Like most conferences, the Southern Conference has gone through its share of turnover over the past several years, with longtime members departing and new schools coming in.
But even with all the changes, don’t count John Iamarino among those who think the conference could lose its standing as one of the Football Championship Subdivision’s top football conferences.
“No, I think we’re going to be just fine,” said Iamarino, the conference’s commissioner since 2006. “Over the last two years, we’ve had six different teams tie for first place – we had a three-way tie two years ago, and we had a three-way tie last year.
“So the idea that all of our talent and power resided in the two schools that left our conference, well I don’t think that’s true. I remain very optimistic that we’re going to be just fine in the sport of football.”
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However, the two schools that left the SoCon – Appalachian State and Georgia Southern – had combined to win or share 22 conference titles and nine NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) championships.
Appalachian State and Georgia Southern both stepped their football programs up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, and moved to the Sun Belt Conference. A third football-playing school, Elon, departed for the Colonial Athletic, while Davidson – a longtime SoCon member except for football – left for the Atlantic 10.
Joining the conference is VMI, a SoCon member from 1924-2003 before leaving for the Big South; and Mercer, which left the football-only Pioneer League to become a full member. Another former SoCon member, East Tennessee State (1978-2005), also rejoined the conference from the Atlantic Sun, and will resume playing football in 2015.
The departures and additions change the SoCon’s footprint slightly, especially in football. What had been a conference dominated by North Carolina teams (three in football, five overall) now has just one football-playing team in the state (Western Carolina), while both Georgia and Tennessee add teams.
Again, Iamarino doesn’t see that as a problem; in fact, he looks at it as a change for the good.
“We’ll be able to build back some rivalries that’ll be very strong,” Iamarino said. “We’ve been able to renew The Citadel-VMI as a conference rivalry; once they get going, East Tennessee State will be able to renew with Chattanooga, and even start a good rivalry with Western Carolina, which isn’t that far away. And even Mercer, back when they played football years and years ago, had a rivalry with Samford. I can see that resuming, and even getting something established with Furman and Wofford.”
This is not the first time the Southern Conference has undergone a shakeup involving a national football power. In 1997, Marshall – which had won three SoCon titles and two NCAA titles – departed for the then-Metro Atlantic Conference and was replaced by Wofford, which had been a Division II program.
“People said then we were going to be much weaker because they had a Division II program coming in to replace a national contender,” Iamarino said. “In a matter of a few years, Wofford has established itself as a perennial playoff contender, and other programs stepped up to fill the void.
“I have no doubt that will happen again. The one thing that works in our favor is that this is a very competitive league that has had some success, and that drives people to want to do better.”