements” – including Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Texas State, Utah State, UT-San Antonio, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Jacksonville State, James Madison, Liberty, Charlotte, Old Dominion, Belmont, College of Charleston, Florida Gulf Coast, North Florida, St. Louis and Texas-Arlington.
“That was just to demonstrate that the Sun Belt had many options,” Benson said. “We needed to think out of the box, but it was just an exercise in showing that the Sun Belt is in a good spot.”
The same presentation included several maps of potential conference mergers – one of which was titled “Makes Too Much Sense” and proposed a 33-school superconference combining the Sun Belt, C-USA, WAC and Mountain West Conference.
Go big or go home, I always say. And the response?
“I had very quiet inquiries with (Mountain West commissioner) Craig Thompson and (C-USA commissioner) Britton Banowsky to see if, ‘Hey, would you be interested?’” Benson said. “But that was dismissed quickly. No interest.
“... A couple times some presidents asked, ‘Are we moving too fast?’ But I thought it was imperative to get out in front.”
Ya think? Well, one trial balloon popped, now it's on to the next one...
Once Benson’s merger attempt was squashed, he tried to snag some current C-USA members that might appreciate the Sun Belt’s tightly-knit geographic footprint in the southeast.
Benson contacted UAB, Southern Miss, East Carolina and Marshall in hopes of pulling them away. He pitched his 10 reasons for “southern-based universities (to join) ... a new southeastern focused athletic conference.”
Renaming and rebranding the Sun Belt (which was No. 1 on the list) hinted at the branding study that the Sun Belt will soon undergo, which will examine its conference name, logo and reputation on a national scale.
Nevertheless, the four schools decided to stay in C-USA.
“I wanted to be proactive and try to get ahead of Conference USA,” Benson said. “It wasn’t the first time I tried to get out in front and maneuver like that.”
Nor was it the first time you got shot down in flames on this one, Karl. But thanks for trying. Now, it's on to Plan "C."
Before media reports identified some schools targeted by C-USA, Benson said he was already hot on the trail. But his tactic was very aggressive in trying to beat C-USA to potential suitors.
Benson put a 48-hour deadline on Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio to join the Sun Belt, or else the offer might be rescinded.
“Were we bluffing? Perhaps. But we were trying to force the issue,” Benson said. “They passed on it. But we were trying to stay ahead of Conference USA.”
Translation: LaTech and UTSA saw Mr. Peanut going all-in on a 2-3 offsuit, and decided not to play. However, that's not to say that there weren't other fish interested in that particular river...
Benson said Charlotte’s decision came faster than the rest. C-USA representatives first visited campus, and then he followed alongside MTSU President Sidney McPhee and Western Kentucky President Gary Ransdell on April 17 to make the Sun Belt’s pitch.
Benson and C-USA representatives visited UT-San Antonio on the same day. “But we never actually crossed paths,” Benson said.
Despite his best efforts, Benson could not persuade C-USA’s programs to depart their home base or prospective C-USA schools to pick the Sun Belt over its more established mid-major rival.
So he seized other schools that he thought would be targets for other conferences in the near future. The Sun Belt announced in April it would add Georgia State in 2013. Soon after, Texas State and UT-Arlington (non-football) were also added.
Well, at least GaState, TxState and UTA stepped up. Bit of a comedown after being rejected by UTSA and LaTech, but...
“If someone wanted to say we got our third choice, then they don’t understand how lucky the Sun Belt ended up in this,” Benson said. “The Sun Belt had alternatives to pursue that didn’t materialize. But what we ended up with was a huge accomplishment.
“We have three schools that already have a lot to offer, but all three also have the potential to deliver results very soon that others might not have. I don’t look at it as getting the short end of the deal.”
Georgia State, located in Atlanta, has a fledgling football program led by former Alabama/Kentucky coach Bill Curry.
Texas State, located in San Marcos, had joined the WAC, a deal landed by Benson as commissioner before he moved to the Sun Belt. Now, Texas State – whose football team is guided by former Alabama/Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione – will come to the Sun Belt next year.
UT-Arlington also will jump from the WAC to the Sun Belt as a non-football school.
Benson likes the Sun Belt’s new lineup.
“Texas State is ahead of UT-San Antonio right now in terms of infrastructure and football history,” Benson said. “We got lucky in getting Texas State rather than the Mountain West or Conference USA trying to get them. And along with UT-Arlington, we have a good presence in Texas.
“Georgia State is further along than Charlotte in football, and they put us in the state of Georgia. It would be just a matter of time before those three schools grow into the upper echelon of the Sun Belt.”
Got it. Those three schools were the REAL targets - all the others were just fakes to get the ones he realliy wanted. And now, King Karl is happy...
The Sun Belt’s 2013 membership will include 12 schools (10 in football).
At one time, the Sun Belt had planned to grow to 12 football schools in order to play a conference championship game, but Benson said that’s on hold.
“Before we reconsider 12 in football, we need to assess the value of a football championship game,” Benson said. “...We are in a really good spot. The only way we could’ve been in a better spot is if we had attracted two more football-playing schools for 14 total and 12 football.
“But we have definitely shot down (more expansion), and we have informed everyone out there that we are not in expansion mode. But I am very satisfied with where we are, very comfortable.”
Good for you, Karl. But at the end of the article is a howler...
Benson has served as commissioner at three competing mid-major conferences – Mid-American, WAC and Sun Belt. He said the bright outlook of the Sun Belt was why he left the WAC after almost two decades, and his perspective has not changed.
“I knew how tenious the WAC was and I could see what might happen (in conference realignment),” Benson said. “The Sun Belt had options, and that’s what led me to have interest in the Sun Belt rather than trying to save the WAC one more time.
“I saw a real bright future for the Sun Belt, and I still do.”
Yup - Karl's dropping the "I didn't get fired - I quit to move to the SBC" line again. What an effin' tool bag.
Well, here's the bottom line - so far under Karl's reign, the SBC has put documented feelers out to at least 21 schools, only three of which joined. He's put out conference merger feelers to three different conferences (WAC, MWC, CUSA), all of which have been rejected. His take from all this activity? One baby FBS school (TxState), one non-FB Division I school (UTA) - both of whom he added to the WAC prior to his departure - and one FCS move-up (GaState).
Great job, Karl!