Nine schools plan to leave WVIAC
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Even if football-playing schools in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference break away from the conference to form their own league, University of Charleston President Edwin Welch said it's not definite that UC will be one of those.
However, UC and the eight other football-playing schools in the 15-school league are exploring the possibility of breaking away from the conference to "align like-minded institutions in terms of budget and goals," said the presidents in a joint statement.
The nine schools - UC, Concord, Fairmont State, Glenville State, Seton Hill, Shepherd, West Liberty, West Virginia State and West Virginia Wesleyan - are seeking to create a 12-team all-sports conference, leaving the WVIAC with six schools that currently do not have a football program.
While Alderson-Broaddus is beginning a football program as a club sport beginning this year, the others - Bluefield State, Davis & Elkins, Ohio Valley, Pitt Johnstown and Wheeling Jesuit - do not have football.
"We have not made a decision that we are going to withdraw from the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference," said Welch during an impromptu press conference in his Riggleman Hall office on Monday afternoon. "We do want to be a part of those conversations to see if it would be advantageous for the university to join those schools.
"The nine football-playing schools were invited by (WVIAC president and West Liberty president) Robin Capehart to get together, so we did. I think the phrase that was used in the meeting was, 'Is there a feeling among each of us that it makes sense for us as institutions to pursue the idea of creating a new conference?' I answered that question, 'Yes, it makes sense for us to pursue it.'
"To say it makes sense to make the decision that we've already pursued it and we want to withdraw is another step and we haven't made that step yet."
Welch also said the meeting and the ensuing press release developed in the past "two or three weeks."
Among the issues, according to WVIAC Commissioner Barry Blizzard, is the divide between some of the schools in the league, whether it's between the public and private schools or the commitment or lack thereof to sports for some institutions.
"I've been here for almost 35 years, and that divide has always been there," said Blizzard, who turned 61 years old on Friday. "The move to Division II (in 1995), it has become more apparent because you have to sponsor more broad-based programs. Since 1995, the gap has widened somewhat."
Three of the schools exploring options are private schools - University of Charleston, West Virginia Wesleyan and Seton Hill (Pa.) - while the other six are public institutions.
"I think it was more of a divide between the commitments of the programs at the institutions," Blizzard said. "Some want to move forward in a much faster pace than others.
"There's just a difference of philosophy among publics and privates. I'm actually amazed we held together this long as a conference."
However, Welch pointed out that the division isn't over what schools are the "haves" and what schools are the "have-nots."
"The conference did take action a few years ago to remove Salem from the conference, because we didn't think that their overall athletic situation was as competitive and had the quality we wanted for our athletes who play them," he said. "The conference was beginning to take those actions against West Virginia Tech and then West Virginia Tech withdrew from the conference.
"So, yes, there has been a raising of the bar. We have expectations about the quality of the experience for schools to participate in the conference."
The tentative plan is for the nine football-playing schools to form a conference, adding three more schools to make 12. In that form, Welch said, the 12 football teams could play one another once and not have to play non-conference competition. This, according to the UC president, will give the league's teams a .500 strength of schedule and not be hurt by a non-conference victory, like the Golden Eagles suffered in 2010.
That year, under former Coach Tony DeMeo, UC finished 9-2 but was left out of the NCAA Tournament. Welch cited a victory over 3-8 record Tusculum that led to the Golden Eagles' not earning a postseason bid.
"That's a poster child for this situation," he said. "That year we were 9-2, played Tusculum, which, the year before, had been in the top 15 in the country.
"When we played them they were like 3-8, so that hurt our strength of schedule. We were beaten out by Pennsylvania schools, which had that .500 strength of schedule because they all play one another and ours was lower.
"Had we been in a conference like this one, then we probably would've been in the national tournament instead of somebody in Pennsylvania. So, that's an example of where not having an entirely football-playing conference hurts you."
That year WVIAC regular season champion Shepherd, along with Pennsylvania teams Kutztown and Mercyhurst, earned a berth in the regional tournament.
Blizzard said he's not sure what the future of the WVIAC holds.
For the 2012-13 academic year, at least, it's business as usual.
"It's not good news (for the conference)," Blizzard said. "We will operate business at usual this year, if that's possible living in a house divided.
"I was told we're still considered the WVIAC, and to run the league this year. Beyond that, I don't know."
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WHEELING JESUIT, one of the non-football playing schools, is exploring its options, according to a news release sent on Monday.
Danny Sancomb, the school's athletic director, said that Wheeling Jesuit is in discussions with other institutions about their options and plans to align itself with schools that are similar to WJU "athletically and academically."
"From our teams' performances this year, it is very clear that we are one of the most competitive schools in the WVIAC," Sancomb said in a statement.
"We are still NCAA Division II and we intend to compete in at least as many conference championships next year as we did this year."
The Cardinals appeared in nine conference championship games last season and won four of them.
While not being specific in his school's plans, Sancomb said WJU is exploring Division I leagues as well.
"The decision to form a new regional all-sports conference seems to have been made for financial reasons," he said. "As Wheeling Jesuit athletics moves forward, we will continue to focus on maintaining academic excellence and quality athletic programs."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4837.