George Mason moves to Atlantic 10, joining parade of conference realignment

John Feinstein
Columnist March 25, 2013

George Mason joined the parade on Monday. It officially became part of the college athletics game known as “Show me the money,” although unlike some participants, the school’s leadership was honest about what it was doing.

President Angel Cabrera and Athletic Director Tom O’Connor formally announced that GMU will leave the Colonial Athletic Association on July 1 to join the Atlantic 10. O’Connor called the day “bittersweet,” which it was — for many reasons. But O’Connor really got to the heart of the matter when he discussed his phone call to CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager on Sunday night to tell him the news.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

“One of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had to make,” O’Connor said. “Tom Yeager is a great guy and one of my best friends in the world. But we have to move on and we have to move on with business.”

Exactly. Thanks for the memories — Mason was one of the CAA’s founding schools in 1985 — but we can’t be left behind in the Great Money Chase. Which is exactly what this is, no matter how many hundreds of times the drone presidents talk about what is best for the “student-athletes.”

In the case of Mason, those athletes who participate in spring sports won’t be eligible to compete for conference championships because a CAA bylaw makes it impossible for athletes at schools leaving the conference to compete for a conference championship. That’s a loss, especially for the seniors, that goes well beyond the $1 million exit fee Mason will be paying.

“That part of it is agonizing,” said O’Connor, who met with the spring sports athletes on Monday morning to tell them the situation. “I apologize to all the athletes affected and plan to meet with them again.” Later, O’Connor returned to the subject and said, “There’s definitely short-term pain, but we believe there will be long-term gain.”

He was referring to what the Atlantic 10 move will do for Mason sports in general, but this was a basketball decision just as the moves made by other schools have been either football or basketball decisions. GMU decided against jumping leagues last spring even though it could have gone to the Atlantic 10 along with longtime CAA rival Virginia Commonwealth.

But a year ago Alan Merten was still the president of George Mason and he believed the school needed to stay loyal to the CAA and that Yeager, who is one of college athletics’ most respected commissioners, would keep the league off of the realignment rocks. Merten retired in July, replaced by Cabrera, who made a point Monday of saying he knew only the current circumstances, nothing about the past. Merten was an exception to the rule: a college president who believed that tradition and history matter, too.

The CAA has been hammered in the last 12 months by VCU’s departure, by two football defections — Old Dominion and Georgia State — and now by Mason’s decision to leave. Two years ago the league received three NCAA men’s basketball tournament bids: Old Dominion, George Mason and VCU, which reached the Final Four. This year, James Madison, its tournament champion, was a No. 16 seed.

“Do I think we’d still be in the CAA if VCU and ODU and Georgia State were all still there?” men’s basketball Coach Paul Hewitt asked in response to a question. “You should probably ask Tom, but yeah, I think we’d still be there.”

O’Connor didn’t debate the point. “Times change,” he said. “We just felt right now this was the best thing for everybody.”

It’s certainly not the best thing for Yeager and the CAA, which now must circle the wagons and jump back into the business of school-raiding.

The Atlantic 10’s future is as uncertain as the CAA’s. Next season it will lose Temple, Charlotte, Xavier and Butler — which stuck around for one season. A year from now Saint Louis and Dayton may very well follow Xavier and Butler to the new Big East — which rose from the ashes of the old Big East, which was plundered by the ACC, which started all this when it began raiding the Big East.

It has trickled down to the point that even the Patriot League, once founded on “Ivy League principles,” actually raided the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for Boston University and Loyola of Baltimore. What’s next? The Ivy League wooing Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan to leave Division III?

None of that mattered much at George Mason on Monday. O’Connor talked about the notion of renewing rivalries with VCU (which was going to play GMU the next four seasons anyway) and Richmond, and creating a new rivalry with George Washington.

And, there is no doubting that right now — even with the four teams leaving now and more perhaps to follow — the Atlantic 10’s basketball profile is a lot more solid than the CAA’s. But that can all change in the blink of an eye.

George Mason has grown remarkably since it became an independent state university in 1972. The school didn’t even have a fight song until 1987 and now it has been to a men’s basketball Final Four and has a growing, flourishing campus filled with more than 32,000 students. Cabrera and O’Connor said the move to the Atlantic 10 should pay financial dividends in five years or less.

It was a move they clearly felt had to be made. These days in college athletics you can either join the parade or watch it pass you by.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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