The Big South Conference knows that its newest members aspire to a league with a higher profile, but it doesn't care. The Big South says that once Towson State and UMBC learn more about the conference, they'll want to stay.
The Big South's expansion into Maryland was made official yesterday with the announcement that Towson State and UMBC will join the league in September 1992. The two schools will compete for conference championships during 1992-93, most significantly in men's basketball, which sends its champion to the NCAA tournament.
The announcement ends an anxious time for the two schools, each of which nonetheless says that the Big South's open-door policy was a major selling point.
"They know of our aspirations to be affiliated with a more-established conference," Towson State athletic director Bill Hunter said. "We've been very upfront about that, and the Big South's response has been: 'Once you see what we're all about, you might not want to look anywhere else.' "
Hunter and UMBC's Charlie Brown have been attempting to leave the East Coast Conference since the ECC lost its automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament.
Even before that, Towson State was looking elsewhere. Last spring, the Tigers apparently were headed to the North Atlantic Conference, but that league voted against expansion late in the process. Towson State also has applied to the Colonial Athletic Association and the Patriot League, and made queries to the Atlantic 10, which ranks high on UMBC's list.
Two weeks ago, the Tigers applied to join the Northeast Conference, but they withdrew when that conference refused to back off a five-year commitment -- enforceable by a $250,000 penalty -- it requires of members. Towson State then followed the lead of UMBC, which has been leaning toward the Big South for several months.
"I thought the best scenario was that both of us go into the Big South together," Brown said. "I'm just happy that we're in a conference with an automatic basketball bid and one that has the opportunity to get bids in other sports."
Both local universities are committed to strong baseball and soccer programs, and they could help the Big South receive NCAA bids in those sports. Commissioner Buddy Sasser and a membership committee headed by Winthrop athletic director Steve Vacendak said they also were impressed by the resources Towson State and UMBC allocate for non-revenue sports.
With 22 and 20 teams, respectively, the Tigers and Retrievers will have the most broad-based programs in the Big South.
"Towson State and UMBC are very much like the members of our conference," Sasser said. "Our goal is to develop the type of conference these schools can be proud of. We think that [having schools from] Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas is a good fit geographically."
Returning to the 1992-93 lineup will be Liberty and Radford in Virginia; Campbell and UNC-Asheville in North Carolina; and Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina and Winthrop in South Carolina.
Next fall's expansion will be the third lineup change in as many years for the Big South, which was formed in 1983, began play in 1984 and was registered as a Division I conference in 1985.
Towson State and UMBC will pay an initiation fee of $28,500, and officials from both universities met with Sasser and Vacendak after yesterday's formal announcement. Work must be done immediately for the two to be fit into 1992-93 schedules, particularly in basketball, in which the NCAA requires conferences to play a round-robin schedule.
The move will mean additional travel expenses for Towson State and UMBC, but coaches and administrators said that athletes on fall and spring teams were looking forward to heading south instead of north for conference games.
All also seemed pleased that the Towson State-UMBC association would continue.
"If we went in and Towson State didn't, I wouldn't be happy," UMBC soccer coach Pete Caringi said. "We have a natural rivalry, one that should continue."