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Conference realignment facing most WV colleges

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Game programs once were needed to identify the competing athletes. They are now necessary for fans to keep pace with the ever-changing college conference realignments.

West Virginia University is ahead of the game, having already made its transition from the Big East to the Big 12. Major changes are yet to come for most of the state's colleges and universities.

The 90-year-old West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference will cease to operate at the end of the present school year. A majority of state colleges will be affiliated with the newly formed Mountain East Conference. Some are joining the Great Midwest Athletic Conference and still others will be independents. 

Marshall University plans to remain in Conference USA, although the league in undergoing a significant change in membership.

Bethany College, members of the Presidents' Athletic Conference since 1958, and Potomac State College of WVU, members of the Pennsylvania Collegiate Athletic Association which formed in 1979, may be the state's only conference constants.

 C-USA

Marshall's Director of Athletics Mike Hamrick said he continues to be amazed at the current national topsy-turvy trend.

"Things have changed so much in the last year and one-half," said Hamrick, a Clendenin native who has been athletic director at East Carolina University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Things are turned upside down right now in college athletics. It's chaos out there."

That's the only way to describe the current conference realignment situation, according to Hamrick.

"If you would have told me several years ago that Oklahoma and Nebraska, Pritt and West Virginia, Missouri and Kansas or Texas A&M and Texas would not be in the same conference, I would have said you are crazy," he said.

"In my humble opinion, what's happened in college athletics is that everyone is chasing the almighty dollar, and that dollar is coming from television," said Hamrick of the maneuvering of college football's largest conferences toward a playoff system. "The money is exorbitant, and everybody is positioning themselves to try to get as much as they possibly can."

Revenue is taking priority over such factors as traditional rivalries, travel of student-athletes and fans, according to Ham rick, who played football at Marshall in the late '70s.

"A lot of these decisions didn't take student athlete welfare into consideration," he said. "They are the ones who have to get on the planes and the buses and travel across the country to compete. At the same time, they have to still try to be a student."

It's been a domino situation for C-USA, which MU joined in 2005. The Big East went searching for replacements after losing members such as Pritt, Syracuse and West Virginia to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12. They recruited several of C-USA's large television market members. Houston, Memphis, Central Florida (Orlando), Southern Methodist (Dallas), Tulane (New Orleans) and East Carolina are making the switch.

Hamrick remains optimistic, citing the league's newest members Old Dominion, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, North Texas and Texas-San Antonio.

"Every time we've had a change, we've come right back and addressed that change," he said. "We're still a national conference, but we've become much more of a regional conference for Marshall. We've brought in some universities that I believe have great potential and our fans will have a better opportunity to travel."

While the conference will have less lucrative television contracts than some leagues, Hamrick said Marshall will be getting additional revenue from the conference exit and entry fees.

"My prediction is, not in the near-term future but a few years down the road, some people will wake up and say, ‘What are we doing?'"

Mountain East Conference

The WVIAC has been part of the state's sports landscape since the roaring '20s, but will dissolve following the current academic year. 

Nine West Virginia schools — the University of Charleston, Concord University, Fairmont State, Glenville State, Shepherd University, West Liberty University, West Virginia State, West Virginia Wesleyan and Wheeling Jesuit — are committed to the recently organized Mountain East Conference in 2013-14.  Only Wheeling Jesuit does not offer football. 

Commissioner Reid Amos said the new league effectively brings together like-minded institutions with a similar "vision, budget and goals." The National Collegiate Athletic Association will be considering provisional status in February and active status in July.

The WVIAC's disagreements had been typically split between the public and private schools and between those fielding football teams and those who did not. The state schools involved with the new MEC have dominated WVIAC championships in recent years, winning 90 percent since 2000.

The West Virginia schools will be joined by Notre Dame College and Urbana University of Ohio and the University of Virginia College at Wise. It will mean increased travel, but Amos sees the benefit of having a "regional footprint" extending to the large markets of Cleveland, Columbus and the tri-cities area of Tennessee. While the big time college conferences get considerable revenue from television, small college conference schools depend on increased student enrollment.

The NCAA Division II league will offer 16 conference championships immediately and soon could expand that by five, according to Amos, a Fairmont native with a background in sports broadcasting.

"We will be only one institution sponsoring a sport away in five sports from potentially reaching 21 conference championships," said Amos, who is currently affiliated with West Liberty University.

"The Mountain East Conference is focused on creating a high-quality experience for the student-athlete at its member institutions in a highly-competitive conference," he said. "It will enhance the profile for all of our institutions and it will provide benefits to the athletic programs and to our institutions as a whole."

Amos said scheduling details and conference championship sites will be announced in the near future.

Great Midwest Athletic Conference

West Virginia colleges Alderson-Broaddus, Davis & Elkins, Ohio Valley University and Salem International are aligning with the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.

The move was necessitated by the demise of the WVIAC. Alderson-Broaddus has been putting an increased emphasis on its athletic program including the addition of football and the construction of a new stadium. Despite the move, A-B was not invited to join the Mountain East Conference.

Dennis Creehan is the athletic director and football coach at A-B. 

"It wasn't so much a disappointment as a surprise because they claimed that it was about football and they took Wheeling Jesuit, that doesn't have football, and left us out," he said. "So,it could have not have possibly been a football decision.

"On one hand, I'm sad to see a league like the WVIAC that's 90-years-old breaking up," said Creehan, who was previously football coach at Wesleyan. "You hate to see that kind of tradition go by the wayside. But yet I'm very excited about our future and the new conference that we're going into."

With only four of the G-MAC's current 10 members offering football, it is not a conference sport. The Battlers will compete as an independent in that sport until sufficient football-playing schools are added. 

"It's really an exciting time here at A-B for the people of Philippi, Barbour County and all of central West Virginia," he said. "We're having fun with it and really enjoying what we're doing."

Creehan, who has coached professional football in Canada and at major college programs such as Rutgers and Pritt, said A-B is building a small, but impressive football facility on the Philippi campus.

"I believe in my heart that we will have the nicest Division II stadium east of the Mississippi," he said. "It will be second to none. Our seating capacity won't be all that large, and that's by design. That's the way we want it."

Athletic teams at WVU Institute of Technology and Bluefield State College will be competing as independents.