Georgia Southern’s Southern Conference family is about to get a little bigger.
On July 1, Samford University will officially enter the SoCon ranks as the league’s 12th member. Athletically, academically and geographically, conference officials consider the Bulldogs a perfect fit.
Expansion was an immediate priority for SoCon commissioner John Iamarino when he took over in January 2006, shortly after the departure of East Tennessee State in 2005. The addition of Samford, a private, Southern Baptist school in Birmingham, Ala., helps the conference balance scheduling of its flagship sports, football and men’s basketball.
The Bulldogs will become the league’s ninth football team, allowing each school to play four conference home and road games each season rather than three home games one year and four the next. In men’s basketball, Samford brings the total number of teams to 12, so on any given Saturday one league member isn’t sitting at home because of an odd number of programs.
The SoCon also wanted to open a new market to broaden and strengthen its corporate sponsorships and expand its footprint through television, marketing efforts and branding.
Another important consideration was academics.
“We wanted an institution that placed a heavy emphasis on academics as well as athletics,” Iamarino said. “This league has a very good reputation. I think we’re ranked ninth of the 31 Division I conferences in the APR figures that recently came out.”
Samford, which has spent the last five seasons in the Ohio Valley Conference, was also a good fit because it sponsors 17 of the 19 SoCon championship sports (all but wrestling and men’s soccer). Georgia Southern fields just 14 of 19, the fewest in the league despite having the highest enrollment.
The Bulldogs, who visit Paulson Stadium on Nov. 8, were also a good match geographically.
“Samford helps us in terms of solidifying the western flank of the conference,” Iamarino said. “Now when teams go to play Chattanooga, we can pair them with Samford as well and that will help. It also gives Chattanooga a close trip.”
SoCon presidents poured over data before voting unanimously to invite the Bulldogs (schools need 80 percent of the votes to get in).
“Samford was the one everybody seemed to agree that, ‘Yes, this would be a good addition,’” Iamarino said.
“Birmingham is a terrific market, a great city in the South. Obviously we’ll be in the shadow of Alabama and Auburn there, just as we are with Georgia and possibly Georgia Tech in (the state of Georgia) and the Vols in Tennessee. But we understand that. That’s just part of existence.”
As the SoCon was considering Samford, league athletic directors discussed whether or not 12 schools were enough for the conference. How about 14?
“The feeling was 12 was the right number,” Iamarino said. “While you never say never, I think my job and the charge I’ve been given by the presidents of this conference is to solidify the membership with these 12 and let’s become as good as we possibly can with this lineup.”
Samford, is a smaller, private institution like Elon, the SoCon’s second-newest member (2003), but the schools’ similarities are a coincidence more than a mold targeted by the conference. Enrollment figures and whether institutions are privately or state-funded aren’t really considered by the league, Iamarino said.
Though the SoCon is currently happy with its 12-school membership, it’s always keeping an eye on the activities of other institutions and conferences. Here in Georgia, the Football Championship Subdivision ranks will increase in 2010 when Georgia State begins playing football in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Iamarino said the SoCon hasn’t had conversations with Georgia State or any other school regarding expansion since deciding to invite Samford.
“You always look at options and monitor the situation,” he said. “Certainly Atlanta is a very desirable market. You have to pay attention to the landscape.”
Iamarino hopes expansion is something the league won’t have to deal with for many years.
“I really like this lineup of 12 and hope we can keep this group together by doing the kinds of things that make institutions want to affiliate with a certain conference,” he said. “We have a very good situation with all 12 of our schools now, and our job is to make the championships as good as they can be, get on TV and get the exposure athletes and coaches want out of their conference membership."