ALBANY -- The often criticized and recently controversial SIAC divisional format is in the spotlight again.
Three weeks after league officials informed SIAC football coaches that crucial conference rules were being changed midseason, the league announced Wednesday that the location of the inaugural SIAC Championship game has been changed -- 10 days before the game is to be played.
The title game was initially scheduled to be played at Lakewood Stadium in Southeast Atlanta, but because of "safety concerns," says the SIAC, the game has been moved to the much smaller Panther Stadium, located on the campus of Clark Atlanta University.
Several sources told The Herald on Wednesday that Lakewood -- which has been under heavy construction and renovation for some time -- was nixed because league officials feared the stadium wasn't up to par to hold 10,000 fans. In a press release Wednesday, SIAC Commissioner Greg Moore cited "health and safety concerns" as the reason for the sudden change of venue.
"Due to protracted renovations at Lakewood Stadium and in light of related health and safety concerns, it is in the best interest of our fans and student-athletes to move the game to the Atlanta University Center," Moore said. "Despite the change in venue, we fully anticipate an exciting game day environment at our inaugural football championship with vendors, tailgating, bands and a capacity crowd full of passionate fans supporting our student-athletes."
Panther Stadium, which has bleachers on just one side of the field, seats 7,000 fans, according to the SIAC press release -- but just 6,000 according to Clark Atlanta's 2011 Media Guide and the school's athletic website.
Either way, it's much smaller than the 10,000-seat Lakewood Stadium, meaning thousands of fans will miss out on the SIAC Championship game between the East Division and West Division winners.
If Albany State beats Fort Valley State on Saturday, the Rams will win the SIAC East Division and play in the title game against SIAC West Division champ Miles, which clinched last week.
After Wednesday's ASU practice, Rams coach Mike White said he had heard of the venue change but didn't want to comment because he is focused squarely on Saturday's game against rival Fort Valley State in the 22nd annual Fountain City Classic.
"We're just trying to get there. We are trying to stay focused on right here," White said as he motioned to the practice field. "I don't know (why the venue changed), I just want to make sure we get past (Saturday's) game and then go wherever they tell us to be next week."
Wednesday's announcement wasn't the first time the SIAC has changed its mind this season.
Six games into the season, league officials actually changed the rules determining how teams get to play in the championship game. At the beginning of the season, it was clear to the SIAC coaches that division winners would be determined by divisional records -- and divisional records only. But sources told The Herald that midway through October, the league changed its mind and decided that a team's conference record against both divisions would determine the divisional champion.
The rule change is significant for the Rams because they would have already clinched an East Division title under the original set of rules, regardless of what happens Saturday against Fort Valley State. ASU and Morehouse are both 5-1 in conference games, but the Rams have the edge in divisional records. ASU's only loss was to a non-divisional opponent, while Morehouse lost to ASU on Oct. 1. Now ASU needs a win in its regular-season finale Saturday or a Morehouse loss against Kentucky State to claim the East Division Championship.
The Herald has attempted to contact the SIAC multiple times to address these issues, including Wednesday, but the league has not responded.
The decision to divide the conference into two divisions was unpopular among the coaches when it was announced last September. For starters, it forced each conference squad to make its bye week during the weekend of the SIAC Championship game and gave the division winners "another playoff game," according to White.
"I just don't think the conference championship game helps you go forward toward the playoffs," White said during the SIAC Kick-Off Luncheon in Atlanta in July. "That means you have another tough ball game before you go into the NCAA (Division II playoffs), which you do not need. You have to play a tough team. It's like playing another playoff game."
White and the other SIAC coaches cited several reasons they were concerned about the added championship game.
The issues they had included:
-- An extra game that puts a toll on players' bodies;
-- The sentiment that the East is more talented than the West;
-- And the decision to put teams with rivalries in the same division, thus eliminating a chance they could meet at the end of the year in what would turn out to be a championship game.
"I really feel it takes away from your best games," Clark Atlanta coach Daryl McNeill told The Herald in July. "Albany State and Fort Valley have been rivals since the SIAC has been here, but that game will never be a championship game. It's going to always be a game, but it can never be a championship game. I know when they talk about these East-West things, it's for budgetary reasons because of travel and things like that. When you are talking about football and what's best for the fans, sometimes you can't think about it like that. You just need to have the two rival teams to have the opportunity to play each other for a championship."
FOUNTAIN CITY CLASSIC HISTORY LESSON: The Rams and the Fort Valley Wildcats will play in the Fountain City Classic at 2 p.m. Saturday at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium in Columbus -- a game that ASU won last year, 12-7.
This year's game is the 65th meeting between the two teams. FVSU leads the series, 32-29-3, while ASU leads the Fountain City Classic series, 16-5. The first meeting of the two schools was in 1945, when the Wildcats beat the Rams, 27-21. The two schools did not play each other in 1946 and 1947.
"The Golden Ram nation is always ready for an exciting game against Fort Valley State. This year's event is important because it may determine which school represents the East Division in the inaugural SIAC football championship game," ASU interim athletics director Richard H. Williams said. "Albany State wants a consecutive championship title, and the Wildcats want to spoil our chances. We are looking forward to a great game, great tailgating and great entertainment at the Fountain City Classic."
While the rivalry between the two teams spans more than half a century, Fountain City Classic officials moved the game to Columbus in 1990, a regional center, to attract more corporate support, recruit more students and make it a weekend event full of classic activities, said State Rep. Calvin Smyre, chairman of the Fountain City Classic Inc.
"It makes great business sense to bring this gathering and game to Columbus. There are a lot of alumni located in and around Columbus and they are loyal football fans," Smyre said. "With proceeds going to the schools, more funds can be generated from a larger crowd in attendance at a larger facility. It's a win-win situation for the city of Columbus and both universities. Hotels and restaurants are full, and people are having a great weekend."
Halftime festivities include the band showdown between the Albany State Marching Rams Show Band and the Fort Valley State Marching Blue Machine.
Classic activities kicked off Monday with the 3rd annual Health Fair and continued Tuesday with the Media Luncheon and Press Conference at the Columbus Trade Center. In addition to athletic administrators from both campuses, White, Wildcats' head coach and former ASU offensive coordinator Donald Pittman and several players from both schools were in attendance. Other Classic activities include recruitment fairs, a golf tournament, parties and a parade.
Tickets for the game are now on sale. Tickets are $20 in advance for adults and $12 for children and all students with a valid ID card. At-the-gate prices are $25 for adults and $15 for all students.
Tickets are on sale on campus at the ASU business office cashier's window in the ACAD Building, and Odyssey Records, June Bug's Grocery Store and the Radium Springs Petro Store.
"We are encouraging people who are interested in attending the game to purchase tickets early," Williams said. "We anticipate a sellout crowd, and tickets are selling quickly. We want our fans to purchase advance tickets so they can avoid long lines and have guaranteed entrance."
FCC TAPPED HSRN Game of the Week: The Fountain City Classic has been selected as the Heritage Sports Radio Network Game of the Week and can be heard online nationally on several websites.
Coverage for the game kicks off at 1 p.m. with the pregame show, hosted by Omarr Bashir. Play-by-play announcer Mark Gray will be joined by color analysts Mike Walker and LeCounte Conaway in the booth. The game is the only black college national broadcast on Saturday.
Fans can listen to the live broadcast on Sirius XM Satellite Radio Network, Channel 137 or visit www.hsrn.com and click the "Listen Live" link on the HSRN homepage.
Other internet resources for the HSRN broadcast are www.HBCUConnect.com, www.HBCUDigest.com, www.TuneIn.com and www.Blacksportsonline.com.