From his seat in Atlanta’s Turner Studios, Mike Bobinski, the highest-ranking figure in college basketball last season, enjoyed FGCU’s high-flying March Madness debut as much as anyone — perhaps for more than just the entertainment value.
“It was magnetic. You couldn’t help but watch,” said Bobinski, chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee and the new athletic director at Georgia Tech this year.
“I think the thing we all enjoyed more than anything was the raw emotion and joy that (FGCU) played with, that purity of just playing the game seemingly without any sense of pressure or weight. They were playing free. I thought it was just great for college basketball. It was great for the game.”
FGCU has to hope Bobinski is right, both for the game itself, to some small degree, and for FGCU, more specifically, in a manner not easily seen.
Call it bargaining power, if you like, in the endless world of conference realignment.
After years of ceaseless jockeying for more power at the top of the college sports food chain, the fallout finally landed squarely in FGCU’s lap this summer.
Mercer and East Tennessee State, two of the stronger programs in FGCU’s league, made the anticipated announcement that they were leaving the Atlantic Sun Conference next summer for the Southern Conference. Both moves are tied to their additions of football.
Two other A-Sun schools — Stetson and Kennesaw State — also are adding football, although paths exist for both to remain in the A-Sun while doing so.
Even though FGCU has neither plans nor resources to add football in the foreseeable future, the game’s tireless encroachment into college athletics threatens not only the viability of the A-Sun — the only non-football conference that is a geographic fit for FGCU — but possibly FGCU as well.
“Right now everybody’s hoping things start to settle,” said FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh. “It’s been very disconcerting across the country, all these changes. You just keep working forward and hoping we’ve got the numbers we need (in the A-Sun). The situation is out of our control right now.”
The departures of Mercer and ETSU will leave the A-Sun with eight schools next summer. Conferences must have at least seven to receive automatic berths into the NCAA tournament in men’s basketball and at least six in all others sports.
But as the A-Sun evaluates its future amid an ever-changing landscape, FGCU appears to have options, more than just helping keep its current league viable.
Thanks to its broad sports success — highlighted by the captivating theater Bobinski and countless others celebrated in March — FGCU might have the power to jump into the realignment fray itself.
In only six years in Division I and only two with NCAA postseason eligibility, FGCU has won seven of a possible 14 A-Sun tournament titles in its team sports that come with NCAA tournament berths.
In March, FGCU became the first No. 15 seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Sweet 16.
Such success and years of volatile realignment could be a game-changer for FGCU.
“I wouldn’t rule out anything at this point in time,” said Bobinski, who served his one-year term as chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee in 2012-2013 but has one year remaining on the five-year term served by all 10 rotating committee members.
“It’s all situational. What is the value with the potential affiliation with FGCU?”
The nearest non-football conferences – such as the Atlantic 10 and redrawn Big East, which is adding Xavier, Butler and Creighton to traditional basketball powers such Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John’s – are too far away for FGCU to afford what would be prohibitive travel costs.
FGCU doesn’t necessarily have the pull to attract interest from those leagues anyway.
But some closer, football-playing conferences might be more in play than they were just years ago.
NO FOOTBALL, NO PROBLEM
The Sun Belt Conference added non-football school Texas-Arlington for 2013. The Football Bowl Subdivision league (formerly I-A) has 10 schools this season but only eight that play football.
Also in the FBS, Conference USA just took FIU and FAU — ideal geographic rivals for FGCU — from the Sun Belt. And newly christened American Athletic Conference, which is comprised mostly of the football-playing members of the former Big East, includes USF and just took UCF from Conference USA.
The Big South Conference and Southern Conference lack Florida schools but play at the Football Championship Subdivision level (formerly I-AA).
Any new league would increase travel costs for FGCU beyond what the school can currently afford, but ever-fluid realignment conversations are more likely to include FGCU than ever before.
“Folks are talking about them,” said Richard Ensor, commissioner of the non-football Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which has 10 schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“I think in the end the analysis will come down to other factors: geographic, sports sponsorship, travel cost. But certainly the success they had this year raised their profile.”
Even with travel costs exacerbated by FGCU’s location in Florida’s farthest reaches from the rest of the country, that same geography of sun, fun and beaches might be a trump card in FGCU’s hand.
“It’s a great location. A lot of alumni for a lot of different programs would be there,” said Ensor, pointing to fundraising swings by many MAAC school presidents through Florida in the winter.
“It’s a growing school. It’s hardly reached its full potential as a school or as an athletic department. I would think it would be attractive to a lot of people.”
The A-Sun, founded in 1978, has far from a fatal forecast. Its options begin with the long-standing league practice of adding rising D-II schools into its ranks.
Columbus State and Augusta State of the Peach Belt Conference and North Alabama of the Gulf South Conference are among those amid or exploring transitions to D-I, with new conferences not certain.
Davie’s Nova Southeastern — one of nine schools in the Sunshine State Conference, the same all-Florida league which once spurned FGCU and helped precipitate its transition to D-I beginning in 2007 — has long been thought to have more than enough resources to climb to D-I.
“Frankly, a lot of the D-IIs that are coming up are pretty good institutions,” Ensor said. “It’s just for historical reasons that they chose to be in D-II. It’s usually more a recruiting jump than anything else.”
By continuing to restock, though, with reclassifying D-II schools — which are dealt the considerable recruiting handicap of no NCAA postseason eligibility during their four-year transitions to D-I — the A-Sun is limited in its ability to ascend in the D-I ranks.
That trend now provides an unfortunate irony for FGCU, which has arguably grown too strong for the very league that helped welcome it into D-I six years ago.
VICTIM OF OWN SUCCESS
Based on NCAA RPI statistics that help determine tournament selections, FGCU outperformed the A-Sun in each of its seven “team” sports in 2012-2013 — often glaringly (see graphic).
FGCU women’s basketball, for instance, finished last season 65th in RPI out of 340 D-I teams nationwide. The A-Sun, meanwhile, ranked 29th of 33 D-I leagues in the country.
Still, FGCU defends its league.
“The strength in any particular sport often times is cyclical,” said FGCU women’s basketball coach Karl Smesko, whose team arguably was hurt more than anyone’s by the A-Sun’s relative weakness last year.
“I’m not looking at the A-Sun’s RPI as something that will always be a huge negative for us. I just think we went through probably the last two years where a lot of teams were rebuilding at the same time.”
After obliterating league foes with a 26-point average margin of victory last season and going 18-0 in A-Sun play for the second consecutive season, FGCU was stunned late in the conference tournament title game by preseason favorite Stetson, which earned the league’s NCAA tournament automatic berth.
Despite a strong RPI and non-conference schedule, FGCU was bypassed for an at-large NCAA berth in part because of its weakness conference slate.
“We hadn’t been in a lot of really close games in a long time. I do think when the game was close that late, we looked a little rattled out there,” Smesko said.
“But that’s just one year. I can’t imagine being able to (dominate regular-season play) too many times and not having too many challenges and having to overcome some things during the regular season.”
IMBALANCE OF POWER
Kavanagh sees the recent wave of conference realignment not so much as a power struggle between programs with football against those without. Rather, it’s the continued muscle flexing of the richest schools and conferences against all others.
The have-nots include plenty of small- and mid-sized entities with football, such as the Missouri Valley Conference, where Kavanagh spent 13 years as athletic director at Bradley before joining FGCU in 2009.
“They were (like) us. They just had more overhead,” Kavanagh said. “They weren’t making money. In some ways we’re better suited … if you don’t have a lot hanging around your neck.”
According to the National Football Foundation, a record nine NCAA schools will add football in 2013, including Mercer and Stetson. That’s nearly double the average number of schools that have added the game annually since 1978.
This is despite the well-documented fact that only a few handfuls of elite football — and men’s basketball — programs nationwide bring in more money than they spend.
“In some cases there’s no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever,” Kavanagh said of the rapid pace of realignment. “People are just grasping at change or trying to beef up (conference) numbers. Then you’ve got too many teams, watering down (postseason) bids. And revenue distribution doesn’t work.”
In his time as athletic director at Xavier for most of the past 15 years before moving to Georgia Tech this summer, Bobinski said school officials constantly dealt with questions of what else might be out there for the long-time respected member of the A-10.
The answer finally arrived this year when the redrawn Big East invited Xavier and Butler from the A-10 and Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference into the restored, premier basketball league.
“It was a long time in the making,” said Bobinski, citing a focus on steady growth and success rather than a rapid push for a bigger league. “We (tried to build) ourselves up to a point where people can’t ignore your success. When things become available … we were trusting that we would be one of the first phone calls. And we were.”
“When you start shopping yourself around, that may not work out as well as you might think,” said Ensor, pointing to the potential for greater instability in a new league. “Maybe we’re better off staying in the conference we’re in and seeing how it plays out.”
Ensor acknowledged there’s little FGCU can publicly express other than its support for the A-Sun.
But with power brokers at the top of the college food chain continuing to grope for more, FGCU at some point might not have any choice but to begin wielding a little of its own newfound power.
Follow Seth Soffian on Twitter @NewsPressSeth.