There’s an old adage about there being three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. (A rock band even made an awesome record about it. Kinda.)
So as not to bury the lede, Liberty University announced earlier today that it will leave the Big South, effective July 1, following 27 years of membership in the league. The Atlantic Sun will be the Flames’ new athletic home in all sports except football, in which LU will compete as an FBS independent.
Let’s break down all of this into three “sides”: news, opinion, and reaction.
This will likely center quite a bit on what we know about the move.
Before anything else, our friends at A Sea of Red deserve a ton of credit for breaking this, and they’ve gotten some national run today for having done so. The timeline was really aggressive on this; from the time ASoR first reported this yesterday, to the 11am announcement of a presser, to the 2pm presser, an announcement the university told Dave Walls of WSET-TV in Lynchburg was “several years in the making” took place in a hurry.
That presser took place, and in it, Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty Director of Athletics Ian McCaw, and Atlantic Sun Commissioner Ted Gumbart spoke for just over 25 minutes on the move itself, the timeline, the benefits for both, and other similar subjects.
Liberty cited its “brand” and the accessibility into several significant media markets and pockets of LU alums as significant benefits from the move. LU’s recap of the presser covered much of this, and this comment it mentioned from McCaw may explain a lot of the decision:
“On behalf of our coaches, staff and student-athletes, we are excited and honored to join the ASUN as our all-sports conference. Moreover, we are deeply appreciative to Commissioner Ted Gumbart, the ASUN leadership and member institutions for this opportunity. The ASUN footprint will allow Liberty to further extend our brand into New Jersey, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. These states are fertile for recruiting students and student-athletes alike who fit Liberty’s mission.”
The Big South acted swiftly to issue a statement of its own, courtesy of Commissioner Kyle Kallander and the league’s media relations office:
“The Big South Conference and Liberty University have had a mutually beneficial partnership for 27 years. Today Liberty has announced that the partnership will be ending.
“Liberty’s decision in 2017 to move its scholarship football program to the Football Bowl Subdivision placed it in violation of the Big South’s Sports Sponsorship Bylaws. While an accommodation for associate membership for the balance of Liberty’s Big South sports was agreed to at that time, Liberty recently requested that this status be reevaluated. After careful consideration, the Council of Chief Executive Officers determined that maintaining Liberty’s associate membership status remained in the best interest of the Conference.
“We wish nothing but the best for Liberty University and its fine student-athletes in the future.”
The News & Advance also published an excellent recap of the story, courtesy of good friend Damien Sordelett.
Long story short: The move to the Atlantic Sun leaves it with nine teams (FGCU, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Liberty, Lipscomb, NJIT, North Alabama, North Florida, and Stetson), while leaving the Big South with 11 (Campbell, Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, Hampton, High Point, Longwood, Presbyterian, Radford, UNC Asheville, and Winthrop). There is some conjecture about future possible expansion and contraction for both leagues, but that is largely unsubstantiated as this is written.
Reaction to the news was, as one would imagine, swift and all-encompassing.
LancersBlog, a site with coverage devoted to Longwood University, Liberty’s primary rival, had these thoughts. A Sea of Red took its own opportunity to address the possible fallout from the move. Tweets flew fast and furious, first with conjecture, then reaction.
It’s probably best if I direct you to read most of what they say and let you form your own thoughts.
This one obviously hits close to home for me, both literally and figuratively.
I grew up minutes from Liberty, and have covered them for several years as part of the Big South. I’ve never really known Liberty not as part of the league. It will be quite the adjustment for all involved once the first basketballs bounce on the deck next season.
It was hard not to notice one word Falwell continually used Thursday: progressive. He seemingly used the word in every other breath, including one of the quotes distributed as part of the release this afternoon:
“On behalf of Liberty University, we gratefully accept the invitation to join the ASUN conference on July 1, 2018. I want to thank the ASUN presidents and Commissioner Ted Gumbart for their support and warm welcome. The ASUN is a progressive conference made up of high quality academic institutions and highly competitive athletics programs that will elevate Liberty’s national profile.”
The relationship between Liberty and the Big South has been — how to say this — strained, even contentious at times. This is no secret. That said, the use of the word “progressive” — particularly its repetition — served only to remove the thin veil of a dig at Liberty’s soon-to-be-former conference home.
I say all of this not to by any means dictate what Liberty officials should say or how they should feel about this move, but following another high-profile — and quick — departure of fellow Big South program Coastal Carolina a couple of years ago, the optics are of note. None of the parties in this move seem to come out unscathed, as Liberty, the league, and its member institutions all caught some proverbial shrapnel from the departure and the words surrounding it.
Much has been said of how this affects the balance of power in hoops in both leagues, citing KenPom strength rankings. The common conjecture is that Liberty’s departure would propel the A-Sun ahead of the Big South, due to the Flames’ strength. Liberty’s strength is certainly inarguable — I would project them to win the A-Sun next year, in fact — but such assertions also discount the addition of a very powerful Hampton club to the Big South. There’s also talk Hampton may leave the Big South before ever playing a game there, and if that happens, it would certainly be grim news for the Big South.
One final item to watch is one of the pillars on which Ritchie McKay’s program is built: defense. The Flames’ vaunted pack line defense propelled them to a ninth-best 63.6 points per game allowed average last season, a key factor behind the club’s run to the Big South championship game and deep foray into the CIT.
Conversely, the Atlantic Sun has earned a reputation as a high-powered offensive league, dating back to — and before — FGCU’s magic “Dunk City” run of recent years. Joe Dooley has left FGCU to take over the program at East Carolina, but the Eagles, Lipscomb, and North Florida all averaged greater than 80 points per game last season. Winthrop averaged 79.5 points per game to lead the Big South last year, and the Flames beat the Eagles both times they played last year. Seeing the “pack” in action against some of the more high-flying teams in the A-Sun will be quite the sight.
This move should make all parties take pause. Liberty still has aspirations of moving on to a bigger league, and even with today’s spin — some or all of which may prove true — the possibility of their having a “wandering eye” still exists. The Atlantic Sun gets a bump from this move — until and unless, of course, Liberty leaves. (We won’t debate here the ethical repercussions of the Atlantic Sun and Big South forming an alliance to protect both leagues’ interests, followed by this action.) The Big South may need to step back and reevaluate how to protect football, while not seeing its higher-profile members leave the league for greener pastures.
The answers to all of these questions will be revealed in time, but for now, the second significant Big South domino has fallen, in the span of just a couple of years.