SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino walked quietly to the podium for the league’s football gathering.
“Not even a smattering of applause?” he said, jokingly.
Not these days, Commish, not with so much uncertainty swirling through the 12-team league.
Defending conference champion Georgia Southern was picked by league coaches and media to take a second straight crown with Appalachian State — the Mountaineers won at least a share of the conference crown for six straight years between 2005 and 2010 — right behind.
How much longer that’s the case past 2012 is anyone’s guess. Both powerhouse programs expressed their intentions this offseason to explore moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
And that’s not the only unknown in the league as non-football playing members College of Charleston and Davidson are wooed by the shrinking Colonial Athletic Association.
“I’m not concerned that the Southern Conference is going to evaporate and go away,” Iamarino said. “Are we going to have to reinvent ourselves? Perhaps.”
Iamarino cautioned the crowd at the gathering not to believe Internet chatter about the league losing members. He had a meeting Friday with all member presidents and chancellors about the SoCon’s future. “While we didn’t all put our hands in the middle and swear a blood oath,” Iamarino said the consensus was to take steps to stabilize current membership and keeping the league attractive for potential new schools should the Southern Conference look to grow to 14 or 16 teams.
“I clearly got the sense that they are willing to give on some issues that in the past they would’ve said, ‘No, no, that’s going to cost us money,’” the commissioner said.
Especially with schools considering another conference home.
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are no strangers to football success. The schools have combined for five national championships and 17 SoCon titles since 1993. The Mountaineers 2007 upset of Michigan, 34-32, at the Big House remains one of college football’s most thrilling moments.
“We still hear about that all the time around town,” Appalachian State linebacker Brandon Grier said.
While Appalachian State leaders have been active in seeking potential FBS leagues, Georgia Southern is attempting to raise almost $37 million to expand its stadium and add football facilities for a move up.
Southern Conference membership met three years ago, Iamarino said, to consider a league-wide move to the FBS level — something school leaders flatly turned down. The rules have changed since then, leaving it up to FBS leagues to invite new members. “So we’re legislated against even thinking about it,” Iamarino said. “Until that happens, they’re happy in our league and we’re happy to have them.”
There’s little the league can do to prevent members from chasing bigger, FBS dreams, Iamarino said. After all, the SoCon was founded in 1921 and used to be home to 11 current Southeastern Conference members and nine current Atlantic Coast Conference teams. “This league has been around so long, it’s constantly reinvented itself,” he said.
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State also dominated the Southern Conference’s first and second teams with 17 players combined on the preseason list. Eagles lineman Brent Russell was picked as the Southern Conference defensive player of the year. Wofford running back Eric Breitenstein was named the league’s preseason offensive player of the year. Breitenstein’s Terriers have gone to four of the past five NCAA tournaments and were picked second by league media and third by league coaches.
Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said his team’s focus is on this season and achieving success game-by-game. Anything else, he said, including talk of FBS moves or a changing conference membership, doesn’t help the Eagles goals. “What happens in the future is the future,” Monken said. “We have hopes and aspirations for what that entails. But right now, we’re focused on trying to win the Southern Conference to get in the playoffs and challenge for a national championship.”
Iamarino has no timetable for defections. College of Charleston trustees met to discuss changing affiliations this week although no official action was taken. Longtime Davidson basketball coach Bob McKillop has said several times his school leaving the Southern Conference.
Realignment is an everyday concern, Iamarino said, and likely will be for some time to come. “Would we like the process speeded up and have closure one way or another?” he said. “Absolutely.”