By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
It's hard to believe, but just over a year ago, the CAA felt like it was sitting on top of the world. With a 2nd Final Four berth in just 5 years and a recent string of FCS championships, the conference had established itself as the most successful non-FBS league in college sports. There were clearly some potential issues, but when Shaka Smart announced he was staying at VCU, it was clear that one of the reasons was the expected continued strength of the league.
What a difference a year makes. It started with the football-related announcements of UMass leaving for the MAC and URI stepping down to the NEC. It continued with the recent announcement that Georgia State was leaving the CAA for Sun Belt, a move that was a couple of years earlier than expected but didn't have a big impact since the Panthers hadn't even played a CAA football game yet.
If that had been it, the conference would have shaken off the changes and rolled along, but then the body blows started coming. First, the planned move of Old Dominion to the newly refashioned Conference USA. As a cornerstone of the CAA in basketball and a potential power in the FCS, losing the Monarchs is a huge blow to the conference. However, combined with the rumored loss of VCU and George Mason to the A-10, these moves could be a devastating blow to the conference.
Looking at basketball first, the league essentially loses the programs that have built the CAA into a mid-major force. VCU and GMU were Final Four teams and ODU has been a perennial NCAA team as well. With VCU traditionally hosting the conference tournament and these schools bringing the largest fan bases, the league takes a hit from which it possibly can't recover. The eight remaining teams are Northeastern, Hofstra, Delaware, Drexel, Towson, James Madison, William & Mary and UNC Wilmington. Simply put, that league is rudderless both geographically and competitively. Without the marquee Virginia programs driving the show, teams like Northeastern and Hofstra will likely look to move back to more compatible geographic conferences leaving the CAA without a pulse.
As for football, on the surface the conference looks to remain almost as strong as it was, but the center may not hold as the saying goes. James Madison has always harbored visions of moving to FBS and the loss of their primary basketball rivals will only hasten the move. If the Dukes go and the conference starts to look imperiled, Villanova and Delaware will be forced to revisit their ideas about the FBS. Once those dominoes look to fall, New Hampshire and Maine, already isolated geographically, will have to look for other arrangements. Now, these are worst case scenarios, but the pace of change in college sports is much faster than we've ever seen and takes no prisoners. The WAC has been around for 50 years but looks all but over. Anything can happen.
In short, we could very well be looking at the beginning of the end of one of the most successful conferences in recent times and the most decorated conference in the last 15 years of the FCS.
The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable and it was true that it was built to stay afloat with four of it's watertight compartments breached. However, the iceberg ripped a hole through six of them, making the ship's fate a certainty. Has the CAA suffered too many losses to stay afloat? Only time will tell, but don't be surprised if ADs and Presidents start looking for lifeboats.
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