By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA — It's no secret that Final Four runs by teams that are in "mid-major" conferences are a bonanza for the teams and the conferences that sponsor them.
This year, Virginia Commonwealth and the Colonial Athletic Association, or CAA, have to be considered the big winners.
Both the team and the conference will be getting bigger checks for the NCAA this year and the years to come. They also have increased "exposure" and, as a possible result, donor money that can come through a title run.
It's extremely interesting to think about is the affect that the Rams' run might have on the future position of the CAA and the possibility of VCU sponsoring a football team sooner rather than later.
While it's certain the CAA will profit handsomely from VCU's run this year, the CAA should also enjoy some extra benefits as well.
It involves the ability of the conference to grow, by poaching all-sports members in other conferences.
And the fact that the CAA sponsors FCS football also gives it a competitive advantage over other, non football-playing conferences.
When the CAA took over operations of the Atlantic 10 football conference five years ago, commissioner Tom Yeager made a conscious decision — he was going to get the CAA into the FCS football business, buying that property from a conference that couldn't get rid of the football property fast enough.
At that moment, though, the Atlantic 10 went from being an all-sports conference — granted, with football at the FCS level — to what is commonly called a "basketball" conference.
As the story went, they'd ditch the football property to focus on the basketball property — presumably to improve basketball.
Five years on, it's hard to argue that losing football has improved the A-10 in basketball.
Yes, the A-10 had as many at-large bids to the tournament as the CAA this year, but Xavier, their conference champion, flamed out in the first round while VCU made a run at the championship.
Optics matter in this case: the A-10 has zero Final Four teams in the last five years, and the CAA has two in six years (remember George Mason's run in 2006?). That means a lot.
This has to change the viewpoints of some teams within the Atlantic 10 — especially those that sponsor football teams at the FCS level.
WHICH CONFERENCE IS THE BEST FIT?
Suppose you're an Atlantic 10 team with great basketball and an FCS football team.
You have a team that is either starting football (UNC-Charlotte), playing non-scholarship football (Dayton in the Pioneer Football League), limited scholarship football (Duquesne in the Northeast Conference), competing essentially as an independent (Fordham, which is ineligable for the Patriot League title) or moved to the CAA in football when the A-10 got out of the football business (Richmond and Massachusetts).
Don't all these schools need to now take a look at the conference landscape and see where their interests lie?
The Atlantic 10 still is a fine basketball conference, but the CAA is at worst a level trade with the A-10 in basketball.
In addition to the basketball, though, you also have representation in the strongest FCS conference as well, with its members competing in the FCS National Championship game for four years running (with two national champions).
UNC Charlotte is starting up a football team.
The 49ers' A-10 membership has nothing to do with their football ambitions.
With the status quo, UNCC needs to look around for football as an affilate member somewhere — the Southern Conference (pretty much a non-startter, due to SoCon by-laws), the CAA, or the Big South (the 49ers' most likely destination while they reside in FCS).
But if Charlotte joins the CAA in all sports, the 49ers get it all, the highest level of FCS football and a strong mid-major basketball, as well as solid competition in other sports.
Why wouldn't they look at that?
Fordham is currently moving towards 63 scholarships in football, alienating itself from the Patriot League, which can't decide whether allowing its members to do the same thing as the Rams is worthwhile or not.
Why wouldn't Fordham look at full-sports CAA membership with an even trade for basketball and a alignment with their priorities in football?
Richmond is already in the CAA in football, and in the Atlantic 10 for basketball.
Wouldn't the Spiders at least take a peek at full CAA membership, which would solidify their place in CAA football and offer a much smaller travel footprint than the A-10 in all other sports, though Richmond did burn its share of bridges with its jump from the CAA to the A-10 a few years back?
There would have to be some bad blood repaired to make some of these relationships work. Richmond made a lot of CAA people unhappy years ago when they bolted to the A-10, and there's no love lost between Hofstra and Fordham, who would suddenly need to compete for recruits and media attention in the quintessential pro sports town. UMass has had issues with finances at the FCS level. And even UNC-Charlotte is no slam-dunk either.
Old Dominion, William & Mary, VCU and George Mason are all easy bus trips, and would replace trips to Ohio and Pittsburgh.
THE UMASS DILEMMA
Similarly, UMass is already in the CAA in football, and in the Atlantic 10 for basketball.
The Minutemen, however, are in a different situation than Richmond.
UMass is expected to announce a move to the Mid-American Conference on Wedneseday.
But after this NCAA tournament, I think the answer is clear. The CAA is in the conversation for Atlantic 10 teams with any sort of football aspirations.
Before the tournament, you could laugh off the idea of Fordham, Richmond or UNC Charlotte going from the A-10 to the CAA. Now? Not so much.
FINAL FOUR FEEDBACK
Virginia Commonwealth's run to the Final Four was magical, and unexpected by many. But what's also interesting about the Rams' run to the Final Four is not only the idea that head coach Shaka Smart might be destined for a Big East coaching vacancy.
It's the idea that the Rams' run could be the grease that makes football at VCU a reality.
Depending on which history you look at, VCU either sponsored a football team in the 1930s and 1950s, or didn’t.
Despite it’s football history — or lack thereof — before the NCAA tournament the Rams’ president and athletic director has seen a trickle of questions entertaining the possibility of football on the Richmond, Virginia campus become a flood.
Athletic director Norwood Teague said recently that he gets asked about the question of football “almost daily”.
Aside from the promise of more Final Four NCAA cash and a possible influx of donor money, two other developments have increased the possibility of Virginia Commonwealth becoming a football school in the powerful CAA.
First was the retirement of former university president Eugene Triani, who was famously quoted as saying that football would not be instituted “on his watch”. With a new president, Dr. Michael Rao, hopes run high that the Rams long-stated high-level opposition to football will have changed.
Second was the fact that Richmond — the long-time lessee to downtown City Stadium in the city of Richmond — recently vacated the stadium in order to host home games in a brand-new on-campus stadium.
That eliminates the final, costly problem for VCU starting football, having a place to play.
No matter what you look at, before the tournament there seemed to be very positive movement towards football at VCU.
Aside from commissioning a study on starting football, recently Teague and Richmond mayor Dwight Jones have been in conversations about VCU buying City Stadium outright.
This is not simply dreams and puppy dogs from starry-eyed Ram fans.
Serious discussions have ensued about its viability as a destination venue, and VCU is one of the potential buyers of the stadium.
Preliminary studies have shown that upgrading Richmond stadium to become ready for events would be a mere $2.5 million — a pittance compared to the $25 million the University of Richmond shelled out for its on-campus stadium.
And the fact that a study was commissioned at all to assess its viability for sporting events would make it seem like the city of Richmond is looking long and hard at keeping it as a stadium, with VCU as its owner and operator.
Even without the dynamics of the CAA, this would be a compelling deal for Virginia Commonwealth, who at once would raise their profile and extend their property footprint in the Richmond area. With the recent history of the area, though, it makes FCS football almost irresistible.
VCU administrators don't have to look too far for a school that did the same thing it aspires to do.
Two years ago, armed only with a stadium that needed upgrading and a dream, Old Dominion started up a football program essentially from scratch, bringing football to a campus that was without it for 69 years.
The scene on campus had to be seen to be believed — sellout crowds, waiting lists for tickets, and football mania sweeping the campus.
With a schedule packed with easy opponents, the Monarchs — with a roster filled with freshmen and sophomores — cruised to a 9-2 record to make the return of football an amazing success by any definition.
VCU fans also have noted the University of Richmond's run to the FCS championship game in 2008 as well, bringing with it a new stadium for the Spiders and capacity crowds.
Richmond, playing in the same stadium that VCU is thinking of buying, carved their way to an NCAA championship, all the while playing local teams like James Madison and their ancient rival, William & Mary.
The incredible success of these two local schools feed VCU's dream for football.
The incredible luck of a nearby stadium for sale — for a relative pittance to make it ready for football games once again — make it extremely possible.
The final piece of the puzzle — extra money from the NCAA, as well as increased donations from the "exposure" of their Final Four run - seem to be the final piece of the puzzle to their FCS aspirations.
If you ask me, VCU will be playing football in FCS in the very near future.