The eight schools of the ECAC South formally announced today that they will risk their place in the NCAA basketball tournament by breaking away from the Eastern College Athletic Conference and changing their name to the Colonial Athletic Association in an effort to build greater recognition.
The Colonial Athletic Association will keep most of its administrative ties to the ECAC, a parent body that includes 230 schools, but will give up an automatic berth in the NCAA basketball tournament by running its own conference championship. The CAA will establish offices in Richmond and begin the search for a commissioner, the conference's president, Chuck Boone, said.
"The reason for our change in name and structure is to create a more effective regional identification and an expanded ability to market what is an excellent group of competitive programs," said Boone, athletic director at the University of Richmond.
The universities in the conference are American, East Carolina, George Mason, James Madison, the U.S. Naval Academy, UNC-Wilmington, Richmond and William and Mary.
The key question the new conference must face is whether it will receive an automatic bid. In relinquishing an assured berth in the tournament, it risks losing the attention member schools gained from upsets in the NCAAs.
ECAC South teams won first-round NCAA tournament games five straight years, upsetting, among others, Georgetown, Ohio State, West Virginia and Auburn. This past season, Navy defeated Louisiana State in the first round before losing to Maryland.
Boone said the conference athletic directors have been in touch with the NCAA basketball committee to ask for a new automatic bid, as well as ones in baseball and women's basketball.
"I think we can stand on our record," he said. "Our basketball programs have improved steadily, we've had some great wins in the tournament and gotten some national publicity."
Securing a commissioner also will be important. Boone said a number of candidates had been interviewed and the search would be nationwide.
"We need him yesterday," said American's athletic director, Robert Frailey. "We have definite needs in identity and exposure, so we need someone who has a flair for that. Some say we need a politician also, someone who can deal with the NCAA and the day-to-day operations."
Reaction to the change among coaches and athletic directors was favorable. They did not object to giving up the ECAC bid and said chances of getting a new one were good.
"Our track record stands by itself," Frailey said. "We've won tournament games the last five years. Not many conferences can say that, other than the Big East and the ACC. There's a risk crossing the street. We're going to do what we've been doing, only with better identity. People were forever asking who was in the ECAC South."
Richmond Coach Dick Tarrant said the change would give the conference greater autonomy over its own affairs, which had previously been run out of the ECAC's Cape Cod, Mass., office.
Navy Coach Paul Evans supported what he said was a new emphasis on basketball by the conference, although 12 sports -- seven for men and five for women -- are included in the new association.
"It's a statement by these schools and athletic directors that they are going to promote and market basketball," he said.