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May 3, 2012

Analysis: How RMU fits into latest realignment talks

What swirled around as rumor for several weeks became fact Wednesday: Butler, kings of the Horizon League, will abdicate their throne in the hopes of stronger competition in the Atlantic 10.

It's the start of what some believe could be an expansive domino effect, one that could signal another massive conference realignment shift that could alter the landscape significantly. Only this time, it's going to hit the mid-majors.

The speculation is now swirling around Moon Township. Will Robert Morris, one of the high profile "low major" teams of recent years and the furthest west school in the Northeast Conference, look to move into a true mid-major league? Could the door open for the Colonials, founders of the Northeast Conference, to take the step toward becoming a true mid-major contender?

It remains to be seen, but Robert Morris' role in all of this will likely end up being small. But it seems naive to suggest the Colonials, or at least the Northeast Conference as a whole, won't be impacted. In fact, they already have.

The origin of the pending mid-major conference shift actually began several years ago, and like all of the conference shuffling, it began with a move in football. Northeastern and Hofstra, stalwarts in the Colonial Athletic Association, shut their football programs down in 2009. Not long after, Massachusetts began exploring a move up to the FBS level (the Minutemen ended up in the MAC) and Rhode Island explored the opportunity to trim its football program.

The NEC opened its doors, and by 2010, the NEC announced that URI would begin play as a football-only school in 2013. The CAA continues to be in flux, as Georgia State is bound for the Sun Belt, and a report Tuesday indicated Old Dominion will be joining them. Those are football-led moves, a response to the shuffling started by the BCS conferences a couple years ago. But the aftershocks will be driven by basketball, and Butler's move was the first move to ripple across Mid-Major Nation's bow.

The Atlantic 10 is at the center of the mid-major conference shuffling. Looking to replace Temple's all-sports move to the Big East and Charlotte's move back to Conference USA, the A-10 wants to become the premier mid-major college hoops conference. That's why they extended the invite to Butler, and that's why perennial CAA hoops powers George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth have also been linked to A-10 expansion plans.

The moves could severely weaken the CAA in basketball, and potentially crush its presence as a football conference. Meanwhile, the Horizon League has to explore replacing two-time national runner-up Butler.

That's where Robert Morris could feel the impact. Speculation began a week ago, courtesy of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, that Robert Morris could be one of the schools the Horizon reaches out to in the coming weeks. The HL just announced Butler's move Tuesday, and HL commissioner Jon LeCrone said in a press conference that the league has yet to reach out to potential candidates. But he cautioned the league will move at its own pace.

"I don't want us to be an expansion zone," LeCrone said in the teleconference. "We define ourselves. We have a proactive expansion plan and we want to work on that quickly."

Robert Morris has been listed as potential candidate along with IUPUI (Summit League), Oakland (Summit), and Northern Kentucky (D-2 transition school). But the Horizon League has several prerequisites that would have to be considered for Robert Morris to fit, including a 5,000 seat arena requirement. The Sewall Center currently fits about 3,200.

Though this is being driven by hoops, there's the issue of other sports. Butler was able to move to the A-10 because neither conference sponsors football; the Bulldogs are a non-scholarship team in the Pioneer League. The rest of their sports were able to move freely.

That's not the case for Robert Morris. Not only would they have to find a home for their scholarship football team - it's doubtful that the NEC would be happy keeping RMU only for football while it moves up elsewhere - but the Colonials would also need new homes for lacrosse, field hockey, and rowing.

Finding those homes would be difficult. Robert Morris spearheaded the NEC sponsorship of lacrosse, and the league is pushing to get an automatic bid in future years. A departure of a nationally ranked program could devastate the NEC. A move in football would either require the removal of scholarships, something that's a non-starter with RMU officials, or a sudden bump to the full complement of 63 scholarships. That would severely tax the school's finances, especially if there is a buyout cost in leaving the NEC.

Plus, multiple reports indicated that the Horizon may prefer to add a school with a baseball team - which RMU doesn't have - so it keeps its automatic NCAA Tournament qualifier.

What's far more likely to happen is the NEC adds a school or two in football or basketball, or perhaps an almost full-fledged new member. Maybe Rhode Island joins in everything but hoops if the CAA disintegrates. But even a complete implosion from the CAA would leave enough there for a small hoops and football league to survive.

Anything can happen. But odds are, when the dust settles, Robert Morris will still be comfortable in the NEC. The neighborhood may just look a little different.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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